For this week please read Chapter 9 “The Literal Truth” and Chapter 10, “The Mystery of Persons” of Fr. Stephen Freeman’s book Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.
In Chapter 9, Fr. Freeman discusses how our modern world’s emphasis on the literal and concrete facticity has drained this world of its spiritual nature. In a world of literal facticity, the believer and the unbeliever meet on the same playing field and merely debate whether a second-storey where God resides exists or not. But within everyday life, the outlook of the believer and the unbeliever are essentially the same.
Fr. Freeman gives us the example of Jonah. If the story of Jonah is reduced to a discussion of how it is that a fish can swallow a man and spit him back up again, then the whole meaning of the story has been lost. When our discussions of Jonah revolve around its historicity or a study of the gastrointestinal system of large sea creatures, then the secularism of the first-storey has won out. Or as we looked at in our Epiphany study last year on Creation, reducing Genesis 1 to modern scientific analysis, deprives the narrative of its power and its meaning. Science discusses facts, religion discusses meaning.
Within the secular world, literal facticity wins out. The letter of the text is all that matters. If the literal meaning is not historically or scientifically accurate, then the text is deemed not true. Both modern Christian fundamentalism and higher criticism assume this very secular two-storey understanding of the biblical narrative.
But literal facticity is not the lens through which Christianity has traditionally read the Scriptures. Rather, we read the Scriptures through the present reality of Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. 2 Cor. 3:17. As Paul points out, it is the literal letter of Scripture that brings death. 2 Cor. 3:6. Or as Jesus himself says “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me.” John 5:29. Christ precedes the Scriptures and is the light by which the Scriptures are to be read, not history or science or facticity.
A Christ-centered reading of Scripture is a mark of a one-storey universe. Only when Christ is near to us, and not banished upstairs, can he show us that whole of the Scriptures speak of him. (Luke 24:27) When we wonder how Jonah could literally be in the belly of a fish for three days, we miss how this passage (Jonah 2) speaks not of a man and fish but Christ’s descent into hell (Matt 12:40). Only then are the Scriptures made alive.
The law is only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.Colossians 1:17