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Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

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Tag: Biblical literacy

The Greatest Book Ever Written!

bergsma bible basics for catholics

I am very big on the importance of reading things in their proper context, as you can see in my Four-Step Reading Method for reading with understanding. Earlier today, I was reading this article by Thomas P. Harmon on Catholic World Report, a review of John Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History
. I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like a good one, chiefly because it presents the Bible the way it has traditionally been read – i.e., the entire Bible is about Christ. This is the way the first Christians understood Hebrew Scripture (the Old Testament) and it is obviously true of the New Testament.

Much of the exuberance of the early Christians stemmed from the extraordinary realization that the Scriptures had been fulfilled within their lifetimes and in their sight (one is tempted to say, right under their noses). Their exuberance is present in Peter’s speech to the crowds on Pentecost, when he points out Christ’s fulfillment of the promises given to David with a chain of references to the Prophet Joel and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36); it’s also present in Paul’s speech in the Synagogue in Antioch, where Paul shows that Christ is the fulfillment of God’s dealings with Israel from Moses to David (Acts 13:13-41). Christ’s words in Matthew 13:17 nicely capture the bewilderment of the early Christians that so many of their fellows remained unmoved: “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

The message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures was the bedrock of the early Christian mission to the Jews and the source of much of their energy. That exuberance has continued to be vital force in the Church ever since. But the message that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures has been obscured in recent years. …

I’ll get to why this message has been obscured in a minute. The important point here is that the Bible is one unified book, not simply a random collection of sacred writings. Like a novel, it has a plot with a beginning, a middle, and an end; unlike a novel, the story it tells is true, although not every “chapter” (book of the Bible) is factual. (More about that in a later post.) If we think of the Bible this way, we can see that reading a single chapter, out of the context of the whole, makes no more sense than reading just one chapter of a novel – we can’t really understand it, except as part of the whole.

By the way, we shouldn’t be led astray when we speak of “books” of the Bible. Before the invention of the codex (a book of individual leaves or pages, bound together within a rigid cover), written works meant to be preserved were inscribed on scrolls, each scroll being called a “book.” Lengthy works spanned several scrolls, or many “books.” Since the codex format allows entire works to be published in a single unit, we have come to think of a “book” as a complete work. But the ancient “book” was the equivalent of “chapter” in our modern parlance. (See my earlier discussion of the revolutionary advent of the codex.) Therefore, my suggesting that each “book” is like the chapter of a novel makes more sense than you might first think. Modern editions of ancient works still call the “chapter” divisions “books” (St Augustine’s Confessions, for instance).

icon christ creating
In the beginning:
Christ creates the animals
ghent altarpiece adoration of the lamb
End of the story: Christ triumphant

To give this analogy of the Bible and the novel, consider, too, that Christians regard the Bible as having one Divine Author, who used individual humans as His ghostwriters. Each writer (Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, etc.) wrote in his own chosen style, but wrote what the Author wanted to convey. (Plenty of successful novelists, who have contracts that require lots of new titles in rapid succession, create plot outlines and then entrust them to ghost writers.) So the Bible is the book, God is the author, the prophets, evangelists, etc. are the ghost writers. What is the story? It’s the story of the salvation of Mankind and all Creation, starting at the beginning (Genesis) and ending with the triumphant wrapping up of beginning to end (Genesis to Revelation). Some bad stuff happens along the way, but the Hero wins out and vanquishes the Foe, and the story has a happy ending. God the Son is the Word with which the story is told, as well as the Hero of the story. We are the readers being instructed and delighted by the story, but we are also characters acting it out.

These days, lots of people learn about the Bible in Bible Study groups – but how many of those present the Bible in the way I have just described? Very few. And yet, this is the way Christians have always understood the Bible – at least until the modern age, when modern Biblical scholarship began notice that the forest was made up of lots of different species of tree, i.e., to take into account different rhetorical contexts, genres, and styles of the individual chapters (this is called the historico-critical method). We began to think of them as separate “books” in the modern sense of being complete, discrete works. This is a problem that Harmon points out in his review:

The underlying assumption of most historical-critical scholarship is that, not only can we not rely on the divine inspiration of Scripture to provide unity to the Bible, but even the individual books and parts of individual books are the result of random, subrational processes. We cannot, therefore, find unity in the books of the Bible even on the human level. The result is that, when the unity of the Bible is denied, so also is its intelligibility. It is no wonder so many contemporary people find Christianity unbelievable when a large percentage of those who spend their lives studying the Bible think that it is unintelligible.

