Monday, February 15, 2010

Spanning the Protestant / Catholic Divide - Part III - From Confused Catholic to Competency - My Story

intro: I have been interested in improving communication and reducing confusion between Protestants and Catholics for some time. My pet theory is that we often misunderstand and talk at cross purposes because we have different 'culture' and language, and that even when we use the same words, we may not understand them the same way. So this series is not meant to be apologetic so much as it is meant to be focused on the differences in how we approach Faith and the world.

Part II Why Do Protestants Read the Bible So Much?
Part I - Why Catholics Don't Know the Bible.

I grew up in what I consider to be a pretty typical Catholic home in the 70s.  We had a few Bibles around the house, but they weren't conspicuous and the weren't often used.  There was a paperback pocket edition "Good News" Bible in my Dads nightstand.  We also had a paper back New American Bible (NAB) that was on the bookshelf in the living room.  Up until I was 13 I don't recall ever reading the Bible with my parents or ever seeing them read it.

My first, and most treasured, memories of the Bible are from my Grandmother's house when I was very young.  Every morning she would read from the big leather bound, illustrated family Bible she had.  When I stayed over I'd go in and sit beside her on her bed and after she finished reading we'd look at pictures.  The Bible was also a sort of scrap book of sorrow and woe, and a few blessings.  My Grandmother keeps all of her old funeral cards, obituaries, and news clippings about tragedies in her small town in her Bible.  The Blessings are the birth announcements and marriage announcements and any news clippings from college graduations or announcements that my Dad or uncle had joined such and such firm.  I still feel great sadness  thinking of all the deaths and accidents and heartaches.  That Bible and all it contains connects me to my Grandmother's life and through her to my ancestors. This was my Catholic grandmother BTW.  I spent a lot of time with my Protestant grandparents, and until now I've never given it any real though, but I don't remember anything about the Bible with them - although I know they were very religious.

Through childhood I did have a few bible stories.  I remember in particular the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus over the crowd.  These were several books in a series that my mother bought from little 'store' in the narthex at Church and as far as I recall they were the only introduction to the Bible I had as a toddler.  I must have started religious education in kindergarten or first grade, but have little recollection until prep for First Communion in second grade.  I don't recall anything about the Bible.  Up until 4th grade CCD (Catholic Catechetical Development) was taught by nuns in habits at my parish.  We had the ubiquitous workbooks with the fill in the blank questions and the 70s folksish representations of Jesus.  I think maybe after 3rd grade or so I remember sometimes having the Bibles handed out and going around reading from the Bible, but that was very rare at least.

My own Bible reading was really sparked by two totally random and unrelated events.  Early in summer of 1975 after 2nd grade my mom took us up to a small farm town to visit her cousin and her family on their farm.  The cousin was the church secretary (I've no idea what denomination - I'd guess Evangelical Lutheran) and the kids were in Bible school for one more day.  So they sent me to Bible school too.  And we did read the Bible.  And I didn't have one, and I probably (being a pretty big blabber mouth) mentioned that I didn't even own one and had never read it.  I went home with a brand new Tyndale "Children's Living Bible" paraphrased.   The next fall I sat next to a 'different' girl at school who always wore long, old fashioned style dresses and had really, really long hair.  I think that was the only year she went to our school.  Anyway, one day she's telling me all about how she has read the whole Bible 3 times.  I was a little sweet on her (I'm lucky I've always had a weakness for wholesome girls) so I figured she'd be more likely to like me if I read the Bible.  So that night I went home and started out to read the Bible cover to cover.  It didn't take me all that long.  And my Bible reading journey had begun. 

I read the Bible somewhat regularly after that.  I really liked the Psalms.  I had a difficult time with the other kids in school and was depressed at times.  I'd read the Psalms and that was always helpful.  One night I was up late, worried about school and life and friendships and a bully, and I read the Psalms.  I got a feeling of intense peace and the deep conviction that my suffering and tribulation wasn't pointless, that God had a plan for me and this was part of his plan.  That moment helped my then and still helps me today.

I was pretty serious about my faith through high school.  I went on retreats where we did more Bible reading.  I started a Bible study in my basement for teens one year, but we only managed about 5 meetings.  My parents stepped up the prayer life at home, and we did try to have some family Bible reading time.  For my confirmation at 15 I  got a New American Bible from my confirmation sponsor.  I think by that time I had been reading my parents NAB rather than my children's Bible. 

As I entered adult hood at various times I began to get more interested in really understanding the Bible.  I began to grow more frustrated that so many parts of the Bible seemed so contradictory and random or just weird.  I've never really thought of that as being much of an aspect of my drifting and weakened faith during my early 20's but it seems to me now that it probably was.  I did read the Bible less and less.

July of 1990 was a low point for me.  I was running and hiding from my responsibilities and the consequences of my actions.  I had recently decided that I needed to stop drinking and made an honest and absolutely firm commitment to stop.  And in less than 2 weeks I'd gone back to drinking, and found myself drinking even when I didn't want to.  Life seemed hopeless.  One afternoon I was going crazy with anxiety and couldn't figure out what to do.  Out of nowhere the idea came to read the Bible.  It had been years.  I turned to the Psalms and soon found an answer.
Psalm 27
11 Teach me your way, O LORD;
lead me in a straight path
because of my oppressors.
And that became a prayer and a mantra. For 3 days I read Psalm 27 and prayed my version of that "God show me the path you want me to walk, and give me the strength to follow you." I made an appointment and went to Confession on Saturday morning. Although I didn't initially confess anything about my drinking, my penance was 3 AA meetings! I wasn't planning to go but I had the phone number of the friend of a friend who had suggested I call him sometime. I called and we went out to dinner. It turned out he was in AA and he took me to my first meeting!

