Monday, January 02, 2006

Blest Are We

As an appendix to the following post, here's a review of the Fifth Grade text, Blest Are We, used in my parish and approved by the USCCB for classroom use as not being contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Catechism. I wrote this back before removing Offspring #1 from fifth grade CCD. I've since become familiar with the Third Grade text, which suffers from all the same flaws, with a few unique shudder-inducing features of its own, such as the concluding devotions where the teacher is supposed to force the children to "pray" in Yoruba and Polish, sounding out the words phonetically. The very worst of it is a required Sioux prayer to the Great Spirit, with a disturbing obfuscation of any distinction between the Lakhota deity and the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. How this passed the USCCB's protocols I can't imagine.

And yet, it's still light-years beyond the text our parish had been using previously. At least it contains enough usable material to teach a class from.
Review: "Blest Are We: Parish Catechist Guide Grade 5," Silver, Burdett, & Ginn.

Overall, "Blest Are We" is a vast improvement over the content-free, dumbed-down catechetical materials used previously in our parish. It retains familiar flaws: like most modern textbooks, it's overly glossy and image-oriented, fragments information across each page and throughout each unit, is quite self-oriented. and is often maddeningly confusing and vague. But the mere fact that it has so much content, is reasonably orthodox, and seems to expect the children to learn something makes it a refreshing step upwards. And occasionally, crying out in the bland committee-composed textbook desert, there is a voice hinting at the treasures of our Catholic faith.

This review is limited to Unit 1, titled "Sacraments," which somewhat confusingly covers creation, the Church, the Beatitudes, sacramentals, and caring for the environment, but not sacraments (which are instead scattered throughout later units).

Unit 1: Sacraments
1 Sacraments of Creation
This entire chapter teaches, again confusingly, that nature is a sacrament of the Church; later, the Church itself is described as a sacrament, which certainly is true in a sense, but seems unnecessarily confusing for children who can't yet name more than two or three of the traditional seven sacraments.

I was dismayed to see that the "Scripture" section of the Creation chapter was not in fact Scripture, but was "based on" the first chapter of Genesis, with its majestic, familiar cadences replaced by such inanities as "God proclaimed, 'Let there be sky!' And the ever-changing sky became ours." This practice is continued throughout the book, with the most beautiful passages of Scripture re-written without an ounce of aesthetic sense.

The chapter concludes, as do all the chapters, with a "Prayer Celebration." This is a huge improvement on our parish's old text, and so I hesitate to be too critical, especially when the first chapter's prayer is Psalm 8: appropriate to the text, beautiful, a reminder that the psalms are the Church's first form of prayer, and a welcome appearance of Scripture. But aside from the dreary forced cheerfulness of insisting that it's not just prayer but a prayer "celebration," "Blest Are We" nearly ruins the whole thing with (a) the usual tin-eared adaptation of Scripture (this time with an awkwardly forced gender-neutral re-write); (b) prayer suggestions straight out of the seventies, telling the children to "imagine you are walking along the beach with the children pictured on page 15," and replacing the traditional concluding doxology with the sharing of "a gesture of peace as a sign of unity with creation."

2 The Church is a Sacrament of God's Life

To begin with, a minor quibble: On p. 25, the children are instructed in Sabellian modalism, as the three Persons of the Trinity are defined by function instead of ontologically. It would be nice if the text added that all three Persons, in fact, fulfill all three roles.

The optional activity of having the children write their "own eucharistic prayer" is just disastrous, and I'm thankful our catechist skipped it. And the yoga-ish "breathe out your hurt feelings/ breathe in God" exercise on p. 28, presented as a prelude to offering the Sign of Peace, is just embarrassing. Here is a theme that, alas, continues throughout "Blest Are We." For those of us who remember "Blowin' In the Wind" as a church hymn in our childhoods, it's just depressing to see the now-badly-outdated prayer practices still marring what look like genuine attempts to recover traditional Catholic prayer forms.

At last, on page 25, we learn what a sacrament is, and what the seven sacraments are. On the one hand, it's encouraging to see the children directly told what a sacrament is and does (even if the definition is a bit vague). It's also good to see the children expected to learn some definite information about the Church and the sacraments, especially the need for the sacraments as the ordinary channels of grace. On the other hand, at this point the children have been taught that nature and the Church are also sacraments, and nothing in the text attempts to explain the apparent contradiction.

