When I was on an assessment committee at CSB-SJU, we were very interested in evaluating how effective the first theology course was at shaping students’ ability to read the Bible critically and theologically. When I say critically, I mean that we were teaching students to rely on contemporary Biblical scholarship and think about the Bible as a text with a history, and when I say theologically, I mean that we were teaching students how the Bible speaks truth and has meaning for the contemporary world.
There’s a tension between these two attitudes, in that learning about the Bible’s history can get it stuck in the past, unmoored from today’s problems and perspectives. Many students come in expecting (and maybe wanting) the Bible to be a straightforward rulebook, giving the timeless dos and don’ts for those who want to get to heaven. When they discover its literary diversity, its historical roots, and its sheer puzzlement, they are often as bewildered as St Augustine before them (Confessions 3.5). At least they are in good company!
Sure enough, in the assessment process, we consistently found that the class was pretty effective at training students to read critically, but far less effective in training them to read theologically. It’s simply a harder thing to learn!
This semester I was teaching the first theology to two wonderful seminars at Notre Dame. We went bumpety-bump-bump through an incomplete but helpful set of tools for reading scripture critically, and managed a rough-and-ready historical overview that allowed them to at least place texts on a timeline and have a sense of what was happening at the same time. I wanted to transition to thinking about how these texts-with-a-history could support theological ways of thinking so that we could see that process in the New Testament’s use of Hebrew Scriptures. At the same time, it was the week before the mid-semester, and almost all my students were in their first semester of college and drooping.
I had structured the Old Testament unit to include at least all the texts read at the Easter Vigil, so I decided to spend one class period (October 14) doing a vastly out-of-season reading of the Easter Vigil Liturgy of the Word. Students took turns proclaiming aloud in a dark, still chapel the readings and responses. We had just time to read all the texts, and then I released them, wondering if I had accomplished anything more than a moment of quiet in a hectic week – itself a noteworthy outcome!
For that Thursday’s freewrite I asked them about the experience. There were a few savvy responses that called attention to the usual disadvantages of doing liturgy with a less-trained group; for example, one student suggested that there should be some time between the readings and another pointed out that the unison responses without music were too monotone. Even more interesting was the general consensus, further shaped by the following day’s discussion, that hearing the words proclaimed in a (quasi-) liturgical environment had indeed helped them transition from a critical (informative) to a post-critical (theological) understanding of the texts. I’ll conclude with two of my favorite articulations of this position from two members of the class. Zoe Kern, class of 2018, said:
Starting with Genesis, reading the creation story out loud made me think of how it would have been passed on orally before it was written. It definitely had a more story-telling like quality when it was read out loud vs read silently. Learning the different ways to read the bible (knowing that it’s not historically accurate), changed the way I perceived Genesis. Instead of being disproved logic, it is looking at truth and the power of God in a different, symbolic way. Reading it out loud in a chapel really made me think about the original intention of the person who told the story.
All the Psalms had an especially more powerful effect when read out loud. Responding with one line emphasized the importance of those line[s], such as “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me” and “You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.” Knowing that the Psalms were written to be said out loud, reading them like this was closer to the intention of the author.
Paula Hastings, class of 2018, reflected:
Even throughout this class when we have been studying and critiquing the stories, they still seem separate in my mind from the stories I hear in mass. Reading these in a chapel, but still in the class was like a blend of the two worlds for me. It blended the word of my faith and the world of my education. I didn’t realize that these two were very separate until I was sitting there in the chapel and using the education in order to further my faith. I could listen to these stories and use the techniques we learned in class, but since it was in a worship format I felt more faithful. Sometimes I feel like I know these stories inside and out, but the experience in the chapel felt like I was hearing them anew. For example, the story of Abraham and Isaac was always one that I was confused by in my faith life. When I studied it theologically, I always rationalized it and found the meaning in a logical way. For some reason though, when I heard the story in a faith setting, I was confused by it again for what it meant in my faith life. In the chapel, I heard it again and was more able to blend the logical theology and the faithfulness that I could receive from the story. It struck me how Abraham was willing to give up his son just as God gave up his son, and it made it more real for me the sacrifice that God did for us. I felt an even more overwhelming sense of God’s love that I could only have seen through postcritical naiveté.
Knowing that we read the Bible liturgically is one thing, but it’s another to demonstrate how to read the Bible liturgically to students who have not thought this way before. I think this was helpful because it wasn’t simply using the liturgical texts or structure to “explain” what liturgy means, but using a (quasi-) liturgical experience to form them in scriptural listening. Anyone else have some good experiences to share?