Teaching the Bible with liturgy

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?


  1. On the one hand, I’m impressed by the solution.

    On the other hand, how is it we have come to this being such a problem in the way we go about both liturgy and theological education?

    Why does it have to be essentially a given that first-year critical reading of the Bible becomes so disconnected from faith?

    And where are these people coming from you expect the Bible to be “a straightforward rulebook, giving the timeless dos and don’ts for those who want to get to heaven”?

    It seems to me that we (as a culture, as a church) have done something drastically wrong (in our liturgies, in our parish educational programming) if people interested enough in theology and religion to pursue it academically show up with no serious connection between reading the Bible critically and reading the Bible faithfully/theologically.

  2. Good points all around, Adam. On one hand, the first theology course is a requirement at Notre Dame, so these students aren’t necessarily interested enough to pursue it academically. On the other hand, many of them are, in fact, very serious about their Christian identity, and still have this disconnect (they’re actually more likely to fear that a critical reading will impede a theological one).

    My sense, after teaching this course for a few years, is that we’ve so conditioned students to sift historical and scientific truth in our late-modern academic enterprise that we’ve made it difficult for them to recognize any other truth. They recognize two kinds of truth the Bible could tell: reliable history/science, and moral rule. Most of them have given up on the first, so they lean hard on the second.

    There are exceptions. And I find that having been introduced to a third mode of reading, most of them pursue it gladly, so this is not all bad news.

    I should add that some social science suggests that this “second naievete” depends on a certain level of psychological development, so it’s possible, at least for some students, that they are not prepared to connect critical and theological perspectives until a certain age. I set this last because I’m not totally convinced of this being a cause (I expect these cultural factors are relevant to the experiments being run), but it is a theory.

    1. @Kimberly Hope Belcher – comment #2:

      >>we’ve so conditioned students to sift historical and scientific truth in our late-modern academic enterprise that we’ve made it difficult for them to recognize any other truth. They recognize two kinds of truth the Bible could tell: reliable history/science, and moral rule. Most of them have given up on the first, so they lean hard on the second.

      I think you really nail it here.

      Also, I think even Catholic religiosity has been infected with a sort of weird mix of Protestantisms: Enlightenment Liberal and Revivalist Fundamentalism. That is the root of looking to the Bible as either a source of historical fact or moral rule. It is (it seems to me) rather a liturgical text before it is any of these things, so if we barely understand liturgy, I think we can barely understand Scripture.

      Diving back into a (quasi or for-real) liturgical environment is definitely the path back into mystery, and it makes me wonder if maybe our Sunday mornings are too brightly lit, too reasonable, too educational (too Protestant). Darkness and candlelight have a way of calling our souls into contemplation.

      The choice of the Easter Vigil readings was genius, also.

  3. I pondered many of the same challenges this past semester, teaching “Intro to the New Testament” at an undergraduate level, but for undergrads with a median age of 53, all current or future lay ministers or deacons.

    Most (all?) of the Scripture courses I’d taken had been thoroughly historical-critical in outlook, with a very small starting section that covered Dei Verbum as a basic guide to how the Church understands a theology of Scripture. Perusing where to start for this course, I made Verbum Domini our opening text, since it incorporated most of the key quotes from Dei Verbum, plus a lot of further reflection and thoughts on application. I was tremendously (in a good way) personally/spiritually challenged by the high and comprehensive level of integration of Scripture and liturgy that are called for in Verbum Domini–I mean on a practical level, yes–it’s obvious…but to truly embody it? Much harder.

    With Verbum Domini as inspiration, I did the usual covering of the historical-critical ways of reading major NT texts–and hopefully in a way that the students have the tools to apply to the rest of the NT when ministry requires it…but took the freedom to use more time, kind of how you did, experimenting with Scriptural prayer (lectio divina, visio divina, etc.), attending a daily Mass, having students do exegesis for preaching, etc. Never enough time to do everything I would have liked…but I do hope in some small way the essential integration came through.

    On a side note, contrary to what a few others have experienced, teaching more mature/ministry students…the theological readings came much easier to them! Adopting historical-critical methods required more “selling” and coaching on my part.

    Thanks for raising this important topic…I do think that those who teach can model and experiment with various ways to bring together the “sub-fields” of theology that so often have become unfortunately divided in academia and in the minds of students.

  4. I’m a bit uncomfortable with dividing things neatly between historical and theological study. The historical-critical method is hardly devoid of theology; it’s packed with theology. Read Raymond Brown or John Meier or Joseph Fitzmeyer or any of the biblical critics who use historical-critical analysis and you find them discussing theological readings of the texts. On the other hand, even devotional readings must at some point address the “what” that historical-critical method attempts to locate, or else they become mere projections onto a text of what we wish it to say.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #5:
      I very much agree, Rita–the challenge that I encountered was facilitating students through this b/c they perceived a difference and/or divide. (And yes, we were even reading Brown, Meier, and Fitzmeyer!). In some sense, trying to undo that perception of divide convincingly was like a a semester-long exploration of what CCC #116 (“The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: ‘All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.’) really means for ministers, for a parish, and in the life of the faithful.

      Your thought, “even devotional readings must at some point address the “what” that historical-critical method attempts to locate, or else they become mere projections onto a text of what we wish it to say” is extremely true–however, I quickly realized that not all students interacted with Scripture in this way…purely spiritual readings devoid of that “location” you mention was the norm for many, they only way of engaging a text they’d ever encountered. But, the wonderful thing was that as we deliberately practiced both the scholarly (aka books/reading) and experiential (prayer, etc.) together, the preconceived notions did break down and many experienced “ah-ha” moments. Witnessing this truly strengthened my experience of seeing the wonderful, divine unity of the Word present in the life of the Church in so many ways.

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