February 22, 2016
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

TORONTO - Most people have never heard a homily preached on Deuteronomy 20.10-18. It's difficult to apply these God-given rules of war to daily life in the 21st century.

The part about enslaving the women and killing all the men and boys if the village resists attack has little application when asking a boss for a raise or negotiating a mortgage renewal.

The Bible was written in a very different place at a very different time by people whose world view was formed by forces people today might understand intellectually but struggle to feel deep inside.

Fortunately, the war codes in Deuteronomy never quite make it into the Lectionary for Sunday readings. Nobody has to preach on them.

Father Elias Mallon, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, said it need not be so: It is possible to find some deeper Christian meaning in difficult texts from the Bible.

But it requires study and an understanding of the history embedded in biblical literature.

Mallon was recently in Toronto for a discussion, hosted by the Archdiocese of Toronto, among Catholics, Muslims and Jews about interpreting difficult texts.

The New York priest has spent a lifetime reading, translating and understanding the ancient languages which, gave him insights into the Bible and the monotheistic cultures of the three Abrahamic religions.

Learning to interpret tricky, terrible and difficult texts in sacred Scriptures is not an obscure or irrelevant task. When preachers and ordinary believers misinterpret their sacred texts, the result is almost always fundamentalism, he said.

Fundamentalism is usually the result of reading an ancient, sacred text as if it were a newspaper - reading the words without any awareness of the culture or the historical circumstances in which they were first spoken, he said.

A VIOLENT WORLD

"All of our texts are ancient. All of our texts come out of a context," Mallon said. "It's a world that wasn't pluralistic. It was more violent."

The Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Shabab, Ian Paisley's "defensive militia" in Northern Ireland, Lebanon's Phalange militias in the 1980s, volunteer militias in Jewish West Bank settlements all insist on plucking out bits of sacred texts to justify violence.

The only way to prevent violent, fundamentalist readings of the Bible and Qur'an is to know and preach a more accurate, more sophisticated reading, Mallon said.

The worst readings of sacred literature often come from people trying to read the other religion's holy book and explain it, Mallon said. When an angry Catholic tells you what the Qur'an says, a resentful Jew interprets the New Testament or a paranoid Muslim picks at the Bible, one can be sure there is a dangerous misunderstanding.

"A sacred text needs a prayerful, believing reader," he said.