Walking makes the way: possible paths and changes
Notes on Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible
I seek to divest myself of what I have learned,
I seek to forget the way of learning I was taught
And scrape off the paint that covers my senses,
Unpack my true emotions,
Unwrap myself and be me, not Alberto Caieiro,
But a human animal, produced by nature.
But this (sad are we whose souls are clothed!)
This requires a profound study,
An education in unlearning…
This poem by Alberto Caieiro, one of Fernando Pessoa’s many alter egos, clarifies the process we call reading. Reading is not just an act of decoding signs; it is also a relational act, which, once begun, changes everything.
The literary thinker Eliana Unes states that “the act of reading does not only mean understanding the world of the text, written or otherwise. Reading requires the mobilization of the knowledge of the other—the reader—in order to actualize the universe of the text, and to make meaning in life, where the text is located. To learn to read is to become acquainted with various texts, produced in various social spheres (journalistic, artistic, legal, scientific, didactic and pedagogical, everyday, media/mediatic/mediagenic, literary, advertising et al.) in order to develop a critical attitude—one of discernment—which brings the reader to perceive the voices present in the text and to see him or herself as capable of speaking to them.” i
When we read, we relate to a broad and complex universe that has more than one reality. We never come to the text, or to reality, innocent and neutral. We can be neither when we relate to the tissues of which we ourselves form part (life, discourse and written text). The order is important: first life, then reality (or our contextual understanding of life), and then the written text. I belong to a critical school which states that reality is not the same as that which is real. Reality is what we are able to understand of that which is supposedly real what we manage to absorb or perceive. We always have our own perspective and understanding of that which we experience, see, or read (here I call this the “real”).
In this article, we will undertake a more humble, but no less complex journey together. We will focus on the Bible. The subject of this article is Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible. In some places it is called Contextual Reading of the Bible. The article was initially construed as a discussion exercise, for publication in Austria, as part of an exchange program involving CEBI (Ecumenical Centre for Biblical Studies – Brazil) and DKA (Dreikönigsaktion – Development Cooperation Agency of the Catholic Children’s Movement in Austria). This version has been revised and expanded in order to serve as a basis for dialogue about the methodology of Popular Reading of the Bible or Contextual Bible Studies.
We are now in the third millennium of the Christian era, living amid great challenges and responsibilities. One such challenge is spirituality, which means listening attentively to the Word of God, in the world and in Scripture, for a life full of indignation and hope. The Biblical education of our communities, so that all may be ONE and life may prevail in abundance, is another (cf. John 10:10 and 17:20-21).
In recent times, we have witnessed an impressive awakening in relation to the use and reading of Scripture; especially in the southern hemisphere, but also in Europe. The Bible is still the bestselling book in the world, with the greatest number of modern-language translations. And, as the interest in it grows, so does the need for people capable of helping others to understand the Bible, its context and impact onto the world and people. We need people who can facilitate discussion, share information, suggest new paths, walk together; ultimately, who can provide help to all who ask and “be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1Peter 3:15). Also impressive is the extent to which, in the southern hemisphere, the Bible and its interpretation are important tools in shaping the context, either stimulating processes of liberation—as we have seen in real life, and read in so many Bible texts — or impeding crucial discussions and social advances which would improve the quality of life for people and planet.
Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible is a child of the resiliency of the impoverished and marginalized, together with the conspiracy of the Spirit of God for life and for liberation. Beginning from their own realities (“…and talking with each other about all these things that had happened” – Luke 24:14) the people reclaim the Bible and read it freely. When their words meet the Word, there is a new reality, and a new understanding, everything changes. The movement of which Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible is part has succeeded in overcoming two crucial gaps. One is the distance between God’s people and what we call biblical science. The other is the relationship between that which we call the sacred and the profane: religion, its discourse and practice; and the reality from which it springs and of which it is part, structurally influencing its landscape.
The key questions of bible study have already been discussed in detail. But these discussions never reached local communities and ordinary readers. Most of the time biblical scholars wrote for other biblical scholars; and these are mostly men. Contextual/Popular Reading chose another way, another method, in which grassroots participation (the presence of ordinary readers) is fundamental to the understanding of the text (Life/Context and Bible).
Contextual/Popular Reading democratized this knowledge, furnishing people with the tools and analysis necessary in order to inhabit the library of the Bible in peace and friendship. In this (new) relationship, scholars were also changing: academic exegesis and hermeneutics became more pastoral and acknowledged their political place, role and identity. Biblical scholarship was intended to help others enter into the house of Scripture.
I think it is crucial to note that in the global North — where secularized, and secularizing, society has laid the Bible aside — this is not because of the Bible itself, but because of the way in which Scripture (and especially the reading of Scripture) has been used or maybe misused. For the majority, churches are cold and meaningless spaces. Many attend church out of tradition, or belong to the community but go there only for the purposes of baptism, confirmation and marriage.
We have experienced success in European countries, for example, in reading the Bible in the light of lived experience, and reading lived experience in the light of the Bible (an important secret, and one often overlooked): there is an answering spark of passion, of interest. When reading is done in another WAY than in worship, in catechesis, or in theological faculties and seminaries, there is a renewed connection with the Bible (both the text of life and text of the book meet); and with the Word of God, which once more has room to be heard. Just like radio or TV, we have to find the right channel. In this way, here and abroad, the people gain in strength and can relate to Scripture.