3 Living the Beatitudes
The chapter on the Beatitudes has nothing particularly objectionable, beyond the abominable re-writing of Scripture noted above; mostly it suffers from an all-too-familiar "Jesus teaches us to be nice to people" approach, followed by the usual assurance that the first step in being nice to others is to be particularly nice to oneself. In an especially startling and cringe-worthy example of this latter point, the children are taught on page 35 that "showing respect for yourself" is entirely and exclusively a matter of preserving one's physical health.

One longs for an example of heroic virtue by a young person, such as St. Rose of Lima, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, or the many biblical saints (Jacob, David, the seven martyred boys of II Maccabees, the Virgin Mary, St. Stephen) who showed great holiness in their youth. Anything to give a hint as to the radical nature of the holiness called for in the Beatitudes, rather than the limp call to niceness presented as the heart of Christianity. To argue that the average child will not be engaged in such dazzlingly heroic acts is to miss the point; as any parent knows, it's the stories of fighting orcs and dragons that teach children the courage to stand up to bullies and barking dogs. Nagging children to remember to be considerate of others does nothing to recommend the adventure of Christianity to them.

4 Sacramentals, Prayer, and Devotions
This was a refreshing chapter to see included. I had had the impression that sacramentals had vanished altogether from Catholic life. Too bad that the first "sacramental" mentioned was the familiar Kindergarten-craft yarn-and-stick "God's eye." But then in an abrupt volte-face, the text suggests bringing holy water home and putting it in a stoup at the front door; a practice I haven't seen outside of Ireland and which I am (happily) astounded to see recommended. Imagine if our parish should go to the effort of providing a small container of holy water to each CCD student (with instructions as to its use).

This chapter is hit-and-miss. The most common devotions and sacramentals are actually listed (hooray!); but not until five pages into the chapter, and then there is no mention that the items should be blessed. The Book of Revelation and the pope's apostolic letter "Tertio Millennio Adveniente" are given an entire page; but with no actual quotations from them, nor any very clear indication what they have to do with sacramentals.

The discussion on the Communion of Saints is direct, informative, and actually mentions Purgatory (which didn't even merit a mention in the CCD discussion of All Saints and All Souls; the children were instead told that on All Souls' Day we remember our grandparents; besides being inaccurate, most of the fifth-graders' grandparents are still alive). The two page profile of three saints (St. Rose Philippin duchesne, St. Juan Diego, and St. Maximilian Kolbe) is well-done; and instead of the usual dreadful "Prayer Celebration" at the end of the chapter, the class is actually to recite a (shortened and adapted) Litany of the Saints.

And yet, on the very next page, the text reverts to an awful and self-caricaturing chapter called "We Care About Creation," in which the children learn the religious importance of growing vegetables and recycling. I don't intend to continue this review past that chapter, but must pause to note that this is characteristic of "Blest Are We"'s Jekyll-Hyde nature. One moment, the long-dormant treasures of the faith are being revived for a new generation; the next moment, the children are wasting their forty-minutes-a-week of religious education on admonitions to be nice to people and to sort their glass from their aluminum.


Anonymous Big Tex said...

Thanks for the review. Should this theme be a constant for all age levels, we would most certainly use another text.

This is actually a pet cause of my wife's. She used to teach 2nd grade at a Catholic school. She was actually one of the "founding" teachers of the school. She insisted that the school adopt the "Faith & Life" series. Based on my impressions, I imagine you'd be familiar with it. It's solid, and one of the very best texts for chatechizing our youth.

When we were still living in the diocese of Austin, we were disturbed to find out that the diocese held that series to not be "pedagogically" correct. I say HOGWASH! I found the students my wife taught to be well-formed in their faith, as did the priests of the parish.

"Faith & Life" was approved by the diocese, but not recommended because they think kids aren't bright enough to grasp the truths presented in the series. I don't think adults as a whole give kids enough credit in regard to their intelligence.

At any rate, we'll most likely be using the Faith & Life series in the coming years when our eldest becomes school age.

9:22 PM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Big Tex,

We did use Faith & Life for a while, but our daughter finished with it and needed something more, so we moved on to My Catholic Faith.

F&L was, I gather, the only one of the classroom-oriented curricula that the bishops didn't find to be gravely deficient; there were a couple of things they wanted to be added (which Ignatius did), but the curriculum itself was sound. Interesting that some dioceses are nevertheless forbidding its use.

6:35 AM  

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