100 years ago today, a saint was born!
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
100 years ago today, a saint was born!
St. John Paul II, pray for us!
Years ago I had a post on the relationship between animation and iconography. The basic point is that the more “data” given by the artist, the more the mind has to overcome the falsehood of the representation. That’s why icons are good for devotion, while realistic images are not.
Ever since, I have been thinking about the Christian film that one day I would like to make.
It is easy to critique the “genre” of Christian film. It is worth doing so. The Church has the truth, so She should also have beauty, no? It is disgraceful that there have been so few good Christian films produced since the medium was invented over 100 years ago.
A few films stand out as masterpieces – yet to my mind, none really hits the mark, for reasons explained in my post on animation. About as close it gets to what I have in mind among color films can be found in the 1959 production, Ben-Hur.
Notice – no words, no face… And yet, it is just about right. In this scene, Christ is on screen for about 2 minutes, and later at the end of the film we see His shadow for a few seconds as He is carrying the Cross. But somehow the entire film is about Christ nonetheless, and it drives that fact home much more efficaciously than many films that portray the entire Gospel narrative. What if the Ben-Hur style of depicting Christ was used to tell the whole Gospel story? Food for thought.
So, to my dream-film. Would it be animated? No. “Moving iconography”? Closer.
I invite the reader to do an exercise. Take a quick look at any recent film about the life of Christ. (For example, this one.) Consider: how does it affect you?
Now, there is a website (here) dedicated to old Christian films – take a look at the film “No Greater Power” (skip to about the 18 minute mark). Watch it for a bit. Notice the difference?
Now go back to the first film.
Which of the three models did you prefer? If you are like me, it is the third. The selective realism allows freedom for the mind to move to God rather than focusing as much on the film itself. If the point is to make a movie, then maybe the first model is best. But “making a movie” would not be the point. Nor would it be making money – as is what unfortunately drives Hollywood and much of the Christian movie industry as well. Cheap budget makes big bucks if you have the “right message” – it is going to be picked up by millions of people to show their children, to show their youth group, etc. That’s the point. But they do not evangelize.
For anyone with a moderate amount of knowledge of the events of the Gospel narrative, I think my model could work, at least for many people.
So, the film would be black and white (or some version of sepia), silent (or mostly silent), with semi-ambient music designed to draw the viewer into the moment of the scene, and be very limited and obscure in the portrayal of Christ, especially leaving the full view of His Face just out of sight. All this helps to conjure – rather than replace – the memory of the real event and the real persons, allowing for a more authentic use of the medium of film for an encounter with God by freeing the mind from the burden of the senses. In a word, it’s contemplative, like an icon.
One day someone will be kind enough (and foolish enough?) to give me the money needed to do such a project. Until then, it’s nice to dream.
Today I read a few interesting things. One was a passage from Peter Kreeft’s book on C. S. Lewis and the third millennium. Another was from Fr. Bede Jarrett’s classic biography of St. Dominic, whose feast is today – now in its last hours.
The former spoke about the inability of people today to think rationally and objectively about moral life, in accordance with Lewis’ famous thesis in The Abolition of Man about so-called “men without chests” who have a body and a head but seemingly nothing in between to mediate… no “chest” to bring the passions in line with what reason really demands.
The latter spoke about the great Albigensian heresy, which denied the goodness of matter. This served as the catalyst for St. Dominic to found the Order of Preachers, just over 800 years ago.
I have made three posts on the “new Albigensianism” (here and here and here); I think some current of the argument therein matches the claim of Kreeft (and Lewis) about “men without chests.” Let these points and questions serve as a sort of haphazard conclusion to that little series, in honor of today.
Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) are inclined to downplay the role of reason. They do this at the service of the body’s urges, whether their own or another’s, especially a supposedly “oppressed” group or minority. While reason serving passions are nothing new, the direct suspicion of reason as having a mediating role is. Like the Albigensians and Manichaeans before them, they are wont to do terrible things to the body; the “perfecti” of the Albigensians preached suicide by starvation as the great liberation, the height of control over oneself and the existentially freeing release of the soul, and PMM’s treat unnatural sexual acts – and the manipulation of the body itself by surgery – as something similar. Like these groups, there is an orthodoxy (increasingly on display in the West’s courts and legislatures), and there are even “preachers” of a sort who attempt to make converts, especially among young, vulnerable children. Reverts are not allowed – just ask Amazon. However, unlike these groups, there is also an open and direct diminution of the importance of reason and the pursuit of truth. Therefore, speech and its part, language, must be absolutely strangled. If an “oppressed person” is somehow mistreated in speech – namely, by suggesting that the desire the person has is not healthy – then one is hating that person. It is a strange accusation, because it is supposed to help the person, but it is seen as an attempt to hurt.
