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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

James Martin: The Gift of Imagination in Reading Scripture

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with James Martin about the Jesuit order, praying with the Bible, and the gift of imagination in biblical interpretation as they explore the following questions:

  • What sets Jesuits apart from other Catholic orders?
  • Is there a difference between how Jesuits view the Bible and how other Catholics view the Bible?
  • How did the Jesuits get started?
  • What are some ways one can pray with the Bible?
  • Why is imagination important to bring into reading the Bible?
  • What is Dei verbum?
  • How does James Martin use the Bible in thinking about the issues we face today?
  • What is Ignatian Contemplation?
  • How can the Bible be God’s word but not be read literally?
  • How does imagination help us develop empathy?
  • Why do some people struggle to bring their imagination to biblical interpretation?

Tweetables

Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from James Martin you can share. 

“It’s the both/and. It’s scripture study, it’s listening to sermons, it’s being attentive to scripture scholars and its encountering [Scripture] on your own.” @JamesMartinSJ

“The more you know factually, I think the more it helps you imaginatively.” @JamesMartinSJ

“In fact, the beginning of the spiritual exercises is just that, it’s looking at your blessings, and then you’re overwhelmed by, you know, how much God loves you. And gradually, which I think is really beautiful, organically, you start to see your own shadow side.” @JamesMartinSJ

“Part of it is getting people in touch with God, not their conception of God, which are two different things.” @JamesMartinSJ

“There’s no real Jesuit way of interpreting the Bible, I think the distinctive Jesuit contribution is praying with the Bible.” @JamesMartinSJ

Mentioned in This Episode

Read the transcript

[Introduction]  
Pete: 00:01 You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God- ordained podcast on the internet. Serious talk about the sacred book. I’m Pete Enns.  
Jared:   And I’m Jared Byas.  
[Jaunty Intro Music]  
[Beginning of recorded material]  
Jared:   Welcome everyone to this first episode of the fourth season of the Bible for Normal People.  
[Audible group cheering]  
Pete:   Woot, woot.  
Jared:   Did you miss us? I hope so.  
Pete:   Are you talking to me?  
Jared:   We miss us.   [Laughter]  
Pete:   I didn’t miss me at all. I’m tired of me, actually. I need a break.  
Jared:   Well, today, we are going to talk about the gift of imagination in reading Scripture and we’re talking with Father Jim Martin.  
Pete:   Yeah, Jim Martin, AKA, James Martin.  
Jared:   You may know him as James Martin.  
Pete:   But he’s, he’s pretty cool, so. Anyway, but, Jim has, ya know. A lot of you probably know really, a lot about him. He’s been all over the place, but he’s written a bunch of books. Some of them I’ve read, he’s written quite a few, but, uh, The Jesuit Guide for Almost Everything, which was a really cool book, and then Between Heaven and Mirth, and it’s about joy and humor and laughter as sort of foundational to Christian life which is not something you hear all the time and it’s pretty funny.  
Jared:   His most recent book is Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, so that just came out a few years ago.  
Pete:   Yeah, and he’s got another one coming out in a year or something like that.  
Jared:   Right, and he let us know that he met with the Pope —  
Pete:   Yes!!!  
Jared:

