The Bible as Subversive Text

I’m very tired after our flight back last night. (People always say the jet lag is not so bad flying in this direction, but you can’t tell by me – exhausted and up at 3:55am local MSP time.)

I had planned to write a bit this morning about Richard Rohr’s latest book, which I finished reading before my flight back. That will have to wait a day or so. For today, let me simply share some thoughts about the bible from a daily meditation by Rohr adapted from his book A Lever and a Place to Stand:The Contemplative Stance, the Active Prayer.

Rohr writes:

One of the few subversive texts in history, believe it or not, is the Bible. The Bible is a most extraordinary text because again and again it legitimates not the people on the top, but invariably the people on the bottom or those who move toward those on the bottom—from Abraham to Moses to Jeremiah to Job to John the Baptist to Jesus. It has taken an amazing degree of denial and selective attention to miss this quite obvious alternative pattern.

After a while you might get tired of the rejected son, the younger son, the barren woman, the sinner, the outsider always being the chosen one of God! It is the Biblical pattern—which we prefer not to see. It takes away our power to exclude “the least of the brothers and sisters” because that is precisely where Jesus says he is to be found (Matthew 25:40)! If indeed women, blacks, other religions, gays, and other “outsiders” are “least” in our definition, it seems that gives them in fact a privileged and revelatory position! They are not to be excluded, but honored. Jesus takes away from us any possibility of creating any class system or any punitive notion from religion. Unfortunately, thus far, it has not worked very well.

Something to think about people play constant games of “gotcha” with the Bible, selecting individual quotes to support whatever position they happen to hold.


The Bible: Cover to Cover

My friend and colleague Jennifer Wright was the speaker at Daily Manna at the law school yesterday. I’ve been fortunate to be able to draft Jennifer to give an occasional talk at one or another of the retreats in daily living I’ve offered at the law school over the last several years, so I was happy to see her on the Manna Schedule.

Jennifer began by asking how many people had read the Bible cover to cover, something less half of the people attending had done. She shared that she had never done so, that while she was deeply familiar with all of the New Testament and portions of the Old (Isaiah, the Psalms, Jeremiah and a few others), there were large portions of the Bible she had never read.

As a result, she embarked on a project to read the Bible in a year. That seemed daunting, but she shared that she found the Center for Biblical Studies to be a great resource. The Center has designed a one year reading schedule “to help those who commit as individuals or as member sof a church, a church school or diocese to read successfully through the entire Bible in a year’s time.”

Not only can one download the schedule from their website, the the site has a section with daily meditations, the authors of which come from a range of Christian faith traditions. Jennifer said that she has found the meditations to be a great aid to her daily reading.

We understand the Bible to be inspired. That means, as Jennifer suggested, not just that the authors who wrote each book was inspired, but that there is inspiration involved in our reading and interpretation of the Bible. That is an important reminder that it is not enough that other people tell us what the Bible says, but that we read and pray with it on our own.

I confess that my situation is as Jennifer described herself at the outset. I have read virtually every word of the New Testament (virtually because I haven’t read every word of Revelation), most on numerous occasions. I have prayed through Isaiah and the Psalms and have read much of a number of other Old Testament books. But there are a number I am not at all familiar with, that I’ve never read.

Jennifer’s talk today inspired me to commit to remedy that situation. I may or may not use the schedule proposed by the Center for Biblical Studies, but I do think their approach and meditations may be a beneficial one – for me and for many others.

Who Doesn’t Love A Good List?

It is no secret that many people have a pretty dismal level of knowledge about the Bible. This is unfortunate; the Bible records our sacred history, a history that, as Pope Benedict observes in his Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini is a part of our own lives.

Mary Elizabeth Sperry offers a means of providing some education about the Bible in a fun, entertaining and thought-provoking way in Bible Top Tens: 40 Fun and Intriguing Lists to Inspire and Inform, which was sent to me by the Catholic Company as part of its reviewer program.

Sperry’s book organizes important people, places and events in the Bible into “countdown” lists intended to “serve as a memory aid or provide ideas for further reading and study.”

The section on people includes lists like ten mothers of the Bible who teach about self-sacrificing love, ten sets of siblings ranging from friends to enemies, ten illustrations of friendship and ten love stories. I confess that my favorite in that section was the list of ten “holy women with attitude,” that includes some wonderful women we hear about only rarely, like Deborah and Rahab in the Old Testament.

