Q & R: The Bible and Symbolism

Here’s the Q:

Dear Brian,
I enjoyed your presentations at the recent conference at Gloria Dei Church (Huntingdon Valley, PA) very much. I was able to sneak in a question toward the end about an ongoing narrative within the Bible–a 3-D view, as you described it, on a graph with three axes.
The question was a little disingenuous, I decided later. I already believe the Bible contains infinite truth–obviously not all accessible to an individual–bound together by some central themes–narratives, even. The Bible is, on the surface, a tangled and often unpleasant document. However, I think it contains deeper threads that tell readers about the life and reformation of the individual and the nature of God. I started reading Swedenborg in college a few years ago and have continued to do so. I find his explanation of an “internal sense” to the Bible compelling. What do you think of that theory?

I wondered this when a man at the conference brought up a passage from the Gospels about cutting off a hand or plucking out a eye that causes one to stray. I was hoping you’d comment about symbology and its place in the Bible. I notice the word “interpretation” in literature from various writers under the Emergent umbrella. Jesus said He spoke in parables; obviously, some meanings are more obvious than others, as in the Parable of the Sower. But perhaps Jesus meant by cutting of hands and casting out eyes that we should throw away habits or perceptions that prevent us from living a good life.
But what if we extend Jesus’ words to less obvious pronouncements? Or even to the Old Testament? I read Micah 6 recently, in which the prophet explains that sacrifice–an old Israelitish ritual–does not please the Lord. Rather, in verse 8, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The question arises: has He shown us? Had He been showing us all along, and the Israelites were just too stiff-necked to grasp that blood and fat weren’t as important as faith and charity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this. This email has been percolating in my mind as my family discussed the subject over Thanksgiving. (My brother-in-law, a minister, has been reading your latest book.)

R: Thanks for your question. It really was a wonderful time at Gloria Dei. If I lived in that neighborhood, I know I’d love being a member there. I’m not an expert in Swedenborgian thought, but I suspect his “internal sense” marks a return to a more ancient (i.e. pre-modern) way of reading the texts, an attempt to break free of certain modernist-rationalist assumptions that have too often reduced biblical interpretation from a rich exploration of meaning to a sometimes flat argument about factuality (see my other post today for more on this).
I feel I should offer one gentle but important push-back. I think we need to be more careful than we have been in talking about “the Jews,” “the Israelites,” etc. It’s so easy for words like “stiff-necked,” when applied to certain people in the past, to become a kind of generalized stereotyping and even racism. Anything we say about a “them,” I think, needs to be translated to “us.” I find plenty of stiff-neckedness when I examine my own heart, enough to keep me busy extracting the lumber-yard in my own eye!