— four months ago.  
Pete:   Yes, and he said we should have him on as a guest.  
Jared:   I could feel that. I could tell he did, cause I could still feel he had a little bit of that vibe —  
Pete:   That glow…
Jared:   The Pope Glow.
Pete:   The Pope glow, right?    [Chuckles]   He also said he doesn’t know English very well so it’s not gonna happen. We can’t have him here, sorry.  
Jared:   Mm hmm, sorry.  
Pete:   But yeah, anyway. So, he’s also an editor for the Jesuit magazine – the editor, right – for the Jesuit magazine, America, and ya know, he is, ya know buddies with Stephen Colbert. Not that we’re name dropping, but that’s pretty cool, ya know. He’s been in that sort of stratosphere —  
Jared   Yeah, he’s been able to bring, I think, a religious conversation to more public spaces and I think that’s a really important thing to do as we–  
Pete:   Mm hmm.  
Jared:   Ya know, we had Jonathan Merritt on to talk about the importance of kind of these religious words that are falling out of favor and we don’t know what to do with and he has a platform to do that, so.  
Pete:   Yeah, and his approach, ya know, we’ll let him speak for himself, but it’s, it was really, it’s familiar to me now, but only because of things that I’ve had to pass through over the past 15-20 years. Where, there was a time in my life where I would’ve been sort of like, pushing this off and saying that this isn’t right. But he says it in such a winsome, dare I say spiritually mature way. Ya know, I think it’s so interesting just this gift of imagination. It’s not a problem to get over, it’s actually a gift that we have for accessing Scripture and it was really a lot of fun to hear him tell Bible stories from that point of view.  
Jared:   Mm hmm. Alright, well, let’s get into this conversation with Jim Martin.  
[Upbeat transition music plays in background]  
Jim:   But you know, our imagination is a gift that God gives us. Even when Jesus is recounting a parable, he’s asking people to kind of imagine themselves in the story. We have to remind ourselves that these are written by four different people or four different editors who put their stories together four different times in four different communities That doesn’t mean they’re false, it just doesn’t mean that ya know, you can take these things literally.    
[End of transition music]  
Jared:   Well, welcome Jim to this episode of The Bible for Normal People.  
Jim:   My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.  
Jared:   We have a whole host of things we are so eager to talk to you about today, but let’s start with just a little bit of your spiritual biography. We don’t often get a chance to sit and talk with someone who is part of the Jesuit order, so how does one come to that decision in their life?  
Jim:   Well, it’s a long and winding road to quote the Beatles, I guess. I grew up in a Catholic family, but not super religious. Didn’t go to Catholic schools, didn’t go to a Catholic high school or a Catholic college. Went to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, worked for General Electric for six years, this is back in the 80’s. And then I started to feel dissatisfied and sort of wanted something more, something else, and I stumbled upon the writings of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, and that just really opened up my eyes to just a new way of living and, uh, eventually someone put me in touch with the Jesuits. They’re a Catholic men’s religious order. We take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. We live in community. We do all sorts of different kinds of work. We’re probably most known in the States for our colleges and universities and high schools. You know, Georgetown, Boston College, Florida, Loyola, Chicago, and on and on and on. And yeah, I left the corporate world in 1988 and never looked back. So, it’s been a great, I don’t know, I hope it’s continuing. It’s been a great road.  
Pete:   Right. Well, you mentioned the Jesuits. Tell us a little bit more about what Jesuits are about. Maybe eventually focusing on how they approach the Bible and, this is a lot to ask, but also maybe comparing briefly with other orders, because, ya know, Catholicism is something that maybe some of our listeners just aren’t that familiar with.  
Jim: 05:04 Yeah, that’s kinda complicated. I mean, within the Catholic church, there are what are called religious orders or religious communities. And most people know them by name. They know the Jesuits or the Dominicans or the Benedictines or the Franciscans, and it’s basically groups of people who live together. Again, they profess those vows – poverty, chastity, and obedience. They’re still Catholic, obviously. There’s priests and brothers and sisters and they usually have a distinctive, what we call, charism or spirit. So, for the Franciscans, what are they known for? They’re known for their love of poverty, right? Dominicans are known for preaching and teaching, and not every Dominican preaches and teaches, but that’s kind of their foundation. The Jesuits are founded in, oh my gosh, it just slipped my mind, how terrible.   [Laughter]  
Pete:   [Laughter]  
Jim:   The Jesuits are founded in 1540, um, by Ignatius who was born in 1491. That’s where I got confused. He was a Spanish former knight and he had a conversion experience and his idea was, um, you know, basically to draw people together to help, as he said, help souls. So, it’s very general, open kind of spirituality. You know, we’re all over the world now. I think there’s, gosh, 15,000 of us at this point. And we do all sorts of things, our spirituality can be summed up I think in the words “finding God in all things”. And so, you can have Jesuit professors, Jesuit priests, a friend of mine is the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin prison in California. There are Jesuit writers, I worked with refugees in East Africa for a while. So, you know, we’re all over the place and as the saying goes, “If you’ve met one Jesuit, you’ve met one Jesuit.”  
Pete:    [Laughter]
Jared:   So, to take that a step further, in particular, like, within the Jesuit order – how would the Bible have been esteemed, how would it have been approached, are there ways of reading it and interpreting it that would be maybe universally Catholic in some senses but maybe unique to the Jesuit order in others?  
