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A Literate Church: The state of Catholic Bible study today
America - The National Catholic Weekly ^ | DECEMBER 8, 2008 | David Gibson

Posted on 11/30/2008 8:21:58 PM PST by Alex Murphy

For more than 40 years, the Rev. Roger V. Karban of the Diocese of Belleville has loved the Scriptures, studying them deeply, preaching on them weekly and teaching about them in popular Bible study groups. So galvanized was Father Karban by the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement of Scripture study that he even started assigning Bible readings as penances, a practice he continues to this day. Yet for all of that hard work and the efforts by the wider church—continuing with the recent Synod of Bishops on the Word of God (Oct. 5-26)—Father Karban can still come across to Catholics like the fellow in the confessional who balked when Father Karban tried to hand out his usual Scripture-based penance.

“Father,” the man complained, “I used to be a Protestant, and I became a Catholic so I wouldn’t have to read that book!”

Alas, while much has changed since Vatican II, some traditions die hard. Chief among them appears to be the old saw that Catholics “don’t read the Bible”—a hoary Reformation-era aphorism, but one that too many Catholics themselves still accept. “I find a lot of people who are still brainwashed that Scripture is for Protestants—that we Catholics don’t need that at all,” Karban says.

Then again, Catholics can take some solace in two developments, one less praiseworthy than the other.

Biblical Illiteracy

On the downside, surveys show that Catholics are hardly alone in their struggle for biblical literacy. While American Christians proudly cite the Bible as their favorite book (93 percent own one, usually the King James version) and two-thirds see it as the source for answers to “all or most of life’s basic questions,” they actually do not know or understand much of what is written between the covers.

Only half of U.S. adults, for example, could name a single Gospel, and most do not know the name of the first book of the Bible. Even those sola scriptura Protestants who intimidate Catholics with chapter-and-verse recitations are not doing too well. According to a survey conducted in 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals said Jesus was born in Jerusalem, not that “little town of Bethlehem.” And despite all our bitter battles over posting the Ten Commandments, six in 10 Americans cannot name five of them, while half of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married. When a USA Today article on Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, was titled, “Americans Get an ‘F’ in Religion,” the eminent historian of religion, Martin E. Marty, quipped that the newspaper could be guilty of grade inflation.

Moreover, while fewer believers know much about the Bible, one-third of Americans continue to believe that it is literally true, something organizers of the Synod on the Word of God called a dangerous form of fundamentalism that is “winning more and more adherents…even among Catholics.” Such literalism, the synod’s preparatory document said, “demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research.”

Positive Trends in Bible Study

Pointing to the deficiencies of other Christians is not a comfort to Catholic leaders or even a respectable defense in backyard arguments with Protestant neighbors. But on the positive side, Catholics can also point to several promising initiatives and trends.

One is the growing number of reliable and readable books that can provide an introduction to Scripture study and a counter-current in the sea of speculative material available. Works ranging from the widely praised book How Do Catholics Read the Bible? by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., to Garry Wills’s series of primers (including What the Gospels Meant and What Paul Meant) to the recent Jesus of Nazareth, by Pope Benedict XVI, are just a few examples. Several educators have recommended the introduction to Jesus of Nazareth as a solid starting point for Scripture study. Scholars like Pheme Perkins (her Reading the New Testament: An Introduction remains a standard text) and Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. (People of the Covenant: An Invitation to the Old Testament, for example) bring both a woman’s perspective and deep research.

Moreover, the Internet is a portal to vast amounts of quality material, including lectures by Raymond E. Brown, S.S., one of the most respected and accessible Bible scholars of the past generation.

Yet the heart of good Bible study—defined as close reading that leads to a deeper and more mature spirituality—is the small group, and in that field the Little Rock Scripture Study series remains the leader. The Little Rock series began in 1974 as a modest program for Catholics in central Arkansas as a way, as the co-founder Abbot Jerome Kodell, O.S.B., put it, to help reawaken biblical studies and spirituality in the Catholic Church, “which had been subdued and muted for four hundred years as a result of polemics of the Reformation period.” In fact, equipping the relatively small Catholic community to interact better with the region’s dominant Bible-quoting Protestants was another spur to founding the program.