We discovered long ago that there must be “people who come, not to read and interpret instead of the people or in their name, but to provide space, input, to facilitate, and to read TOGETHER WITH THEM; those who recognize that the people and their history, geography and perspectives are the primary subjects of Bible reading/study. It is not enough to agree with the fundamental ethical position of the Gospel, which is to defend the lives of the most vulnerable as an expression of the glory of God; they must come to grips with the epistemological challenge of realizing that the Word of God acts directly on the people, and that only TOGETHER WITH THEM can we find a meaning and a vocation for Kingdom come.
In fact, what theology calls the sensus fidei — the sense of the faith — springs from the Christian community, the people of God. Faith is expressed through the church and especially through society. Bishops, ministers, priests, pastors, biblical scholars, pastoral workers and laborers: all these are only ministerial functions, services to the ecclesiastical subject which is, in truth, the Christian community (cf. 1Peter 2:9-10; Hebrews 4:16; Galatians 3-4; 1John 2:27).” ii
Roots of crashing encounters
Today, any analysis of the global church refers to a certain atmosphere of conservatism — or, better, reaction — which manifests, at home and abroad, in the interior culture and structures of various so-called main line churches. Both the Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant worlds have undergone a return to doctrine and discipline, which has considerably affected the Biblical movement within local communities and thus muffled the prophetic voices. Nowadays we breathe differently.
The reasons for this — social, cultural and economic — are obviously varied. But where the Church is concerned, as Aldo Terrin says: A religious phenomenon cannot be evaluated solely from a social sciences perspective. Religion has an ‘internal logic’ requiring its own analysis. The ‘autonomy of the religious,’ of which Mircea Eliade spoke, makes us consider it important to examine theological questions from the perspective of theology (not exclusively, but predominantly), and mystical phenomena through the eyes of those who believe. iii
Regarding contemporary ecclesiastical conservatism, one reason for this is the superficiality of Biblical education in seminaries, theological institutes and in the everyday life of ordained ministers and laypeople. Both lived experience and the lack of adequate education have brought society to a point at which religious and biblical fundamentalism has taken hold. Of course, we must consider the potential existence of some hidden agenda promulgated by the elite and the new economic “empires”.
In lay life, while some movements continue to read the Bible with uncritical devotion and pietism, movements and organizations aimed at renewing the reading and understanding of the Bible, and the context in which the Bible is read, are growing in Christian communities all over the world. In Latin America over the last thirty years, a strong biblical movement has developed which aims to renew the Christian consciousness of faith and commitment to the world. In Europe, there are sparks of renewal and of striving for innovation, related to Popular Reading of the Bible. For over twenty years now, CEBI (Ecumenical Centre for Biblical Studies) has routinely been invited to share its way of reading the Bible, together with its underlying epistemology and theologies.
Biblical education does not always mean “biblical studies” or even “academic expertise.” Sometimes, one studies a particular tree so closely that one never learns about the forest, or how to navigate it. On the other hand, even those who learn to walk the forest of Scripture in its entirety sometimes produce studies so technical and intellectual that they do not even touch on the pastoral aspect, much less the way of being and of life. Latin American biblical movements have been very successful in developing an educational process involving ordinary readers.
The path is made by walking
In discussing Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible, I would like to start with one of the Bible stories most commonly read in our context, from various perspectives, in the last thirty years. It is one of the stories most often told, retold, played out, read and re-read in the Brazilian CEBI and its partners in Latin America, Europe and Africa.
It is from Luke 24:13-35. It is the story of two people (a man, and perhaps a woman), both disappointed, who have lost hope of liberation because the WAY they envisioned it is not the WAY in which it appears. The destination is certainly important — we need to know where to go, where we want to go, where the path leads and how to get there. But the WAY (method, path, and journey) is foundational and fundamental to the process.
In the story of Alice in Wonderland, the girl asks the Cheshire Cat: “‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.” So we must have an objective and intention.
Of course, we cannot forget that if there is no aim, the method hardly matters. But when there is an aim (an intention), the method is crucial to success.
In Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible, which has a clear and open intention, the JOURNEY itself is an important and structural part of the path. This is how we live, share, learn and — more importantly — unlearn, letting go of things and “truths” (certainties) in order to keep walking without stopping and never to give up, even when we make mistakes (commit sin, which means “missing the target”: hamartós). Mutatis mutandis: always in the spirit of possible changes.
Reading the Gospel of Luke, we can see that the community is going through many difficulties. Many good things happened in the years following the death and resurrection of Jesus, but many doubts and uncertainties grew within the community. New people joined the WAY (this is what the first followers of Jesus were called, cf. Acts 9:2), people who did not originally belong to Jesus’ tradition. The repressed, the suppressed; those desperate to be released. These people hoped that somebody would come and set them free: a Messiah who would do all the work. They were used to this idea; they were raised to think that way. They were trained to be passive. This is directly relevant today.
Jesus was not and is not this type of Messiah. In the course of the first century of the Christian era, various messianic movements, and various Messiahs, arose.
Like our way of reading life and reading the Bible, our story here begins with a journey. A path, a WAY, a method. It is always good to remember that the word “method” comes from the Greek meta hodos (across or by the path). This story, like much of the Gospel of Luke (chapters 9:51 to 19:28), intentionally follows a path (o`do,j ): the narratives are portrayed as a journey. Method is not just a means to an end, but an integral part of our aim. Thus, in Popular Reading of the Bible, it is crucial to care about how we live, how we treat life; about texts and relationships.