Jim:   Yeah, well, that’s a great question. It’s important to say that, you know, the Jesuit way of looking at the Bible is the Catholic way of looking at the Bible and it’s hard to sum up, but there’s a great document, which, I doubt people are gonna go and read now – it’s called Dei verbum from the second Vatican council in the 1960’s. You know, and basically, it’s, we’re not fundamentalists, we’re not literalists and so we read it with an intelligent eye. But, ya know, we see it as the inspired word of God, you know, as all Catholics do. But again, we’re not literalists. We’re not fundamentalists, and in fact, I don’t think you can be because, I mean, there are so many differences and, for example, in the Gospels, you know, just in terms of what Jesus said and what Jesus did. It’s the inspired word of God. It’s the way that God, one of the primary ways that God communicates with us. There’s no real Jesuit way of interpreting the Bible, I think the distinctive Jesuit contribution is praying with the Bible. Praying with Scripture. Praying with the gospel passages. That’s what Jesuits are most known for. I mean there are a lot of Jesuit Biblical scholars. I mean, some great, you know – Joseph Fitzmyer, and Cardinal Martini and Daniel Harrington – I mean, there’s tons of New Testament and Old Testament scholars, but we’re known less for that, um, in general, and more for our way of inviting people to pray with Scripture.  
Pete:   Yeah, and you mentioned Dei verbum? Explain what that is.
Jim:   Yeah, so in the 1960’s there was something called the Second Vatican Council, also called Vatican II, and it was a gathering of, uh, boy, uh, cardinals, archbishops, and bishops from, ya know, all around the world. Pretty much the entire church, convened by Pope John XXIII, who was Pope, who was elected in 1958. We’re talking about the early 60’s now. And basically, what he wanted to do was, you know, in his words, sort of update or open the windows a little bit to what had become kind of a stuffy way of looking at things. And one of the things we looked at, the church looked at, among other things, ya know, for example – our relationship to other religions and religious liberty, the church itself – was Scripture. And they wrote a beautiful document called Dei verbum, you know, the word of God – inviting Catholics to sort of rediscover the treasures of Scripture. I mean, I think, as you know, Protestants were much more associated with understanding the Bible. I’ll tell you, may I tell you a funny story quickly?  
Jared:   Mm hmm.  
Pete:   Yeah!  
Jim:   My new Testament professor, who I’ve already mentioned, Father Daniel Harrington, just this tremendous Scripture/New Testament professor, and, you know, just amazing and very influential on the Jesuits and a prolific writer. He told this story of growing up as a boy, in an Irish Catholic family in Boston, and a Bible salesman came to do the door, right? So, Dan is about seven years old and his Irish Catholic mother opens the door and says, you know, we’re selling Bibles and his mother says, “we’re Catholic, we don’t read the Bible” and shut the door in his face.   [Laughter]  
Pete: 10:07    [Laughter]
Jim:   This is Dan Harrington’s mother. So that’s basically the attitude that Dei verbum was sort of battling. There were a lot of documents before that, but, it was a real invitation for Catholics to, ya know, rediscover the Bible, right, as part of their heritage and, which sounds like a funny thing to say now, but, you know, there’s still a sort of lag, I think, among Catholics in terms of their understanding of the Bible.  
Jared:   So, in that document, I want to maybe kind of dig into some specifics. So, in the Dei verbum, there’s this language which I think, actually, could tie us Protestants and Catholics together. John Calvin maybe mentioned something similar in his institutes about God lisping to His children in the Bible. And there’s this section that talks about, you know, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous condescension of eternal wisdom is clearly shown. And then it talks about that God has adapted His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature. And, so, I’m just curious, when it comes to like, modern day issues, you know, you talk about the Bible as God’s word but not literal. I think for a lot of our listeners and for me growing up, that would have been kind of a contradiction. Like, OK, how could it be God’s word if it’s not, if we don’t read it in this way? Because I was kind of taught that those go together. So, when it comes today as we think about the Bible as an ethical guide or a moral guide, I mean maybe that’s not even the right category to put the Bible in. But how do you see this idea that we find here in the Dei verbum about God sort of being kind enough to accommodate or adapt Himself to our weakness. How does that work in, you know, basically, how do you use the Bible today as you’re thinking about the issues that we face?  
Jim:   Well, those are all good questions, and what I meant by, you know, not taking it literally is not that it’s not true, or not that it doesn’t…lets focus on the Gospels for example. You know, the Gospels tell the story of the, you know, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, right, who is the center of my life. But they differ on, you know, specifics as we know. Right? I mean, there are attempts to harmonize the Gospels, but, you know, for example, the infancy narratives, which we’re thinking of around Christmas time, right? In Matthew and Luke, they don’t match up totally. They just don’t, right? They’re told in slightly different ways; they diverge a little bit. And then in Mark and in John there are no infancy narratives. Now, what does that mean? You know, it simply means that we have to remind ourselves that these are written by, you know, four different people or four different editors who put their stories together in four different times in four different communities. That doesn’t mean they’re false, it just doesn’t mean that, you know, you can take these things literally. You know, they are simply put, discrepancies among the Gospels, right? What did Jesus say in his Sermon on the Mount? Did He say, “blessed are the poor,” or “blessed are the poor in spirit,” right? So, so that’s the point. You have to sort of look at these things with a, with a sort of an intelligent eye. And, you know, He’s quoted differently in different Gospels, He says different things from the cross, and, so yeah, it’s not dismissing it, but it’s also looking carefully at what biblical scholars tell us about, for example, how these books were put together, right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   One of my favorite examples, it’s a very small example, is, you know, when Jesus heals the man in Capernaum who is lowered through the roof, right? You remember that story?  