And so we have the “pyramid of violence,” featuring the infamous “microaggression.” Even more than that, we have the startling claim echoed constantly that any derivation from the increasingly ghoulish sexual orthodoxy of the Left is not simply “hate” but is equal to physical violence itself. (Just ask the critics of Mario Lopez.) This is due to a perceived inability to process an idea expressed by language which is at odds with one’s perception of one’s own desires. The foreign idea is not to be accepted or even rejected, it is not to be processed – it is argued that the introduction of such an idea is, first, “triggering” for the oppressed person, making him/her/xir/them uncomfortable. (Thus, the logic of the “safe space.”) Second, worse than this, is the even more serious claim that one will do violence to himself (or herself – etc.) after the introduction of an unwanted idea. Therefore, to speak against the orthodoxy which psychologically protects these people from themselves simply is the same as physically attacking them, even killing them.
Now, of course it is possible to drive a person to self-harm, and this should certainly not be a goal or come from total recklessness. (It is certainly possible to drive someone to hurt someone else, granted.) But the greatest ally here is VERITAS – TRUTH! We are not sexual animals, gendered animals, or racial animals, we are RATIONAL animals. The capacity to reason is what makes us human, and it CAN be appealed to, especially if those with the “ethos” – the authority – use their platforms wisely by aiming at rational persuasion rather than through fear, anger, egoism, or anything less than what is noblest in our nature. To try to shut down free speech is typically to trap people’s minds in darkness, leaving those with the power the ability to wield it with a vengeance. We are naturally inclined to seek the TRUTH, but usually we do need to be exposed to the ideas which point to it to reach it. In general, it seems better to let people hear bad ideas, even wicked ideas, and let those ideas be exposed for what they are by rigorous public discourse. We can’t create a utopia by blocking out unwanted ideas which might tell us we are desiring something bad for us… in fact, that is just what Christ came to do: call to repentance, and then offer salvation. That is the real “safe space,” where infinite rational discovery is engaged in by seeing God.
All this leads me back to the issue of voluntarism (bound up with nominalism)… Most Western people today who believe in Heaven think of it as a slightly better version of this world. How boring. And how Muslim… I truly wonder if there is a connection here with the voluntarism of Islam, where obedience – not rational friendship with a loving, personal God – is the primary virtue. No thinking required, just do what you are told. And there in Islam we find a boring vision of Heaven as well. Eye has seen and ear has heard what Allah has prepared.
I find it possible that the scholastic rediscovery of Greek philosophy through contact with the Arab world in the 13th century could have somehow infected European Christianity with voluntarism. Could some voluntarist undercurrents in Averroes or Avicenna have somehow made it into the Franciscan schools? Perhaps. I don’t have enough information. I will save it for another day.
That brings me to my last point today… I will be disappearing for a while. Christian Renaissance Movement will be suspended indefinitely as I hopefully prepare to enter religious life in the near future. Please pray for me, and I will pray for you. If you have enjoyed these pages over the past few weeks, months, or years, please reach out and let me know – I have loved engaging with my readers, and I hope to do so once again in the future. When that will be, I do not know. Until then, do good, avoid evil, and have a chest.
St. Dominic, pray for us!
If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.
So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.
The meaning of human existence was definitively determined and confirmed about 2,000 years ago in a little cave just outside Jerusalem when a dead man suddenly came alive again. Nobody saw the event itself – it was secret. Only its effects were perceived, just as this same man’s public miracles had been… in the midst of confusion, or chaos, or darkness, or in some kind of hidden or invisible circumstances. But the effects were perceived clearly. And yet frequently, their meaning was not perceived.
To see the Risen Christ after the torture and death He endured only days earlier evoked principally two emotions – fear and joy. The fear came from the natural confusion of seeing someone alive who had died. The ambiguity which such a situation presents is overwhelming to the psyche – and even most sincere believers in the Resurrection today would no doubt still be startled by this kind of encounter. The bridging of the worlds of the living and the dead calls for such an “unnatural” in-betweenness, a characteristic of the Christ which is hammered home numerous times in the pages of the Gospels. This should be no surprise when we believe He is both God and man, already a great mystery of “contradiction” and “ambiguity.” He was baptized in the “middle” place. He touches “unclean” things. He lives near cities but not in them. He is evasive physically and rhetorically. He is a shape-shifter. He is a gatekeeper.
