20 04 2011

Fr. Thomas Reese has an interesting article in one of my favorite Catholic newspapers, the National Catholic Reporter, concerning the hidden exodus of Catholics into Protestantism. Some interesting quotes:

The principal reasons given by people who leave the church to become Protestant are that their “spiritual needs were not being met” in the Catholic church (71 percent) and they “found a religion they like more” (70 percent). Eighty-one percent of respondents say they joined their new church because they enjoy the religious service and style of worship of their new faith…

Catholics who became Protestant also claim to have a stronger faith now than when they were children or teenagers. Seventy-one percent say their faith is “very strong,” while only 35 percent and 22 percent reported that their faith was very strong when they were children and teenagers, respectively. On the other hand, only 46 percent of those who are still Catholic report their faith as “very strong” today as an adult.

Thus, both as believers and as worshipers, Catholics who become Protestants are statistically better Christians than those who stay Catholic. We are losing the best, not the worst.

You mean, they get all the good people, and all we get is all of those damn converts with blogs!

Seriously though, this article reminds me that I am a “Zen-rite” Catholic, in that I like quaint rituals and trinkets that look cool but don’t mean anything. I find them oddly comforting, like prayer wheels and hiring Sicilian grandmothers to wail away during a wake (sort of the predecessor of modern canned laughter on sitcoms). I find the need for “spiritual nourishment” utterly obscene, self-centered, and entirely perverted. You should be addicted to your duty, to your child’s smile, to your wife’s embrace, and a good meal. Anything else smacks of narcissism. What the hell else do you want in life? If you are reading this, you are probably way more “blessed” than 99.999% of all humanity that has lived so far.

That rant out of the way, I find it interesting that we are losing the best and not the worst. Perhaps my right wing, evangelical-turned-Catholic blogging colleagues would agree with that, in that they are constantly whining about “Catholics in name only” (like me) who don’t give a hoot about being “intentional disciples”. Sure, I engage in doctrinal questions at times, as well as church history and so on, but it’s not as if I take any of that as remotely seriously as some would expect. I mean, a lot of this religion stuff can become Dungeons & Dragons playacting, and I want to avoid that at all costs.

Obviously, I disagree with Fr. Reese’s reading of the data. First, people don’t care about liturgy either way, and it seems that they find the Protestant service more entertaining… or edifying, in this case it is the same thing. As for taking the Bible seriously, he is totally wrong in his reading: people want Biblical fundamentalism because it anchors them in the midst of ideological chaos that is late capitalist society. They could care less how many great Biblical scholars Catholicism has produced or if the priest preaching the homily knows ancient Syriac: they want solid answers no matter how foolish they are, precisely, I would argue, because they are foolish. “Just give me something to believe in, no wishy washy liberal stuff”. For the American perceives the Bible as the ultimate self-help book, and what good is a self-help book if you are constantly questioning its authority, undermining it with critical readings, and so on? People like the Bible because it is hard to read (if not to say incomprehensible): no pain, no gain; my country right or wrong, and so on.

And as for the Church being in denial, what do you expect from an institution whose modus operandi for sixteen centuries has been that it is always right?



36 responses

26 04 2011

I have a friend who visited Quebec recently and said that the FSSP run a parish there. Do you have access to it?

25 04 2011

Have you ever considered not reading the comments, since you find them such a drag?

25 04 2011

Great post!

25 04 2011
25 04 2011
brian m

Have you ever considered removing the comments function on your blog? Your posts are always thought-provoking, but your usual cast of commenters are a consistent drag, with the exception of Mr. White.

25 04 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Gosh, I dislike liturgy. I dislike people who care about liturgy even more. Talking about liturgy makes the baby Jesus cry. You people need to get another hobby.

25 04 2011

Actually, I was supposed to watch Jesus of Montreal for a class I TA, but never got around to it. Should rent that.

I’ve been known to just say the Rosary or read a prayerbook. Still, it’s a desert out here. Why be a priest only to mutilate the Mass and show an obvious disinterest in saying Mass? Why not just laicize and do something else? Just hanging around for the pension? The Anglican priests really like being clergy and celebrating their rites. The Roman clergy can’t wait to get Mass over with.

Quebec should be re-consecrated to the Sacred Heart. In fact, it might not be a bad idea for the Pope to re-issue the Leonine Prayers for the conversion of post-Catholic countries. It’ll be nothing short of an amazing miracle for Quebec to find any semblance of the Catholic faith again.

24 04 2011
Owen White

Don’t they have good architecture at RC parishes there? Can’t you just plug your ears and look at the walls?

I’m sensing that Jesus of Montreal was not one of your favorite films.

24 04 2011

If people find “spiritual nourishment” and have a “stronger faith” in the membership of non-Catholic sects, they were probably material heretics anyway. We are certainly not losing the best. At least they might be being honest with themselves, if they are Protestants in all but name at least leave and be open in your errors.

Here comes the curveball: I occasionally attend Anglo-Catholic Masses. Roman Catholicism in Quebec is dead. Catholicism is a faithless shell that’s just going through the motions without any real devotion. The Anglicans might not believe in anything either, but at least they simulate a Mass well. The Catholics don’t even bother to say half the Mass correctly, and what they say they say irreverently. I just attended an ultra-Low Roman Catholic Good Friday Presanctified that didn’t even have adoration of the Cross!

I don’t make any gestures, blessings, kneelings, or genuflections at the Anglo-Catholic “Mass”. I never receive the “Eucharist”. I just sit there on my rear and observe (with the full knowledge of the clergy there). At least, however, I get to hear the propers and sequences of feasts rather than a made-up folk hymn in the place of the appointed introit or communion verse.

What never fails to amaze me is that “heretics” say a much more reverent “Mass” than any apostolic Catholics in my region. It’s hard for me to maintain the Roman faith in such an arid environment. My trusted Roman confessor permits me to sit in the Anglican church so long as I hear the Catholic Mass every Sunday and confess regularly (“so long as it’s a valid Consecration” …). Still, I still suspect that communio in sacris is a sin, even if I’m just taking up space at the A-C church.