Pete:   Yeah.
Jim:   In Mark it said, they unroofed the roof, right? Mark’s the earliest gospel. In Luke, they said they took off the roof tiles. OK, now, which is it? You can’t read that literally. I mean, they either ripped off the thatch roof, or they took off the roof tiles. Well, if you know a little bit about Luke being written later, and him writing for a little bit more of a citified audience, you know, a little bit more of a sophisticated audience, he put that in. He put that detail in. That doesn’t mean the story never happened, but it does mean that, you know, there are discrepancies that we have to look at. So that’s what I mean about not taking it literally and not being upset when you see that, you know, I think it’s Mark and Luke, you know, do that a little differently. That’s the point.  
Pete:   Okay.
Jim:   You don’t get upset. You can still see it as a true story, and more importantly, you know, a story that conveys a much deeper meaning than what the roof looked like.   
Pete:   Right. Well, let me fold something in here talking about the Dei verbum and now we’re looking at the birth narratives and how they differ. To fold into that historical criticism of it, and maybe what the Dei verbum has said about historical criticism, but specifically, you know, with the birth narratives, because, you know, they are quite different. You have the slaughter of the innocence, but only in one, right? And you have the flight, you know, to and from Egypt in one, not the other. And you have the angels appearing in one, and not the other. And that raises the question as you know, well, what happened? Or did both of these, do we mesh them together, or is there room in, let’s say a Jesuit or Catholic spirituality of Scripture, if we can put it that way, well listen, some of these things may be constructed by the authors of these Gospels, and maybe need not be historical. And I ask that because, you know, Like Jared said before, a lot of Protestants coming from more conservative backgrounds, that’s something that they face all the time and they feel they need to maybe take a step away from the way they were raised to think about this text. What’s your opinion on all that I just said?   [Chuckles]  
Jim: 15:44 Yeah, that’s a very profound question and I don’t want to say something like, “well, it’s all a myth” or “it doesn’t really matter, what matters is that we believe in something.” No, I mean, I believe that those stories tell the truth about how Jesus was born, but, however, they differ because they are four different people telling the stories and they stress certain things and others don’t stress certain things, and in fact, as you know, John doesn’t have those infancy narratives, or Mark, at all. You know, I’ve been saying to people look, if I were telling this story about this podcast, okay, and I told my experience of this story – let’s say someone else told the experience of the story of the podcast story starting up. Another person had an experience of listening to the podcast, and then another, maybe your parents or something, wrote a book about how the podcast affected them. They are going to stress things and leave things out and highlight things and maybe even embellish things that another person won’t, right? That doesn’t mean that their stories are wrong, it just means that they’re telling it from a different point of view, right? Now, I do think that there are probably some elements of the infancy narratives that were probably added on, right? I mean, it’s very hard to tell which ones, right? I mean, did the wisemen actually bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or are those symbolic? It’s very hard to know. If I get up to heaven, I’ve always said this, if I get up to heaven and Jesus said to me, “you know what? It happened exactly like it was in the Gospels where there was gold, frankincense, and myrrh”. I’ll say “fine.” If Jesus says, “you know what, there were wisemen. It wasn’t quite like that. The gold, frankincense and myrrh were added later by the gospelers.” I’ll say, “fine.” All right? I mean, frankly, if Jesus says anything to me, I’ll say, “fine.”  
Jared:   [Laughter]
Pete:   [Laughter]   Right?  
Jim:   But that’s the point. I mean, not to get so bogged down in the specifics, right, but to take this story as a whole, right? I mean, I believe this story happened more or less as it was written, right, in the infancy narratives. But again, if one of those elements, ya know, falls out, and it’s found out to be a later addition, right? It doesn’t destroy my faith in, ya know, in the birth of Jesus.  
Jared:   Well, and maybe to go off of that a little bit with something you said earlier, you talked about the deeper meaning. Like, so maybe don’t worry so much about that particular question of what exactly happened, because there’s not necessarily a lot of practical import based on that, but looking for that deeper meaning. I wanted to tie that in with, maybe to what you said about praying with the Bible, and a particular Jesuit distinctive. So, what, can you say more about that, what does that mean, and what are kind of the practical implications of that practice?  
Jim:   Yeah, but let me respond a little bit to what you just said, because I think it’s an important point. I do think that there’s a danger, I know you’re not saying this, there’s a danger in saying, “well, the deeper meaning is that just Jesus was born.” Which, ya know, that’s an important meaning obviously, that’s the incarnation, that’s very important. I mean, I do think that those stories deserve real attention, and the story, ya know, for example, of Jesus being born to a poor family on the run, ya know, in occupied territory, who then have to take their child to Egypt, you know, is essentially a refugee. That is, the specifics of the story are important as well. So, ya know, the reader, at least in the Catholic tradition, should come to the Gospels and come to the Bible itself, you know, with a sense of wanting to meet God there, with a sense of kind of intelligence. But also, I think with a sense of trust and a sense of generosity, as one of my teachers used to say, you know, to the Gospels and to the story, so. But anyway, I’m sorry. Can you repeat that second question you had?  