This is a problem that recedes from view when we return to the understanding that God is the author, that the Bible, although its individual chapters were produced by different ghost writers and composed in many different styles and genres, nonetheless follows the Author’s master plot. It is crucial that we know and remember this. Here’s Harmon again:

Without an appreciation of the intelligibility and unity of the Bible, history appears random and God’s salvation of men seems unlikely, uncertain, or impossible. The theme of fulfillment of the Scriptures is especially important now, during the Year of Faith and as the Synod on the New Evangelization in Rome is just completed.

mark shea making senses out of scripture

If you’ve decided to devote more time and attention to reading and studying the Bible in this Year of Faith, you might try Bergsma’s Bible Basics for Catholics: A New Picture of Salvation History, which follows the theme of successive covenants throughout salvation history. Another good book that helps the reader understand the Bible in the traditional way, to see it whole, is Mark Shea’s Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did
. Read well, and prosper!

Hidden in Plain Sight: Biblical (il)literacy and the modern reader

The Gospel readings that the Church’s lectionary provides at this green time of the year are full of parables, which may be one reason that I’ve had parables on the brain late. Mark Shea’s recent feature article in Crisis Magazine, “The Parable of the Dishonest Steward,” is a good exploration of why Christ so often taught in parables and, also, why he had to explain them, even though on the face of it they are quite simple. As Shea points out, what’s obvious to a Christian may not be obvious to others, who have not “eyes to see nor ears to hear”; these only faith can provide. This brings me to another reason I’ve been thinking about the uses of parables as teaching tools.

A short story informed by faith

U. S. postage stamp commemorating Katherine Anne Porter

Short-story writer Porter was a convert to the Catholic faith.

In the literature class I’m currently teaching  (an introductory course that teaches the basics of literary interpretation), we’ve been studying short stories and how they work, reading selections that provide good illustrations of the various techniques we’re discussing (plot, setting, point of view, character, etc.). Most recently, we’ve been examining Katherine Anne Porter’s frequently-anthologized story, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” a real literary gem.

I don’t know much about Porter, other than the fact that she was a native Texan (at one time writing for a Fort Worth journal) and a convert to Catholicism (although during a long period of her life she was apparently disaffected from religion in general), nor have I read a lot of her work, but “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” makes me want to read more.

The Jilting of Granny Weatherall

The story is simple on the face of it, yet has hidden depths. It is told in a third person, limited omniscient voice, which means that the voice telling the story does not belong to any of the characters in the story, and it allows us to know things that an ordinary objective observer could not know — in this case, the reader hears the rambling thoughts of elderly, dying Granny Weatherall during the last hours of her life. This is an interesting and tricky choice. Since as events come to us filtered through the old woman’s groggy, feeble, and wandering consciousness, the reader has a bit of a job to figure out what, objectively, is happening in Granny’s sick room. This is what I mean by its being tricky: Granny’s idea of what is happening to, and around, her is not always accurate, but an incautious reader is liable to overlook this fact. Porter’s authorial intention goes beyond the objective level of physical reality and the subjective level of Granny’s mental meanderings, to the moral level of Granny’s spiritual state, something which even Granny herself seems determined to ignore, and which many readers will miss altogether.

Kruseman's The Wise and Foolish Virgins

The parable of the wise & foolish virgins refers to the Day of Judgment.

This is really one of the things that interests me about the story. In fact, this moral level of significance, in which the author is explores and comments on Granny’s spiritual condition, is the real focus of the story, but many readers will fail to realize this. This is because Porter hints at her real purpose by use of Biblical motifs taken from Christ’s parables about death and judgment. At first, these allusions seem simply details of Granny’s wandering memories — lights and lanterns, for example —  but the cumulative effect is to make a savvy reader gradually aware that the omniscient narrator is trying to make a point, which the reader should get, even if Granny does not. The insistence of these parabolic images grows in intensity until their presence finally bursts into plain view in the final paragraph or two of the story. In the end, they are hard to overlook, at least for anyone equipped to recognize them at all. But to miss them is to miss the meaning of the story, whose central theme is Granny’s spiritual unreadiness to meet her death.