Another event that happened around this time was in the college cafeteria. I was reading the Bible while eating lunch and a classmate saw me and sat down. He pulled out Bible and started talking to me. It turned out that he was in "Campus Crusade for Christ" and when he found out I was Catholic he set out to Save me and prove the falsehood of the Catholic Faith. I didn't have any clue how to debate him, but I was pretty sure the Catholic Church read the Bible differently that Protestants. About the best I managed was "I don't understand that verse the way you do."

This began the period where I was really trying to learn more and read the Bible with a better understanding. What I see now partly as a result of my recent posts, is that I just didn't have the framework (hermeneutic) for constructing an understanding of scripture. Now I do think it is terrible to be locked into one hermeneutic, but I think you must have some framework to build on, especially to start. As a much better than average Catholic who had actually been reading the Bible since youth I just didn't have one!

That is really the story of the next 15 years! I asked for the New American Bible Study version for Christmas in 1990. That was good and bad. Good that I finally got a lot more background on the various books, and it had more notes. Bad - a lot of it wasn't as solid as it should be in either scholarship or Catholicism. I got involved in a few more Bible studies.

Unfortunately, what I recall of the various Bible studies was mostly very squishy and academically light. Mostly I think the focus was on reflecting on passages and coming up with what they mean to me and how to apply them in my life. This wasn't terrible really, but it didn't give me any new guidance on how to actually approach scripture in a serious way.

I think mostly what was encouraged is "lectio devina" which is a spiritual practice of religious and Monks, particularly Benedictines and in modern times Jesuits. And that was my main Bible study method for years. The problem is that short of "infused knowledge" I was never going to really learn how actually understand the more confusing, contradictory and cryptic aspects of scripture.

In the late 90s I began to notice a few more Catholic Bible Study programs showing up and I tried a few. Little Rock Scripture Study was one I remember. All of the programs I encountered were very basic. There was more supporting commentary and materials - like the videos in the Little Rock Scripture Study series. A little help, but very little. None of the series I encountered went beyond the basics. They had more commentary, but like the Little Rock Scripture Series it was often adapted from Protestant sources so in certain areas it tended to oppose a Catholic understanding of critical verses.

Finally, in 1998 a few things began to come together for me. I stumbled upon a copy of "Catholicism and Fundamentalism" by Karl Keating which didn't help with my Bible study directly, but it gave me great insight into Protestantism, and how evangelicals read the Bible and some of the Catholic counter arguments. Also we moved to a city with Catholic Radio and Catholic Answers was on every day. Again, it wasn't really good Bible study, but in the desert, a little puddle is a welcome as a swimming pool. Then Scott Hahn started writing books! That was the first real big help for me. Even learning that there was such a thing as hermeneutics and typology was helpful. Jeff Cavins came out with his "Great Adventure Bible Timeline" and though I have never used the whole series the parts I have used are helpful.  Just a photo copy of the timeline is a huge help.   The options have really become abundant in the past few years. The internet of course makes it easy to connect with all kinds of resources.

I've tried a couple of Bible Study groups recently, but was discouraged because I have no patience. The group was mostly people who are really at the beginning and I'm really looking for some meaty discussions. I find it too easy to dominate the group with my opinions and 'knowledge' and that is not what I want to do. So maybe I should look for a good study group.

Some closing thoughts. Part of the difference between Catholics and Protestants regarding scripture is that the Catholic Church is not tied to, and doesn't endorse or approve any particular hermeneutic or method. The Catholic Church actually takes a very broad approach to scripture. Since scripture does not stand alone, it stands with tradition and authority, there is actually more freedom to interpret scripture. That is one cause of my troubles. Because the Catholics and Catholic scholars use many hermeneutics, and also rely (openly) on tradition, there isn't a hermeneutic just lying there to pick up, or passed on naturally through our experience.  The approach to scripture was not consistent, because it doesn't have to be consistent.  So I was exposed to many hermeneutics at least indirectly, but I wasn't consistently seeing the same hermeneutic and method on a regular basis, which for all purposes made it seem like there really wasn't any systematic way to approach scripture.


  1. One of the most important lessons i have learned about Scripture is to get to know the overall, the context and intent of the different authors. Individual verses have power and are very helpful, but if you are not familliar with the book they come from AND the place that that book has in the overall scheme of the entire Bible you can get it wrong.

    Also, another great insight i got somewhere is that usually the most obvious meaning of something is the correct one. I LOVE the Bible and i know that i got that love from hanging out with Protestants but i am VERY VERY grateful for that from them. But i have allowed Catholic teaching to transform my understanding over the years.

  2. Grandmothers rock {heh heh} but really, mine, an old Methodist curmudgeon loved her little zippered KJV and opened it and read it and prayed it often, on her large bony knees! Being thoroughly Protestant there were no Mass or prayer cards but there was other awesome spiritual flotsam and I know that in part, my coming to Christ was because of her cranky old prayers.

    It is a beautiful picture you've painted in this post.

    If we lived nearer each other I'd suggest getting together over coffee and the bible. I'm sure we'd be up all night.

  3. Thanks! Perhaps a topic for a future post (since there will be at least 40 more )... sharing the different hermeneutics that are helping you interpret scripture or struggles of that...