The section on places and events include lists of resurrection stories, meals, angelic appearances and illustrations of mercy and forgiveness. The section on sayings includes best known passages in the Bible, sayings that challenge, parables, symbols and more.

Each list helpfully includes scripture references and more importantly, the items on the list are written in a way that encourages one to want to look the references up, telling us just enough about each person, place or event to whet our appetites.

Even for people familiar with many of the passages referred to, the organization into lists provides a useful reference. The book strikes me as a useful tool for catechists and youth ministers.

I agree with the author that the most important list in the book is “The Fortieth List,” an invitation to think back on the Bible stories one has read or heard throughout one’s life and list the 10 that have most touched, challenged or comforted you and to write about why each is meaningful. That seems like a good and useful exercise for all of us.

The Need to Have Greater Appreciation for the Old Testament

Many Christians have a far greater knowledge of the New Testament than the Old Testament. I suspect for many Catholics, the Old Testament selection they hear as the first reading at Mass on Sundays is the only time during the week when they read from that part of the Bible. Some churches include books of the Old Testament as part of their Bible study classes for adults, but many more focus on the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles.

I’ve recently been reminded of the need to have a greater appreciation for the Old Testament, of the extent to which what is written in the New Testament can only be fully understood against the backdrop of the Old.

The first thing that prompted this thought: On the plane the other day, I was listening to a CD of talks on the Eucharist by Fr. Robert Barron. One of the things Fr. Barron talks about is the Eucharist as sacrifice. Talking about the Last Supper and Jesus’ language, he observes that first century Jews would have understood completely the “temple overtones,” that is, the relationship between the temple sacrifices that related to God’s covenant with Abraham, and Christ’s death as the “one, true and ultimate sacrifice” of the New Covenant. We hear those words, “the blood of the covenant” when we hear accounts of the Last Supper, but we don’t hear them the same way the writers wrote them and the early chuch would have heard them.

Barron also observed that when he asks people what it means to refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God, many people respond by talking about the gentleness of a lamb. Of course the people writing the Gospels had no such thing in mind. To them, the image immediately called to mind the one who has come to be sacrified. But those overtones tend to be lost on us.

The second thing that prompted this thought: As I mentioned the other day, one of the books I’m currently reading is Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (about which I’ll write more when I’ve finished reading it). I was struck by Williams discussion of the Ascension of Jesus, which is referenced in the creed. We’ve all seen artistic renditions of this event, which show Jesus being lifted up into the clouds. I suspect many people think those images depict what literally happened.

Talking about the passages in Luke and Acts describing the Ascension, Williams writes: “This is pictorial language, of course, not to be interpreted as if the Bible were thinking of a sort of space travel. The biblical writers knew quite well that God did not live in a literal place above the clouds, but they happily used the strong images of Old Testament poems and psalms to tell us that after a while Jesus appeared no more in matreial form to his disciples. He ‘ascended’, he left the scene, and he now ‘is seated at the right hand of the Father’: when we look at God, we can’t help but see Jesus.” Without some knowledge of that Old Testament imagery, we can’t know how to read those Ascension accounts.

Doubtless some will scoff of my observation of the value of greater understanding of the Old Testament to more fully appreciate the New Testament, thinking it too obvious to be worth mentioning. Indeed, the sheer number of cross-references to the Old Testament in the footnotes and margins of some versions of the New Testament gives a pretty clear clue about the fact that, as Rob Bell puts it, “[w]hat the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners could understand.” Nonetheless, I think it is useful reminder to those who tend to limit their focus to the Gospels, thinking it enough to read about what Jesus said and did. We will miss an awful lot if that is all we do.

Understanding the Bible

A lot of people misuse the Bible, viewing it as a large jumble of material out of which they can pull little bits that suit them for various purposes, ignoring those parts that are inconvenient. However, if we are going to read the Scripture in a meaningful way, we need to understand the unity and content of the entirety of the Bible.

That need to see the Bible as a unity, as a cohesive whole, is what animates Walking with God: A Journey Through the Bible, by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins, which I read as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program. The book is an effort to offer a narrative that presents a “big picture” that “weaves together all the individual events and details of the Bible.” It does so by focusing on fourteen “narrative” books of the Bible, finding in them the “basic storyline of God’s revelation.” (This follows the approach of Cavins’ The Great Adventure Bible Timeline learning system.)