The Biblical illiteracy of modern readers

It’s a great pity that many modern readers these days are utterly incapable of recognizing these Scriptural allusions at all. When the story was published in 1930, Porter had a reasonable expectation that many, if not most, of her readers would be familiar with the stories of the Bible, particularly the parables of Christ in the Gospels.

For centuries, literary authors had been able to make allusion to the Bible to illuminate their own works of fiction. (I wrote my doctoral dissertation on one such writer, twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes, who first popularized stories about the knights of King Arthur.) But, alas, the great stories of the Bible are no longer part of the warp and woof of Western culture, and otherwise literate Americans who read this story today may easily miss the point Porter is trying to make. In other words, Katherine Anne Porter’s short story, like Biblical parables, can be understood only by those who have “eyes to see, ears to hear.”

It’s distressing to realize that even those who teach students to read literature are unable to see what Porter is getting at in this story. For instance, a casual cruise of the internet on the subject of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” will discover not only the predictably awful essays and summaries written by and for students, but also offerings by “professionals” which entirely deliberately ignore or unwittingly miss the ample allusions that point to the real heart of the matter in “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” (I even found this academic essay by a certain Barbara Laman of the University of Miami, which misses the point rather spectacularly, thanks to the peculiar kind of mental astigmatism created by a “feminist” perspective).

Without knowledge of the Bible, we remain culturally illiterate

Here’s why the sad effects of Biblical illiteracy in the general culture should concern anyone with an ounce of cultural sensibility: many of our great works of literature are now largely incomprehensible even to “sophisticated” and highly-educated readers, simply because these works rely on allusions to a thesaurus of meaning that has now been banished to the cultural outhouse. The Bible has been banned in the public sphere, and its cultural influence is ignored or denied.

In the case of “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” failure to recognize Biblical allusions or their significance will force an otherwise-astute reader to arrive at exactly the wrong idea of what this story is about. How many other, even greater, cultural treasures are, in effect, being distorted and defaced by this cultural blind spot? Loss of familiarity with the great stories of the Bible produces a great loss not only for those who are at least nominally Christian, but for our culture as a whole. This is an argument that has been made with greater force and eloquence by others than I have done here, but it is one that was borne in upon me with renewed force this week as my students and I have been analyzing this widely-read work by one of America’s great short story writers.

©2010 Lisa A. Nicholas, updated 2017

Lectio Divina: The Ancient Christian Art of Spiritual Reading

Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book

Often, when teaching college undergraduates, I have found that my students are hiding a guilty secret: they don’t really know how to read. Now that doesn’t mean that, if I were to give them a book or newspaper and asked them to read a particular sentence they would be stymied. No, they would be able to make out all the words, and even comprehend entire sentences or paragraphs, so they are not “illiterate” in the most basic sense. But many of them don’t know how to make sense of what they read: to be able to discern the most important ideas in what they read, and see how the ideas fit together; to put these ideas into context with other assigned readings (to see connections or contradictions); to assess or apply the significance of what they have read, once they understand it; to judge the value of what they have read, taking into account its merits and deficits; and other tasks that allow them to get some value out of what they have read. Once I discovered how universal this “guilty secret” was, I worked out a 4-point reading method (distilled and adapted from Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book) that I required them to apply to each assigned reading — a method that students found very profitable, and easily adaptable to reading for other classes or purposes, as well.

