Mark Shea Makes Senses Out of Scripture (and GKC)

G!: In your book By What Authority? and again your most recent book Making Senses Out of Scripture, you refer to Chesterton as your “hero.” How did he get to be your hero?

Shea: I’ve always empathized with C.S. Lewis, who remarked that Chesterton made an “immediate conquest” of him. For me, Chesterton came at a crucial point in my life as an Evangelical. I belonged to a small non-denom church which had many good things going for it, but which, as time wore on, also inevitably began to run into the problems any group of 30 Christians with the total experience of 5 years of Christian life will run into. I began to ask questions that we simply couldn’t answer due to our ignorance of the life and Tradition of the Church. (Chesterton’s remark about Tradition as the “democracy of the dead” made instant sense to me for that reason.) I began to encounter forms of philosophy and Christian belief (particularly virulent Calvinism) which my quiet little experience of non-denom charismatic church had in no way prepared me for. I began to ask questions about the goodness of creation, of humanity, of my own personal existence that my theology was ill-equipped to answer, but that Chesterton, with his theology of gratitude and his thumpingly joyful Thomism, answered deeply. I was hooked after reading Orthodoxy and I was deeply moved after reading St. Thomas Aquinas: the Dumb Ox. Since then, I’ve read oodles of GKC, including St. Francis of AssisiWhat’s Wrong with the World, scads of Father Brown stories, The Everlasting ManThe ThingThe Catholic Church and Conversion, and on and on. In a curious way, my experience with Chesterton was analogous to Chesterton’s own experience of his father and of the Church. He struck me, not so much as somebody who accidentally told this truth or that truth, but as a “truth-telling thing”.

G!: An impartial observer, which of course, I’m not, would say that you didn’t have enough basis to declare Chesterton as “infallible.”

Shea: Obviously, I didn’t go ga-ga and anoint Chesterton as “Infallible.” But for sheer wisdom and common sense and a complete philosophy of life, I’d never encountered anybody else who beats Chesterton. He played no small part in my reception into communion with the Catholic Church in December 1987. Since then, I have borrowed freely from his thought on frequent occasion. As I tell friends, the great thing about being Catholic is that it allows you plagiarize and call it “being faithful to the Tradition.” That’s handy for a writer.

G!: What are some of the “handy” ways Chesterton has influenced your writing?

Shea: He is, of course, one of the most quotable writers who ever lived. But in addition to his luminous lines (and his allusive alliteration), I simply fell in love with his brilliant common sense defenses of Catholic faith, of the splendor of the ordinary, of common happiness in common things, of tomfoolery, of solemnity, of beef and beer. And I love his unsurpassed analysis of the bizarre “progress” of Western thought (which is in the long slow process of abandoning the mystical truths of Catholic faith while imagining the pet mystical truth du jour it retains is self-evident). I think his ringing yet charitable replies to all ideologues whether conservative, liberal, religious, secular, capitalist, communist, statist, or individualist are a model for anybody who wishes to speak truth to power and intelligence to TV-think. It’s all so refreshing and so prophetic. I return to him again and again and find him the most sane person in all of English letters. And since I’m a bit of a boob myself, I borrow from him rather that go to the trouble of having to work it all out for myself on my own. I think it was Chesterton (now that I look back on it) who probably had the greatest (though it was unconscious at the time) influence on the structure of By What Authority?. I didn’t notice it till after, but the book (in addition to using Chesterton’s paradoxical style) also was, in the final analysis, a sort of detective story, complete with a twist ending. When it occurred to me later, I distinctly thought I heard Chesterton chuckling at me from somewhere in glory.

G!: Tell us about your most recent book, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did. First of all, who is this book written for?

Shea: I was trying to reach four people, all of whom have either been me or close friends of mine at one time or another.

G!: And what about the apparent typo in the title: Making “Senses” out of Scripture?

Shea: My goal was to introduce a modern audience to the ancient Catholic tradition of the “Four Senses of Scripture”. The idea behind the Four Senses is that Scripture has not only a literal sense but also more-than-literal senses (the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses). So, for instance, when Numbers tells us Moses was commanded by God to make a bronze serpent and hoist it up on a pole as a cure for snakebite, the literal sense of that passage is “Moses was commanded by God to make a bronze serpent and hoist it up on a pole as a cure for snakebite”. However, that’s not all that’s there. For Jesus looks at the same passages and, in John 3:14-15, tells us that it has a second—allegorical—significance as well: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” In short, the Bronze Serpent has a meaning beyond the literal sense: it points to the Crucified Christ who cures us of the Ultimate Snakebite, sin and death. Likewise, the New Testament is simply riddled with this way of reading Scripture for second meanings. The Temple, for instance, is seen as an image of the Body of Christ both by Jesus (“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”) and, by extension, it is seen as an image of our body as well and thereby given a moral sense. Thus, St. Paul tells the Corinthians not to commit fornication since they will defile the temple by doing so. And Jerusalem is given yet another meaning—an anagogical meaning—by being seen (especially in Revelation) as an image of the coming heavenly kingdom (the “new Jerusalem”).

Now all this was perfectly fascinating to research and discover. I came to realize you can’t get to first base understanding either the New Testament nor Catholic theology since the New Testament without employing this Four Senses all over the place. But I also realized that if I was to communicate any of this to a modern audience I was going to have to build from the ground up and make my book intelligible to people who had experience with Scripture ranging from nil to fairly advanced study of the Bible. So I wrote the book for those four people I mentioned: The first is the secular Seattleite, living in the most unchurched city of the most unchurched state in the nation, who is not a Christian and who knows virtually nothing about the Bible but who is spiritually hungry and is trying to grapple with life, the universe, and everything and figure out what the difference is between New Age, Christianity, world religions, and whatever it was he heard on some PBS special last night. The second is the Evangelical Christian who intuits the spiritual depth of the Catholic Faith and is attracted, but who “knows his Bible” and can’t for the life of him understand what Catholics are up to when they claim to see their beliefs supported in Scripture. The third is the lay Catholic who’s got that old family Bible sitting up on the bookshelf and who periodically casts a guilty sidelong glance at it, thinking, “I should really read that one of these days” but who simply has no idea where to start or what to do. And the fourth is the advanced student of Scripture who wishes to go deeper into the amazing treasure trove of the Catholic exegetical tradition.

G!: That’s a pretty wide variety of people to reach in one book.

Shea: Well, the book is a sort of a theological Swiss army knife. There are a variety of tools available, and I hope the reader finds something useful. And maybe even gets stuck with one of them.

G!: Were there any particular places that you used Chesterton in this book?

Shea: In chapter 4, there is a very Chestertonian examination of “What was going on in Gentile Lands during the Old Testament period”. Readers familiar with The Everlasting Man will detect just the teensy-weeniest overlap between Chesterton’s ideas and mine. Which is to say, I borrowed heavily from him since I think he’s painted a beautifully accurate portrait of pre-Christian paganism and the way in which it was providentially prepared for the gospel. I also include some basic discussion (which might also seem familiar to Chesterton fans) of why it is reasonable to think Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah promised by the Old Testament and the God Incarnate that so surprised both his friends and foes.

G!: Any plans for the future?

At this point, Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins and I have been busy with the Bible studies for Catholic Scripture Study at Catholic But I enjoy getting the chance to speak at various conferences and I have hopes of getting another book out the door in a few months. Other than that, I mostly am enjoying getting to watch my kids grow up and my wife and I become ever-more-happy domestic types. If I do that well, then I figure I’ve done the main task God has for me. Oh, and I will be reading that new volume of Chesterton my wife bought me for my birthday!


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