21. Reading the Bible with young people
Paul can be referred to as the model of the one who lets the Word reach him and so challenge his whole person and totally change it, allowing him to be true to himself. So first of all we must develop a capacity to listen, to enter into communion with the Other, to be challenged, and to be witnesses of the Word in our turn. A theological reason (the Bible at the centre of Christian faith experience) and a pedagogical reason (the Bible leads the human being at the centre of life), found the training course of the youth’s encounter with the Bible, provided that we help the young to host the Transcendent and to pass from “I” to “Here I am”, since the Lord is looking for me. Finally, in tracing an experiential journey we bring to light three moments: taking a challenge, listening to the Word, re-orienting one’s life.
If you want to deepen
21. Reading the Bible with young people
The conditions of the subject and a possible educational path
(P. Salvatore Currò)
N.B. The text proposed here quotes some reflections developed more extensively in CURRÒ S., The human sense of belief. Youth ministry and anthropological challenge, Elledici, Leumann, 2011, pp. 280. To learn more, you can read chapter 8, titled: The approach to the Bible in prayer and catechesis of young people (pp. 195-249)].
1. Conditions needed in the subject so that God may speak
Relationship with the Word implies a radical involvement of the subject. He is approached just as a subject, in his uniqueness. He is as if re-created by the Word and at the same time, in a sense, brings to life the Word, does it and “works” it. Without him, the Word would be mortified. Says E. Franco: “As the singularity of Jeremiah or any other prophet or inspired author is the historic place, however partial and particular, through which the only word of God was revealed in the totality of the Scriptures, so the singularity of the believing reader puts his understanding, however partial and particular, as irreplaceable contribution to the understanding of the only meaning in the totality of Scripture” (in: Biblical Theology. Nature and prospects, AVE, Rome, 1989, p. 101). E. Levinas explains: “The extra-ordinary structure of the inspired texts of the Holy Scriptures is even more remarkable in that their reader is called upon not only in the good common sense of him being open to information, but in the inimitable– and logically imperceptible– uniqueness of his person, and, as it were, of his own genius. […] The truth of the revelation […] then makes sense to the person in his non-interchangeable identity. His understanding of it determines a sense that, in all eternity, would not be found without him” (L’au-delà du verset, Minuit, Paris, 1982, 99-100. English transl.: Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Discourses. Continuum. November 15, 2007).
The experience of the Word is therefore intimately connected, as a condition and consequence at the same time, with the full involvement of the subject; not of a part of him but of the subject as the subject. It implies that the subject becomes real, enters into the truth of life, is ready to free himself–or be freed–from all that is illusion, and has the courage to expose himself. Expose to a Word, an event that is “other” and that while injures frees you, while judges consoles you and while contests makes you real. The heart of subjectivity involves this radical exposure to the Other. An exposure which is the maximum of human commitment and the maximum of availability at the same time, which is maximum activity and maximum passivity, the culmination of the realization of the subject and–at the same time– of his openness to the transcendent; an action that does not start from the subject, but reaches him, indeed truly constitutes him as subject, creates him, makes him a called one.
In the Bible, the powerful experience of the Word is closely connected with the experience in which the subject becomes real, in which commitment and research immediately become availability and response. Paul’s experience in this regard is striking. He, an observant Jew, “at the feet of Gamaliel educated strictly in our ancestral law and zealous for God” (Acts 22:3), was wrapped up in the project to destroy the new doctrine, he had made of it his raison d’être and even the expression of his fidelity to God. But suddenly his strong planning becomes full availability.
“On that journey– he himself says– as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” (Acts 22:6-7). An upturn happens. He who was full of himself now becomes empty, the strong becomes weak, who blamed the Christians now feels guilty, the persecutor is now persecuted, forced to listen, called to respond. The fall to the ground expresses the upturn; it expresses as an awakening, the discovery of true subjectivity; it expresses the beginning of being really yourself: be yourself starting from the personal call… that reaches me and constitutes me in my true identity.