What am I to do in this situation? Yes, I should just suck it up and be a Roman, even if the Masses are irreverent and aesthetically moribund. Maybe I should just say a bazillion rosaries and just try to forget about it all. Still, the Anglicans help keep me afloat by filling in much of the prayer that the Romans have discarded in their quest for “relevance”. It is, indeed, nowadays almost impossible to be a loyal son of the Church in some parts of the world.

It is pathetic that any Roman needs to be placed in a situation like this. One wonders when the trial will end. I must ask myself: do I have the resolve to pick up my Cross and suffer with the Church? So many saints have suffered much worse than a badly-celebrated Novus Ordo Mass.

24 04 2011

It’s not about a God who supposedly and quite aribitrarily chooses one group over another and then orders them to kill any who get in their way. People who read the Bible that way are exceedingly shallow.

But the Bible is meant to be read as a whole</i.

On these two points, at least, we are in complete agreement. I'd say these, in fact, are more fundamental than the different perpsectives we seem to draw from them.

As to the rest, consider this analogy:

1. I say to my daughter, "Leave the lye alone! It's poisonous and if you touch or eat it, it'll hurt you very badly or kill you!" I then do my best to put it in an inaccesible place where she can't get it. What I say is merely descriptive–I'm not threatening her, just accurately telling what will happen if she gets into the lye as a way of deterring her. If somehow she manages to get to it despite my best efforts, gets into it, and is hurt or killed, the outcome, while tragic, is the result of her actions. I bear no blame in the matter.

2. I say the same thing as above, but this time I decide to punish my daughter for her disobedience. I have her cousin put the lye out in plain view where I know my daughter will get into it. She does, is hurt or dies, and then I punish the cousin for putting the lye out! I think we’d both agree that I would rightfully be sent to jail for abuse and attempted homicide (or homicide, if there is a death).

OK–now consider:

1. God says descriptively what “punishments” will happen if Israel or the nations act in such-and-such a way. In short, materialism, disregard of God, hedonism, and greed lead to despoiling the land and oppressing the poor, and ultimately lead to imperialism and militarism, which finally leads to the invasion and pillage of others, and eventually when someone more powerful comes along, the invastion and pillage of one’s own country. God doesn’t make any of this happen, and He doesn’t want it to happen. He merely informs us of the results, gives us free will, and if we do not heed Him, it’s our fault, not His.

2. Same as 1, but God decides to punish us for our sins, so He actively incites Israelites to slaughter Canaanites, Babylon to destroy Israel, etc. He may be working through intermediaries, but He’s still at fault for the slaughter and deaths of innocents (I assume that there were at least some innocnet Canaanites and Israelites!) that occurs. I trust the analogy to the lye scenario is clear.

I’m not completely sure where you’re coming from, but if you’re advocating a view like 1, then I can heartily endorse it. If, on the other hand, you’re promoting viewpoint 2, then I have to respectfully disagree totally and vehemently with you.

The Bible often seems to endorse the second viewpoint. Once again, I point to 2 Samuel 24: God incites David to take a census, and then punishes him for it. Except David gets off scott free–it’s the seventy thousand innocent people who had nothing to do with the whole affair who die from the pestilence that God sends as punishment. Just to show that it’s not just I who am profoundly disturbed by this, see the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 21. The Chronicler has changed it so that it’s Satan who incites David to the census. Seventy thousand innocents still get slaughtered by God, but at least He wan’t the instigator, I guess.

For another such charming example, see 2 Kings 2:23-25

Now if you don’t have a problem with a God who behaves as in the 2 Samuel account, I guess there’s not much I can say except that we stand in profound disagreement and that such a God, to me, seems indeed to be barbaric, bloodthirsty, and even demonic. I don’t disagree that we live in a nasty, violent world where the innocent suffer for no good reason, and that God at least allows such a world; but I don’t think He’s adding to the body count by punishing whole nations and killing innocents along with the guilty for transgressions in such ways as this.

I will honestly say that I don’t have a fully developed “explanation” for such stuff in the OT, even having read the Bible as a whole and studying it for thirty-odd years now. I definitely do not see such stories as portraying God accurately, though. They may be allegory or metaphor or folktales that crept into the Bible or they may be the views of a barbarous people. I think that the overall thrust is as I described in point 1, that God is being descriptive about consequences, not showering them down upon us and then punishing those who are carrying out His “just” punishments. I simply cannot believe in a God who smites whole nations, killing people by the droves, innocent and guilty, as a way of showing His justice.

Or put it like this: Do you agree with some pastors such as Falwell and others who argued that 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were God’s punishment on America for our sins? Did the innocent children who died (for they’re innocent, even if you want to indict all the adults) for this “chastisement” really have to die? Is that how God works?

Once again, I think we’re in agreement on some things, but we may profoundly disagree regarding how God acts in the world.

24 04 2011
john burnett

(sorry for the length of that; i was actually quoting something i wrote a while back, and it was too easy to cut and paste.)

24 04 2011
john burnett

Turmarion, the problem, as i said, is taking description for prescription. God commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites. Everybody reads that and then slams their bible shut with a loud ‘Aha!’, feeling justified either that God was a barbarian, or the Israelites (now transmogrified in the understanding to ‘us/those (ancient/modern) Jews’) were, or both; and that we should either go and do likewise or that we’re so far superior to those primitives that maybe we even belong to another religion altogether‚ a religion of “love”!

Nonsense, as i say, but it requires reading the whole bible to see that that’s the whole point— that such views are nonsense.

God commands the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites because their deeds were odious. Then he commands the Babylonians to destroy Israel because they practiced *the same deeds*!

