Question: I started going to a Bible study in our parish and usually enjoy it but am thinking about dropping out. Several people in our group said we should never take the Bible literally, but what's the point of reading the Bible if it doesn't mean what it says?
Discussion: The Bible does mean what it says. However, God's ways can be so mysterious that people do not always understand what's said or why, especially on first reading. Some may write off the whole Bible as being merely symbolic or allegorical, while others take every word as the kind of literal truth you get when you say something like, "The fire is hot." Symbolically, that same fire represents the power, warmth, and enthusiastic fervor poured into Christians by the Holy Spirit. You can approach the flame literally or figuratively, but either way, the fire is "true."
As the living word of God, the Bible is also true to itself and the spiritual truths expressed in a variety of tones, formats, and literary styles. Many themes and purposes arise in its pages, but the overall goal shows the salvation and redemption of man by the Almighty God, beginning in Genesis and going all the way through the final Amen in Revelation. So as you study the Bible, don't worry about whether you should take the words literally or figuratively. Just take them. Read them. Study them, and get to know what the Biblical record shows about the ongoing relationship between human beings and the God of love.
You might also take another tack in your Bible study. For instance, try thinking of yourself as an investigator or a Christian reporter looking for the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your Judeo-Christian heritage and the life-giving truth of God's loving mercy and forgiveness. As you do this, consider:
the Who of God — i.e., the character and power of the One to Whom you speak;
the what of the conditions, circumstances, or context surrounding the larger spiritual truth that a book or chapter presents;
the when of the past, present, and future as well as the timelessness of eternity in which a Biblical truth or statement affects God's people, including you;
the where of the place and culture from which the text arises;
the why of the law recorded, the wisdom taught, or the prophecy spoken;
the how of the literal, figurative, or poetic words that the inspired writer utilized to tell a story and present a spiritual truth in the most effective way.
Generally speaking, the Who, what, when, where, and why of the Bible will express our Judeo-Christian background and beliefs, whereas the how has more to do with the means by which the Bible presents a spiritual truth. Unlike modern libraries that separate fiction from nonfiction and both genres from poetry, a single book of the Bible may contain an eclectic mix of Godly commands, historical events, poetic lines, and allegorical tales. Between genres, thin lines may overlap, but don't let them trip you up. For instance, if you read something that troubles you or that you don't understand, just do a little research by looking up the verse or passage in a reputable commentary. Better yet, see if the Catechism of the Catholic Church covers that specific topic. To ease the search, just look for a key word on a website that contains the complete Catechism.
Most importantly, begin and end each Bible study session or independent reading with prayer for God to guide the discussion and increase your understanding. Then trust that He will. The same Holy Spirit who scripted the story of God's love into the Holy Scriptures knows how to write His word into your spirit today.