Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Book Review: "Bible Basics for Catholics" by Dr. John Bergsma

Before I begin my review, I hope you'll indulge me for a moment as I take a trip back to the recent past.

It's the Spring semester of 2006. I'm on the campus of Franciscan University of Steubenville, excited to get my grad studies underway and anxious to see how I measure up to my peers who actually have a background in Theology. But that will have to wait. Why? Because, at this point in our flashback, I'm looking around at a bunch of pimple-faced undergrads. I'm sitting in Dr. John Bergsma's "Principles of Biblical Studies 1" (PBS 1) class because I have to get some stupid prerequisites out of the way before the real learning can begin. Or so I thought.

What I didn't know at the time was that this class would prove to be one of the most influential classes of my academic life. Before you can really be acquainted with Bergsma, the author, you have to get to know Bergsma, the professor. I want to take some time here now to explain to you what makes him such a great teacher. Those same things are what make his book such a worthwhile read.

Bergsma, the Professor

I have not had very many professors who are as effective and engaging and personable as Dr. Bergsma is. On the first day of class, he told us his conversion story and he got teary-eyed. That made a huge impact on me, considering that he's probably told that story dozens of times before. But, what impressed me the most was his uncanny ability to "break open the word" and make it accessible to us, while still remaining faithful to it's meaning and to the teaching of the Church.

He did this in a number of ways. First, he used humor. Some people have this notion that you're not a real academic unless you're dull, and stuffy, and lifeless. Bergsma isn't like that. He's not afraid to have a little fun with the subject matter, not in a disrespectful way, of course, but in a way that helps you to really see and understand what is happening.

Take Gideon, for example. When God called him, Gideon was threshing grain. Big deal, right? But, once you consider that Gideon was the youngest of his brothers and a member of the lowliest tribe of Israel, and then you see Bergsma bent over, pacing back and forth in the front of the classroom like he's threshing grain and then pop his head out from behind the podium, look back and forth nervously, and then let out a weak, "Who? Me?" -- well, that helps you to understand how amazing it was that God called Gideon in the first place.

Or, consider the love story of Ruth and Boaz. Bergsma was sure to tell us that if a movie were made about their story, Ruth would be played by Sandra Bullock and Boaz would be played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, you can't mention Arnold without doing an impression of his voice. And Bergsma did. It was hilarious, but it also showed us how extraordinary it was for someone like Boaz to take in and care for Ruth.

These are just two examples, many more could be given. My point is that Bergsma is able to use humor in a way that makes the Word more accessible. Laughter increases receptivity and openness. I think he knows this, and he utilizes it to great effect.

Secondly, Bergsma is utterly unpretentious. Some professors are so knowledgeable in their field that they portray this aura of "I am entirely other-than and greater than you." You are afraid to even approach them, lest your presence or meager words inconvenience them or deter them from "more important things." But Bergsma is just the opposite. It downright scandalized me how open and accessible he was!

He would add his students as friends on Facebook and write on their walls. Message him any question about the bible and he'll answer it. He remembers your name too. He'll say hi to you in the hallway, even call you over to chit-chat for a bit. When my wife Amy had a little graduation party in Steubenville after she graduated from FUS, Bergsma actually came to the party! In one sense, we couldn't believe it, but in another sense, we could. This was Bergsma, after all. He even let my wife and I and some friends take him out for a beer once finals were over and the last paper had been graded. Hell, my wife and I baby-sitted his kids on a couple of occasions! I never knew that professors could be that way, so humble and inviting. But, they can be, and Bergsma is.

Thirdly, he's not afraid to be a Scripture scholar firmly rooted in the Tradition of the Church. Some people think you're not a real academic unless you're questioning the authorship of a certain book, or denying that Christ instituted this or that sacrament, or proposing some other off-the-wall theory that does nothing but scandalize people in the pews. Bergsma scoffs at all that. More importantly, he realizes that the role of the theologian and the Scripture scholar is to communicate the profound truths of Divine Revelation in a manner that allows every man -- degree or no degree -- the opportunity to know and understand what God wants to say to him.

This is probably the quality of his that allowed me to get the most out of the Bible. When Bergsma reads the Old Testament, he sees Jesus everywhere, a lot like the early Church Fathers did. But none of it is a stretch. Jesus really is there, I just never noticed Him before. He's in the mediator of every covenant, He's in the Passover meal, He's in the temple, He's in the priesthood, He's in the prophets, He's in the psalms, He's in the very people of Israel. It takes the eyes of faith to see this, and it takes a professor firmly committed to the religious sense of Scripture to teach it.

To be sure, Dr. Bergsma is no slouch. He got his PhD at Notre Dame. He's written academic papers for peer review journals. He goes to the bible conferences. He gives talks all over the country. He just refuses to let all of that deter him from what is important. This is PBS 1 after all. A bunch of freshman and sophomores (and grad students with some catching up to do) don't need to get caught up in the minutia of which passages in the Pentateuch come from the "Yahwist" source and which ones come from the "Elohist" one. They just need to know what the Bible is and how it can be so extraordinarily meaningful for every person.