Those passages in which Israel is ordered to do violence upon her neighbors are part of a much larger story, in which Israel itself suffers an equal dose of violence. That’s what nobody seems to realize.

In Jeremiah 4:1-2, the prophet entreats Israel to repent of her disloyalty and return to her covenant with Yhwh:

If you return, O Israel, says the LORD, if you return to me,
if you remove your abominations from my presence and do not waver,
and if you swear, ‘As the LORD lives!’ in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall be blessed [or: shall bless themselves] by him,
and by him they shall boast.

In other words, Israel’s fulfilment of her covenant obligations, her practice of truth, justice and righteousness, will bring the blessing promised to and through Abraham upon the nations (cf. Gn 18:18-19)— the restoration of Adam.

If the nations are to be blessed, Israel need only be loyal to Yhwh. Her life with Yhwh will itself draw the nations to him so that they too may experience his blessing.

Jeremiah is called a ‘prophet to the nations’ (1:5, cf. 10), and his prophecies are extensively concerned with the nations (chapters 46-51). Not only Israel’s future, but the future of the nations also, could be different from the judgements he so relentlessly and agonizingly foresees. Blessing could overflow from faithful Israel to her national neighbors. All it needs is faithfulness.

But there is no faithfulness, and therefore blessing does not overflow, and Israel gets destroyed, like all the other nations were destroyed, and even as she herself destroyed some of them.

Violence, in fact, is the very stuff of history that needs to be talked about and answered by a book such as the Bible— but people never read beyond a few chapters and don’t ever get that the Bible is talking about the big picture and about the meaning of history and of violence as a whole. It’s not about a God who supposedly and quite aribitrarily chooses one group over another and then orders them to kill any who get in their way.

People who read the Bible that way are exceedingly shallow. ‘No, it’s bloody unfair!’ they say, and slam the book shut, satisfied that Yhwh, Israel’s tribal deity, is no better than the bloodthirsty demons he hates. (Too much competition? Or a case of, ‘By the prince of demons he casts out demons!’ (cf Mark 3.22)?)

Or they take the first installment of a lesson on *faithfulness and justice* as both *command and license* to commit murder in God’s name, proclaiming themselves ‘chosen’ to do so. ‘We have Abraham for our father!’ (cf. Jn 8.39).

Others, who prefer to feel superior to God, say that God took an ‘anger management program’ between the Old and New Testaments and learned to be nice— and that Jesus is somehow at odds with the God of the Old Testament. No one seems to care that Jesus didn’t think so. ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn 8.16).

No, that God has chosen one group over another and then ordered them, or at lest given license, to kill any who get in their way would be a pernicious, ignorant myth. Even if it seems to be popular in both fundamentalist and secularist crowds, and in the modern Israeli state (and one may recall certain recent statements by a former Israeli chief rabbi here in particular).

Actually such non-biblical myths have nothing to do with the Bible, except that they find justification in contextless fragments of it, and justify, in biblical terms, actions that are quite at odds with the message of the Bible, and of the prophets in particular.

Interestingly, such myths also fit in very nicely with the picture of God the Father demanding the blood of his only-begotten Son as ‘satisfaction’ for his outraged honor, which has arguably become the reigning theology of our culture.

But the Bible is meant to be read as a whole, and when we do that, we find that among the purposes of its various oracles and in fact of the book as a whole, these three, among others, stand out:
• to show that all the evil that came upon Jerusalem and the Jews was well-deserved,
• to show that the nations who executed the judgment of God will themselves be judged for the evil they did even while unwittingly serving as his instruments, and
• to glorify Yhwh as God of the whole earth by showing that all the nations are his servants, and if need be, the tools, or rather, the weapons— or the deserving objects— of his wrath.

Jeremiah in particular is interesting. His focus, of course, is on Israel, and his cry is that Israel must face the same judgments of the all-just God that the Canaanites faced when Israel wiped them out. Israel cannot hide behind the fact that she is God’s ‘chosen’ people; indeed, she must all the more face his wrath:

For Israel and Judah were not widowed from their God, from Yhwh of hosts,
but their land was filled with guilt before the Holy One of Israel. (Jeremiah 51.5)

So Jeremiah complains to his countrymen, the ‘chosen people’:

‘4 Yhwh has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, [and] you have not listened or paid any attention. 5 They said, “Turn now, each of you, from your evil ways and your evil practices, and you can stay in the land Yhwh gave to you and your fathers for ever and ever. 6 Do not follow other gods to serve and worship them; do not provoke me to anger with what your hands have made. Then I will not harm you. 7 But you did not listen to me,” declares Yhwh, “and you have provoked me with what your hands have made, and you have brought harm to yourselves.”

‘8 Therefore Yhwh God says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, 9 I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon,’ declares Yhwh, ‘and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely de-stroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. 10 I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. 11 This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years.”’ (Jr 25.4-11)

The point is that Jeremiah is addressing *Judah* here, not the Canaanites whom Joshua destroyed.

In the Bible, ‘revelation’ is primarily God’s self-revelation, not the disclosure of interesting theological factoids about ‘life after death’, the future of the world, or even divinely sanc-tioned norms for living. Revelation is God’s self-disclosure: Yhwh, the Creator of the universe, is showing what kind of God he himself is and how he expects his friends to be.

Not surprisingly, therefore, it turns out he has the same attitude and the same ‘policy’ towards Israel as he has towards the other nations. Israel is to be an example to the nations— but whether of weal or of woe, turns out to be Israel’s own choice. And Israel does not always choose well. In fact, generally it chooses rather badly, and suffers.