Being somewhere is as important as getting there. Perseverance, resilience and tenaciousness are crucial during this difficult journey. That’s why the dialogue that begins between Jesus and the (probable) couple of disciples, and between the community of Luke and ourselves, is a salvific (healing) and liberating sacrament (a visible sign of God’s grace, which remains in us).
Desiring the path and accepting its consequences
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer…” (Luke 22:15)
“Eyes and imagination. The real and the possible. The present and that which is not yet
born. What has already begun and what exists only as an object of desire; the things we have
been longing for… this century, and the Kingdom, the object of prayer.” iv
Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible is the fruit of desiring (the human condition is need and desire) and accepting the natural changes to which we are subject: the erotic principle that creates life, moving and transcending the predetermined. To love is to transgress, to “go beyond”, move forward; to invent the possible, defy the impossible and overcome the individualism so strongly present in our context. It is dynamic and can be disruptive: like the girl called Shulamite from the Song of Songs; like Miriam, the sister of Moses; Joseph, the husband of Mary; the Syro-Phoenician woman who confronted Jesus and the disciples. Like so many examples of prophetic and discordant voices and bodies.
Rubem Alves expresses the desire of God, which, in a powerful poiésis, becomes our desire, “because to talk about God is to stake ourselves on the triumph of love despite everything.” v :
How beautiful and infinite are Your names, O Lord God.
You are called by the name
Of our deepest desires.
If plants could pray
They would invoke the images of their most beautiful flowers
And would say that you have the sweetest perfume.
To the butterflies You would be a butterfly,
The most beautiful of all, the most brilliant colors,
And your universe a garden…
Those who are cold call you Sun…
Those dying in the desert
Say that your name is the Fountain of the Waters.
Orphans say you have a Mother’s face…
The poor invoke you as Bread and Hope.
God, name of our desires…
As many names as we have hopes and desires…
Poem. Dream. Mystery. vi
A crucial theological concept, and a key life experience for believers, is that God always takes the initiative and comes to meet us; He delivers himself, because God is love and passion (1John 4:19; Hosea 1-3:11). God’s gift of himself is unconditional in a twofold sense: He does not set conditions, nor does He accept constraints.
The idea of the unconditional gift, precisely because it is un-conditional, runs contrary to human expectation. Humanity has always been accustomed to the idea that truth equals power. I stand with those who believe that truth equals desire (movement). The calculated or conditional gift is accessible to common sense because it is part of the human experience; the unconditional gift clashes with a worldview dominated by the market which seeks overpower and the striving for monoculture. By this logic, the gift must bear fruit; it must be recognized; it must establish itself in history as a sort of triumphant witness, because this has always been the way. When this is not the case, then there is a problem of understanding, of experience. And a certain schizophrenia, a certain incoherence begins to afflict the development of biblical and theological discourse: God is unconditional mercy, but He “promises forgiveness to all when, with sincere penitence and living faith, they convert to Him.” vii It is odd this sentence.
The second factor is that this statement immediately turns into a request, an entreaty. What is needed is the will to look, honestly and clearly, at God’s revelation; but when this does happen, one cannot just look. In this theology, the ordinary reader is called not to refuse this request, and therefore not to expect the statement to remain separate from the entreaty to which it gives rise.
For Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible, and for those involved in it, it is (or ought to be) clear that it is God Himself who wants to come close and reveal Himself to us. Despite the iniquity which dwells in the heart of humanity since its infancy (cf. Genesis 8:21), God continues to create, because He loves. In Roman Catholic liturgy there is a hymn inspired by Isaiah 49:15 and Hosea 11:1-9:
Can a mother forget
Or stop loving some of the children she has borne?
If by chance such a woman exists
God will remember us in His love
A mother’s love is like God’s
He took His people into His lap, He wanted to engage us
Even ingratitude enflames his love
A passionate God seeks you and me
As mentioned above, it is not very easy to live, and to think, with the theological statute that affirms that “even ingratitude enflames His love”. It is crucial to take on an open, listening attitude before this divine nature and this Word, which come to us in a new and unexpected way (cf. 1Kings 19:1-18), and “not to come back without having done something” (cf. Isaiah 55:10- 11). Every meeting implies a transformation. For Popular Reading of the Bible this meeting is undertaken with intention, with the desire to come to and participate in this alchemical process of transformation.
“Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:13-16)
In our history, and in the way we read the Bible, we are moving forward. This starts with the “desire to get moving” and to enter into the universe of the other; the desire to participate in another’s life, not to let the connection drop and not to permit disconnection (the dia-bolos: division/what splits) to set in.
In other words, all reading of Scripture implies leaving one’s comfort zone, letting oneself be touched and enticed by the Word of God (the way of the Cross and of liberation); wanting to engage. “O Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced…” (Jeremiah 20:7 a ). This is why we who read and study the Bible in community must rediscover in ourselves “the eager desire to eat this Passover” together: the desire Jesus expressed to his disciples.
Matching the other’s pace – beginning with reality
For many biblical scholars, and certainly for the people of God, theology begins in life. When God speaks, life appears: not the written Bible or its study. Therefore, the Word of God is first and foremost living reality. In this story and in so many others, Jesus walks in step with the disciples; He wants to continue to be part of their lives. He does not hurry, nor does He invite us to walk in step with HIM. He takes on the slow, sad rhythm (as we know from subsequent history) of these two. He walks with them. He matches His pace to theirs and enters their living (and therefore also semantic) universe.