Jared:   Yeah, it was just, you know, when you had mentioned praying with the Bible, if you could just say a little bit more. Because, I agree, I think the details, you know. I just think with our background with seminary and graduate school, and Pete and his professorship, I think we are emphasizing a lot that these things matter. The discrepancies matter, the details matter, it all matters, but there’s also this sense where we also wanna say, there’s this other element of spiritual practice. And so, can you talk about praying with the Bible, what do you mean by that and what’s the practical implications of it?  
Jim: 19:58 Sure, it’s a very, I would say, specific practice that the Jesuits are known for. We’re not the ones that invented it, we like to take credit for it, but we did not invent it. I would say that it was popularized by Saint Ignatius who was the founder of the Jesuits. It’s essentially, you can call it Ignatian Contemplation, or composition of place, or imaginative prayer, and it’s essentially imagining yourself in the Gospel scene in your prayer. Now, that sounds sort of simple and almost elementary, but it can be very profound. So, for example, let’s take the infancy narrative since we’re talking about that. If you take, for example, you know, the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. So, let’s start with the annunciation, right? You would imagine yourself in that scene. You would close your eyes and say, all right, what do I see? Okay, now what does Mary look like in this scene, where is she, what kind of a house is she in? When the angel appears, what does the angel look like in your imagination? Is it a traditional angel with wings, is it a kind of beam of light, as you said, what is it? What do you hear? You know, what does your voice sound like? What does the angel sound like? What do you smell, right? In some passages, that’s not going to be very important, but you know, for example, if you’re at the wedding feast of Cana you’re going to smell a lot of food and wine and all that. What do you taste? You know, what do you feel? I mean, what are you wearing? If you’re in a miracle story, if you’re in the story of the man being healed in Capernaum, being lowered down the roof, you know, boy, what do you imagine? Just all the sights and the sounds and the visual. And then, you place yourself in this scene and you pray with it and you see what happens. And let me tell you, it can be extremely powerful for people, because it’s experiencing through your imagination, which is a gift from God, alright? It’s a gift through your imagination, this kind of entry into the Gospel passage, or more broadly into the Bible. And it is a favorite way for Jesuits to pray and to encourage others to pray, it can be really, and I have to say this, and this is not meant as any sort of critique. It can be really eye opening for a lot of Protestants who have not been invited into this way of praying.  
Pete:   Sounds like a critique to me and that’s fine.   [Laughter]  
Jim:   Oh no! It’s not meant to be.  
Pete:    [Laughter]
Jim:   You know, because, I think, you know, just as you might say that Catholics have not,   [Background music begins]   many Catholics have not had the experience of, you know, being invited to learn the Bible, even read the Bible. I found that in my experience, sometimes Protestants have not been invited to pray in this particular way, with the Scriptures.
Producer:    [Producers Group Endorsement]  
Jim:   So, it’s really profound, and, you know, some pretty amazing things can happen in terms of insights, emotions, desires, memories, feelings – I’m writing a book about this right now which is why it’s on the tip of my tongue.
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   So, for, can I give you an example?
Pete:   Yes, please.
Jared:   Sure.
Jim:   Well, let’s say you’re praying with the storm at sea, one of the many storms at sea and you imagine yourself in the Scripture reading, and you’re one of the disciples. And, as we know, you know, it’s dark outside and there’s a storm and the disciples are afraid, and they say to Jesus, you know, “why are you asleep? Don’t you care about us?” and He stands up and rebukes – I love that word rebukes – the storm and there’s a dead calm. And they say, “who is this then that even the wind and waves obey Him?” So very well-known story. Now, you know, it’s one thing to read it and to say, “okay, that’s Jesus’ power over nature, that’s a nature miracle.” It’s another thing to hear a sermon or a homily about it where someone tells you this is what this means, or this is an interpretation. It’s another thing to put yourself in there and see what happens. And often times, for example, let’s say you’re praying and you, you start to feel, well what is wrong with Jesus? Why isn’t he helping the disciples, right? And I feel Jesus is asleep in my life. And you start to feel a little sadness or disappointment over something that is happening in your life where Jesus feels asleep, right? And you might be moved in that prayer to talk to Jesus about it. What’s he going to say to you in your prayer? So, it can be really powerful for people. That’s a very popular passage on retreats for people. It can be very powerful for people to talk to Jesus and say, you know, “do you care about us, do you care about me?” And then also to listen to Jesus, if you’re able to do this in your prayer, what’s Jesus’ response to you? You know, so, it kind of makes this story your own in a way that simply reading it or, you know, having someone preach about it, or even reading about it does not. And, doesn’t happen all the time, but it can be really transformative. I mean, I’ve had experiences in prayer that have kind of changed my life in that particular way of praying. So that’s the, that’s Ignatian Contemplation, that’s our Jesuit way of praying, and I think that’s our great gift to the world. It’s not, you know, all these universities with great basketball teams, it’s this.  
Pete: 26:07 [Laughter]