We do not, of course, have any words of God addressed to the Canaanites, but if God acted towards them like he said he would act towards Israel, then such words as he would have addressed to them would have been very similar to those he addressed to Israel: ‘You have provoked me with what your hands have made, and you have brought harm to yourselves’ (Jr 25.7). In other words, ‘Worshipping falsehood and lies, you have committed every evil and injustice, so I will visit you and give you the evil you have chosen.’ And he brought the Israelites upon them— just as he would later bring the Babylonians upon the Israelites, and then the other nations upon the Babylonians:

‘12 But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,’ declares Yhwh, ‘and will make it desolate forever. 13 I will bring upon that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. 14 They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.’ (Jr 25.12-14)

So we are not surprised to find that the sentence of ḥerem (the ‘ban’ of utter destruction) which God ordered Joshua to impose on the Canaanites, turns out to be the fate of Babylon as well:

18 Behold, I am bringing punishment on the king of Babylon and his land, as I punished the king of Assyria [who destroyed northern Israel and was destroyed by the Babylonians]….

The prophet then calls upon the surrounding nations to

21 “Go up against the land of Merathaim, and against the inhabitants of Pekod.
Kill, and devote them to the ban, declares Yhwh, and do all that I have commanded you.
22 The noise of battle is in the land, and great destruction!
23 How the hammer of the whole earth is cut down and broken!
How Babylon has become a horror among the nations!
24 I set a snare for you and you were taken, O Babylon, and you did not know it;
you were found and caught, because you opposed Yhwh.
25 The Yhwh has opened his armory and brought out the weapons of his wrath,
for the Lord Yhwh of hosts has work to do in the land of the Chaldeans.
26 Come against her from every quarter; open her granaries;
pile her up like heaps of grain, and devote her to the ban; let nothing be left of her.
27 Kill all her bulls; let them go down to the slaughter.
Woe to them, for their day has come, the time of their punishment. (Jr 50.18-27).

The same almost turns out to be the fate of Israel as well, and indeed, ‘except Yhwh of hosts had left us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah’ (Isaiah 1.9). But instead—

‘19 I will restore Israel to his pasture, and he shall feed on Carmel and in Bashan, and his desire shall be satisfied on the hills of Ephraim and in Gilead. 20 In those days and in that time, declares the LORD, in-iquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant’ (Jr 50.19-20)

The purpose of the remnant is to display God’s justice in the sight of the nations, and to teach the nations the justice of God. In other words, Israel is to be an example.
Maybe not so oddly, God’s judgments are often linked with ‘the land’; it is not hard to understand this as referring to ecological issues, as well as political ones. This is the motivation for the violence that Joshua will visit on the Canaanites at the end of the story of Moses: the land itself, and history itself, will vomit out the corrupt and blasphemous nation.

‘24 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. 25 Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sin, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. … 27 for all these things were done by the people who lived in the land before you, and the land became defiled. 28 And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vom-ited out the nations that were before you.’ (Lv 18.24-28).

So for the Canaanites, Israel, Babylon, everyone— in every case the reason for their destruction is the same, as Yhwh told Moses:

‘Behold, I am against you, O destroying mountain,
declares the LORD,
which destroys the whole earth;
I will stretch out my hand against you,
and roll you down from the crags,
and make you a burnt mountain.’ (Jeremiah 51.25)

In the context, the mountain is Babylon. In other contexts, it would be Zion. And meanwhile, God’s witnesses have something to sing about:

‘The nations raged, but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants,
the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name,
both small and great—
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’ (Revelation 11.18)

So in summary: The fact that Babylon will be the instrument of divine wrath against Israel does not exempt Babylon from judgment; nor does the fact that Israel was the instrument of divine wrath against the Canaanites exempt *Israel* from judgment. What he says to Babylon, he said to Assyria, and before Assyria to Israel, and before Israel to the Canaanites:

You were My war club, my weapons of battle;
with you I clubbed nations,
with you I destroyed kingdoms,
with you i clubbed horse and rider,
with you I clubbed chariot and driver,
with you I clubbed man and woman,
with you I clubbed greybeard and boy,
with you I clubbed youth and maid,
with you I clubbed shepherd and flock,
with you I clubbed plowman and team,
with you i clubbed governors and prefects.
But I will requite Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea
for all the wicked things they did to Zion before your eyes,
declares Yhwh. (Jeremiah 51.20f)

Jeremiah’s message, and that of the Bible as a whole, is not therefore that Yhwh is a jealous tribal war god who supports the kind of blasphemy and presumption mouthed by the Israeli state’s deeply and sadly deluded former Chief Rabbi (for example), and by others who are quite ignorant of the Scriptures.

Jeremiah’s message is rather that Yhwh himself is behind the vicissitudes of history— and that he is a just God and is not pleased with injustice. Seriously— From exactly where did we learn that justice is higher than might, if not from the God of the Bible?

God does not, in fact, support, but responds personally to the arrogance and sin of nations, even his own nation:

‘How is the faithful city become an harlot! it was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers’ (Isaiah 1.21).

God’s preference is for ‘the foreigner, the widow, and the fatherless’— the verses are too numerous to cite. He also seeks the repentance of the nations (including, especially, his own) and righteousness from them.

So the Bible is saying that history is not ruled by other gods, even if it seems to be. In modern terms, we might say that history is an impersonal course of events, but the Bible would not agree. History is ruled by the God of righteousness.

And he has spared for himself a remnant— and that remnant, the New Testament says, is not exactly the same as all of us who imagine that we are righteous and everyone else is damned!

23 04 2011
Francesca R

I just came here from Facebook and was all ready to click “Like” on this one…

23 04 2011

Absolutely correct, Sam! 🙂

23 04 2011

Sorry–this post should have begun with

The Bible *deals* with genocide, sexism, racism, barbarism, and etc, because those things are the stuff of history…but i don’t think it *is* those things or advocates them, despite the ways we come up with to make it do so.