Jesus is interested in the journey in itself: the people, the conversations. Matching the other’s pace also implies humility and, as far as possible, equality. In CEBI’s experience with grassroots groups, it is important that facilitators, assessors, academics and participants meet (or should meet) on the same footing in an atmosphere of equality, and that the people — the primary subject of Bible reading in community — should set the pace.
Obviously, there will always be a tension between walking in step with the others and motivating them to move forward. Bible study facilitators aim to work TOGETHER with ordinary readers in order to prevent the entrenchment of the “sadness and slowness” brought about by the cross, by an oppressing power or by a submitting, silencing ideo-theology, and causing fugue and disconnection; hindering the transformation of maize seed into popcorn, caterpillar into butterfly, sadness into courage and oppression into care. This is why it’s important to seek the meeting; to be physically, rather than metaphorically, present. “Starting with reality” means that the body (our feet) must be always present, and not only its [reality’s] elaborated intellectual discourse.
Taking an interest in the journey per se, if we learn from Jesus, means coming close and listening. Having approached the travelers and fallen into step with them, Jesus apparently remains silent at first. And when He does open His mouth, He asks a question that indicates His interest in THEIR topic of conversation. He is not the one who sets the agenda. He shows that He wants to become part of the conversation already underway.
For Bible Study facilitators, this represents a methodological step and an epistemological challenge which are both structural to the endeavor and very difficult to navigate. “What are you discussing with each other as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17). Jesus is interested in engaging with these people and their lives; He wants to weave Himself into their fabric (text, body, spoken word, feelings).
To ordinary people who read and live the Bible, this attitude seems strange. They think that Jesus, a stranger (remember that “their eyes were kept from recognizing” this man as Jesus), should know what had happened. But Jesus’ question — His intervention — is mystagogical1 rather than pedagogical: it leads them to articulate and to analyze the facts from their own points of view, their hopes and especially their disappointments. In other words, He wants to help the two travelers to revisit their lives, and their interpretations of their lives, in order to reclaim the loving, transgressive dynamism of the Kingdom of God, the dream of transformation and of happiness.
The question about reality, about “what is happening”, is not just a “working group technique” to get people to participate. As in our Bible story, the idea is to listen to lived reality; to make a safe space so that all voices, all bodies may have a place to express themselves freely.
Jesus clearly knows what has happened, because it happened — historically speaking — to Him. But He does not know what the disciples know and have experienced, how they articulated these events and how they now express them through their bodies and their words; or else He wants to bring about a therapeutic discussion.
This brings us to an important question: who are the interlocutors of this process of reading and interpreting the Word of God, which we also see in the Bible?
At a conference on Challenges in Contextual Bible Reading, Gerald West recalled that, for Per Frostin and for many of us, “there is a new answer to the question of who are the interlocutors, and it is called ‘the preferential option for the poor’.” In accordance with Gustavo Gutiérrez, Per Frostin states that ‘”the primary interlocutor of ‘progressive’ Western theology… has been the academic non-believer. Liberation theology, on the other hand, chose as its primary interlocutor the ‘non-person’: the poor, the exploited classes, the marginalized ethnicities; all the despised cultures.” In other words, for him and for many of us, not all contexts are equal; liberation theology and its child, Popular Reading of the Bible, privilege certain contexts above others: those who were/are oppressed, and were/are marginalized. viii
But this is not just an ethical option. It does not see the poor solely as beings in need of help, but recognizes them as subjects of truth and of revelation. Here is a very big epistemological challenge. Do we really believe that ordinary people who read the Bible have something substantial and truthful to say? Can they do theology? When we come up with questions for group work, how much of their response is taken into account and respected? Are questions given before the facilitator speaks, or after? The order of the elements decidedly influences the outcome.
Defending the impoverished and vulnerable is different from being where they are and reading the Bible, or reality, from their psycho-socio-political perspective. Solidarity with the marginalized has consequences for our perception of reality. For our method, we strongly believe that “nobody teaches anybody — we all learn together” (cf. Paulo Freire).
The Bible study facilitator must be aware and must know (or want to know) the contexts in which the meetings take place or from which the participants come, if the meetings happen outside the “natural” context of the participating community. Knowing how to ask, and to take time in asking, is fundamental. For those facilitating or assessing the event, a good indicator is how much information or everyday experience was shared among the group. This is why, in this first part, we learn from Jesus about asking, taking an interest.
A satisfactory and appropriate biblical and theological education is also needed on the part of the facilitator, in order for the Popular Reading of the Bible to follow its path.
Creating spaces for prayer: disseminating the potential of the text (body, writing and speech)
This first part of our Bible story introduces the process of Popular Reading of the Bible. A Bible study must create the physical, spiritual and emotional space in order to make sure that the process works and that a good outcome is achieved.
Every Bible study should begin with an act of worship, because liturgical space has always been a privileged ‘locus’ in which we express our hopes for ‘the new things that are to come, for the old things are already past’ (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21), as well as a space of liberating generosity, of overwhelming passion that transforms each of us.
In the liturgy, God the Father once more lets Himself be known through His Son. It is a living Passover, celebrated in the coming together in prayer of those involved (liturgos).” ix Liturgy is a place where community and individuals meet with God. It is the place to enjoy His tender and fraternal presence, to speak the obvious, to welcome and to feel welcome, to sing God’s marvels and to express human pain in need of healing. Silence must once again become part of our liturgical momentum. Imagine meeting someone who talks all the time. It is tiring; at some point, the listener disconnects. The balance between speech, music and silence is very important.