The response was overwhelming, and a decade later the program had gone national. Today, according to L.R.S.S. director Cackie Upchurch, the program has been used in more than 7,000 parishes in every U.S. diocese and in 55 countries around the world. Ms. Upchurch said there has been an encouraging spike in interest in their programs recently, owing to news of the pope’s book on Jesus along with an unexpectedly strong interest in the ongoing Pauline Year. The Synod on the Word of God may help, too, she added. The growing number of lay ministers is also key in developing programs like Bible study that appeal to parishioners. “Bible study should be at the center of what we do in our parishes,” Ms. Upchurch said.

Paradoxically, the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy may also have prompted some Catholics to explore the Bible in depth for the first time in their lives, because the crisis revealed not only tragic sins by the clergy, but also a lack of basic religious education among an American laity that thought it should know better. Since 2004, Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform group that sprang up in response to the scandal, has posted resources for Bible study on its Web site, including a guide for a seven-session study of the early church. The goal is not one-stop scholarship, but a first step on the path to developing small groups, said Donna B. Doucette, executive director of V.O.T.F.: “If your ambition is to increase the voice and responsibility of the laity, then your responsibility is to understand the church you are trying to reform. We never approached our religion as something we needed to study. We approached it as something we needed to experience.” Doucette said there has been “no great stampede” for the V.O.T.F. package, “but those who find it, like it.”

Some wonder whether, like Catholic social teaching, Scripture scholarship is becoming one of the church’s best-kept secrets. There is a good argument to be made that modern biblical scholarship, begun as a Protestant enterprise, has in the last half-century seen Catholic thinkers emerge as the most respected and readable Scripture scholars. Catholics who discover this trove respond enthusiastically. Father Karban recalled that he began his first parish Bible study in 1966 as a class on the coming reforms in liturgy; but as often happens, once participants started talking about the biblical roots of the Mass, no one wanted to stop. The liturgy class never started, but Father Karban still leads three Bible classes a week at a parish, a hospital and a high school—some 30 people on Sunday nights, several dozen regulars on Tuesday mornings and another 15 to 20 on Thursday evenings. He also teaches a popular weekly class at a local community college.

Barriers to the Bible

Given such obvious interest, what are the obstacles to a more biblically literate church? Lack of public awareness about good programs and their limited availability at the parish level are two. Another is the time crunch and multiplying distractions that impinge on every aspect of life. For example, Charles McMahon, a retired professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania, says he has been engrossed in Bible study since he retired in 2001, learning largely through lectures by Father Brown on compact disc. But three years ago, when Mr. McMahon tried to organize a Bible study at the twinned parishes he attends in Philadelphia, just six people showed up, and only three or four—out of hundreds of families on the parish rolls—made it through the seven-week course. “Finding time to sit down and do serious reading is just too difficult,” Mr. McMahon said. “If this is going to be done, we’re going to have to teach kids in high school and college. The level of knowledge about the New Testament, the Old Testament and church history is about a millimeter deep. We’re incredibly ignorant—myself, everyone.”

That lack of expertise can also constrain those able to devote time to Bible study. Ironically, as the church has emphasized Bible study, many Catholics hate to admit that they have been attending church all their lives but do not know much about the Scriptures. Then when they do open the Bible, they often treat it like any other book, and start at the beginning, rather than with, say, the Gospels. Few get beyond the story of the flood early in the Book of Genesis and the tide of “begats” that follows. “When I was growing up as a Catholic we were really told not to read the Bible because we could not understand it, and that it was too complex for us to understand,” Ms. Upchurch said. “And while it’s true that there is a lot of complexity, the same human dimensions are always there. And we have tools to help us bridge the gap between the 21st century and the second century.”

The flip side of this embarrassment is the presumption among many Catholics that they “get” the Bible at Mass, along with everything else they need for their spiritual lives. The postconciliar revolution in liturgy greatly expanded the readings, with a three-year cycle in the vernacular that for the first time included Old Testament passages. Given that exposure, many think they do not need anything else. As Mr. McMahon put it, “The majority still say you go to Mass, you get your ticket punched, and that’s it for the week.”