The fall of Paul, although it is a striking experience for the ways in which it is realized, evokes the most true and daily dynamism of life, of everyone’s life: it is the dynamism of the subject who, if allows himself to be reached by the appeal, if puts himself in the position of the called one in front of life– more precisely, if he let himself be called– finds himself again. And the event of God’s Word occurs just in this. Biblical history is the history of people called, awakened from sleep and deafness; it is the story of many “here I am.” It is a history full of called ones who welcome the appeal and who, just as they welcome it and because they accept it, make the appeal resonate again. And history becomes the history of salvation where the Word resounds mysteriously. The biblical characters are deeply entrenched in history, they fully belong to the people, are called from the people and for the people. But the call is never impersonal. The God of the Bible is the God of history not in the objectivist sense and never outside intervention in the personal lives of individuals. It is because he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… that He is the God of Israel and the God of history.
Approach to Scripture is meaningful within this self-revelation or talking of God. That Scripture is the Word of God in the full sense means that approaching it is a sign of God’s personal revelation, of a subjectivity open to the appeal. In this approach it is produced and relaunched the dynamism, which is life’s secret or mystery, of the personal call and personal answer. Approach to Scripture essentially is not the approach to a content to be understood but it is the approach of those who are entering into the mystery of life, of those who are constituting as subject-who-listens-and-answers, of those who are willing to let themselves fall to rise again as the called one, as the one-who-answers ; those who go experiencing that life is to make letting yourself being made, to act with all your strength, but being guided by the appeal, by a presence, by the Spirit. The Scripture is so approached starting from and in view of the event that produced it. We can see from this point of view the invitation of DV to read and interpret Scripture “in the sacred Spirit [or rather, with the same Spirit] in which it was written” (n. 12).
The first condition of access to the Bible is not then knowing how to read or intellectual training but the willingness to let yourself be reached or– said in the terms that are more used in the spiritual tradition– humility, poverty of spirit: that quality which in the Bible is distinctive of the anawim, the poor before God, and which is reflected, for example, in the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) as the typical attitude of Mary. “The entire biblical tradition and, in a particular way, the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels indicates as privileged hearers of the word of God those whom the world considers ‘people of lowly status.’ Jesus acknowledged that things hidden from the wise and learned have been revealed to the simple (Mt 11:25, Lk 10:21) and that the kingdom of God belongs to those who make themselves like little children (Mk 10:14 and parallels).” (PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION, The Interpretation of the Bible, III, B, 3).
Inner poverty is not a property of the subject by himself (which the subject produces on his own), but already implies openness to the other, the dimension of otherness in life and therefore already expresses– said in theological terms– God’s presence and action. Impact with Scripture is a true exercise of poverty of spirit and welcome of the Other, of the Presence. But it is more than an exercise, it is the event of the Word, it is– in Christian terms– the event of the present and active Christ. The availability to this event does not exactly coincide with the belief that, when we read the Scriptures, Christ becomes present. This view can help but what is at stake is a life attitude, the willingness of the heart– according to biblical language: “Who may go up the mountain of the LORD? Who can stand in his holy place? The clean of hand and pure of heart” (Ps 24:3-4a). Similarly, it is not required as a precondition to approach the Bible that you recognize it contains the truth. It is enough– or perhaps it is more important– to realise that it comes from deep (real) life experiences and that approaching it your life can awaken to the truth; what matters most is a real openness to the truth of God’s action in history.
The logic of Sacred Scripture is not primarily that of the exposure of truth or beliefs but is that of telling and giving testimony. The recounted events, facts and experiences hide a Presence, and the story told is, after all, the story of this Presence. The Writing of that action and that talk of God is itself motivated by that Word and in view of that Word. The Scripture bears the marks of God’s acting and speaking. It says more than what it says: it is inspired. Inspiration concerns what comes before the Scripture, the whole formation process of the Scripture and even what comes after the Scripture: it is a dynamic rather than static fact. “Men of little faith, we look more willingly to the inspired book than to the inspiring writing. […] Scripture, in spirit and in truth, is less what is already written than the spirit who makes one write.” Scripture stirs inspiration and requires inspiration at the same time. Inspiration is a dimension of life. It is a talk that has more than what you say, it is an act that hides a Presence, it is to speak and act in a state of availability, which expresses the acting and speaking of the other in me. “The language that is able to contain more than it contains would be the natural element of inspiration, despite or before its reduction to a tool for the transmission of thoughts and information (assuming that it is ever entirely reduced to this function). One may wonder if the human being, animal endowed with speech, is first of all an animal capable of inspiration, a prophetic animal” (LEVINAS E., L’au-delà du verset, p. 136).