Liturgies should be set out in such a way that everyone can participate and feel welcome in a fraternal environment of coexistence (first of all) and of communal study, where all are brothers and sisters in faith, undertaking the same journey.
Here we are, Lord. We come from all over
Bringing something of ourselves, to share our faith
Bringing our praise, a song of joy
Bringing our will, to see a new day break
Here we are, Lord, around this common table
Bringing different ideas, but ONE in Christ
And when we leave here, we go back
In the power of hope and the will to struggle on. x
It is important to make sure that this moment is a prayerful one. These moments help people to meet and get to know each other. To imitate the action of Jesus: to meet and silently, for a few moments, to walk together.
I believe that integration techniques or group work disguised as prayer do not help to maintain the prayerful, dynamic rhythm of the meeting—the celebration—between God and the group, and should be avoided. When these pedagogical resources are used, an effort should be made to keep the flow, so that the service/celebration does not end up as a contest, or a study working group: “Now we will do this, now that will happen…” This behavior and these phrases cut across the flow of the moment. They taint the atmosphere.
This moment of communal prayer opens up a space, allowing the participants to get to know each other better and to speak freely. It also allows the facilitator to get a sense for the spirit of the group. For example, participants may be asked to say a word about how they are feeling, what caught their attention, etc.
It is important to make use of some liturgical and educational element for this purpose: a candle, a cloth, a word, a litany. Insofar as it is possible, depending on the physical environment of the meeting place, standing or sitting in a circle is important and says something about the method, the theology and the lived spirituality of the meeting. Where possible and appropriate, at some point, a hug can be suggested; find someone to say a word, lead a dance. We learn this kind of technique from Jesus and His initiative in coming closer, engaging, asking about the everyday life of His disciples. This moment of connection with the Word of God — which is Jesus — in daily life is very important in Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible.
Liturgical celebration takes a ritual form in order to help us find a rhythm in our relationships: between ourselves, with God and with the sacred text. I believe that a very long and complex liturgy only causes confusion and disperses energy. In some way, Popular Reading of the Bible has to accommodate the rhythm and ritual already known to the participants, so that they feel comfortable and secure. The way of praying, music, movement, the structure of prayer: all these are aspects to be considered when preparing the study meeting. Ritual is educative: it expresses the intention of the moment.
Combining and balancing different liturgical sensibilities and rituals, of different churches and of different people within those churches, is a further challenge. The Brazilian CEBI has a majority Roman Catholic membership, from various tendencies, and this is clearly evident in its liturgies, its vocabulary and aesthetic language. Protestants, or even those from other traditions within the Roman Catholic Church, do not feel comfortable or even included.
It is also a challenge to balance rationalized liturgy with something more dynamic and emotive. It is true that liturgical celebration, whether in church or in CEBI meetings, has a performativity aspect that requires everything to be perfectly ordered and coordinated. But it is good to develop a liturgical feeling for last-minute changes and adaptations, even in the course of the celebration itself. Sometimes we must deal with improvisation.
For the scholar Aldo Perrin, “ritual has epistemological value: it teaches us to think and act in an orderly manner.” The ecumenism of CEBI, and of all ecumenical organizations, depends considerably on its use of language, its lived liturgical expression (or lack of it) and its organizational method.
Finally, it is worth taking our own use of language into account. It is commonly written (or said) that “there will be a moment of spirituality.” Or, as is fashionable in left-wing movements in Brazil, such as the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), “we’re going to have a moment of mysticism.” This language is both inappropriate to and inadequate for the moment. In religious terms, religion and spirituality are not items on the agenda, but things that transcend everyday life.
Suspecting silence, hearing silence: what isn’t said, what isn’t seen
As I have said, Popular Reading of the Bible is a purposeful reading. The person who claims neutrality stands by default with the dominant power. We read both life and the Bible in order to attain, in Christian terms, transformation and conversion. It is important to realize that even the sacred text has an agenda. The challenge is to get involved in it.
We already know that one of the two disciples in our story is called Cleophas (or Clopas): probably a masculine name. When we see or hear the word “disciples” [written in Portuguese with the masculine gender], why do we always assume that the story is about two men? The Bible is a vast library of connected texts, and we have to intertextualize. Looking for connections with other texts, we discovered that Cleophas (or Clopas) had a wife. In John 19:25, there is a “Mary the wife of Clopas” among the women at the foot of the Cross.
Returning to our question: who could the second disciple be? In Portuguese as in many languages, the use of the masculine gender designates both the specific (the male sex) and the general (both sexes). Starting from this grammatical rule, we could, and must, imagine the possibility that there is a woman on this journey: Mary, wife of Cleophas, the disciple identified by name by those who kept the record.
Other signs also point to the possibility of a heterosexual couple: they travelled together, and the other disciple is voiceless (or his/her voice was suppressed over time); they have a home together, and serve a meal at the end of the story, when Jesus (a stranger encountered on the road, since they had not yet recognized him) eats together with them. Of course, we should also bear in mind that these could well be two men. Or, in the context of a spiritual retreat, we might ask who is this other, unnamed disciple, and the answer might be: you, the reader.
For Popular Reading of the Bible, it is crucial to encourage the participants to be curious and to prompt them with questions or information, feeding their curiosity, bringing them to deepen their understanding and training them to ask new questions about other texts and contexts they will encounter in the future. Sometimes that which is absent is also important, such as a person or a voice missing from the story.
