Okay, maybe “no one” is a slight exaggeration. But if the title of this blog can serve as a caricature, perhaps, of a noticeable dynamic in Catholic parish and ministry settings, every caricature contains a kernel of truth (which the caricature then exaggerates). And the truth is this: the crown jewel of the New Evangelization is the dawn of the modern ‘Bible study’—a group of like-minded individuals, or those in similar settings in life, who gather on a weekly or otherwise regular basis to grow in faith together. But the paradox is this: rarely is studying the Bible the main activity of a Bible study. What is happening here?
Perhaps this is due to a general decline of interest in learning, both in religious and secular contexts. The desire to learn is rarely a steady character trait found in individuals today, especially adults. Often it’s the highest degree you earned or that confirmation class back in school that marks the time when the joy of learning came to an end. It’s easy to think we’re constantly learning when the infinite ocean of information rests at our fingertips (“just Google it”). But seldom are we using the internet to learn over and against merely consulting it for timely help. (How often do we end up Googling the same question over and over?)
Especially as ‘learning’ pertains to the Bible, perhaps this paradox is due to the problematic complicating of the Scriptures that has arisen, especially since the dawn of the 16th century. From the Bible’s misuse by the politically powerful, like King Henry VIII; to religious upheavals such as the Protestant Reformation; to social and intellectual revolutions like the Enlightenment; the Bible certainly hasn’t come through it all unscathed. Just consider the title of a recent work from Scott Hahn and Benjamin Wiker, The Decline and Fall of Sacred Scripture: How the Bible Became a Secular Book. From the unfolding of recent centuries, a dynamic has emerged that some are calling a Great Divide—with the faith of the common man on one side, and the elite knowledge of the philosophers and thinkers on the other. Sadly, this ‘great divide’ has persisted to the present day, in which studying the Bible is frequently regarded as an unnecessary obsession of theologians and academics, when all one really needs is to have a relationship with Jesus; no need for that fancy theology.
There is on the one hand a growing disinterest in the idea of ‘learning’, and on the other, an allergy or resistance to the forensic study of the Bible which strips it of all its beauty. And both of these contribute powerfully to the complicated culture of modern Bible study.
Before moving on to the heart of this piece, which you have likely surmised will be an invitation to reconsider the value of studying, allow me a few words of apology. Regarding the latter side of the divide I just described—i.e., the allergy, or resistance to the forensic study of Scripture—I want to clarify that no one should be blamed for feeling this way. Though it is discouraging to acknowledge, the reality is that there are far too many who have contributed mightily to this Great Divide. Dusty textbooks written by lifeless professors, with entirely inaccessible vocabularies have often done this inspired text a great disservice, draining the life out of a task that should be life-giving. If that has been your experience of what it means to ‘study’ the Bible, I am sorry. Let me encourage you that that approach to study is not the only way to go about engaging with God’s Word in a serious-minded manner. In fact, instead of relying on my own words, I would like to develop several considerations from the heart of the Church and her living tradition that beckon us to become familiar with one of the most life-giving tasks we are given: Bible study.
As a start, it is worthwhile to hear what the Bible has to say about itself. Take for instance the words of Isaiah: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever” (Isa 40:8); or of Paul: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17, emphasis added). Surely the Bible does not understand itself to be an object to be dissected by the sciences. Many other verses bear witness to its power, vibrance, and beauty. But our question is about how others have treated these scriptures—from outside the text looking in—and so we must turn our attention to those voices (or at least the ones we ought to be listening to).
Consider one of the earliest figures of the Church, St. Jerome, who famously said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” To set aside our concern for the Bible and all that it contains is to set aside our concern for Jesus and all that is contained in him. If we flip the statement into a more positive one (Jerome was known for being a bit salty), we could say, “To be consumed with the Scriptures is to be consumed with Jesus Christ.” There is no room for a divide here in Jerome’s thought. To pursue the Scriptures on a deeper level is not to leave the realm of prayer and encounter for merely academic pursuits. It is instead to dive into an ocean, where depths are endless and new beauties are discovered.
For all Jerome’s quote is worth, it still doesn’t explicitly address the issue of studying the Bible (though as we’ve noted, the importance of studying is implied). Here, I would like to turn our attention to more modern sources—though not to the prolific pen of John Paul the Great or the heroic mind of Benedict XVI, but instead to the ‘servant Pope’ of our very day, Francis. In his famous encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he treats the theme of praying with Scripture. In doing so, he defines the activity of lectio divina, explaining that “This prayerful reading of the Bible is not something separate from the study…of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life” (§152). He goes on to write:
The study of the sacred Scriptures must be a door opened to every believer. It is essential that the revealed word radically enrich our catechesis and all our efforts to pass on the faith. Evangelization demands familiarity with God’s word, which calls for dioceses, parishes and Catholic associations to provide for a serious, ongoing study of the Bible, while encouraging its prayerful individual and communal reading. (§175)
Notice how indistinguishable the acts of prayer and study are here. Rather than being on opposite sides of some divide, Francis teaches us that they are like two wings of a bird, or two lungs in a body that cooperate toward a common end. The act of Scripture study should not be one that deters you from encountering its Author, but should instead be the way we encounter the love with which the Lover loves us, his beloved. A husband and wife learn each other anew day in and day out—each other’s likes, dislikes, desires, successes, fears, failures, etc. It is in the learning that the love increases. After all, we cannot love what we do not know, and we won’t know unless we’ve learned. And so the study of this sacred page, “breathed out by God,” is most properly understood as the pursuit of knowing the ultimate Lover and being known as his prized beloved.
With this imagery in mind, consider the words of the Second Vatican Council in its constitution on divine revelation, Dei Verbum. Here we read:
For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life. (§21).
In the words of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, an encounter is awaiting every soul who opens its pages and allows its words to penetrate the heart. To be steeped in these words is to be steeped in an encounter with one’s Heavenly Father. It is these words that stand as the “support and energy of the Church,” that strengthen every Christian, feed the hungry soul, and dispense to us the very essence of eternal life. How could becoming more enamored with them ever be a deterrent? If we truly believed these words, I believe none of us would ever be able to raise our noses from out of that sacred book. If these words are true indeed, I want to learn everything I can about them.
Allow me one last time to return to this idea of the modern ‘Bible study’ with all these things in mind. No Bible study will ever be perfect. Pouring over the words of Scripture is a lifelong journey and it will never be mastered this side of heaven. Additionally, Bible studies are always going to be led by humans, and humans are just that, human, and so prone to error. If you find yourself in such a study, take heart and have patience. On the flip side, though, if a group study finds itself skirting around the Bible and its contents, or avoiding it outright, perhaps this is your invitation to boldness. Going around the circle and sharing your highs, lows, and God-moments may be easy, but it is also complacent—and in a dying culture, we no longer have room for complacency. Cracking open the Word and digging into the richness of its contents may sound intimidating, but no adventure is without its own risks. And do not fear that you must go the journey alone. Emmaus is one resource in an ocean of wonderful Catholic resources on Scripture study today. If you need help navigating them, you can always reach out!
Additionally, your Bible study may occasionally need to focus on other things. Some Bible studies of mine in the past have turned more or less into an evening of bourbon study, and I haven’t lost a minute of sleep over that. Perhaps your group takes a short recess for busy seasons in life; maybe you read a book together on a relevant matter. Whatever the case, your group should always flow from and return to that great foundation, which is the Bible. The Father is longing to pour himself into all of his beloved children through the prayerful study of this sacred text—and there are far too many prodigal sons and daughters out there for us not to care. If you are so moved to join us in this effort, I will leave you with one last, very Augustinian, piece of advice: take it and read it.