I applaud the aim of the book. I am also enthusiastic about any effort to encourage greater familiarity with the major stories of the Bible. The book is well-written and very accessible, drawing the reader into the events it discusses. I found many of the observations and links thought-provoking. I also found many of the side notes interspersed through the story informative and interesting.

On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the 14 book focus is sufficient to tell a cohesive story and question the relegating of the remaining fifty-nine books of the Bible to “supplemental” status. Although it is true that in using Luke, for example, as the primary Gospel story, the authors do make reference to the other Gospels, there is still material I would consider more than supplemental that is of necessity left out in such an approach.

More bothersome to me is that I found some of the links the authors drew between episodes to be forced and some of the assertions about why things occurred to be…well..mere assertions. (I particularly had that reaction during the story of Abraham.)

Having said that, the authors explicitly say that they make no claim that their interpretation represents the consensus of scripture scholars or is an interpretation that must be accepted by faithful Catholics. Rather, because the Bible is the living Word of God, they offer what they believe is a fresh interpretation would considering. With that, I have no disagreement.

Despite my quibbles, I think the book is a good aid for those seeking to get a broader context for the major movements of the Bible.

A New Kind of Freedom

“Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ,” said St. Jerome. Catholics, as a general matter, spend far too little time in studying and praying with Scripture.

Although Jeff Cavins was not a name familiar to me when I lived on the East Coast, here in Minneapolis (where Cavins currently resides), I have heard his name often from people who have taken his Bible study courses. As a result, I was happy to have a chance to spend some time with one of the books of his Catholic Scripture Study series, Galatians, A New Kind of Freedom Defined, which was sent to me as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

The aim of the Scripture Study Series of which this book is a part is to invite readers “on a journey that aims at more than mere knowledge, but transformation.” If we view the study of the Bible as a mere intellectual exercise designed to gather information, we miss that fact that the Bible is intended as living Word, as (in Cavins words) a “love letter” with the “power to transform our lives.”

His approach stresses a number of things that I think are very important aspect of studying and praying with scripture. First, he emphasizes the importance of context – of understanding where the book on which one is focusing fits into the larger scheme and understanding what was its purpose. In the case of Galatians, that means understanding who Paul is talking to and what was the issue the early Church was facing that caused conflict, i.e., the extent to which the Mosaic laws had to be followed by Gentiles. Too often, people pull a quote from one of the books of the Bible without paying attention to what motivated the line and what the author was trying to convey. In order to help readers with that understanding here, the book includes some important interludes from Acts that help set the stage.

Second, there is a focus on understanding how the scripture passage being studied relates to our lives today. One of the criticisms I had of some material I looked at a year or so ago from a Cavins course was that it did not seem to me to view this aspect as critical. But if scripture is going to transform us, we can’t study it as simply a story of some people in a far off time and place. There has to be serious reflection on how this impacts our lives today. I think the questions that are part of each chapter/lesson (the book is divided into 10 lessons) invite serious reflection on our own relation now to each other, to the Church and to God.

Third, each lesson suggest a particular line for memorization. Memorizing scripture is not somethign we tend to do these days. I think many of us above a certain age recoil against memorization, recalling perhaps aspects of the education on our youth where there was an overemphasis on memorization over understanding. However, the danger in reacting against that overemphasis is forgetting that keeping pieces of scipture close to our heart can provide us with solace, comfort and joy at times when we need them. So the encouragement – not to memorize long passages for its own sake – but to take from each lesson a little snippet to carry around with one, strike me as useful.

This is a book that is useful for individual or for group study. (With respect to the latter, the book includes useful material on how to use the book in groups.) In addition to the questions on the text and questions for reflection, each chapters contains additional “points to ponder” for those wishing do deepen their appreciation of the material as well as references to the catechism and other material one might look to for further study. There is a lot here that will enrich your appreciation of Galatians and that, hopefully, will encourage further study of other books of the Bible.

Studying the Bible

Praying with scripture is something I do with great frequency and I think it is a very powerful form of prayer. But it is also the case that there is value in studying the scripture. At Mass we hear and reflect on short passages of the Bible in isolation and, in my experience, rare is the priest who spends a lot of time in his homily providing the context of a particular reading. (The same is generally true when we pray with scripture – whether we use the daily Mass reading or something else, we are praying with an individual passage.) Therefore, unless we engage in study of the sciripture outside of Mass and our individual prayer, we don’t, for example, see a particular Gospel or another book of the Bible as a whole, or focus very much on how particular themes are treated across different books of the Bible.

Those new (and even those not so new) to Bible study might find useful a book called Learn to Study the Bible, by Andy Deane. The book is subtitled, Forty different step-by-step methods to help you discover, apply, and enjoy God’s Word. I might quibble with the subtitle, in that I found several of the methods in the section of the book providing basic bible study methods close enough to each other that I’m not sure they deserve separate treatment. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend the book.

First, the book does attempt to bridge a divide between prayer and study, by emphasizing the value of prayer for our understanding of the Bible and the inclusion in each of the methods of a step for reflecting on how the subject of our study applies in our individual lives. My criticism of some approaches to Bible study is precisely the failure to include or emphasize what I consider to be an essential part of Bible study: How does this truth appy to my life? And one of the chapters in the initial section of the book on foundations of bible study treats the subject of application in great detail, reminding us that “unless we determine to apply the Scriptures to our lives, we never will.”

Second, several of the methods in the section of the book titled Major Bible Study Methods aim to address some of the issues I raised earlier. One method addresses getting an overview of an entire book, another focuses on characters and what we learn of them throughout different books of the Bible, another focuses on how particular topics are addressed across different books, another on themes. In their individual ways, each provides a method for gaining a broader perspective than we get from reading individual passages.

Third, in a section titled Studying Specific Passages, there are some interesting techniques for some particular topics and/or words used by Jesus or prayers in the Bible as a way to deepen our understanding. While some of the methods in this section are approaches I have engaged in my own study and prayer with scripture, others offered things that had not crossed my mind and that strike me as very useful. There is also a section at the end that provides some methods for scripture study with younger students.

As will be the case with any book of this type, some methods will appeal to some users more than others. But I believe it is a useful reference and I know I will use it both for my own study and in retreats and other programs of spiritual formation that I offer for others.

What Bible Verses Should Everyone Know?

If someone asked you what Bible verses everyone should know, what would you answer?

Both because I use scripture a lot in my own prayer and because in providing spiritual direction or giving retreats I often make suggestions of scriptural passages for others to pray with, I was interested to pick up Patrick Madrid’s, 150 Bible Verses Every Catholic Should Know.

Madrid’s aim is to provide 150 verses that are “among the most important passages for daily prayers and devotions, making important life decisions…, dealing successfully with temptations, sorrows, setbacks and surprises, growing in holiness, consoling and counseling others and discussing your Catholic Faith with non-Catholics.” He divides the scriptural passages by topics such as: Salvation, Divine Revelation, The Sacraments, Sanctity of Human Life, Trials and Temptations and The Church. Each topic contains several scripture passages, each followed by some short commentary.

I’m guessing that if I asked ten serious pray-ers to provide their list of the most important Bible passages, I’d get ten different lists and so I’m reluctant to criticize Madrid’s choices. Still, for me there are some curious omissions. I couldn’t imagine not including on such a list the Genesis account of creation, of God creating the world (however long that actually took) and breathing life into humans. Or Paul’s hymn of Christ’s humility in Philippians. Or the raising of Lazarus and Martha’s beautiful expression of faith that precedes the raising. Also, the author’s heavy use of the Gospels of Matthew and John to the virtual exclusion of Mark and Luke mean that several of my favorite passages (e.g., Emmaus and the Prodigal Son) are not included. That my list is different from his cannot be taken as a criticism of the author. Indeed, if one effect of the book is to cause readers to come up with their own “top 150” list, that would not be a bad thing.

As a spiritual director, I don’t tend toward the same way of categorizing scriptural passages that Madrid uses in the book. I’m more likely to categorize passages in terms of things like helpful passages when one is struggling with faith or trust in God, passages to pray with when one is in need of healing, and the like. But given Madrid’s aims, which as the quote above suggests, go beyond counseling or dealing with individual issues people are facing, his division seems sensible.

One of the things I greatly appreciated was the inclusion of some passages I don’t tend to go to, either in my own prayer or in my recommendations to others. What explains the fact that I never turn to the letters to the Thessalonians for anything? Beats me, but Madrid includes three passages from those two letters and I am happy to be reminded of their existence.