Certainly, the Mass could be a more effective starting place for Bible study, and Father Karban and others in formation work echo the concern expressed at the Vatican synod that priests need to learn Scripture better so that they can deliver better, more “biblical” homilies. Father Karban cited a recent survey that found seminarians are actually getting less Scripture today than in the 1930s, when modern biblical study was just emerging. Indeed, Father Karban says some of his most devoted students are themselves priests who want to learn more. Many laypeople would likely second Father Karban’s point. “How many times do I need to hear about the mustard seed? I got it. It fell on fallow ground,” Fox television host Bill O’Reilly complains in his essay in a new collection of interviews by Kerry Kennedy, Being Catholic Now. “But every year I’ve got to listen to the guy tell me about the mustard seed. My 3-year-old’s got it. Okay, take it, apply it to what we’re doing, how we’re living.”

On the other hand, better homilies would still be a beginning, not the end of the journey. Deeper study provides the necessary context, and study groups should be led by a good facilitator who uses quality materials. Experts agree that a poorly led Bible study can be worse than none at all—a scavenger hunt for proof texts to support belief or win arguments rather than a search for faith and wisdom.

The Living Word of God

A final paradox is that the prospect of studying the Bible can induce anxiety among both lay believers and the hierarchy over where such exploration could lead. Studying the Bible can raise questions about church history and the tenets of faith. And too many leaders of study groups hesitate to engage or encourage such questions, because they fear either they do not have the answers or they will not be believed. Father Karban says that while he has never in 40 years known anyone whose beliefs have been undermined by Bible study, he still encounters those who think “that I’m going to come up with something that’s going to destroy their faith.”

Bible study may unsettle and even provoke. In a sense, the Bible is a dangerous book that grows more challenging with each reading. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

Cackie Upchurch likes that quotation. The Bible is a source of comfort, yes, and it should give us courage. But, she added: “It should also disturb us. It should also stir us into action. And if it’s not doing those things, and if it’s just in our heads, then I do not think we’re doing justice to the living Word of God.... If you read this stuff and really believe it, you might have to change how you live.”


TOPICS: Apologetics; Catholic; Mainline Protestant; Ministry/Outreach
KEYWORDS:
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Only half of U.S. adults, for example, could name a single Gospel, and most do not know the name of the first book of the Bible. Even those sola scriptura Protestants who intimidate Catholics with chapter-and-verse recitations are not doing too well. According to a survey conducted in 2000, 60 percent of evangelicals said Jesus was born in Jerusalem, not that “little town of Bethlehem.” And despite all our bitter battles over posting the Ten Commandments, six in 10 Americans cannot name five of them, while half of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married. When a USA Today article on Stephen Prothero’s 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, was titled, “Americans Get an ‘F’ in Religion,” the eminent historian of religion, Martin E. Marty, quipped that the newspaper could be guilty of grade inflation.

Moreover, while fewer believers know much about the Bible, one-third of Americans continue to believe that it is literally true, something organizers of the Synod on the Word of God called a dangerous form of fundamentalism that is “winning more and more adherents…even among Catholics.” Such literalism, the synod’s preparatory document said, “demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research”....

....The flip side of this embarrassment is the presumption among many Catholics that they “get” the Bible at Mass, along with everything else they need for their spiritual lives. The postconciliar revolution in liturgy greatly expanded the readings, with a three-year cycle in the vernacular that for the first time included Old Testament passages. Given that exposure, many think they do not need anything else. As Mr. McMahon put it, “The majority still say you go to Mass, you get your ticket punched, and that’s it for the week.”

1 posted on 11/30/2008 8:21:59 PM PST by Alex Murphy
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To: Alex Murphy
Cackie Upchurch likes that quotation. The Bible is a source of comfort, yes, and it should give us courage. But, she added: “It should also disturb us. It should also stir us into action. And if it’s not doing those things, and if it’s just in our heads, then I do not think we’re doing justice to the living Word of God.... If you read this stuff and really believe it, you might have to change how you live.”

Boy that is sure the truth! Great article! Thank you for posting.

