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A Literate Church:
The state of Catholic Bible study today

By David Gibson

DEC. 5, 2008 (  -  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.”

David Gibson is a freelance religion journalist and author ofThe Coming Catholic Church and The Rule of Benedict.

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