AFTER this book’s fulsome endorsements from two archbishops, two bishops, one cardinal, one LGBTQ human-rights campaigner, and three well-known authors, plus an afterword from a prominent theologian, any review seems superfluous. Happily, in spite of the somewhat unusual title, which is explained in the introduction, and whose theme runs through the book, their enthusiasm is fully justified.
The author confesses that she is no scholar. Her book is not a technical guide, but a handbook to “nourish” the reader’s faith through Bible-reading, the importance of which cannot be overestimated, though today it is widely neglected.
Threlfall-Holmes divides her study into three parts. First, she deals with scripture itself, quoting a Bible passage, then teasing out its importance, and concluding with advice on how to take matters further.
So, she isolates the need to argue with God; the necessity of being appalled by the text; the use of mediation to root faith and gain enlightenment; the dangers in understanding what “fulfilment” means in the Gospels; the use and misuse of scripture; and the value of the heritage of biblical witnesses.
In the second part, using the same formula, Threlfall-Holmes considers tradition and discusses ways in which the Church herself has interpreted scripture, beginning with the monastic practice of prayerful meditation on scripture (lectio divina).
She goes on to identify the medieval development of four distinct layers of meaning: literal, allegorical, tropological, and anagogical. The literal meaning did not mean taking the biblical words at face value like contemporary fundamentalists: rather, it involved rigorous research into its origin and background. While all passages have a literal meaning, they might also have one or more further meanings derived from the other three layers, illuminating one’s understanding of doctrinal faith, one’s inner or moral life, or one’s ultimate destiny.
Threlfall-Holmes concludes this section with discussion of St Augustine’s Rule of Love and the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. For Augustine, the scriptures were tools “to help us make the journey of love” of both God and our neighbour. For Ignatius, it was a matter of imagining oneself into a Gospel scene through prescribed stages, which the author fleshes out in some detail.
In her final section, Threlfall-Holmes, after describing contemporary understanding of how the scriptures reached their present form, discusses liberation, feminist, and ecology theology, warning against an uncritical reading of the text caused by cultural assumptions. It is necessary to approach the material with “a hermeneutic of suspicion”.
Threlfall-Holmes concludes with what she terms “a hands-on hermeneutic” — entering into the text in a physical and creative way.
Following the afterword, there are three helpful appendices on Bible translations, using the book in a group, and suggestions for further reading.
Threlfall-Holmes’s highly practical book is a gift not only to the individual, but even more to the parish priest seeking to encourage parishioners to take Bible-reading seriously. The scriptures are, after all, the title deeds of the Christian faith. Forgive me, but for encouraging biblical study, this book really is the best thing since sliced bread.
Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.
How to eat Bread: 21 nourishing ways to read the Bible
Hodder & Stoughton £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.99
Listen to an interview with Dr Threlfall-Holmes on the Church Times Podcast here.