Thorough knowledge of Scripture calls for explanation, definition and context
Indifference and ennui are the bane of the high school religion teacher. Ignorance is an easy fix, but indifference and ennui certainly make fixing it all the more difficult and confounding.
Take Scripture, for example. The Samson stories, the story of Elijah challenging the priests of Baal, the Ban, and two David stories (Goliath and Bathsheba) hold the attention of the high school student (boys especially like the Samson and David stories). Beyond that it’s a crap shoot in regards to students being interested in Old Testament (The Song of Songs is a totally different beast, however).
The problem with the New Testament is that students think they know it. They don’t. A hodgepodge of stories filtered through eight years of Catholic education or Religious Ed flit through their heads. Few of those stories are contiguous. For example, in their minds Baby Jesus is in the manger when the Magi barge in.
Here is my method of attacking this conundrum: have students read aloud the Biblical text with the teacher stopping the reader at points that need explanation, definition or context.
Let’s take the very first sentence of the Gospel of Mark as an illustration. The teacher asks for a volunteer to read. If no one volunteers, the teacher drafts Kaylee or Connor to do so. Here’s the first sentence (New American Bible translation): “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].”
At that point the teacher stops the reading and asks the whole class the following:
What’s the Gospel? (this question will spark additional ones)
Why does Mark say that this is the beginning of it? Did it only begin with Mark? If not, when did
the gospel begin?
Is Christ Jesus’ last name (teacher: “Christ, Jesus!” Jesus: “Here!”)? If not, what was it? If Christ is
not Jesus’ last name, then what does the word “Christ” mean, and why is it applied to Jesus?
Why is the phrase “the Son of God” in brackets? What does it mean to be “the Son of God”? Is that
different than you being sons or daughters of your father?
And that’s just for one sentence.
Obviously, the questions asked by the teacher will vary from teacher to teacher. Furthermore, the duration of the class will also play a factor. At the school where I teach, classes are seventy minutes, so I have plenty of time to dig deep. However, mercy must be extended to these students. My Old and New Testament students are 14 and 15-year olds. Never in their lives have they read aloud so intensely for such a long period of time. Consequently, I give them a break (of varying minutes, but never more than five) at the 35-minute mark of the class.
The point is that the Biblical text must be engaged. Reading the Biblical text silently to themselves or reading the text in small groups I find to be a waste of time. Having fourteen-year olds silently reading cries for the skipping over of text. Reading in small groups dissolves into banter.
The late Allan Bloom was spot on when he wrote: “A line-by-line, word-by-word analysis must be undertaken…The hardest thing of all is the simplest to formulate: every word must be understood. It is hard because the eye tends to skip over just those things which are most shocking or most call into question our way of looking at things…The argument or example that seems irrelevant, trivial, or boring is precisely the one most likely to be the sign of what is outside of one’s framework and which call it into question. One passes over such things unless one takes pencil and paper, outlines, counts stops at everything, and tries to wonder.”
The goal in the Old and New Testament freshmen classes is twofold: to pass on the story and to introduce the student to Christian vocabulary. Those goals cannot be achieved if the Biblical text is not closely read. As ol’ Cassian (4th century Christian monk and theologian) noted in Conference Ten, “We first take in the power of what is said, rather than the knowledge of it.” The content will come; first we just have to give them the story.
However, such a method is not the end of the line. By the time my students are seniors, a whole different method is required. For seniors, the story (hopefully) has been passed on, and Christian vocabulary has been digested. For them, the story must now be internalized. The method for doing that is called “lectio divina.” We’ll discuss that next time.
Same Bat-time; same Bat-station, my friends.