Finally, Bergsma is a holy man. He probably wouldn't appreciate me saying this, but he is. I can tell. I told you his conversion story got him all teary-eyed, right? Well, sometimes the Word does too. He'll be explaining a passage and then all the sudden find himself overwhelmed with emotion. That doesn't happen unless you have a close relationship with the Lord and you have allowed Him to penetrate the depths of your heart with His Word. My most endearing image of Dr. Bergsma is not him in front of the classroom, pretending he's Samson with pillars falling down on him (as endearing as that is!), but him kneeling in front of the monstrance during Eucharistic Adoration at the local church, with one of his daughters dutifully kneeling beside him.

I think I'll always remember that because it showed me that Bergsma doesn't just approach God or the bible as one of many subjects to be taught in the classroom. His teaching and study of the Word flows from an honest-to-God relationship with the Lord, and a strong desire to know and love Him better. I strongly believe that about Dr. Bergsma, regardless of him being too humble to admit it.

That's Bergsma, the professor. Now I can finally talk about his book!

The Author and His Book

His new book, "Bible Basics for Catholics" is basically everything that makes PBS 1 (on the Old Testament) and PBS 2 (on the New Testament) such great classes at FUS. I think it is without question that his PBS classes were the most popular classes on campus. Even students who weren't theology majors would register for PBS, just so they could see what all the fuss was about. This book is PBS on paper, the fulfilled wish of every student who has ever taken PBS. The humor is there. The accessibility is there. The analogy of faith is there. The devotion is there.

And, to my delight, the stick figures are there too! Bergsma, besides everything else that makes him such a popular professor, is also known for the stick figure drawings he puts up on the board in order to illustrate what is happening in the Bible, or to show us the "big picture" of what God was trying to do. As a student I recall copying them in my notes to the best of my ability, but never feeling that I had done them justice. Thankfully, this book contains not only the drawings he uses to illustrate the six covenants of the Bible, but also step-by-step instructions for how to draw each one! With that, his book becomes a tool not only for the student of Scripture but also for the catechist who wants to teach these "Bible basics" in a fun and memorable way.

I mentioned the six covenants. That's basically how the book is structured: it's a march through the Bible with the covenants as our guideposts. With the aid of his stick men, and his usual wit and intelligence, Bergsma guides us on a tour of the Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New (or "Eucharistic") covenants. He also fills in the in-between, giving us the people, and events, and historical accounts that brought man from one covenant with God to the next. In so doing, Bergsma has given us a splendid "bird's eye view" of the Bible, the "big picture" of God's plan to unite all of mankind unto Himself.

I can't emphasize enough how important this big picture of the Bible is when studying the Word of God. This covenantal framework insures that no matter where you are in the Bible you can orient yourself according to the covenant in force at the time. Also, with this big picture in view, we see that nothing that happens in Scripture is coincidental or meaningless. Instead, all of it is according to God's plan, which He had in mind from the very beginning and strove so tirelessly to fulfill.

One positive effect of this framework for my own faith is that it made me appreciate the Church more. If you think about it, God prepared for thousands upon thousands of years, through relentless patience and forbearance and unquenchable mercy, to give us what we have today in the universal Church of Christ. How lucky I was to be simply born into it! How happy are the many who discover this Church in adulthood and enter in to it! The Church means a lot more to me now after having seen how much God went through just to give it to me.

That's just one happy consequence of Bergsma's classes and this book. I'm sure there are many others, which you will have to discover for yourself by picking up this book as soon as it is available. It will be released on May 14, but it's available now for pre-order at Amazon or your local Catholic bookstore. I give it my highest recommendation and wish Dr. Bergsma all the best. He deserves it.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

PS: For more information about Dr. Bergmsa and to schedule him to come speak at your parish, see his website: JohnBergsma.com

5 comments:

laura said...

Birthday present?

Nicholas Hardesty said...

I already have my review copy, but you can buy me the final version if you want :D

Chris said...

Same exact experience for me as a grad student at Franciscan University.

Dr. Bergsma is a fantastic teacher. Not "over your head" as some theology professors can tend to be.

Do Not Be Anxious said...

I was just completing a review of this book myself (I "borrowed" the picture from your blog), and I was pleased to see your review of the book --- from an "insider's" point of view. I knew nothing of Professor Bergsma, and only bought the book because I noted he taught at Franciscan University.

I was not disappointed in my purchase -- or your review. Good luck with your continued studies!

(I'll be at the Defending The Faith conference next week.)

Nicholas Hardesty said...

DNBA ... thank you for your comment. My formal studies were concluded in 2009, but I supposed I'm always learning as I continue to read books like the one reviewed here and as I prepare to teach various classes in my position as a DRE. I'll check out your blog as well.

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