Listening: letting the other speak, learning from the other
In Judeo-Christian spirituality—and, I believe, in many others—listening is fundamental, both in the face of the divine and of the Other who inhabits the world we live in. Popular Reading of the Bible is communitarian. In order to be faithful to the text and its method, we need to enter into its spirit. The Bible is a book collectively made, where many hands, many voices, many ideo-theologies and many eras come together. We need to bear this in mind as we read, interrogate and interpret texts (body, speech and writing).
Jesus’ question about the disciples’ topic of conversation on the road elicits a reaction. They appear horrified or deeply curious, perhaps even offended at the stranger’s ignorance. Here, it is interesting to return to the question of why He asked something so apparently obvious.
Each of us knows something: not more or less than others, but something distinct, and sometimes arising from the same experiences. Each one of us has his or her own experience of a fact or event, and we articulate it from our own perspectives: an interpretation which translates into words and reactions. Every point of view is, first and foremost, a view from a given point. We never see the whole picture. We have access only to that which we can deduce from events in that particular moment of our lives. And, depending on a vast spectrum of variables, we will offer a particular interpretation: ephemeral, volatile and always partial. When we revisit the event, something new and/or different will arise and change our interpretation again.
A few years ago, we would say that the social movements and the vanguard of liberation should be (and in fact were) the voice of the voiceless. A seminar about popular education and Popular Reading of the Bible, organized by Carlos Dreher in the 1990s and resulting in a CEBI publication called The Walk to Emmaus, spoke of a “culture of silence”. I prefer to call it a culture of silencing, especially of the impoverished and those in a situation of vulnerability. An insistent monoculturization is taking place.
In the process of freeing and empowering the people, we found that they do have a voice, but that they had been either silenced (by the oppressors, or by the militants of the vanguard Left) or convinced that only those in power (social, political, economical, academic, religious, familial) had the legitimate right to speak: which, in our Western society, means mostly white, well-educated males of the upper-middle class, expressing a certain degree of physical or symbolic violence.
Jesus’ question, and then His silence, allow the disciples to revisit their experience and tell it in their own words. He, or perhaps Luke’s community, is developing a process we would now call therapeutic and educational. Words heal and transform. This is why Jesus does not at first explain (although he will later on) His own significance or His understanding of events.
People living in poverty, in vulnerability and suffering need a guaranteed and, above all, respected space of physical safety in which they can speak and be heard, in which their voice is accorded its full value and validity.
It is not only the word of Jesus which has the power to transform; the word of the disciples does, too. The communities of the canonical New Testament want to help us enter this revolutionary epistemological conspiracy. We all have the word of power: we who read life and the Bible together—whether academics or ordinary readers—have the same space in which to share the Word and be changed by it. Of course, in Popular Reading of the Bible, it is imperative that academics, assessors and facilitators are able to stay silent and encourage the learning process: to bring out what is already within the people.
I recall another Bible story, found in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, in which Jesus — and the communities who wrote and edited Scripture — recognize that the daughter was cured because of his mother’s words (Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30).
In the Emmaus story, the disciples represent the majority of the world’s population. They are desperate (without hope), disconnecting from their community (losing their religion: re-ligio) and disappointed (because their expectations were not met). Finally, their idea of a messiah is not that lived out by Jesus.
The challenge of Popular Reading of the Bible — and its richness — is that it is a spiritual, communal, popular and academic exercise to accompany such people, without hope and with distorted ideas about themselves, Jesus, and his meaning. Only in dialogue do we keep faith and hope alive, and our loyalty to the project evergreen.
Here it is important to bear in mind that every process of empowerment implies a process of disempowerment. Someone must lose or give up the power they possess so that others may take their place or occupy their space. In Contextual/Popular Reading of the Bible, meeting facilitators or assessors are invited — by vocation, and by adherence to the method — to be silent; not to be at the center of proceedings; to indicate the path, and not for their own use.
In the reflection organized by Carlos Dreher (cited above) and in our story, we are invited, as facilitators, to disappear. This is an act (disappearing) which requires a whole range of preliminary actions so that it may happen, and the movement go on. Unfortunately, the average participant age of our meetings shows that there is little renewal among those who lead and assess CEBI bible studies. I believe that we are not developing effective strategies to ensure that the movement continues, efficiently and in a spirit of innovation.
Which texts, which theology? Choices and attitudes
While still on the road — the place of learning, and of unlearning — Jesus takes back the floor, giving a catechesis and echoing something that has resounded once before. He says nothing new, but points to a new way of looking at the texts. But this emerges only at this moment in the story.
Previously, He came closer and walked with the disciples in silence, matching their pace; He entered the conversation with a sole phrase (a question: asking questions is very important) and listened to the answer without interrupting: a very difficult task, at times, for those scholars and religious leaders who talk too much.
Jesus takes up the disciples’ story and interprets it in a way they do not expect. Imprisoned as they are by the ideo-theology of the Empire and of comfortable, corrupted religion, Jesus offers them a new perspective on the nature and mission of the Messiah they have been promised. And He does so by starting with the things they already knew, but had forgotten, or had been “prevented from understanding” by the dominant ideo-theology. They had been waiting for someone else to solve their problem, in the same way as the Empire (as had happened in the past). Many people were trained in this passive expectation from the cradle. Someone — someone more powerful, more educated, more mature and with more experience — would lead them and solve their problems.