The joy, in part “unleashed” or magnified by the fear, comes from perceiving that this gatekeeper has opened the way to Heaven in the Resurrection somehow in Himself, which is the meaning of the event. And a primal spiritual instinct ought to urge one not only to desire such an opening, but also to sense that the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth actually matches with this desire in a way that nothing else could. In other words, the story of Jesus is too good not to be true; human minds are not capable of devising a story like this – in fact, everything in our natural powers tends to fight against making these sorts of deep and universal existential claims that hinge on particulars, like the sort that would depend on an individual man in a real historical time and place. Our natural sensibilities prefer a God that is more like a cosmic soup or a distant watchmaker – not a Person, let alone three Persons. The “scandal of particularity” is deeply unsettling when rightly perceived. That is what happens when order, the Logos, involves Himself with the mess of the universe – there is a disruption, including in the chaos of our souls.
This was recently demonstrated to me after some discussions with defenders of a certain Easter article in the New York Times. I don’t intend to launch into an apologetic critique of the article – you can read such a thing here – I only mean to note the stubborn insistence that somehow the Resurrection, to a Christian, could be something other than what it is plainly preached as being by the apostles: a physical reanimation of the individual Jesus of Nazareth. The gymnastics used to get around this while still ferociously clinging to the title “Christian” were what really struck me. It occurred to me that this is precisely what that dreadful curse of Isaiah is all about – seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding – even in the midst of claiming the masthead of Divine approval.
This is also basically what occurred during the public ministry of Christ, but in a slightly different way. While the folks I was talking with were through and through American leftists and therefore deeply opposed to any kind of nationalism, the same false Messianic paradigm which has seemingly always plagued the Jews since they entered Canaan was at work in them as well: the Messiah is a politician. For these leftists, the point of the Christ is by and large to advance laws and policies propping up public welfare programs, globalism, non-judgmentalism, and instant gratification of hedonistic desires. (The “economic Christ” and the “therapeutic Christ” are present as well.) For the Jews, it was and is about Jewish nationalism. Even today they are waiting for a singular figure to rise up to destroy the Palestinians and usher in a glorious Jewish peace in Israel, of course, with the Temple rebuilt. (Have they forgotten about Julian the Apostate’s miraculously disastrous attempt to rebuild the Temple, even before the Al-Aqsa mosque occupied the very spot?)
Peter was really willing to die for Jesus on Holy Thursday – until he realized that this is not the Messiah he had signed up for. The predictions of death were clearly not metaphors or exaggerations… but he did not yet understand that neither were the predictions of resurrection. He had been thinking like men, not like God. His paradigm of Messiah qua warlord-politician was ruined when Jesus submitted to the soldiers, and so Peter too was ruined. It turns out that in some sense he really did not know the man. “How will Jesus lead the war against those dreadful Romans now?” He will indeed lead a war against Rome, but in a spiritual way that shows even them Divine mercy and love.
All this brings me, oddly, to the Book of Jonah. When read correctly, there is hardly a book in the Old Testament which more bluntly and richly explains the Christ’s agenda in such a short space. Of course, we read Christ speak about the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12: 38-41) – a clear reference to the Resurrection – but there is more to it than that.
Jesus Christ is the New Jonah – not only in the sense of “fulfillment” but also of correction. See if you can find some paradoxical connections to the Gospels in this summary.
Jonah so deeply hates the Assyrians (Gentiles) that he would rather die than tell them that God loves them. After all, they have historically been at war with Israel. But even before he turns to obey God’s command to preach in Nineveh, Jonah is a successful evangelist. Sleeping on the pagan sailors’ boat during a storm as he is disobediently running away from Nineveh as far as he can, he awakens to tell them that he is the cause of the danger. With this short sermon alone, they all become fervent devotees to the God of Jonah, probably, we can infer, much to Jonah’s displeasure. These new fervent worshipers of the God of Israel commend the soul of Jonah to that same God’s care, asking that his blood not be on their hands as they throw him into the sea to meet his fate. While Jonah wishes for death, he seems not to get it, although we are left wondering if he died in the belly of the whale and yet rose again. His prayer therein is not repentant – apparently he finds no guilt in himself – but he does offer obedience. He is spit onto land again and preaches a five word sermon in Nineveh which simply threatens destruction. He does not say what is wrong with Nineveh, he does not say how to avoid the impending punishment, and he does not even mention God. The entire city converts, which Jonah is furious about. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, and a plant grows over him. The shade is wonderful, but soon a worm eats the plant and it dies – Jonah wishes for death again, selfishly complaining to God about His mercy on Nineveh but not on the plant. God disagrees. The end.
