A Book of Surprises

By Karban, Roger Vermalen | Commonweal, April 6, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Book of Surprises


Karban, Roger Vermalen, Commonweal


After forty years of teaching Scripture, I still wonder why people keep showing up. Not for the credit classes I teach at the local community college, but for the weekly classes I offer at the parish.

I started teaching on the parish level in 1966. It was meant to be a preliminary course to a class on the liturgy that would help explain Vatican II's changes in the Mass. As much as I love the liturgy, I was convinced I had to begin with Scripture, since many of the changes were rooted in biblical theology and practice. After all these years, I'm still wondering when I can start teaching that liturgy course. Once the Bible sessions began, no one wanted to stop. Eventually I had to take a leave to study for a doctorate in Scripture. Though the parishioners and I have frequently talked about why more people don't come, we seldom reflect on why we do. Recently it dawned on me that those who study Scripture are special.

In every Scripture 101 course I teach at the college, I include Dennis McCarthy's definition of scriptural canonicity. "The reason these particular writings made it into the Bible and others didn't is because these books helped the most people over the longest period of time to understand their faith." Contrary to what most people think, the biblical writings were never intended to give someone the faith. They were composed to help believers reflect on the faith they already had.

Though I agree with McCarthy's definition, I hadn't really applied it to myself or the students. When I made the connection, I began to understand why the parishioners continue to show up week after week: they profess the same faith as the sacred authors. Listening to the ancient authors narrate their faith story, all of us come to understand that we are not alone.

After I introduce McCarthy's definition to the college students, I give them an assignment. When they go home, they are to look around and make a list of five special things they have saved over the years, and then tell me why. Usually they report back that they hold onto something because it helps them understand themselves. The dried flower pressed between the photo-album pages, the concert ticket used as a special bookmark, the champagne cork from the date that changed their lives. In a similar way, our ancestors saved the sacred writings that helped them understand themselves and their faith.

Obviously, not everyone in the parish attends the classes, so I've had to ask myself what distinguishes those who enjoy exploring Scripture from those who can't be bothered? Here are a few thoughts.

More than anything, I've found that people drawn to reflect on Scripture are open to change and growth. They have come to appreciate that faith is a dynamic experience in their lives. These people are not content to memorize answers from the catechism. In passage after passage, page after page of the Scripture, they revel in the spiritual growth of the people whose stories they discover.

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