And the most interesting thing is that this theology of the Messiah as King, who resolves everything (for a certain group), exists in the prophets (e.g. see Isaiah 1-39). But there is another image of the Messiah, with which Jesus identified: not the King, but the suffering servant (e.g. see Isaiah 40-55). Jesus’ disciples, and especially those identified as The Twelve in the canonical process, are depicted as lacking understanding of His choice. All the teaching on the subject of the cross in the foretellings of the Passion (e.g. Mark 8:31-10:45) results from the disaccord between Jesus and the disciples on the question of his messianism.
Here, it is not simply a question of reading, studying and interpreting Scripture, but of asking: which interpretation, to what end, using which texts? Is Jesus the Good News for everyone? Take a look at Matthew 1-2.
Two methodological elements are important here. (1) Enabling multiple interpretations is part of the Popular Reading of the Bible process, and facilitators should take care to indicate paths, point to other Bible texts and help to build bridges between the texts and theologies of Old and New Testaments; and (2) we should accept that, when we read a text by this method, there is always an explicit agenda (an intention), which is the transformation of society and the conversion of individuals. We accept that we interpret life and the Bible “so that all should have life and life in abundance”; and we take on, as Jesus did, the perspective of the most vulnerable, those He called “the least of these who are the members of my family” (cf. Matthew 5:1-10; 11:25 and 25:31-46).
In our story, Jesus covers the range of the Bible (the TaNaKh Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets and Writings); but He has an agenda, an intention (intentionality is one of the key characteristics of Popular Reading of the Bible), and He helps the disciples to revisit these texts with an eye to what they say about this way of being the messiah. “Then… he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27b). The Bible studies at the Ujamaa Centre, South Africa, have the slogan: Reading familiar texts in unfamiliar ways and reading unfamiliar texts in a familiar way.
It is worth noting that reading the Word of God in the Bible is the last of many preceding acts. We do not begin a bible study by explaining the Bible text. The study begins when the group comes together. Nor does it begin with the assessor, teacher or facilitator monopolizing the floor and providing information to the group. The group should be brought to enter into the text from the starting point of its own reality (the reader’s reality); to study the text in order to find information, inspiration and strength for the understanding of life.
The role of the facilitator or assessor is crucial to the success of the study. It is worth highlighting the difference between teaching a class and facilitating or assessing a study group. The idea of Popular Reading of the Bible is not to teach classes, but to enter into the mystery of scripture TOGETHER (ordinary readers, academics, facilitators), all willing to share. Clearly, the facilitator needs to be prepared, to possess specific Scriptural knowledge and to have mastered group techniques, and to be able (and TRAINED) to share these things in a way that doesn’t intimidate the group or dominate the space for discussion. The community is the subject of the study, not the facilitator or assessor, who forms part of the group and offers a particular contribution: information, technique, knowledge and experience which the community might not be able easily to navigate.
Furthermore, I believe, it is crucial that the facilitator should be capable, in listening to reality and interacting with the community, of finding hermeneutic possibilities that are useful to the group in the moment. A single text is clearly polysemic, and should be recognized as such. The facilitator should observe and be aware of local preoccupations and needs in order to be able to offer this or that targeted interpretation, and recognize that there are various paths and various voices in the Bible and in the interpretative process we are setting out to undertake together.
In this method, the bible study facilitator needs to have a certain degree of Scriptural knowledge that allows him or her to act as a source of information and of possibilities for the group. This is the aim of many facilitators training courses. They need not be a master chef, but they must know how to cook: to know what’s in the kitchen, which seasonings to use, where the utensils are kept and how to use them safely. They must be able to improvise when something unexpected comes up, or a question is asked which is not on the pre-established program.
Hospitality – caring as a hermeneutic key to recognizing the Word (Jesus)
Up to this point in our journey with Jesus, He remained unrecognized by His disciples as the man who was called the people’s Messiah by some, and a troublemaker and drunkard by others; demon-possessed by some, and a prophet by others. He was still a stranger who, joining them on the road, had shared with them a new hermeneutic perspective on the Messiah they awaited. There are always other possible interpretations.
They were awaiting the Messiah, “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). Like some of his closest disciples — those later called the apostles, or The Twelve, by the gospel communities — they expected a king like David, or a liberator like Moses, who would physically confront those in power by violent means and take their place. They had not realized that these two figures, having “freed the people and taken power,” were corrupted by that same power and ended up shaping and exercising their power in the same way as the Pharaohs and other emperors did. A look at the texts is enough to confirm that Moses and David were not good leadership models to follow. By the end, both became violent, overbearing and (especially David) corrupt. Any institution run by a sole individual runs this risk.
This is why Jesus (along with many communities since the time of the Babylonian exile) preferred another kind of Messiah: the suffering servant. The Messiah would no longer be one person, but a group: a people, organizing to transform their own lives and their society.
The disciples’ image of the Messiah and the redemption of Israel did not fit with Jesus and his way of redeeming suffering, exploited lives. This is why their eyes were “prevented” from recognizing Jesus as he walked with them. Their Jesus was not the one walking at their side. They could not recognize Him, because they did not expect Him. Jesus’ call to action, His revisiting of the Bible texts, is intended to help them see with new eyes. Later, they will testify: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking with us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
The Bible and bible study enflame the heart. But one more thing is required before their eyes are opened and they recognize this stranger as the Messiah (because Jesus’ way of being Messiah is not theirs), and life changes (changes course, changes energy).
