Friday, September 16, 2011

Brainstorming for Biblical Literacy

A few weeks ago America Magazine, where I used to work, published an article about biblical literacy in the Catholic Church. The general thrust of the article is something I think most of us have heard many times: Catholics don't know the Bible.  Maybe they read it (maybe they don't), but even if they do, they don't really understand what it is that they're reading -- what it is, how different books were intended, their context and subtext.

Reading the piece, I wondered what can we do to improve this situation. The article itself turns to the obvious scapegoats/solutions -- overwhelmed/uninformed priests who need to preach better, and weak catechists who need a fuller handle on their material. 

The thing is, we've heard these solutions a thousand times and don't seem to be changing the situation terribly, whether because no one's actually doing the hard yards to change their preaching/catechizing or because it's not the right diagnosis. 

And personally, as much as I agree wholeheartedly that our Church needs to work on its preaching, and in fact would love to go from parish to parish helping priests evaluate their own preaching, I'm not sure the preaching issue is necessarily about a lack of scriptural explanation, as much as it is about whether or not the presider is actually using his homily to help invite people into new insight and an experience of God. These are not mutually exclusive, by any means, but they're not always connected, either. I've heard great, important homilies borne out of just a word or phrase from scripture. And I've heard (okay, I've given) some dreadful ones that were filled with biblical hey-didja-know's. 

All of which is to say, maybe we overestimate the place of an 10 minute homily in solving the issue of biblical literacy. Maybe we have to think much more broadly. What if we tried to figure out ways to put the Bible at the center of everything we do in a parish? When we have meetings, let's begin not only with prayer but with a brief breaking open of scripture, or some sort of relevant contextualized insight. With members of our parish council and its committees, with parish ministers of all kinds, let's have days devoted to biblical education - the parish equivalent of lawyers going to conferences to continue their certification.

Currently, many places are beginning to have bible study, book clubs and other forms of adult education. But let's also have its leaders come and give little reflections after communion to interest congregations, and have its groups put together some sort of presentation, day of reflection or show for the parish after they've finished a given book from scripture. Let's take advantage of our high holy days and sacramental celebrations like baptisms or weddings, where we get a lot of people that don't come to Church that often, to slide in some interesting and inviting scriptural insights. And yes, let's have some regular homilies that are grounded in proper understanding of scripture, and others where the presider leads the congregation in a discussion of an important biblical theme or idea.

Those are just my ideas.  If we really want a thousand flowers to bloom, why don't we have a committee of the parish dedicated to this issue of bringing scripture into every element of the parish's life, and see what it comes up with? Many brains means many ideas, and that's what we need. 

I'd love to hear your ideas. And if this little brainstorm of mine resonates for you, please, pass it along to your friends or parishioners. Maybe it can help trigger something useful for us all. 


Anonymous said...

"...maybe we overestimate the place of an 10 minute homily..."

Maybe we also overestimate the approrpiate length of a homily. In a half-century of Catholic life, I can count on two or three fingers the number of homilies of such insight or clarity that they were worth 10 minutes. Cut it to five minutes, which will require that the presider/homilist figures out what his point is and makes it... rather than free-thinking for 10 minutes as seems to be so common. It has reached the point that I read weekly reflections online (Foley & Kavanaugh among them, along with various Episcopal or Lutheran sites) in search of some nourishment in a homily. What we get in the pews is to spiritual growth what Cheetos are to healthful living. This is a serious problem in the Catholic Church.

Michelle said...

The parish bulletin? I've seen some (not mine!) where the middle section is a collection of articles, including reflections on scripture and some guided "lectio" of the scriptures for the week...

(Example here:

Wotnop Dahc said...

I really think there is a simple solution. Let’s get bibles in the pews. Let parishioners look up the readings themselves!

Sadly, I think the missalette is as close to the bible as most Catholics get, myself included. In college I dated a Lutheran gal so I attended many Lutheran masses. The one thing I really liked about those masses was the fact they had the bibles in the pews. I found myself not only reading the verses that were in the designated reading, but other passages before and after the reading. I think this would help foster the desire to participate in bible study groups and to build their faith…

Anonymous said...

Wotnop makes a great point. Likewise, let people actually READ the words as they are proclaimed. (A gentleman walked into our church a few weeks ago carrying a bible. We knew right away that he was not only a visitor, but a visitor of a different denomination or faith tradition... certainly not Catholic! Funny, but then again not...)

The more senses we engage as we learn, the better we learn. It befuddles me why so many "liturgy directors" dictate that people MAY NOT read along as the passages are proclaimed at Mass. At our parish, the liturgy dictator went so far as to refuse to list the locations of the readings in the missal -- and now wants to remove the combined missal-hymnal from the pews altogether to just give us hymnals. Unfortunately, she is not alone, as we've seen this at other parishes. How do you expect people to engage the Word when you won't even let them see it during Mass?

Great suggestion, Wotnop. Likewise, the bulletin could include a note for related readings for the week (the footnotes in our bible refer to other passages that have similar points. I LOVE those.)

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...

Anonymous, about your Cheetos analogy, let me just say -- wow. That's quite an analysis. Love it.
And thanks for the comment about length, too. I actually thought you were going to say, when was the last time you heard a priest stop at 10 minutes? It's a huge issue. But pushing it shorter -- that's a great challenge. Thanks for that!

Jim McDermott, S.J. said...

Michelle and Anonymous, the bulletin -- great idea. A pithy little piece each week could do a ton of good. Nice thinking.

And Anonymous and Wontop, that's interesting about having Bibles in the pews. My gut reaction was, oh god, then no one will pay attention, they'll just start reading. But as you explain it, Wotnop, it makes perfect sense to me. So often a big problem is that the congregation gets these tiny pieces of readings and they get absolutely none of the context.

It's funny, my dad has had some battles over the issue of reading along with the readings as they're being read. I think at one point when a new pastor had decided to get rid of the missals my dad kept one so that he could continue to read along. And eventually the pastor or his liturgists changed their minds.

I understand the desire to have people pay attention, which is I think the fear behind liturgists' reactions against missals with readings. But as someone recently reminded me, the best education occurs when people receive information in multiple ways at the same time. Which is to say, for a lot of people if they read as they listen, it's more likely to sink in.

rustyrusticator said...

I don't know if things have changed in grade school catechesis, but when I was a kid (lo, these many years ago,) we heard Bible stories, but memorized the Baltimore Catechism. Hopefully, Catholic children are introduced to the scriptural basis of the fundamentals of our faith with actual Bibles in hand nowadays. It seems to me that starting the reading and study of the Word of God is something that needs to happen much earlier in life than was previously thought.

Naturally, we need to learn about all of the basics of our faith, such as liturgy and sacraments, but wouldn't it be great if the average Catholic could, when confronted with a non Catholic who questions the Biblical basis for a sacrament or a Catholic tradition, could cite chapter and verse?

After realizing that my familiarity with the Bible was sadly deficient to that of some Protestant friends, I committed to sit down and read Scripture, if not every day, at least several times a week, and to read a reference in context, consult the footnotes and end notes, but I suspect that most people don't do this.