After the Reformation in the 16th century, the word “allegory” became virtually outlawed among Protestants. It was an omnibus term referring to any reading of the biblical text that imported an elaborate interpretive apparatus. The Reformers wanted the plain and simple words of the Bible and imposed the interpretive asceticism of sola scriptura. Centuries later, their descendants pioneered the methods of historical criticism. Anachronism became the new swear word. The new asceticism required restricting our readings of the Bible to what could be “scientifically” determined by biblical scholars properly trained in the secular church of the university.
Most of us are parishioners in this modern church, whether we admit it or not. Like the Reformers (like all reformers), we distrust tradition, though now for modern reasons. But without tradition’s ballast, the Bible’s meaning becomes uncertain, dangerously untethered to anything solid enough to protect against misinterpretation and, worse, misuse. This in turn can motivate us to build, as it were, fences around the Torah, carefully limiting ourselves to proper, trustworthy approaches. Unfortunately, we thereby develop a worldly tendency to glide along the surface of God’s Word.
It was not always so. For the most part, in fact, our traditions themselves have assumed the opposite, encouraging luxurious interpretive habits of mind rather than spare ones. According to this way of thinking, the Bible is fecund, not vulnerable. In our traditions, both Jewish (about which I sadly know too little) and Christian (about which I can claim less ignorance), far from being encouraged to build fences around the Torah, the task is to breach the walls of the Bible’s plain sense the better to plunge into its depths.
There are meditative, mystical techniques by which to enter into the Bible. They’re present in our traditions. But in the main we have inherited a less esoteric approach, one of friction, even to the point of contradiction. Jews know it in the many unresolved arguments of the Talmud. Christians recognize this approach in the sic et non of scholastic objection and response.