2 posted on 11/30/2008 8:31:42 PM PST by GOP Poet
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To: Alex Murphy
Catholics are not bible literalists. Along with the bible, many contemporary works are studied for a more contextual understanding of the Word of God.
3 posted on 11/30/2008 9:33:23 PM PST by Natural Law
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To: Alex Murphy
<><><>Not true. Not true. The pre-Vatican II mass included the Introit, Offertory and often a Gradual which were all from Psalms. Every mass began with the Psalm 43 (Judica Me) and if you went to daily mass you would've gotten more Old Testament during the course of the year. Catholicism is liturgical in its communal worship.
4 posted on 12/01/2008 5:58:31 AM PST by Oratam
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To: Alex Murphy; GOP Poet; Natural Law; Oratam

I’ve been telling posters for nearly six years that Bible Study is alive and well in Catholic Churches — so to me, this article is old news.

The blessing is that we have a Church to interpret the Scriptures and are not left to YOPIOS as many Protestants are.

YOPIOS = Your Oen Personal Interpretation Of Scripture — LOL!


5 posted on 12/01/2008 8:43:20 AM PST by Salvation ( †With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation

Oops

YOPIOS = Your Own Personal Interpretation Of Scripture — LOL!


6 posted on 12/01/2008 8:44:23 AM PST by Salvation ( †With God all things are possible.†)
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To: Salvation; Alex Murphy; GOP Poet; Natural Law; Oratam
The blessing is that we have a Church to interpret the Scriptures and are not left to YOPIOS as many Protestants are.

How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7.
shalom b'SHEM Yah'shua HaMashiach Adonai
7 posted on 12/01/2008 9:27:37 AM PST by Uriel-2012 (Psalm 78:35 And they remembered that God was their ROCK, And the Most High God their Redeemer.)
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To: XeniaSt
How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7.

All these verses are in passages spoken directly to the Apostles, not to all within hearing range. It was to His Apostles that He spoke of the "Counselor" which would remind them of all He had taught them.

8 posted on 12/01/2008 9:52:43 AM PST by Truth Defender (Christ did NOT come to save an immortal sinner, but to give a mortal sinner the offer of immortality)
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To: Truth Defender
XS>How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7.

All these verses are in passages spoken directly to the Apostles, not to all within hearing range. It was to His Apostles that He spoke of the "Counselor" which would remind them of all He had taught them.

Yes; Yah'shua spoke these verses to Messianic Jews
as to who would teach all things.

See Jeremiah 31 for understanding.

shalom b'SHEM Yah'shua HaMashiach Adonai
9 posted on 12/01/2008 10:02:38 AM PST by Uriel-2012 (Psalm 78:35 And they remembered that God was their ROCK, And the Most High God their Redeemer.)
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To: XeniaSt
"How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7."

Another Advocate: Jesus is the first advocate (paraclete); see 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is an advocate in the sense of intercessor in heaven. The Greek term derives from legal terminology for an advocate or defense attorney, and can mean spokesman, mediator, intercessor, comforter, consoler, although no one of these terms encompasses the meaning in John. The Paraclete in John is a teacher, a witness to Jesus, and a prosecutor of the world, who represents the continued presence on earth of the Jesus who has returned to the Father.

As a Catholic I accept the Pope as my current Advocate. Knowing the history of the written Word I accept his better understanding of its origins and meanings than that of the laity who have limited knowledge, understanding, resources and Spiritual assistance.

10 posted on 12/01/2008 10:17:02 AM PST by Natural Law
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To: XeniaSt
Yes; Yah'shua spoke these verses to Messianic Jews as to who would teach all things.

See Jeremiah 31 for understanding.

Please explain why you reference Jer. 31 to explain those New Testament verses spoken to the Apostles.

11 posted on 12/01/2008 11:18:22 AM PST by Truth Defender (Christ did NOT come to save an immortal sinner, but to give a mortal sinner the offer of immortality)
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To: Truth Defender
XS>Yes; Yah'shua spoke these verses to Messianic Jews as to who would teach all things.

See Jeremiah 31 for understanding.

Please explain why you reference Jer. 31 to explain those New Testament verses spoken to the Apostles.