23 04 2011

But it is very clear that it is God commanding these things–according to the OT, it is God who commands the destruction of every living thing in conquered cities (remember, Saul loses the throne because, according to 1 Samuel 15 he disobeyed God by sparing the cattle and sheep!), who countenances slavery, who insists on the death penalty for adultery, etc. etc. etc. Even the authors of later parts of the OT obviously were troubled by the contents, since the “cleaned up” parts of it. Compare, for example, 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. Another example is the famous Talmudic story in which God silences the rejoicing angels during the destruction of the Egyptian army during the Exodus, saying that the Egyptians are also His children and are dying. Very much from the triumphal “horse and rider he has cast into the sea” in Exodus 15.

The point is that without some external norm such as the Talmud, the Oral Torah, the Tradition of the Church, the Fathers, etc., there is nothing to stop anyone from, as you put it, “making” the OT be racist, genocidal, etc. In fact, it’s not a matter of “making” it be anything–a naive, surface reading of it shows that, absent interpretation, it is those things. For those of us who don’t think God is like that, we’d say that the ancient Israelites (like most peoples of the day) were a violent and barbaric people through whose culture the image of God percolated. Gradually, as they became more civilized and came to a better understanding of God, they viewed Him in a much different way–see, for example the sublimity of Second Isaiah. For those of us who are Christian, this fuller, more accurate understanding of God culminated in His self-revelation in Christ. The OT points to him, but as with the classic koan of the finger pointing at the moon, one needs to look at the moon and not linger on the finger.

The Bible is not history, and it is not a prescription for history (like, ‘Go, and Kill!’), but a very long, drawn-out, and subtle reflection on history, the center of which is the cross on which the Messiah was murdered.

But millions of Fundamentalists believe it exactly is both history and a prescription for history. Many in fact see the current military entangelments in Iraq and elsewhere as a sort of holy war to spread Christianity. Check out www dot militaryreligiousfreedom dot org for examples of just how pervasive and creepy this viewpoint is.

As to the Fathers, their approach, like any, has its limitations, although I’d probably say they’re fewer than you seem to imply. The New Perspective (I assume you mean on Paul?), narrative criticism, and all the new approaches have some things to reccomend them, but I’m a little more skeptical. As with other areas of life, Biblical interpretation has fads that come and go–Schweitzer’s famous Quest of the Historical Jesus showed how adeptly scholars from the 18th to early 20th Centuries projected their own prejudices and assumptions onto Jesus, using him as a theological Rorschach test. Yes, some things of value came out of the First Quest, and some will come out of the current Quest, and other techniques and schools of interpretation; but only time will tell how much, and I’m not honestly expecting a whole lot. I’d rather take the cumulative wisdom of the Fathers, the Magisterium, the Councils, and the Church Tradition East and West, realizing the need for critical examination and care, than whatever the latests thing down the pike is. In short, I don’t expect any renaissance to take us beyond me ‘n Jesus, as you put it. Such views and movements haven’t been affected by scholarship so far, tending, in fact, to be actively hostile to it. If there is a solution, I don’t think it’s in Biblical scholarship.

Having said all of this, I think we both agree on the need to get away from simplisitc intepretations and to try as best we can to overcome the evils and delusions of the current age.

23 04 2011
Sam Urfer

This is a feature, not a bug. Who says it’s about answering the question like it’s a math problem?

23 04 2011

Seeing commentaries from the Fathers and auctores probati are much more useful than hearing some Joe Blow wax on about how the passage makes him feel.

23 04 2011

“let’s see what the Church has said about it” – the Church has probably said 10 or 12 different things about it, so I don’t see how that answers the question.

23 04 2011

As far as I’m concerned, it is not worth trying to make ourselves “relevant” to retain people who want to leave the Church. No matter how much we try to chase them, I’m betting their reasons for leaving really have nothing to do with liturgy or anything of that sort. We tried that crap in the ’60s and it failed miserably. Why should we expect anything different? Plus, the destruction of Catholicism in the post-conciliar period is a far graver problem than losing people.

If people find “spiritual nourishment” and have a “stronger faith” in the membership of non-Catholic sects, they were probably material heretics anyway. We are certainly not losing the best. At least they might be being honest with themselves, if they are Protestants in all but name at least leave and be open in your errors.

The “intentional disciple” thing seems very troubling to me as well. I’ve been to those types of events and it all seemed very…Protestant…to me. Who cares what a particular passage means to you, let’s see what the Church has said about it. “Faith” is not bound up with silly neo-con ultramontanism or papal cults of personality.

22 04 2011
C. Wingate

JS, there are those of the “my spouse is worth a mass” kind who come over with not so much baggage. But the people who get talked about: one really needs to remember that they consider conversion in the first place out of a sense of dissatisfaction. And in general that is too soft a word for it: Anglicans flee heresy, Catholics also flee heresy but more commonly abusive religion (psychological, liturgical slovenliness, effective polytheism… and of course that sex stuff), Orthodox flee corruption and substitution of cultural identity for faith, fundagelicals flee a lot of different things. “Cafeteria” has always been the wrong word for it because it’s more commonly about rejection than selection.

I think people care about liturgy a lot. But if they are RC they can’t afford to care, and what they care about is often hard for anyone to articulate, never mind a layman. And it’s usually not the niceties of verbiage or ritual detail that the liturgists waste so much time over. Episcopalians used to care, but these days their clerisy is so caught up in affirming its righteousness through “inclusion” that the crappiness is converging on RC slovenliness from a different direction. And if you see an Orthodox liturgy done carefully there’s probably an ex-Prot behind the iconostasis.

22 04 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Seriously, woman, where do you get off?

I hope to raise my child as a decent human being who will respect others around her and thinks critically before accepting anything she cannot in good conscience assent to regardless of who says it. And keeping her off the pole would be nice, and not seeing her dancing in a hip hop video would be a plus

And not question others anonymously about how they are going to raise their kids.

21 04 2011
john burnett

Gordie, i haven’t, actually. Though from what i have read about Girard, i think i am likely disagree with his theory of displaced violence, when i get to it. Why do you ask?

21 04 2011


Have you read any Rene Girard?