Jared:   Well, it’s a very interesting way of approaching what would have often, at least, you know, in my background, been this importance on the relevancy of the Bible to our life. So we’re always kind of trying to apply the Bible to our life, and when it’s kind of sermon style or reading it on our own, we tend to kind of piecemeal it, and we have as the backdrop and the framework, our life, and then we’re just taking pieces of the Bible, or pieces of these stories to fit. And this kind of turns that it on its head where it’s this immersive and a wholistic experience of placing our self in that world and exploring it. So, it’s sort of, it’s still relevant. It’s more that we’re applying ourselves to the Bible, rather than the Bible applying to our life, and I really appreciate that.  
Jim:   That’s right! And it’s also allowing the Holy Spirit to work within you, and to let God guide you, and it’s, you know, for some people it can be very frightening, all right? Because they’re sort of untethered to, you know, someone on the outside telling them what should happen, right? Like, this is what you should feel. I mean, I’ll tell you an interesting story. I was on the radio show of Cardinal Dolan, who is the Archbishop of New York here a couple of years ago, and we were talking about this topic, and he had gone on a retreat with some Jesuits, and they invited him, funny enough, to pray about the nativity scene. And, you know, he imagined himself in the stable. It’s a very common prayer practice, and it’s a very common passage to use, and in his prayer, he imagined Mary giving him the baby, asking him to hold the baby, you know, the Christ-child. And, it was just a surprise to him, because he was expecting to simply look at what was happening, right? But in a lot of these imaginative prayers, what happens is you’re sort of drawn into it. And he basically held Jesus, you know, for the prayer. And I said to him, I sort of, you know, chanced some spiritual direction, and I said to him, “well I bet the next time that you read the infancy narrative, it wasn’t the same.” He said, “no, absolutely not, it was totally different for me.” Because now it was his story, all right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   It was his experience of the story and it’s, I can’t describe it, it’s just different. It’s the difference between, it’s the difference between someone telling you what it’s like to swim in the ocean, and reading a book about it, and watching a video about it, and jumping in the ocean. That’s the difference.  
Pete:   Yeah, you know, I mean, what you’re saying – some pieces are coming together for me here and the question that I’m trying to articulate. But, just to contrast this with, again, the way I was trained, the way Jared was trained, the way I think many Protestants have been taught; I think what other evangelical or maybe mainline, I don’t know if it makes much of a difference, but, you know, the basis for scriptural reading is, what some call the grammatical historical method. You read the words and you understand the history, sort of in a detached sense, and on the basis of that, you understand the text and then you understand God. And you sort of, it, what you’re suggesting, there’s more of a spiritual immediacy in reading of Scripture, because in a way, and I mean this in a very positive way, you’re bypassing the critical mind, you’re maybe putting the left brain on pause for a minute, and intuitively and emotionally engaging the text.  
Jim: 29:39 Absolutely! I mean, what you’re talking about, which is part of, you know, our spiritual lives, is mainly insight, which is very important. And so, you can get it, even in this practice, in Ignatian Contemplation, you can get an insight. So, one of the common insights about, say, the storm at sea is, I’m not surprised that the disciples were afraid. You know, if you see Jesus in your mind’s eye as stilling the storm, you say, oh my gosh, that must’ve been really frightening, and you get an insight. Wow, I never thought of the disciples really being afraid of this guy that they were following as well as loving Him. So that’s great, but by the same token, to your point, you can experience other things. So, for example, deep emotion, right? You can experience sadness that Jesus isn’t, you know, more active in your life, or seemingly. You can experience anger, you can experience a desire to, say, in the infancy narrative to kind of care for people who are in childbirth. You can have memories that come up, right? You can even have words and images that come up, so it is, it’s much more immersive, and it’s not, you know, I would say you do bring a critical eye to it as much as you know, but you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to do this, right? I mean, you can take it at face value.  
Pete:   Right.  
Jim:   You know, for example, sometimes people will do a meditation like this and it will be in current day. So, I had a friend do a meditation on retreat, and when he did the storm at sea, he was in a boat that his Dad had.   [Laughter]  
 Pete:   [Laughter]
 Jim:   You know, with like, an outboard motor. And he said, “that’s just what came to me.” And that was fine. You know, that’s okay. You know, I mean, obviously Jesus and the disciples didn’t have outboard motors, but it’s okay. It’s sort of letting God work through your imagination. I want to say one more quick thing. One of the critiques is, “well, it’s all in my head.” Well, that’s bologna. “It’s all in my head.” But, you know, our imagination is a gift that God gives us, and, you know —  
Pete:   Yeah, and that has been very important to me the past, I don’t know, decade or so. You know, and people like Walter Brueggemann or Richard Rohr, or others where the imagination is not your enemy. Which is how, I mean, that’s why I’m really attracted to that word, and I know Jared is too, because we know how people in our background would react to this. It’s —  
Jared:   Well, the whole point of biblical studies was to bracket that out.
Pete:   Right, to get your imagination out of the way and just get to the facts, what really happened, and not this more, again, immediate access to, like you said before, the Holy Spirit. But, you know, people say, well this is just, it’s not just in your head, but it’s just subjective, and what you need is objectivity if you want to really access scripture.  
Jim:   Yeah to both/and. You can’t, I mean, to be blunt, you can’t be kind of an idiot when you come to Scripture.  
Pete:   Oh, you’d be surprised Jim, I don’t know…