Because Jeremiah 31 describes the New Covenant of YHvH
of which Yah'shua speaks.
shalom b'SHEM Yah'shua HaMashiach Adonai
12 posted on 12/01/2008 11:34:26 AM PST by Uriel-2012 (Psalm 78:35 And they remembered that God was their ROCK, And the Most High God their Redeemer.)
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To: Natural Law
"How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7."

Another Advocate: Jesus is the first advocate (paraclete); see 1 John 2:1, where Jesus is an advocate in the sense of intercessor in heaven. The Greek term derives from legal terminology for an advocate or defense attorney, and can mean spokesman, mediator, intercessor, comforter, consoler, although no one of these terms encompasses the meaning in John. The Paraclete in John is a teacher, a witness to Jesus, and a prosecutor of the world, who represents the continued presence on earth of the Jesus who has returned to the Father.

First of all, I Jn. 2:1 speaks of Jesus as being our "advocate" with the Father. In this Jesus is the one who speaks in our "defense" to the Father - sort of like a defense attorney. You are correct that it is a "legal" term. However, John 14:16, 26, 15:26 and 16:7 speak of it as a "comforter" or "counselor" rather than as an attorney. This "comforter" is the Spirit Jesus promised to them at Pentecost, who is to recall to their mind all things that Jesus taught them, not as a "teacher". This is the "Holy Spirit" spoken of in the Bible. That is my take on those verses, in context.

As a Catholic I accept the Pope as my current Advocate.

Hmmm...What's wrong with having Jesus as your Advocate to the Father that you have to have a mere mortal man as your Advocate?

Knowing the history of the written Word I accept his better understanding of its origins and meanings than that of the laity who have limited knowledge, understanding, resources and Spiritual assistance.

If you know the history of the written Word, why do you say that you have to have someone else to turn to? Or is it that you actually don't really understand the history you say you know? I agree with you that the laity have very limited knowledge and understanding of the Word. But they do have the resources available if they would simply look around and study those resources - and pray a lot for some spiritual assistance, for God has promised that if they have the Spirit of Christ in them they will have the best of assistance. However, again, I find the laity of most churches too lazy to do any study on their own. And as to whose fault that is, well, leadership comes to mind.

13 posted on 12/01/2008 11:50:52 AM PST by Truth Defender (Christ did NOT come to save an immortal sinner, but to give a mortal sinner the offer of immortality)
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To: Salvation
YOPIOS = Your Own Personal Interpretation Of Scripture.

Ridiculous LOL !!! The Scriptures are already interpreted for us in our own language. Our job is to study and understand what it says. This is where the controversy comes in - what is said is understood in so many ways that mass confusion reigns among the churches. And there is a way that this confusion can be overcome. And what, in your mind, do you think that WAY could be?

14 posted on 12/01/2008 11:58:26 AM PST by Truth Defender (Christ did NOT come to save an immortal sinner, but to give a mortal sinner the offer of immortality)
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To: All
How do you read: John 14:16 & 26; 15:26; 16:7.

Instructions to the Apostles, fathers of the Catholic Church.

15 posted on 12/01/2008 11:59:04 AM PST by Petronski (For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden. -- Cdl. Stafford)
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To: Truth Defender

Translation is not interpretation.

If it were, every lottery winner would be a Christian.


16 posted on 12/01/2008 12:17:49 PM PST by papertyger
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To: papertyger
Translation is not interpretation.

Prove it!

17 posted on 12/01/2008 12:28:23 PM PST by Truth Defender (Christ did NOT come to save an immortal sinner, but to give a mortal sinner the offer of immortality)
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To: papertyger
Translation is not interpretation.

Spoken like an expert. Have you done any?

18 posted on 12/01/2008 12:33:18 PM PST by Revolting cat! (Everytime they open their mouth they shoot themselves in the foot.)
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To: Truth Defender

Judge for yourself:

Is it reasonable to debate a man who upon hearing why I defer to the Pope, asks why I defer to the Pope?


19 posted on 12/01/2008 12:34:25 PM PST by papertyger
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To: Truth Defender

I don’t have to “prove” the difference of those things which are different “by definition.”


20 posted on 12/01/2008 12:37:48 PM PST by papertyger
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