Hospitality is crucial to the spirituality of many religions. Here, of course, we must remember that it is a structural part of Judeo/Palestinian-Christian spirituality. When hospitality is lacking, bad things happen: just look at Sodom and Gomorrah. A vast range of Bible studies confirm this. So the disciples do what their faith compels them to do: they invite the stranger into their home, to share their table. They have already shared the journey, the sadness, the doubts and discoveries (learning and unlearning). Now they share their table and their house.
The gestures of welcome — and the gesture of Jesus — finally help them open their eyes. Here, “opening their eyes” is a metaphor for understanding and obeying (listening within) their faith. The clear intention of Popular Reading of the Bible is to collaborate, in order to create a space of hospitality, solidarity and commitment: to life, to the path (the way of living) and to people (and nature). So, one of the final questions of any bible study should be: What does this study (this journey of ours with Jesus) compel us to do?
Religion: reconnecting with the community, continuing the mission
The walk to Emmaus was a process of conversation that carried within it a process of conversion, of metanoen: to change one’s mind (theory) and action.
Popular Reading of the Bible aims to help communities, and those who read in community, to revisit their lives and the sacred texts. Not in order to undergo therapy, or obtain more knowledge, but to change their lives: to recover hope that has been lost, stolen, or substituted with individualism and market values.
This process inspired the disciples with an ardent desire to go back to their community. Communities are structural to our economy of salvation. They are the place of forgiveness, of care, meeting, celebration and change. The disciples understood that, in order to “redeem Israel”, popular organization and a cohesive community were needed, to maintain and testify (martyr) to the hope that “other worlds are not only possible, but are happening here and now.” The community shares in Jesus’ messianic nature as a parable of the Kingdom and Mercy of God. God’s Kingdom is near. “Near” in this context relates, not to time, but to geography. It is close by. We need only recognize it in order to embrace it.
We will closely study Jesus’ actions, which must be our light and our model as we engage with the people today through Popular Reading of the Bible and of Life.
Jesus Himself approaches the couple on the road. He takes the initiative. His is the first step. God always comes to meet us. He is unconditional and constant love. “If we seek God, it is because He sought us first” (St. Augustine).
The word “approximate” means “to be close, to be a neighbor”; in other words, “to walk in someone else’s shoes,” or, rather, to enter into their culture and their world.
In the same Gospel (Luke) the most important symbol of “proximity” is the Samaritan (Chapter 10): the symbol of the essence, desire and praxis of God, the “absolutely other.”
Jesus’ second action is to walk together with the other. What is interesting is that Jesus falls into step with the couple; he enters into their sadness. He walks when they walk and stops when they stop.
His third action is to ask about their lives; what’s going on, what’s making them sad. Deep sadness normally has a silencing effect; we cannot answer when a question is asked. Mary and Cleofas do not answer Jesus’ question.
Jesus insists on asking again. The life of the Emmaus disciples is a central question to Him. The life of the people, above all those silenced and impoverished, must be the central question for those of us who follow Jesus. We must insist on asking about their lives. This is the most important Word of God, the Holy Word: LIFE. Life, our everyday, the simple life of light and darkness, is the first Word of God. The second is the Bible, and it was written to illuminate the first.
We must insist on asking. To “insist” means “to live within, to live in spirituality.” Something exists only when someone insists. Spirituality — the free wind, the breath of God — embraces life.
So, it is because of Jesus’ approach (being with them, being Emmanuel, asking about their lives) that Mary and Cleophas share with him their lives, their sadness, their defeated hopes and the fragile certainty of resurrection that came from the women in the first place.
In order to shore up that certainty, Jesus ran through the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and continuing through the Prophets and Writings, and reviewed them so that the disciples would understand the kind of Messiah he had chosen to be.
Here, Jesus uses the Bible, the second Word of God, to breathe new life into despairing men and women, disconnected from a social group or religious community. This is the missionary and prophetic task facing us.
But Scripture knowledge is not enough to make their eyes recognize Jesus; it is not enough to move them. They had seen him and perceived him, but had not yet recognized him. The Bible only warms (sets aflame) the heart. In this text, the question of community resurfaces again: Where is Jesus, and how can we recognize him?
Emotional and practical memory result in the same approach: breaking bread together, getting involved, mobilizing; living and spreading solidarity; life in community, and the mutual care between brothers and sisters in a true sign of unity and therefore also of Jesus, who rose from the dead. In these journeys, we see the way of Jesus as a model for our way: “Give them something to eat yourselves…”
How can we turn the sadness, flight, fear and the inability to recognize Jesus of the start of the walk to Emmaus into an Easter pilgrimage and arrive (all of us) at the Eucharistic table? How can we realize that the way to Resurrection is only possible when we accept to return to Jerusalem (to the conflicts, to the Cross, to our everyday life) and not flee from it? The fourth- century Church Father Evagrius Ponticus (I think we should read him), taking up the reflection of the Johannine community, says that the way to the encounter (the recognition) of God is in the encounter with oneself (the self: our purest, barest truth) and not with the other: the road of love to God, and to our brothers and sisters (1 John).
The sad bodies of men and women, newly and courageously back on their feet, return to Jerusalem: to the conflicts, to the crises. They return to rebuild another possible world, full of new relationships. The dark night of the people becomes the dawn of resurrection. “Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psalm 139). We will also pray Psalm 86 (85) and 139 (138) together.