I’ve begun listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz’s “The Bible in a Year” podcast. Each day, Fr. Schmitz will read portions of the bible and comment on them, such that listeners will have heard the entire bible over the course of the year. This is an invaluable resource (even though he uses the NRSV Catholic Edition, with its unforgivable mistranslation of John 13:23). Fr. Schimtz includes with each reading a commentary.
The commentary is a great resource as well, providing context and making connections that are not immediately obvious to most readers of the Bible. His commentary on Judeo-Christian and pagan creation myths in his first reading provides helpful insight into what is “new” about the Christian God. Unfortunately, his commentary also includes one of my pet peeves when it comes to biblical reading.
During his commentary on “Day 2: The Fall of Adam and Even,” Fr. Schmitz speaks about the significance that Adam and Eve will die after their expulsion from the garden. He remarks how this is not simply meant as punishment. He says how “God doesn’t want them to live in this brokenness forever… Since they are broken, God is saying, ‘No, stay away from the tree of life, because I don’t want you to live in this brokenness for eternity. I will allow you to live in this world such that you will end up dying, so that you can be raised up.’ That’s ultimately the key for this.” Fr. Schmitz then goes on to comment how God continues to care for the man and woman by providing them fig leaves and leather garments as clothing.
The continued care of God is an interesting point, though one can certainly interpret the clothing in other ways. What I found frustrating, rather, was Fr. Schmitz’s comment about how God allows death in the beginning of Genesis “so that you can be raised up.” This certainly may be a possibility, and Christians who have read ahead through the New Testament would reasonably make this claim when applying that New Testament to the Hebrew Bible.
But my issue with this is twofold:
First, while I believe that Christians can and should read the Old Testament in light of the New, other readers of the Hebrew Bible don’t (and shouldn’t) do this. This doesn’t foreclose the possibility of deep meaning for those non-Christian readers. The Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) was originally a text for the Jews, who read the Hebrew Bible in light of their own tradition, and in light of the text itself. There is enough content within the Hebrew Bible itself to have a commentary on the text, in ways that don’t foreclose engagement with Jewish readers.
Second, this interpretation undermines the nature of the text itself. The Bible unfolds as the text unfolds, and I wish readers were encouraged appreciate the Bible in this way. We might benefit from reading the Bible more like we read fiction.
Consider a group of friends who decide to read the Harry Potter series and discuss it as a group. One member of the group has already read the text. You get to the first group meeting after reading the early chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Someone brings up Harry’s lightning bolt-shaped scar, and the one member says (spoiler alert), “Yes, this is the connection to his parents that will protect Harry when Lord Voldemort is unable to kill him, because…”
On the one hand, that member of the book group has provided helpful commentary that will shed light on what the group has read and make connections the others couldn’t have made on their own. But on the other hand, he has ruined the experience of the text intended by the author. These connections are meant to unfold over time. Things will become clearer after they are revealed by the text, at which point the members of the group will be able to look back on previous portions together.
By my first point, I don’t mean to say that all readers need to learn Hebrew Bible solely qua Hebrew Bible. But reading the bible in the way you’d read fiction would allow the Old Testament readings to be fresh (but not imposing) to non-Christian readers, while also creating space where the New Testament could be interesting in ways it’s often not due to over-pious commentary. If we read the Bible as it was written, as a narrative that unfolds over many pages, we may find ourselves surprised. Rather than being explained away and behaving as we expected from the commentary, Jesus may become surprising and odd. He might become weird and alluring, rather than predictable.
What Fr. Schmitz and others risk doing when giving biblical commentary in these sorts of settings is ruining the intended effect of the author. They risk being the annoying member of the Harry Potter book club who will be quietly not invited to the next book club, or who will be tolerated at it with discreet eyerolls by the other members when he gives more spoilers. Of course, I don’t think Fr. Schmitz is really that annoying. And the podcast really is a great resource. But I do think something is lost with this sort of commentary, and once it is lost, it cannot be regained.
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.