It is this capacity for inspiration, for prophecy that the Bible appeals to; wanting at the same time to wake it up. Capacity of inspiration and prophecy means to mature the life attitudes which express the Other’s acting in me: listening, openness, responsibility (as a response when you are called) … this is the location of the inspired Word. Impact with Scripture, as well as knowing and interpreting– rather, through knowing and interpreting but beyond knowing and interpreting– basically wakes me up, empties me from my illusions, makes me true, makes me a prophet; with Levinas we might say that it coordinates me with the other, “writing is always prescription and ethics, the word of God which commands me, and dedicates me to the other, holy writing before being sacred text. It is a word out of proportion with the political discourse, overflowing information– breaking, in the entity that I am, my good conscience to be here. I understand it as my loyalty to the other. It is a questioning of self-care, natural to all beings, essential to the being of beings. As a result, (Scripture is) subversion of this being, disinterestedness in the etymological sense of the word. It is crisis wind or spirit, in spite of the knots of History that retie after breaks, because self-care needs justification” (LEVINAS E., L’ au-delà du verset, p. 9). It is not perhaps in this deep questioning of ourselves– in this getting lost– that makes sense the impact with a Word which helps us rediscover ourselves, giving us back our identity as called and chosen ones? Is not this exodus– this getting lost so to find ourselves– or this Easter– a death through which life passes– the deeper dynamics of Scriptures and… of life?
2. A possible training path
The meaning of the path
It is obvious that the Bible cannot be the only educational resource in the proposal of the Church. Other elements arise: the possibility of personal insights on one’s life, interpersonal discussion, the various group experiences, the relational aspects, the liturgical experience, the experience of a gradual membership in the Church, prayer, the practice of service and charity, etc. In the current practice, the ecclesial proposals to young people emphasize one or the other of these dimensions. While recognizing that all are important, we suggest here a proposal that values particularly, but not exclusively, the Bible; basically for two reasons: because the Bible has the capacity to make us enter into the fundamental junction point of the youth’s religious development (educational reason), and because of the central place it occupies in the Christian faith experience (theological reason). The two reasons are profoundly interwoven. The proposal is primarily for the specific group of young people (roughly above the age of eighteen) and for young adults. For teenagers the other dimensions mentioned above should be– in my opinion– more particularly considered and very often some of those (e.g. the dimension of relationships and group life)– more than the Bible– should be favoured as view point and perspective givens to education.
Which is the educational node? The actual religious experience, which is affected by a cultural climate strongly influenced by subjectivity, must be matured in the direction of otherness; more precisely, it should be made capable to host the Transcendent. Educating the religious experience in the Christian sense is not adding to it Christian contents, but, more crucially, making possible the dynamics of Revelation, which is the dynamics of a meeting that does not start from the subject but at the same time deeply concerns him. The subject has (and at the same time undergoes) the experience of displacement, or as a fall, which paradoxically means rediscovery of himself, at the level of the truth about himself. Only within this dynamics of otherness or of Revelation the Christian experience is possible as accepting the event of Jesus Christ, as living in the Spirit.
The node involves three elements that are deeply woven. Described from the point of view of the subject they are: 1- the setting out of the subject’s experience on paths of truth, which are the ones of feeling he is the protagonist (subject, indeed, in the full sense of his life and gathering in himself the various experiences, encounters with others… history; 2- sensing the occurrence of a “other” event that is not manipulable, not catchable within the perspective of the ego; 3- feeling that he is caught up, hit, called, listening, a subject-called-to-answer. Wanting to express the dynamics with a slogan, we could say: from the “I” to the “here I am”, taking into account that the dynamics is more than chronological– fulfilment of the I: the I is really I when he becomes here I am; becoming here I am does not happen starting from the I, but comes from something else, and has the flavour of gift of grace. It is within this dynamic that a religious experience can occur that has the structure of Revelation and that is expressed as life in the Spirit of Christ. Talking about religion and faith outside of this dynamics means presenting empty contents and risking creating an alienating religious experience: either because centred on a closed subjectivity (which reduces God to the image of subjective conscience and therefore takes away from faith the dimension of revelation), or because it is the expression of a subjectivity that tends to focus on the objective elements of religion in an excessive and depersonalizing way.