21 04 2011

Turmarion: I don’t think it’s an accident that aside from the Psalter and a few readings for special occasions that the Byzantine and pre-Vatican II lectionaries do not, in fact, contain readings from the OT.

The OT readings were not obscured but displaced. In the Byzantine and Roman traditions, Old Testament readings were more often included in the Office (especially in Matins) rather than read at Mass or Divine Liturgy. One might rather say that the OT readings were intended first for sacerdotal interpretation and then dissemination to the faithful through homiletics. The absence of Old Testament readings in public liturgy is particularly noticeable in the Roman tradition, as regular celebration of parish Matins and Vespers died out in many parts of the world by the early modern period. The shift from public offices in the Roman liturgy to the Breviary highlighted the relative absence of Old Testament readings in the public life of the Church.

Confessional Reformed churches still emphasize Old Testament scholarship, particularly in the area of covenantal theology. I am not familiar with the way in which evangelical non-denominational preachers approach the Old Testament, but I would not be surprised if their exegesis is less cohesive than a strongly Calvinist exegesis.

21 04 2011
john burnett

certainly there have been a number of high-profile guys in the past several years. Wasn’t there an article in Christianity Today or some such about this, a couple years back?

21 04 2011
JS Allen

I’ve twice heard Protestant pastors talk about the hidden exodus of Protestants to Catholicism. Couldn’t the converts in bothe directions be more zealous after? Or am I mis-reading the data?

20 04 2011
john burnett

(By the way, isn’t that ‘catholics come home’ logo smarmy, in the way that only catholic things can be smarmy?)


You’re right; the fathers allegorized, or typologized, heavily and did not so much resist the narrative as take only an oblique interest in it. I think that fact’s really worth meditating on, to see how we got to where we are and what the churches have been doing in history. But— and this may be to go off on a bit of a tangent— i don’t agree that that ‘without such interpretation, [the Bible] is indeed, as critics aver, genocidal, sexist, racist, barbaric, etc. etc.’

The Bible *deals* with genocide, sexism, racism, barbarism, and etc, because those things are the stuff of history (especially of Israel’s history, where the sword cut both ways), but i don’t think it *is* those things or advocates them, despite the ways we come up with to make it do so. The Bible is not history, and it is not a prescription for history (like, ‘Go, and Kill!’), but a very long, drawn-out, and subtle reflection on history, the center of which is the cross on which the Messiah was murdered.

But it’s the tragedy of the modern state of Israel, for instance, that they only want to read the parts where God said to them, ‘Go and Kill’, without taking to heart the times God said that to someone else about them, and why.

But to grasp the big picture, we have to grasp the Bible whole, and not just read Genesis 1-3, and then maybe bits of Abraham, and then— oh, samson and delilah, and then maybe king david, and so on. If we’re going to read the story of wiping out the Canaanites, we need to read Jeremiah as well.

A certain number of people will continue to be attracted to the approach of the fathers, especially as they tire of the infantilism. But the arbitrariness of the fathers’ readings is all too apparent to us today, and to insist on their approach exclusively tends to turn into a kind of neo-authoritarian revanchist ‘orthodoxism’. I say this without for a moment denigrating the fathers’ genuine spiritual wisdom, but we need to sober up about both the Bible and the fathers, and take them each on their own terms. That seems to be the spiritual-intellectual work of our day.

In this vein, therefore, I do think that with certain trends in modern bible scholarship— in particular the New Perspective, ‘narrative criticism’, and related approaches— we’re becoming able to see for the first time what the Bible is about, in ways and at a level that we haven’t perhaps since it was written. And I look for a renaissance based on a new reading of the Bible— because it’s a very powerful story, in its own right— if we can just move beyond ‘me n’ jesus’ long enough to take a look at what it actually is. And I think that look will actually *move* us beyond ‘me n’ jesus’. Lately I have come to think that the Word has more power than we give it credit for.

We live in a very evil age, in which all the churches are deeply corrupt and deluded. And when I look at myself, I am only too aware that I haven’t really undertaken the task I just mentioned, of studying the Bible for what it actually is. Actually, to some degree, this hasn’t even been possible until the past few decades, because the methods I mentioned hadn’t yet emerged. But anyway, I think that’s where our work lies.

Otherwise we will just stand on the sidelines, alternately chortling and wringing our hands over the conversion of the West to Islam, or at least its own final religious dissolution and descent into barbarism.

20 04 2011

It’s mean I know but really – this is not a bad point.


The RC church has lost 1/3 of its members and is due for a reconsideration? What about the Jesuits who have lost 2/3 of its members? Shouldn’t Reese extend his analytical skilz to that issue?

(Consistent with AMERICA magazine’s continual focus on the US bishops’ culpability for the sexual abuse crisis while completely ignoring the Jesuit problems in the same area which are massive. The Frontline special airing tonight on hideous abuse in Alaska has a strong Jesuit component. )

20 04 2011

Good post, and I’m largely in agreement. I think you make an especially good point about people whose “faith is strong”.

I don’t agree that the move toward biblicism is a bad thing….

I should nuance what I originally said. I had more the idea of Protestant-type Biblicism, which reduces Scripture to being “about me”, as you point out above. Also, as you know, Catholic and Orthodox interpretation reads Scripture through the lens of Tradition. In short, the Church is not based on the Bible, but the Bible is the book of and for the Church.

But the fathers were not ignorant of the scriptures like we are, and their liturgy presupposes a greater knowledge of it than we have.

Very true, but also in need of nuance. The Fathers, steeped as they were in the allegorical method of the Greco-Roman world, read Scripture, especially the OT, in a deeply allegorical manner. I’ve often said that if evolutionary biology had been understood back then, the Fathers would have allegorized the Creation story of Genesis as easily as they allegorized statements about a flat Earth or body parts of God (since they were well aware of the spherical Earth and not naive enough, contra modern critics of Christianity, to think of God as a bearded man in the sky), and we’d have never had all the problems with Creationism and intelligent design.