I happen to know that many Christians (and perhaps Catholics in particular) have a similar “dirty secret,” only this one has to do with reading the Bible: they know they should be reading the Bible, they want to, but they just don’t know where to begin or how to go about it. Most feel that they should have some plan or program to follow, so they wait for a Bible study class to be announced in their parish, hoping that the right curriculum, the right teacher, the right set of videos will give them what they need, and in the meantime they just … feel guilty. Now, I would never belittle the value of group study or a knowledgeable instructor, but it so happens that there is one quite excellent, very ancient and adaptable method of Bible reading that has been practiced profitably in the Church for millennia, which is both simple and profound, requiring no teacher, curriculum, or grand plan. Like the reading method I devised for my college students, this one has four steps, but unlike that method it requires no real intellectual effort; it is accessible to any Christian, requires very little practice to master, and can pay bountiful benefits. You don’t need anyone or anything besides a Bible to use this method, either.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalene Reading
Rogier van der Weyden,
The Magdalene Reading

The ancient method to which I refer is called lectio divina, “divine reading.” Most Catholics have heard of it, but may think of it as something for monks or saints, not ordinary believers. This is a mistake, for several reasons. First, it requires very little time carved out of an ordinary day to profit from this method, and uses only very short Bible passages for meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Second, the method requires only prayerful attention, not great erudition or sanctity. (If practiced regularly, however, it certainly can help the practitioner grow in holiness.) And then, this method does not require you to work your way through the whole Bible, or to read scholarly commentary or take copious notes. On the contrary, it concentrates on short passages and simply requires prayerful attention. Once one becomes familiar with the method, can become quite a natural way to respond to Scripture whenever you encounter it (in the liturgy or elsewhere). In other words, lectio divina is suitable for anyone and accessible to everyone.

I’m not the person to give detailed instruction in how to practice lectio divina — this is done much better by others than I could do. For instance, here is a nice introduction to the method by a Benedictine monk, along with some discussion about how to adapt the practice to groups. An even simpler explanation recently was given by a Brazilian bishop who wanted to introduce lectio divina to the faithful of his diocese. I’ll quote most of it here, since it’s short. You can read the rest at Zenit.org. In square brackets, I put the traditional Latin term for each of the four steps.

[Lectio] First, one reads the passage. “In this first instance, one attempts to understand the text exactly as it appears, without pretending to extract from it immediately messages and conclusions,” he said.

[Meditatio] Meditation on the text comes next, in response to the question “What is God saying to me, or to us, through this text? Now we really do try to listen to God who is speaking to us and we receive his voice.”

[Oratio] Then comes “prayer. In this third step, we respond to the question: What does this text bring me to say to God?”

“Let us always remember that a good biblical reading is always done only in the dialogue of faith: God speaks, we listen and accept, and respond to God and speak to him,” the cardinal explained. The text “might inspire several types of prayer: praise, profession of faith, thanksgiving, adoration, petition for forgiveness and help.”

[Contemplatio] The fourth and final step of lectio divina is contemplation. In this step “we dwell on the Word and further our understanding of the mystery of God and his plan of love and salvation; at the same time, we dispose ourselves to accept in our concrete lives what the Word teaches us, renewing our good intentions and obedience of the faith.”

By the way, Pope Benedict very frequently recommends this method to all and sundry, and frequently uses it as the basis of many of his weekly public addresses.

If anyone should still hesitate, asking, “Where do I begin?” I would like to suggest that he begin with one of the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the daily Mass, or from the propers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the breviary or the Daily Office). Here is the daily Mass lectionary, on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This link will take you to Universalis.com, a very nice website that provides the daily propers for each of the daily offices. Many non-Catholics have the mistaken notion that the Catholic Church does not place much emphasis on the authority of the Bible or promote Scripture reading, but Catholics should know that is just not true: not only is the Catholic liturgy is a densely-woven tissue of Scripture references, but each day the lectionary for the Mass presents three (and on Sundays four) substantial passages from the Bible for the faithful to meditate on. Lectio divina provides a way to use the daily liturgical readings for personal devotional meditation.

Carmelite monk reading
Carmelite monk reading

Having said all this, since this is a blog about reading (not about why you should read), I will leave it to my reader to decide whether or not to try this method of spiritual reading. I will suggest, however, that since lectio divina is a practice that turns reading into prayer, then to ask the question, “Why should I practice lectio divina?” is pretty much the same as asking, “Why should I pray?” I hope you already have a good answer to that! If praying is something you already do, and would like to do better, you should try lectio divina.

Now, off you go! Happy reading (& meditating,  praying, and contemplating)!