A Marxist, a Catholic and an Evangelical walk into a Bible Study...
We must let people read the Bible for themselves. The teacher is not the one with the answers. The group must discover for itself how the word speaks into our world. And, as we do so, lives and communities will be changed.
I imagine that these are words that many of us would echo as we think about the importance of small groups and bible studies in the life of the church. They are actually a summary of the teaching method developed by the Brazilian Paolo Freire in the 1960s. The theories developed in such books as A Pedagogy of the Oppressed had a profound influence on the Theology of Liberation that took root in the Roman Catholic Church in South America at this time.
It may be surprising to read the one of the most influential movements within the Roman Catholic Church of the past half century has small group bible study woven into its DNA. It is suspicious of authority. It calls for tradition to be subject to Scripture. And it calls for this Scripture to be made accessible to ‘every ploughboy’ and uneducated factory worker. Freire and the theologians of liberation call for the Bible to be read in community – and have confidence that A Marxist, a Catholic and an Evangelical walk into a Bible Study these communities will be transformed.
In my last blog post we stepped back to the social and political upheavals of nineteenth century South America in order to gain a better perspective from which to think about how we teach and train people today. Perhaps it is easy from the perspective of our cultural context to see the dangers of trying to fit bible teaching into a framework forged in the factories of the industrial revolution. But small groups gathered around open Bibles? How could we object? Why would want to object?
As Catholic theologians of liberation put these principles into practice within Christian communities it might look like the word has been placed at the centre of the gathering. In reality it is the gathering that is placed in authority over the word. It is one thing to call people to hear the word of God. It is another to clarify where that word is to be found and how that word is to be heard. For Freire and the theologians of liberation, learning involves a process of being freed from lies to live in the truth of what – at some level at least – we already know. Conversion is a process of being made ‘conscious’ of this truth.
Our bible studies and home groups might seem to be far from the radical and revolutionary communities established in the cities of South America in the 60s and 70s. But the fact that a Romans Catholic Marxist and an Evangelical Anglican can both call for a similar sounding approach to Scripture should make us stop and pause. It is not enough to gather round the Bible. It is not enough to speak of the authority of God’s word. We must ask what our attitude is the Bible round which we gather. What our understanding is of the authority that we invoke.
Those of us in leadership and with the responsibility to teach and train God’s people must remember that true liberation comes as Christ breaks into our world by his word to bring conviction of sin and rebirth to new life. It is not enough to have the right structures. It is not enough to speak the right language. We need to be clear about what we are doing. We need to be clear about we are saying.
For this reason, the ordination of presbyters ends with this prayer:
MOST merciful Father, we beseech thee to send upon these thy servants thy heavenly blessing, that they may be clothed with righteousness, and that thy Word spoken by their mouths may have such success, that it may never be spoken in vain. Grant also that we may have grace to hear and receive what they shall deliver out of thy most holy Word, or agreeable to the same, as the means of our salvation; that in all our words and deeds we may seek thy glory, and the increase of thy kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.