They were especially inclined in this way when reading the Old Testament. The Psalms were used widely, of course, as the prayer of the Church, and the Ten Commandments were revered; beyond that, however, the emphasis was on prophetic passages or types referring to the New Testament. The Fathers were hardly Marcionists, but they were very cautious in interpreting the OT, and loudly criticized any kind of literal reading of it, beyond the basic facts. Many of the more fringe religious movements of today make heavy use of the OT, which proves the point of the dangers the Fathers foresaw. I don’t think it’s an accident that aside from the Psalter and a few readings for special occasions that the Byzantine and pre-Vatican II lectionaries do not, in fact, contain readings from the OT.

Please note: I’m not a Marcionist myself, nor am I denigrating the OT. I’m merely saying that without very careful guidance and interpretation it’s a very dangerous book. Neither Catholicism and Orthodoxy, on the one hand, nor Orthodox Judaism, on the other, take the OT “straight up”. There is Tradition and the Church authority on the one hand, and the Oral Torah and Talmud on the other, to interpret the OT. Without such interpretation, it is indeed, as critics aver, genocidal, sexist, racist, barbaric, etc. etc.

As for liturgy, Fr Reese sounds like he’s “of a certain age”, no?


20 04 2011

Very well put.

I’d add a point that I think is important but often overlooked. Until the 1960’s Catholicism in this country was largely an insular, ghettoized, ethnic religion. A large part, if not the majority, of American Catholics lived in heavily Catholic neighborhoods and went to Catholic schools (at a time when even relatively small parishes could afford to run them). It was quite possible that at school, at home, at play, and at work as an adult, one would socialize and interact mainly with other Catholics, often the same ones from one’s home parish.

In turn, the pre-Vatican II Church had a siege mentality. The Catholic school system in this country was founded as much to prevent religious assimilation as to educate, and in the old days it was mortally sinful to participate in the worship activities of any non-Catholic church. Even attending was permissible only for situations such as weddings, funerals, and such, but it was still frowned upon.

After the 60’s and Vatican II, Catholics moved away from the ghettos, both literally and figuratively, as Catholicism came to be more accepted as part of the mainstream. The alliance between Evangelicals and Catholics in the pro-life movement of the 80’s and following increased contacts between Catholics and Protestants to a degree previously unheard of. The price of this mainstreaming was that Catholics were no longer part of a birth-to-death web of Catholicism, and they were exposed to other influences. Thus, an exodus is hardly surprising. It’s not that more people chose to remain Catholic in the “good old days”; it’s that they didn’t perceive that there was a choice back then.

Actually, the current research is that of church-goers, about 40%, I think, have changed denominations at least once, and that’s everybody–Protestants as well as Catholics. In what amounts to a religious free market, where people shop around for a church that “meets their needs”, it is utterly futile to wring hands about people leaving the church or the Church. You get people staying put in large numbers only if you isolate them, persecute them (which increases solidarity, to an extent), or have a fairly authoritarian enforcement structure (as Arturo has pointed out). Otherwise, anything goes.

I’m not saying it should be a matter of indifference that Catholics leave the Church, or that the Church should just sit on its hands and sigh, “Oh, well,” but I think gimmicky things like “relevance” or reaching out to youth and such are worse than inaction. Frankly, in a religiously pluralistic society with freedom of religious affiliation, I think there’s nothing on can do. The Church’s job isn’t to come up with magic fixes, but just to be the Church in the best way it can. Anything beyond that is up to God.

20 04 2011
john burnett

I’ll check “All of the above’.

I do agree that as RCism has trended toward the same kind of gooey, ‘me-and-jesus’ hymnography and ethos that we find in protestantism, protestantism has become less unthinkable to many RCs. When I was growing up, the KJV was on the Index; one didn’t dare touch it, much less attend a service that used it! But today, after innumerable scandals, the fracas over birth control, hypocrisy over homosexuality, some interest in scripture, and so forth to the mix— a fairly porous boundary is no surprise. And ‘the “self help” Jesus appeals because of the quick fixes demanded by an emotionally infantilized society’. Yes!

‘propaganda of the “intentional disciples” sort, and … way too much discussion along the lines of “when did a similar thing occur in your life and what did it mean to you?”’ occurs because we’ve bought the whole idea that the Bible and the liturgy and the church generally is indeed “all about me”. The RCism of earlier generations wasn’t “all about me”, it was all about the church, and especially in some ways all about the pope. Now that it’s all about me, who cares what else I do? ‘They enjoy the religious service and style of worship of their new faith…’

When people say their faith is “very strong”, i always wonder what this means. There is a kind of hybris which conceals deep, deep anxiety. There is also a kind of humility that cannot be shaken in its questioning faith. In my experience, you are likely to find the latter in catholicism more than in protestantism.

About the bible, ‘Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism aren’t actually Biblical religions, though they use the Bible, whereas fundamentalist Protestantism actually is’— yes again; and add Eastern Orthodoxy as well. But the fathers were not ignorant of the scriptures like we are, and their liturgy presupposes a greater knowledge of it than we have. I don’t agree that the move toward biblicism is a bad thing, but i do think that ‘propaganda of the “intentional disciples” sort, and … way too much discussion along the lines of “when did a similar thing occur in your life and what did it mean to you?”’ is a result of not knowing *how* to read the bible. That is where we have to focus our work in the Bible. And I see very encouraging signs in the New Perspective, and stuff like John Sailhamer’s work on the Pentateuch, etc.

As for liturgy, Fr Reese sounds like he’s “of a certain age”, no? Stuck on “relevance”. People don’t really believe in a god, or a church, that asks nothing of them, though. Tradition isn’t about Latin and style; it’s about understanding how the old forms arose out of, and spoke to, the fullness of human experience, in all its terror and beauty, centered on Jesus Christ— and it presupposes some ability to work with that, within those forms.