In relation to the dynamics of otherness and Revelation, the experience of God that arises, rather than on the line “I need God” is on the line “God is looking for me,” a more profoundly biblical line. It is true, as pointed out by the Post-Synodal Exhortation on the Word of God, that God responds to our deepest questions, that we have to show how the Word of God does not stifle our authentic desires, and it is also true that “how important it is for our time to discover that God alone responds to the yearning present in the heart of every man and woman!” (Verbum Domini, n. 23). But, if we keep too much this approach of questions or wishes that are fulfilled or thirst that is satisfied, in fact we reinforce a position of claiming rights before God, by which the subject, after all, turns aside from his commitment to let himself be found where God wants to meet him. The God of the Bible, in fact, is first of all a God searching for man, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). And man is first of all the one sought by God; he is often the one who tries to escape from God, but finds truth about himself and peace only when he has the courage of letting God encounter him, when he yields to seduction: “You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed” (Jer 20:7). And Jesus in the gospel reiterates that the initiative does not come from us: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (Jn 15:16). The role of the person, which also is important, crucial in a sense, is marked radically by becoming available and welcoming; we might say: is an activity radically crossed by passivity. From a certain point of view (the educational point of view) we start from the subject (from his central role, precisely from his being subject), but it is a start that, even from now, has the sense of genuinely taking the challenge and exposing himself to an initiative coming from “the other.”
The Bible, rather than the book that explains the features of a true experience of faith, is the book that introduces, feeds, revamps and accompanies this experience of faith. The Bible can accompany the person in feeling he is a subject (“I”, protagonist, with a life project), in allowing an appeal to reach him, in experiencing himself as “here I am”. And in this– beyond the material relationship with the text but in the material relationship with the text– the event of the Word happens–unexpected, out of grace and as work of the Spirit. “When we hear, read, study and try to look through the Bible, it may occur that a reversal of roles happen. We begin our approach as subjects, because the biblical message, whatever the manner in which it takes us, is the object of our study, then, suddenly, we can realize that behind and through the stories, texts and messages we visualize, there is someone who looks at us, speaks to us and gives us a trail to follow. The object of our research becomes the subject who addresses us and knows us better than we can do it ourselves. We are confronted with the living God, who works in creation and in history, in our private lives and in the vast world of nations” (WEBER H.-R., The Book That Reads Me, World Council of Churches, 1995, p. 12). The methodology of approach is at the service of this experience, acts as a medium for it even if does not produce it: “It is not possible to trigger automatically this mysterious reversal of roles, as if it were a simple matter of methods: it is the work of the Holy Spirit, the communicator and interpreter of the Bible” (ibid.).
The mediation service rendered to Scripture is favoured by the typical biblical language, a language that is at the same time experiential and evocative of the transcendent. The language of the Bible is religious not primarily because it has God for its object, but for the fact that in speaking of human experience it evokes the mystery of God (speaks of it in the name of God). Z. Trenti clarifies: “Language is not religious because and in so far as it speaks of God: language can scan the entire horizon of human experience, interests and provocations; it moves mostly in this horizon. The Bible offers a grand fresco on this matter: even epic events as well as seemingly insignificant incidents fill its pages. […] The religious discourse is not just about God: it is often centred on the human being, speaks about him with final authority, reveals him in his dignity, ambiguity and weaknesses. Religious language not only reveals the arcane truth of God, but also the truth, sometimes baffling and mysterious, of nature and mankind. Per se therefore any subject can be the object of religious discourse” (La religione come disciplina scolastica, Elledici, Leumann, 1990, pp. 183-184). From the methodological point of view, it is precisely about helping the sync on the experiential and evocative level: bringing the biblical language near to the language of the reader-listener and vice versa, without destroying the cultural and historical distance but making it feel almost like a resource. But, just because it is at the service of an event, the method should pay attention to foster attitudes required by a religious experience in the sign of Revelation.
In summary, and having to necessarily put method attentions in chronological sequence, we could say that the youth animator/educator:
– helps the person to bring together as a unity her/his experiences; helps her/him to concentrate, to feel she/he is subject, protagonist… I;
– promotes an attitude of listening, because the self comes true in relationship, in willingness to be reached by new things;
– starting from the new things that turned up and are felt able to broaden the horizons of life, the youth reinterpret themselves: the I thinks of himself as me, is experienced as here I am.