Christ loves the Gentiles so much that He wants to die for them. Start the reinterpretation there. The end of the story is the real kicker for Jewish nationalism… According to St. Augustine, the worm which attacks Jonah’s plant represents Christ; the plant represents the Old Covenant and its favors. (Think of the cursing of the fig tree during Holy Week.) It was there for a while due to God’s own superabundant favor, and now it disappears, making everyone equal under the sun. The “Jewish moment” is over. It was only a pedagogue, mainly about the fidelity of God to His promises. Now a greater promise must be fulfilled… And keeping this in mind, many of the parables and activities of Christ are split wide open to a new logic, along with more understanding of the offense taken at the Lord’s attitude toward the Nations. (The workers who are late to the vineyard, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the discussion with the woman at the well… all these and more lend themselves in part to the exploration of this theme.) The Jews are not special in themselves: salvation is for everyone, even the descendants of the wicked Esau and Ham. The Temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, as God made His escape from Jerusalem out into the Nations. The Lord’s own garment, woven from top to bottom, has not been torn, while He died just outside the Holy City, shedding His Blood upon the new doorpost and lintel which is broad enough for the whole world to enter in and receive the safety of God’s protection from everlasting death. That blessed Plant, the Cross, will protect us from the heat of Hell’s fire, which will make us wish for another death that will never come.
There should be no question of the historical existence of the person of Jonah. We hear about him in 2 Kings 14: 23-25 – where he delivers a prophecy which will, ironically, be reversed by Amos (Amos 6: 13-14) – and a hermeneutic of faith urges us to read the Sacred Text open to the astounding and miraculous intervention of God in the history of the Chosen People. Compared to the Paschal Mystery, the miracles contained in the Book of Jonah are mere shadows. Trying to “demythologize” these or other miraculous signs without a serious reason to suspect a metaphorical intention on the author’s part indicates an unhealthy attitude towards Divine Providence and an under-appreciation for the significance of the New Covenant. Perhaps the single biggest problem among basically orthodox theologians today is a fear of being “fundamentalist” with regard to the run-up to the Incarnation. As if it were somehow naive to believe as the Jews of 1st Century Israel believed. What we need in order to appreciate the kerygma as fully as possible in this life is the shameless acceptance of full-throated and unabashed Judaism as the real preparation for the advent of the Messiah. That is not my opinion – it is what God actually wrought upon the Earth. He chose to enter into a people who at least believed these things were generally real, literal history. After all, how can we really understand and appreciate the silent and invisible things of the New Covenant on Calvary if we can’t even acknowledge the reality of some thunder and smoke on Sinai? I don’t mean to impute sin to those who hesitate here; I only mean to say that such hesitation is typically unnecessary, inappropriate, nonsensical, and can render theology and even the spiritual life quite sterile. The most carefully planned event in history was the Incarnate Word’s earthly life. We should read the Scriptures with this in mind, no?
In its extreme, this program of “demythologization” prevents the entrance into the spiritual life. Creation is through the Son, the Word. It follows that human existence – and all of creation – is in some profound sense itself a story, or a myth, as it were, into which God Himself enters as the central character, first indirectly, then directly, now half-directly, later to be fully direct once more when the story is finished. Without acknowledging the need for a Savior who will open the way to eternal life by redeeming one from sin and overcoming death, there is a fundamental frustration of what God designed humanity for. The story wouldn’t really make sense. Without faith, it is impossible to please God – one must believe He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him, in particular through grace and personal love, even if this is only dimly perceived (cf. Hebrews 11:6). The tendency to fight one’s own deepest in-built supernatural longings is a self-imposed darkness – a rejection of the Light which is already shining in all creation. We are always free to destroy ourselves in this way, and we always will choose to do so without God’s special mercy. Even with every indication and sign available – including countless miracles, visions, and wonders down to our own day – without His ongoing support and personal “invasion” of the Canaan of our souls, we would drown in the misery of our self-absorption and fixate on God’s created gifts rather than on the God Who is giving them. So let no man boast except in the Cross and its Victim. Jesus rose from the dead. No more gloomy despair from Qoheleth is warranted: in the light of His Resurrection, and in this light alone, by which He has drawn all the Nations to Himself, human existence, and each person’s own individual existence, at last make sense. Anything to the contrary is a chase after wind. And we should be able to see that.