20 04 2011

The statistics are an aggregation of events that may have happened anywhere from 6 months ago to 50 years ago. My parents generations were big on converting to mainline Protestantism upon marriage. It ain’t happening in near the numbers today. The great conversion of Catholics over to evangelicalism ended over a decade ago. Evangelicalism has stopped or will soon stop growing in real terms. The generation coming of age today is thoroughgoing agnostic.

they want solid answers no matter how foolish they are, precisely, I would argue, because they are foolish.
I would say more so because they are solid. It is rare to meet someone who isn’t a determinist. It is the reason why your run of the mill atheist is virtually indistinguishable from your committed Christian. A determinist can’t confess that we know that we don’t know; he must accept whatever is on the table until he comes up with a better answer.

20 04 2011

I say this not to be snarky but merely because I do think it would be interesting. You mentioned having a baby baptized recently.


Given your stance to Catholicism and really any attempts to define/put God in a theological and institutional box – why have the child baptized?

As they child gets older and you and AG teach it its prayers – what will you say about those prayers?

20 04 2011

I refuse to apologize for my elitism, intellectual snobbery, and disdain. Let them eat cake? Give ’em the bakery!

Let a third of Catholics leave. If they are not intelligent enough to understand the semantic, syntactic, and psalmodic complexity of apostolic liturgy even in the attenuated Missale Romanum 1970 ritual, then perhaps they should not be Catholic. Participation in the holy sacraments requires a degree of intellectual acumen that some must lack or refuse to exercise.

The Sacramentary of 1973 ushered in an age where the Mass gladly capitulated to secularization through the linguistic register of ad copy. Why are devout Catholics surprised about megachurch defections? We sowed our downfall more than thirty years ago with banal Mass translations and mutilated Masses that blurred or even erased the distinction between secular consumption and sanctification through the purposeful use of pop-cultural tropes. The notion that “liturgy should please me” is the logical conclusion of sacramental surrender to pathos.

This is why I cringe when Fr. Reese writes,

[…] More creativity with the liturgy is needed, and that means more flexibility must be allowed. If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere. The changes that will go into effect this Advent will make matters worse, not better.

Quite the contrary, Fr. Reese. Should we trade what little liturgical patrimony we have left to compete with preachers who masquerade as self-help coaches or pimps for Christ? All, from infancy to old age, must be nourished by orthodox liturgy. Feelings are irrelevant; grace and reverence are paramount. The celebration of Mass and the sacraments strictly according to the rubrics amplifies the unity of the Holy Sacrifice through time and space. The prosperity preachers lack the existential, phenomenological, and metaphysical bonds of apostolic liturgy in rubrical fidelity. “Liturgical creativity” is clerical narcissism of a very grave degree. Prosperity theology is an even greater narcissistic amplification unhindered by liturgical structure.

[…] The church must make a preferential option for teenagers and young adults or it will continue to bleed. Programs and liturgies that cater to their needs must take precedence over the complaints of fuddy-duddies and rubrical purists.

As soon as I learned how to drive I fled the “teen Masses” and heard as many Tridentine Masses and Byzantine Divine Liturgies as I could find. Those young people who realize that the glory of the faith resides in apostolicity and not flimsy proof-texted preaching or praise bands will see through the ruse of “relevance” immediately.

Arturo’s spot on: biblical literalism, and not the rigors of liturgical contemplation, provide a (facile and fragile) “anchor” for many. A sugar-daddy Jesus demands much less than the Christ of an deeply scholastic Holy Sacrifice and Paschal Mystery. Yet the “self help” Jesus appeals because of the quick fixes demanded by an emotionally infantilized society.


20 04 2011

I am a “Zen-rite” Catholic

Gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha!

This is one of your best recent posts–I heartily affirm and agree!

I mean, a lot of this religion stuff can become Dungeons & Dragons playacting, and I want to avoid that at all costs.

Well, there is something to be said about a little D&D now and then…. 😉 On his (thankfully) defunct Beliefnet blog, David Klinghoffer made the same comparison, but he was using it in reference to Anglo converts to radical Islam. I think it applies to any high, liturgical, or otherwise exotic faith (exotic from the perspective of the convert), Catholicism included. It practically defines a lot of the Traditional Liturgy groupies who were born twenty-five years after Vatican II. As one who converted as a relatively young adult, I must admit that I went through a bit of that at one time myself. Mea maxima culpa!

As for taking the Bible seriously, he is totally wrong in his reading: people want Biblical fundamentalism because it anchors them in the midst of ideological chaos that is late capitalist society.

Hit the nail on the head! Ditto for Catholics who want to get more Biblical!

I’ve actually read the Bible completely through, beginning to end, twice, and I’ve reread enough piecemeal to constitute a few other complete readings in toto, I’ve studied enough Latin and Greek (with a teeny bit of Hebrew) to follow the commentaries, etc. etc. I’m probably better versed in Scripture than most Protestants. The point of which is not to toot my horn, but to say that after all that, after thirty years since I first began the whole thing at about eighteen, and in light of the current re-read I’ve been working on over the last year, I’ve concluded that the pre-Vatican II Church was right in de-emphasizing the Bible. I think contemporary bourgeois Catholicism is getting much, much too Biblical, and I think that’s not a good thing.

Re-reading the OT reminded me just how much nasty, barbaric stuff is in there, and just how incapable most people are of reading it intelligently. I joined a Bible study at my parish (long story, but I think it was a mistake), and while there are some good things in it, too much of it is propaganda of the “ntentional disciples” sort, and there’s way too much discussion along the lines of “when did a similar thing occur in your life and what did it mean to you?” Ugh–icky gooey touchy feely stuff like that makes me feel like I’m at a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, and make me want to shower afterwards.

Anyway, as Harold Bloom says in his fine book The American Religion, Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism aren’t actually Biblical religions, though they use the Bible, whereas fundamentalist Protestantism actually is. Very creepy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: