The Brazilian Bible scholar Carlos Mesters began his book, Por Tras das Palavras (Petropolis, Vozes, 1984), with the following parable: At one time there was a great house called “The People’s House” with a beautiful, large door which opened onto the street. Many people passed through that door. Then, one day, two scholars arrived. They loved ancient things, and when they saw the house they perceived its value. They discovered a side door to the house where they could enter quietly and study unperturbed, and so they started using it instead of the much traveled door of the people.
The scholars studied the house, uncovering its rich history and many beautiful qualities. At night they would describe their discoveries to the people, who more and more came to admire the house and the scholars. Many days passed. The people now treated the house differently. They so respected the house that they didn’t dance and sing in it any more. When they entered, they remained quiet, waiting in awe for the scholars to speak. Gradually some of the people even stopped using the front door to the house–until eventually everyone used the side door. As the people would enter that side door they would receive a little guidebook explaining the ancient and rare artifacts in the house.
Finally, the front door was completely forgotten. Weeds and bushes grew and hid the door from sight. The vegetation also covered the front windows so that the house became dark, illuminated only by candles.
More time passed. While the scholars continued to enter the house through its side door, holding meetings during which they argued about antiques, the humble people stopped going to the house. The novelty of the discoveries wore off, and the people tired of the dark house with its side entrance. They didn’t really understand the scholars’ discussions anyway. The people walked by on the street but no longer even saw the house. Occasionally, they would pause as if lost. Something seemed missing, but the people didn’t know what. They no longer remembered the house.
Then one night an old beggar, looking for protection against the cold, pushed his way into the brush and stumbled across the big house and its front door. He entered through a crack. The house was beautiful and it was warm. The next night the beggar came back. Soon, he brought some companions, bagladies and runaways. They began to come every night. The brush was beaten back and light entered the house. The people were happy and began to whisper, “this is our house.” The news spread.
In the mornings when the scholars would arrive through their side door, they would notice the telltale signs, indicating that the humble people were sneaking in at night. The scholars caucused and some got mad, saying, “the people are going to mess up and profane our house.” But one scholar hid at night in a corner of the front room and saw the people come in without asking permission to dance and sing and play in the house. He liked what he saw. In fact, he was so impressed that he came out of his corner and joined the circle of those who were dancing. Then he discovered what he should have always known: that the real purpose of scholarship was to help the people find joy in life. After that, he also started entering the house through the front door, and he saw the house in yet a different way.
Thirty years ago, Mesters used this parable to show that humble people in Latin American Basic Ecclesial Communities were rediscovering something about God’s Word that is too often forgotten by those of us who love to study religion and the Bible. Powerfully, he distinguished the Word of God as “a place where people live” from the Word of God as “a place (or an object) that scholars study.” Put starkly, he claimed that scripture has life and gives life insomuch as it is a lived reality.
Mesters thought that the humble, poor, largely uneducated, oppressed people of the Basic Ecclesial Communities had stumbled upon a long-lost front door into God’s Word. He explained more specifically what he meant by this front door into scripture in another book entitled Flor Sem Defesa (Petropolis, Vozes, 1983) where he listed seven characteristics describing the way that the Bible was read in those communities.
1. The reading is a community reading. There was the understanding that the Bible was written for a community, that it belonged to a community, and that its meaning pertained to the community first, and only then to the individual.
2. The reading is present-oriented. The Bible was read not only as past history but, above all, as a mirror to present events, today’s story. Thus, the principal goal of the reading was not to interpret the Bible but to interpret life with the help of the Bible.
3. The Holy Spirit is active in the reading. The readers did not look for impartial, objective, historical-literal meanings. Rather, they tried to listen to what the Spirit was saying to the present-day church through the Bible. What did the Bible say to those gathered and listening that day?
4. The reading is an exercise in faith. Faith was understood not only as a condition previous to understanding; it was an active element in exegesis. Reading was a prayerful act. And understanding came as a gift from God.
5. The reading is militant. That is, the people not only read to understand, but also to seek direction for action. The reading, then, was political, social, and economic–practical.
6. The reading starts from the people’s social position and their realization of oppression. There was to be no neutral reading of the text. The reading was an engaged reading by the poor, with the concerns of the poor in mind. For the people, the words “oppressors” and “oppressed” were rooted in the Bible, not in social theory.
7. Thus, as Mesters pointed out, the reading involved much more than lectures, information, class discussions, and reason. The reading involves all aspects of life.
It is clear from the parable about the People’s House that Mesters wished to somehow bridge the gap between the dispassionate activity of historical investigation and the living faith of poor, oppressed Christians who in community encountered meaning and direction for their lives when reading their Bibles. He wrote in Brazil at the time of military dictatorship, sometimes violent repression, uncontrolled national debt, soaring inflation, unemployment, and exploding urbanization as latifundia owners consolidated their holding and drove peasants off the lands. As both a Christian activist and a powerful scholar, Mesters struggled with the question of the continuity of meaning: What bonds our reading of the text today to the reading of the early Christians? How do we prevent the Bible from being misappropriated by powerful forces? What is the measuring stick by which to measure right interpretation?
The Christians of the Basic Ecclesial Communities faced crushing poverty and military repression. In modern North America, we confront our own injustices and fetishes. Our tendency is to think of Mesters and the Basic Ecclesial Communities as standing on the periphery–perhaps as the Romans thought of Israel in the first century and as the southern Europeans thought of the north Europeans in the sixteenth century. But the so-called periphery often has a much clearer grasp of the problems with existing paradigms than does the establishment center.
Mesters’ parable raises a key question to the religious journeyer: What is the most adequate method to discover what God has to say through the scriptures? Are the seven characteristics of Bible reading culled from the Basic Ecclesial Communities a better path to understanding than the historical-critical method generally employed in seminaries and university Bible survey courses? We need to be careful, for the affirmation of faith as the doorway to deeper meaning holds its own danger. What’s to prevent us from accrediting our own prejudices back to God? When we subordinate history to belief, don’t we inadvertently also rationalize our idolatries?
For discussion, here are allied questions raised by Mesters’ parable: What is the purpose of biblical interpretation? Is it mainly to discover the original meaning of the text? What is the relation of exegesis to present reality? Who is the interpreter? Is the interpreter the individual exegete, or is the interpreter “the church”? What role does the community of faith play in biblical interpretation? What are the criteria by which we measure biblical interpretation? Is reason, experience, or faith the arbitrator of biblical truth? What is their relationship? What is the right social context from which to explain the Bible? Is it the academy or the people, the library or the popular church? Does the Bible also belong to us who are not poor or oppressed? What are the values and limitations of historical, literary, and sociological analyses? Is it possible to rediscover what the Church Fathers called “the spiritual sense of scripture”?