The first thought I’ve been mulling over for a while. The second thought came to me last night before I drifted off to dreamland. So for the first one, I’m ready for a real discussion, but for the second one, go easy on me!
FIRST: There are many definitions one encounters for “the Church.” Examples are, “the community of believers,” “the Mystical Body of Christ,” “the communion of grace,” “the Bride of Christ,” to name a few. None of these would be wrong, but there is one that I have never encountered before as far as I can recall which might be legitimate… That would be, “rational creation’s participation in Christ.” The merit of this is that it includes human beings insofar as they are united with Christ, that is, to the extent which they share His Life by imitation and union. It excludes non-rational creatures, like rocks, cacti, and lemurs. It excludes, or at least intensely qualifies, Christ Himself – it does not seem quite right to say that Christ is “in” the Church… To compare this definition with the others could be helpful; for example, the Bride of Christ is not exactly Christ Himself, the Bridegroom, nor is His Mystical Body exactly the same as His “normal” Body. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this definition is its limited openness to angels (who are rational creatures)… Insofar as they are united with Christ by doing His Will or by sharing His Life, they are in the Church. But they are not in the Church the same way human beings redeemed by Christ are in the Church. Further, each individual has his or her own unique participation in Christ, according to differing graces, sacramental characters, and virtues. Therefore, this definition allows for a multiplicity of ways of being “in the Church” – in fact, there are as many ways to be “in the Church” as there are rational creatures, since it seems no two participations in Christ will be precisely the same, with the possible exception of humans who do not possess the ability for rational activity (and therefore voluntary cooperation with grace). Finally, were there some other economy of salvation with another Incarnation of the Son (such as might happen for an extraterrestrial race), rational creatures which participate in that particular order of grace would be in their own communion of grace, as it is mediated by another human nature, even though it is still the same Divine Person… They would be in a different Church, a different Mystical Body, although still ultimately participating in the same Divine Life.
So there are some major advantages to this definition.
SECOND: A little less thought out, but it really hit me last night… So, first, the Eucharist contains the real and substantial Presence of Christ’s own Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is, as pointed out above, distinguishable from His Mystical Body, which is the whole Church. Okay. Second, the Eucharist contains the secondary dimensive quantity of Christ – which means He is present in that space according to “being in a space” but without having normal shape, the manner of presence being merely according to the mode of substance, which is in relation to the accidents of the substance that has been transformed, viz. bread and wine. (See St. Thomas on that here for more.) Okay. Third, while it is not quite right to say that Christ is “physically” in the Sacrament, due to the primary dimensive quantity not inhering in the Substance, it is still correct to say that the Substance of Christ is “here” and “not over there.” When a Host or Chalice is moved, Christ is not moved physically (His physical Body and Blood are resting in Heaven under their primary dimensive quantity), but the Substance appears in different places according to the motion of the accidents of bread and wine; that is to say, the Substance is “here,” then “there.” Okay, so with that relatively unclear explanation, let me briefly get to what hit me… It seems that, in a way, the Eucharist rips open the universe and taps into the Substance of Christ which is “underneath” it. The Substance is potentially made real in this particular spot, not by placing the Substance there – which can only be done by physically moving Christ under His primary dimensive quantity – but by “opening” this place to “uncover” it.
What are the implications of this? Is this a legitimate way to look at this reality? I’m not quite sure. I need to think about it more. But I found the possible line of inquiry very interesting.
Let me know your thoughts in the comments…
Herman Von Voelkenhausen
Catholic University of Cologne
St. Benedict XVI Chair of Theology
April 12, 4019
Before outlining the views of the majority of contemporary scholars on the historical-critical tradition of the 19th and 20th century, it is worth first mentioning the traditional view of that school from which our own views have arisen and evolved beyond.
Writers of the 22nd century onward who reflected deeply on the historical-critical phenomenon, scattered as such writers are, assume that the exegetical school was simply directly inspired by Spinozistic and post-Kantian ideals to re-envision the Scriptures in a radical way, breaking with the cumulative conclusions of the ages and the clear teaching of the Church. These exegetes supposedly became immensely popular, even holding chairs in the most distinguished theological faculties of Europe, where they would really speak and teach their students directly. Their lectures and writings were the real motion towards a culmination in the “Jesus Seminar,” the fullest expression of the movement, which was followed by a number of special disciples who gradually unpacked the wisdom contained therein in the midst of the larger academic community that turned to join the historical-critical movement in this final phase of critical scholarship.
