By Andrew Gai | Contributing Writer

Trs 097, puts too much emphasis on the critical methods and not on the Biblical text itself. (Emmaus’ Door by Janet Brooks-Gerloff)

Trs 097, puts too much emphasis on the critical methods and not on the Biblical text itself. (Emmaus’ Door by Janet Brooks-Gerloff)

As a Theology and Religious Studies (TRS) major and a former TRS tutor, I have encountered many students who have taken the required course: The Bible and its Interpretation, or TRS 097. According to the class description, the course is designed to introduce students to the Bible, a text which “has served as inspiration and catalyst for a great number of central events in human history” and has “had a profound influence on art, literature, philosophy, and politics for over two thousand years.” Unfortunately, all too often I have found that students finish the course disenchanted and suspicious of the biblical text, rather than informed and inspired. I wish to offer a few reasons why this might be the case.

Before I begin, let me be clear about a couple things. First of all, I am not proposing that TRS 097 be removed from the core curriculum. It seems blatantly obvious to me that “an understanding of the Bible is essential for a well-informed perspective on the world.” Secondly, I am not mounting an ad-hominem attack on any or all of the TRS faculty. I know most of them personally and have nothing but respect and admiration for them. In fact, I am indebted to many of the faculty for allowing me to interview them in preparation for this article. Thirdly, I am not arguing that TRS 097 become a means by which to convert or indoctrinate the student body. I believe that the purpose of a TRS course at Saint Mary’s is to invite students to engage with and understand the material. Whether or not we accept the ideas as divinely inspired truth is a struggle that thankfully most faculty are happy to engage with outside of the classroom.

Positively, then, I write this article for two reasons: To enter my pedagogical critique into the faculty discussion, and to challenge my fellow students to do the worthwhile work of engaging with the Bible.

So what is my critique? I believe that the critical methods (i.e. methods of interpretation that grapple with questions outside of the Biblical narrative, covering the various influences [social, historical, political] of the Biblical authors, who these Biblical authors were, and how the text has been revised since its authorship) have often been falsely presented in opposition to the faith-based and normative Catholic interpretation of scripture. Though this move is typically implicit and unintentional, overemphasizing these critical methods has distracted students from engaging with the Bible on its own terms. I do not wish to oversimplify the issue, because I am aware of the nuanced ways which different faculty approach the course, and I know of a few professors that I think avoid these problems quite well. However, the sour fruits of a poorly cultivated Bible class are too atrophying and pervasive to be ignored.

The first stumbling block encountered by students is the perception of the critical methods as contrary to the way Catholics and other thoughtful Christians interpret their Holy Bible. Within the Catholic tradition, the critical methods are embraced as perfectly legitimate ways of discovering true things about the text (Dei Verbum). Often times when students are presented with a claim such as, “The crucifixion accounts do not match chronologically,” they believe that the statement is inherently scandalous to people of faith who laud the text as “inspired” and “infallible.” On the contrary, the Catholic tradition has an extremely nuanced understanding of the terms “inspired” and “infallible.” This is not a naive, “The differences aren’t real” subterfuge, but an intriguing, “The Biblical authors have a different sense of what it means to write a historical narrative than us, and so we have to understand them as bringing out different true things about Christ through their narrative construction” way of reading the text. In other words, I hope that the faculty will take adequate time explaining that the critical methods, used with humility, are not problematic for Catholics. In fact, they are good.

However, while good, the critical methods are not the gospel. Which leads me to the other, and more pervasive problem: overemphasizing the critical methods. Consider the Biblical text as a fine wine. It is meant to be savored, shared with friends, enhance good food, and be rejoiced in. A good wine can provide a transformative experience. The critical methods, on the other hand, are the bits of information that the wine snob delights in sharing with us at a party. Through extensive research and postulations he has developed a theory about what grapes were used from what region of Italy, stomped by whom and sent to ferment at what private location. These interesting facts may very well enhance our experience of the wine, but if we have never been marvelously intoxicated, then we will never know why wine exists in the first place, and why people care so much about it. Similarly, the critical methods can tell us all kinds of interesting extra-Biblical facts, many of which can even shed some light on the text. However, they will never provide what has intoxicated Christians for the past two thousand years: the blood of the lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. Students need not believe in the gospel, but we must engage with it on its own terms, with the demanding theological claims it is trying to propose. We must encounter the Jesus whose life, death, and resurrection fulfills the scriptures, and frees the world from the bondage of sin; even if we do not call him “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Much more than a core curriculum requirement is on the line. We students must become biblically literate if we are to have any significant knowledge of the culture from which most of us have descended. If we do not take this course seriously, not only will our experience of great western art, poetry, and thought be shallow, but we will have missed the opportunity to wrestle with complex and commanding ideas. In a time when so much division is caused by a genuine lack of understanding, the TRS 097 course can at least be a training ground for engaging with ideas different from our own. So I beg you, my fellow students, do not be distracted by guessing at grapes, but rather be intoxicated by the chalice of salvation. I pray our professors to welcome us to the table of plenty, and to pour us a tall glass.


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