I think the best way to use this book is that way Madrid obviously intends is: not as something to sit and read cover to cover, but as a tool for one’s daily prayer. And I do think it is a very valuable tool for that purpose. So those looking for something to help structure their daily prayer might consider taking a bit of time each day reflecting on one of the passages and the brief commentary.

I read this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

Tales of the Old Testament

Having taught seventh grade religious education and otherwise been involved in various ways with pre-teen and teen religious education, and thus experienced their lack of familiarity with the Bible, I was excited to pick up a copy of Henri Daniel-Rops, The Book of Books, a retelling of Old Testament stories intended for this age group.

Many of the stories are written in an engaging way and overall the book provides a reasonably good chronology of Old Testament events. Having said that, I would not choose this book as a way to convey a sense of the Old Testament to young people.

Originally written in 1955 and published in English in 1956, the book has been re-released as an ARKive edition of Sophia Institute Press. The ARKive Editions are exact reproductions of the books as originally published. The publishers recognize that “previous ages and cultures had their faults: and even in good books from earlier times we often find language, ideas or values that were once deemed acceptable even by honorable souls, but are now seen clearly to be wrong.” Their view is that where “books that are overwhelmingly good are tainted by unfortunate peripheral remarks or occasional wrongheaded judgments, we have chosen to publish them intake,” judging the good of the book to outweigh the harm done by such remarks.

In the case of this particular book, the “language, ideas or values,” include an extremely derogatory stance toward women (not only cursed by curiosity, but always the cause of trouble for men), an incredible comment about the lack of civilization of Africans (making it sound as though the entire country in 1956 was one large jungle), and a display of complete disdain for other religions. (It is one thing to believe that one’s own religion is the true one, it is another to refer to other religions as “outlandish” and their gods as “absurd.”) The book also suffers from a Lake Wobegone effect in its treatment of the Israelites; are we really to believe that virtually every Israelite was highly intelligent and gifted? That there were no average, or even below average people among them?

I don’t disagree with the publishers that “good men and women these days can (and should) dismiss” objectionable comments “as the unfortunate products of an age as flawed as our own, albeit in different ways.” However, this is not a book aimed at adults, but at pre-and young teens and it is a book that says in Chapter 1: don’t read the Bible yourselves, it’s too hard, so I’ll relate everything you need to know. I’m far less comfortable thinking that a young person reading this book can filter out the author’s prejudices in the same way an adult can. For an adult, this might provide an interesting window into views that may have been prevalent (or at least not uncommon) in the 1950s; for a pre-teen or young teen it risks confusion and misinformation.

Apart from that major criticism (and my unhappiness at discouraging people from reading the Bible itself), there are at least several places I noticed – and I am no Biblical scholar – where the author simply is wrong in his retelling of certain stories. (E.g. there are several inaccuracies in his telling of the Story of Ruth.) These are not major, but they are surprising.

Overall, despite the engaging way in which the stories are told, I would be very hesitant to recommend this book to its intended audience.

I read this book as part of the Catholic Company reviewer program.

The Visitation

Today we celebrate the feast of the Visitation and I love Luke’s account, which says something both about the relationship of Mary and Jesus and the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.

When the angel appears to Mary, one of the things the angel tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. And so Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says something else, making her the first person to designate Mary in this way: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.”  The Mother of the Lord.  Mother of God.   Sydney Callahan writes, “The truth revealed in this Marian title astounds me. A woman bears God within her womb. God unites the Divine Word with human flesh. When we think of God as Mary’s newborn infant, we see the Lord of all creation in need of human love. Jesus is totally dependent upon his mother’s care. What risks God takes in loving us! And how much God expects of human kind in bringing the new creation to birth! Mary is the first to known the humility of God.”

The other striking thing to me is the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth.  The young woman has just learned that she is to bear the Christ and yet immediately runs off to be of help to her older cousin who is with child.   And the older woman herself welcomes with joy the younger cousin who has been chosen to bear the more important of the two children.  And although we are told only that Mary remained with Elizabeth for some months, we can imagine those months.  Mary helping Elizabeth with chores….Elizabeth counseling the younger woman…the two women working, sitting, talking, planning together.  Neither pride in the one nor jeolousy in the other.   Just two women each lovingly giving the other what she needs.