This process is necessarily placed on a hermeneutic-interpretative level, in terms of knowledge. If we would remain on this level, the I would still be the protagonist: it is the I who concentrates, listens and reinterprets himself, and would not deeply and sincerely expose himself. But moving on this level is not to stay there but so that this level could rip apart and the event of the Word could happen, in a present and personal way. The biblical text joins the play of interpretation but, on joining it, conveys a Word that breaks the rules of the play.
By way of appendix: the articulation of the three stages with reference to an experience
The path just described arises from reflection articulated above, but also from experience. In fact, the method has been designed in a workgroup (in Viterbo), consisting of youth groups’ educators, catechists, teachers of religion: people animated by educative passion for young people and at the same time eager to rediscover personally the relationship with the Bible. The result is a journey that also led to the development and testing of materials. I Only shortly mention, by way of appendix, the procedures for setting the experience.
Taking the cue from studies on youth, from personal experience and from educational practice, some youth sensibilities have been identified. With this expression we described some ways of feeling, attitudes and needs which are present in the youth and challenge those who work in education. The attempt was, for each sensibility, to grasp the elements of positive resource enclosed in it, both in view of the personal growth of the young and in the perspective of the educational-pastoral proposal. For each sensibility was then chosen a biblical passage that could interpret it in different ways: by accepting it, deepening it, contesting it, making it real. Around these two elements (the sensibility and the biblical passage) some specific routes took form, following the division in three stages, as indicated above. The result was thematic unities (some to be used for catechesis of young people, others for teaching religion in school and others for group prayer). Emphasis was placed on how the Scripture could get involved, appreciated and made effective.
Let us examine now the three stages forming each unity; they can be referred to by these expressions that allude to the attitudes that the animator wants to provoke and promote: 1) I put myself on the line, 2) I listen to the Word, 3) I redirect my life. The three attitudes imply each other. E.g.: it is not possible that one puts himself on the line without the ability to listen and without a sincere willingness to orient his life in an always new way; listening is only true if one puts himself on the line, and so on. The Bible may intervene in relation to all three stages: it can accompany putting oneself on the line, listening and reorientation of life. We place it in a special way in the second stage: this helps the dynamics of being in front of the Word and perceiving that the Word is other than me and challenges me.
For each of the three stages I point out the elements (in terms of materials and contents) taking the field:
1) I put myself on the line
– The objective is to arouse curiosity and interest in the participants and at the same time activate the motivation to participate, to have a positive attitude with respect to the activities that are proposed.
– The educator/animator can use group techniques, animation activities or, more simply, indications/suggestions that elicit search and sense of recollection; recollection may be helped by a sign or symbol that is brought to the attention of all.
– It can last a few minutes or even an entire meeting (when the unit is developed in several stages).
2) I listen to the Word
– The interest in the biblical passage is activated by offering elements of correlation between the actual/personal experience and the life experience underlying the biblical account.
– The page from the Bible is carefully read/listened; there can be different modalities: proclamation by a reader, reading by many people, silent reading and then reading together…
– The animator/educator offers an exegetical comment on the page read or heard; it can be done even before reading/listening to the page or at another time.
– The contact with the selected Word is prolonged, making it resonate further through techniques that may vary (copying the passage, everyone reading a verse that impresses him…).
– The animator/educator offers an input for reflection drawn from the experience of the Church (a passage is read from the Fathers of the Church, or from Tradition or current reflection, or the youth encounter a testimony related to the biblical passage).
3) I re-direct my life
– The youth are invited to focus on their lives, making the effort to see it from the message read in the text and in the light of the Word.
– Reflections can be shared.
– The youth are helped to highlight and elaborate that attention or commitment on which the Word oriented them, making them glimpse newness of life.
– The group/class borrows the words of a biblical text (e.g. a psalm) that interpret the desire for newness of life and help to transform their reflection into prayer (request, gratitude, contemplation…); or other prayer texts are used.
– The educator/animator can suggest a biblical text (linked, for some reason, to the already used one) to be read and meditated personally to extend the reflection or prayer beyond the meeting.
P. Salvatore Currò