Jim:   [Laughter]   No, but I mean, you know, you have to understand, you know, I mean, something simple. That there are four Gospels, they were written by four different people. Something, you know, as basic as that. There weren’t reporters there, right? They don’t, you know those kinds of sort of basic things. But, by the same token, you don’t have to be, you know, a biblical scholar and know Greek and Hebrew to kind of pray with this stuff. I’m glad you like the imagination. You know, one of the things I like to remind people, is that Jesus asked people to do this. I mean, when he says “a sower went out to sow” in the parables, he’s saying, “imagine a sower going out to sow,” right?  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   Or, “imagine a man who had two sons.” As we understand, he’s creating these stories, he’s not reporting them. And that’s what He’s doing, He’s kind of an – and truly it’s kind of what we do whenever we read scripture. It’s impossible to hear the passion proclaimed or read the passion and not imagine it. It’s happening already. And so, this is just deepening–  
Pete:   Yeah, it’s not just for parables, it’s for anything that we access. New or Old Testament, really.  
Jim:   Absolutely. But, I guess what I’m saying is, even when you hear it, a sermon, on the passion narrative, you’re imagining it. You’re imagining in your mind’s eye already what Jesus looked like on the cross.  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jared:   Well, and even, and even to take that even further, I think one of the things that we could exercise more of in our spiritual lives is something like – cause when you said Jesus invites this as well – a lot of those parables are also inviting something like empathy. And I would say empathy by definition requires imagination. And so, building those muscles outside of just our brain power to get to the facts, to being more holistic about what it means to be human, which we are emotional beings as well, I think, is just a really, it’s a healthier way, I think, of looking at Scripture.  
Jim:   Yeah, as I said, it’s the both/and. I mean, it’s Scripture study, it’s listening to sermons, it’s being attentive to Scripture scholars, and it’s encountering it on your own.  
Jared:   Exactly.
Jim:   Because, again, the Holy Spirit is working through you, and you know, might as well pay attention to what the Holy Spirit is saying to you.  
Jared:   And I would say too, it’s a dialectic in the sense that, I feel like for me, the older I get, it’s a lifelong journey of letting those both inform each other. That, as I learn from biblical scholarship, that impacts how I read it, maybe from a more spiritual perspective or a more imaginative perspective. And yet, my imagination is always pushing on that scholarly side as well. And I think that’s an important tension that we don’t want to lose.  
Jim: 35:17 Yeah, and frankly, I love reading – I know this sounds crazy but maybe not to you guys – I love reading scripture commentaries and, you know, so the Sacra Pagina series and —  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim   John Meier’s Marginal Jew and you know, all those things, I love it. And it helps you understand, I hate to stay it, but the mise en scène and, you know, Jesus’ experience and what it was like in, you know, for a century Galilee in Judea. It just helps your prayer more, right? I mean, I’ve been to the holy land now five or six times, and it just helps, I mean, to understand, you know, what Capernaum looked like and, you know, what Bethsaida looked like, and where they were. These are real places, and so, it’s ironic, I mean, the more you know factually, I think the more it helps you imaginatively.  
Pete:   Yeah, and that’s sort of gets to another question that’s in my mind, again, I’m thinking of the backgrounds we’ve had and what a lot of our listeners have had, that it’s hard to get to that place to allow for an imaginative engagement of Scripture when you’ve been told for your whole life that this is, you’re a worm. And there’s nothing good in you, and your imagination will simply lead you astray. But what I’m hearing you say, Jim, is that this is all just a part of being human, and you can’t escape it.  
Jim:   Yes, I mean, one Jesuit way, I mean, the Catholic way of looking at things is a little different. It’s a both/and. Saint Ignatius says, which I love, “we are loved sinners.” Right? I mean, we are loved by God and redeemed by God, and we are also sinful. I mean, all three of us are sinful people. But, you know, that doesn’t mean that we, you know, can’t use our imaginations. I mean, we’re also, we’re, I mean, you know, Saint Paul says it – we’re temples of the Holy Spirit, right? And so, the Holy Spirit dwells within us. You know, one of the great lines in the Second Vatican Council is, you know, in our conscience, in our spirit, you know, it’s where one hears the echoes of God’s voice.  
Pete:   Yeah.
Jim:   You know, and the other thing is that it’s God in charge, it’s not us in charge. It’s not me making something up anyway, it’s being led to the Gospels and, you know, to the Bible, and more broadly, by God who wants to show us something, and frankly, sometimes he shows us something about our sinfulness.  
Pete:   Mm hmm.
Jim:   I mean, if you’re praying about the infancy narratives and you see Mary and Joseph and you realize – oh my gosh, they’re refugees – how am I treating refugees? You know, so it’s not always comforting, it can be very challenging.  
Pete:   You’re hitting on something now too, Jim, that I think, that’s meant a lot to me and I think to others that I know as well. Sort of transitioning to different ways of thinking. This really isn’t ultimately about what you think of the Bible and how it should be read, I think really at the end of the day it comes down to what you think God is like and whether God is on your side leading you somewhere, or whether, and this is a bit of a caricature but I’ll stand by it, whether God is more, sort of off in a distance looking down as sort of a judge waiting to see if you’re going to get the Bible right or not. That’s a common malady that, I mean, I see that in students that I teach at the undergraduate level, when I taught seminary, and this is all wrapped up, you really can’t talk about, let’s say, an imaginative reding of the Bible without a God behind it who values the human experience, and that’s a foreign language for a lot of people.  
Jim:   Well that’s interesting, because I would say that’s kind of surprising that God would not value the human experience since God became human.  
Jared:   [Laughter]   You’d think!  
