My own two cents:
Tom is right to highlight the 'environmental' factor of exegesis. That is, reading Scripture never takes place in a vacuum, but always in a context of prayer, liturgy, catechesis, moral life, etc. This doesn't mean that we can only crack our Bibles open in church; it only means that wherever we do crack open our Bibles, we always do so within the contextual reading environment generated by these factors. Not only the intellect but the will, memory and imagination are engaged in the exegetical act; it is never, then, an isolated event. And generating an environment appropriate to the task is no easy task.
One will rightly respond, of course, that this is true not only of Scripture but also of Percy or Dostoevsky (whom I'm working on right now). All good literature puts intense demands upon the intellect, will, and memory, and that's what makes it good literature. Reading is
meant to be enjoyable, even pleasurable. It is not meant to be 'fun.' If reading is fun, you're reading the wrong books. It is work, and it is precisely the work involved in good literature that makes it pleasurable. Our minds and wills enjoy the exercise, the stretching and expanding that necessarily accompany a good reading experience.
But why must reading involve so much work, so much intellectual and moral labor? Why can't reading be an effortless activity, by means of which we could absorb written material with a simple gesture of the will, a momentary assent of the intellect? Because reading grants the soul a privileged access to Truth, and, in the well-known words of Jack Nicholson, 'You can't handle the truth
!' We find ourselves crippled through the fall of our first parents, stumbling through life with darkened intellects and weakened wills. Whereas in Paradise the well-orchestrated unity of our intellectual faculty was constantly flooded with the direct light of eternal Wisdom, now our intellects are estranged and fragmented, and can only attain to Wisdom through veiled and indirect 'shadows,' suggestive images and pointers by means of which we piece together our impartial mosaics of dimly-grasped truths.
This is where the category of 'signs' (signa
) come in; divinely-given 'pointers' by means of which we can awkwardly and slowly struggle our way forward towards the light of Wisdom. Sometimes these are bestowed across created nature (e.g., smoke indicates fire), others arise through cultural convention (e.g., a word indicates an object), others are given directly through divine Revelation (e.g., the texts of Scripture). All are divinely-bestowed gifts, accommodations to our weakened intellects, which would never otherwise be capable of recognizing the all-encompassing unity standing behind creation, but would only see disconnected fragments of reality, never able to piece them together into a coherent vision of the whole.
And this is what makes Scripture different from any other book (although it is, I suppose, more or less
like various books, depending on the quality of the book): It is chock full of the most profound signs available to mortal man, signa
whose depth is so limitless and unfathomable that they can be exhausted by no created intellect. Scripture does not reveal divine Truth directly, for then man's fragmented intellect would be unable to read it. Accommodated to man's fallen position, Scripture is (to the untrained eye) an intricate maze of codes and symbols, allegories and types. But to the mind which is both raised up by grace and willing to submit to the tireless regimen of exegetical study and training, these signa
can be decoded, little by little, and the first rays of Wisdom can be made to shine through. But for the proud, the slothful, and those who refuse to submit themselves to grace, this will be an impossibility.
Says St. Augustine,
This is, I think, why we find reading Scripture so difficult. Our minds and wills are simply not trained to carry out the work involved, the intellectual and moral labor of interpreting these divinely-given signa in a way that will reveal to us eternal Wisdom.