Entering more deeply into the Bible

Jared Staudt

Catholics in the United States have been enriched in the last few of decades with a renaissance of biblical studies. The Denver Catholic Biblical and Catechetical Schools now enroll over 2,000 students. Many others have gone through Jeff Cavins’ Bible Timeline series or benefited from the many books and resources from Scott Hahn and his St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, including the Letter & Spirit journal and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible. There have also been new opportunities for academic studies, such as through the Augustine Institute and Franciscan University of Steubenville.

To continue this renaissance, the first volume of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament has been published, written by John Bergsma and Brant Pitre (Ignatius, 2018). This large book (1060 pages) is quickly becoming a Catholic bestseller, and for good reason. It is one of the best fulfillments of Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a renewed Catholic interpretation of the Bible, rooted in the Catholic tradition and liturgical life, guided by faith, and which makes use of modern historical and literary studies. The authors help bridge a gap that largely divides the academic and spiritual readings of the biblical narrative.

The introductory chapter of the volume explaining the vision of the work itself makes an important contribution to explaining the proper way to read the Bible. It speaks of being “self-consciously both historical and theological in its approach” and utilizing “all of the tools of natural human reason . . . but unites them to supernatural faith” (9; 11). This vision takes flesh by examining major historical questions and issues raised by modern scholarship while also engaging the Church Fathers and magisterial tradition. For instance, it explores five different theories for why certain foods are prohibited in Leviticus, from Mary Douglas’ anatomical explanation to St. Thomas Aquinas’ liturgical view (212).

For each book of the Old Testament, Bergsma and Pitre provide a brief introduction, details on its literary structure and outline, overview of its content, historical issues raised by modern scholarship, theological issues, relation to the living tradition of the Church, and explanations of how it appears in the liturgical readings. In the sections on theology and the tradition, they regularly cite the Church Fathers, the writings of saints, and teachings of the Church, including the Catechism. Each chapter also includes helpful tables and boxes which answer common questions, such as how we count the Ten Commandments, as there are a few variations (see 179).

A Catholic Introduction to the Bible makes the sacred text more accessible by drawing out key themes, answering difficult questions and misconceptions, and drawing us into ancient history. The authors describe how “the Old Testament is in fact an enormous library of books that were written by human beings and gathered together over the course of centuries. Unlike many ancient books, it was preserved through time and continues to be the object of intense study up to our own day” (16). They help us to enter into this study ourselves, not only in its historic dimensions, but also through faith, which enables us to participate in its realities.

We can see this in participation coming out the book’s explanation of Exodus, which “recounts the foundational historical events by which God formed the people of Israel into a nation and entered into covenant with them. These events are commemorated, celebrated and sacramentally experienced in the liturgy of Israel as well as in the New Covenant liturgy” (199). Likewise, we enter into the mystery of the Incarnation through Isaiah, known as the fifth Gospel, “read more frequently [during the Mass] than any other Old Testament book but the Psalms and . . . rivaling the four Gospels in its frequency” (758). The mysteries of the Old Testament, though rooted in ancient history, remain living witnesses and guides into the realities of our salvation.

As part of our efforts to grow in discipleship, we need to continue the renaissance of biblical studies in the Church. If you have gone through the Great Adventure timeline or read a shorter overview of the biblical narrative, such as Walking with God or A Father Who Keeps His Promises, and you want to go deeper, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible will serve as a great guide. It’s very readable and engaging, even as it wades into scholarly questions. This weighty introduction will prove a crucial resource for entering more deeply into the Bible.

COMING UP: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.