Pete:   You’d think!   [Laughter]   That’s just one time though. That’s one time, Jim, that’s all that is.   [Laughter continues]  
Jim:   Well, but, you know, I mean, He’s still, you know, Christ is risen, right? I mean, so, He’s, in a way, you know, He’s still human, He’s still experiencing that humanity. No, that is true, I do think that it does depend on an experience of God in one’s own life that is gracious and that is loving and, you know, for people that find that difficult, what we normally do in the Jesuits is to try to get them in touch with that.  
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   So often in the beginning of a retreat, we just say, “take a few days just to pray about the way that God has blessed you.” In fact, the beginning of the spiritual exercises is just that, it’s looking at your blessings, and then you’re overwhelmed by, you know, how much God loves you. And gradually, which I think is really beautiful, organically, you start to see your own shadow side. As a Jesuit friend of mine likes to say, I love this expression, “in the sunshine of God’s love we see our shadows.”  
Pete:   Mmm.
Jim:   And so, what happens? What happens is, in my experience, people end up seeing themselves as what we said again, loved sinners. So, it’s both/and. God loves you, you’re, you know, you’re imperfect, but God loves you, God’s blessed you in all these things. And so, that sort of sets the stage for this ability to relate to God and to trust in God. I mean, I, you know, I always go back to, if we’re going to talk about, you know, quoting scripture. I always go back to Jeremiah 29:11, you know, “I know the plans I have for you.” Plans for your welfare and for peace and, you know, God’s on your side. I’m also, look, how can we doubt that God’s on humanities side? I mean, Jesus comes down, He aligns himself with us, He dies for us on the cross. I mean, what more does God have to do to prove that?  
Pete: 40:34 Mm hmm, yeah.
Jared:   Yeah, and it seems like, again, it’s another one of those dialectics where we can’t lose either side. That we are loved, and that we are imperfect. And I think it’s more that we tend to have a hard time feeling capable of being loved, or belonging, when we’re imperfect. But that’s, I think, part of what the Gospel is saying. You know, kind of, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for you.” It’s while we are imperfect, we can still be loveable, and I think that’s a powerful thing.  
Jim:   Yeah, and one of the problems is that most people, as I said, I’m writing a book about this. You know, most people tend to think of God, as they think of, for example, their parents or some authority figure, you know, who may or may not have loved them unconditionally, right? And so, if we had parents who are very judgmental or church leaders that are very judgmental, we tend to see that as God. But, you know, as Christ shows us over and over again in the Gospels, you know, that’s not who God is, right? It’s just, that’s, I always say to people, you know, let’s say your name is, you know, Joe. I would say, “that’s Joe’s god.” Right? That’s your god that you’ve constructed, right?  That is not the God that we find in Jesus.” Right? I mean, He’s always forgiving, always loving. And so, part of it is getting people in touch with God, not their conception of God, which are two different things. Sometimes, I say to people, “that’s like an idol.” You know, you, everyone says, oh I don’t know the first commandment…oh, who would believe in idols, that’s crazy. But if you’ve created this kind of, false god, based on just your experience, you’ve kind of created an idol.  
Jared:   Good. Well, I think that’s a great way to wrap up our conversations. Unfortunately, we’re coming to the end of our time, but I like the idea of ending on the notion that God is loving and we see that in Jesus. What are other things, maybe projects, you’ve mentioned a few times this book you’re working on. Is it coming out any time soon, can you give us more info on it or point us in a direction to kind of learn more about you or your work?  
Jim:   Yeah, no time soon, it’s called Learning to Pray, probably in another year. But, if you want to learn more about me, Father James Martin, I have, I’m on Facebook under Father James Martin, on Twitter under @JamesMartinSJ, on Instagram. Probably the book that most listeners would, I hope, appreciate the most, is a book called Jesus: A Pilgrimage, which is a look at the life of Christ, as well as a visit to the holy land and some Scripture scholarship as well. I hope that listeners would enjoy that.  
Pete:   Well right, Jim, well thanks so much for being on the podcast. We had a great time, thanks for spending time with us.  
Jim:   Me too, great questions too.  
Pete:   All right, thanks so much, see you soon.
Jared:   See ya.
Jim:   God bless.
 [Outro music begins]  
Pete:   Hey normal people, thanks for listening and, welcome back to the podcast. We’re happy to be here too.  
Jared:   Yeah, absolutely. And, if you haven’t already checked out Patreon, we would  appreciate your support, but also, we had some special things that we put up there during the break for those of our Patreon supporters who couldn’t get enough of us. I mean —  
Pete:   [Laughter]
  Jared:     I know that’s probably —  
Pete:   So not our wives and our families, right?  
Jared: 43:30 [Laughter]   That’s right. So, if you want to check that out you can. Go to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople/posts, and it’s great to be able to say we’ll see you next week!  
 [Music continues]  
[End of recorded material]

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The bible and women's spirituality with cheryl bridges johns

Interview with Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns: The Bible & Women’s Spirituality

August 12, 2019

In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with theologian and professor Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns about how feminism has changed over the years and the importance of both being rooted in your own traditions and staying open to “the other.”

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  • “The prophetic gets marginalized as things are institutionalized.” @cb_johns
  • “What transforms us – and deconstruction is part of the transformation – but I believe it is the presence of God in a way that takes us outside of ourselves.” @cb_johns

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