We must now pause and admit that all of this seems rather childish to us, but to the majority of theologians and historians from the year 2100 until well into the 3800’s, this simplistic position was simply taken for granted. It is no wonder; due to the limited knowledge of the 19th and 20th century which was available to the early authors, we cannot expect very much accuracy on their part. The advent of the internet came only near the very end of the 20th century, and immediately afterward came that dark cloud of Fake News, which persisted well into the mid-22nd century. With such imprecise methods of research and communication, we should be inclined to go easy on those who first attempted to react to the historical-critical phenomenon. The tradition which took their analyses in good faith, it is true, has less excuse insofar as their means of investigation increased in quality, but those authors were hindered by the all-too-natural allure of continuity and the professional risk of speaking out too boldly.
The first point which nearly all authors now make is that of the difference between the “historical exegetes,” and the “scholars of faith.”
The exegetes are the real human beings at the center of the scholarly movement traditionally placed in the 19th to 21st centuries (although it seems increasingly likely that these early dates are fallacious). Many of them, it is granted, really did exist as human beings. But it matters very little what these men really were in their historical lives – it mostly matters that they existed. For instance, whether or not some sayings of Rudolph Bultmann were actually spoken by him is largely irrelevant; what really matters is that a tradition developed which sees him in connection with such sayings.
The “scholars,” then, are the writers in the minds of those who received their teachings and modified them. We encounter the scholars in the writings which are associated with them by name.
Immediately the question is raised – how were these writings produced? “The books bear the names of the authors themselves,” it is objected. As foolish as it sounds to us, it was once unthinkingly presumed that, since an exegete’s name was attached to a text that he must have actually written that text himself. The prevailing theory today is that while some writers did indeed exert a kind of influence over the writings that bear their names, in almost every case we see a kind of pseudepigraphy.
A fundamental body of writing in the historical-critical tradition will serve as a fine framework for an introduction to the methods we are using today to analyze this period of theology. This collection of books was traditionally presumed to be the work of a single author, but now the agreement is that it actually is an amalgamation of several written traditions under the redaction and collection of later theologians. First, there is the Kuenen source, or K. Next, the Graf source, G. Third, the Hupfeld source, H. Finally, the Reuss source, R. Over time, a careful redaction on the part of later German exegetes over the coming decades would piece these writings together to form what the historical-critical tradition, and those who uncritically write of its history, has called the collected works of Julius Wellhausen.
Perhaps there really was a Julius Wellhausen, but the “historical exegete” is, in any case, less important than the significance of the “scholar” represented in the popular imagination of the academy of the 20th century. For those first disciples of the masters of the historical-critical tradition, such as Wellhausen was to those who followed in that tradition, they really were seen as true scholars, important figures who somehow had advanced the theological milieu towards a new era.
It should be noted that the most recent quest for the historical Albert Schweitzer has come up largely empty. There is now, however, a broad consensus that he was not born in Alsace-Lorraine, but in Tübingen – to place his birth in an as-then recently annexed part of France was a clever narrative device used to broaden the appeal of the historical-critical movement beyond Germany in the long-term. That is to say, there was a value of a kind of “academic annexing” being imposed on the narrative of the Schweitzer character during the period of redaction of the earlier records of his life. It is well established that he did spend time in France, but to place his birth and childhood in anywhere but Germany finds no support except the primary texts themselves, which, as we have said, have changed the narrative to suit their own ideological agenda.
In the 19th century, the time for historical-critical exegesis was ripe, as there were expectations in the air for such a movement, after the Prussian myth of Schleiermacher had taken hold of the European imagination. (The Schleiermacher-myth was distinct from but related to the Prussian myths of Fichte and Kant, all of which were zealously absorbed and appropriated by the “Hegelian Community.”) Eventually, this all culminated in the well-known “Jesus Seminar” Event. While most scholars agree that there really was a Jesus Seminar, there is little consensus beyond three points: that the Jesus Seminar was formed around the year 1980, that it preached an apocalyptic doctrine about the coming end of traditional Biblical theology (with itself as a central catalyst), and that it ended in a shameful demise.
An example will serve us well to illustrate the attitude of current scholarship on post-Jesus Seminar thought. Virtually all historians of theology today recognize the minimal “historicity” of the writings of Bishop Spong, that is, Spongian authorship. Instead, various radical publishing houses collected the reports of various moderate pieces of scholarship on the part of Bishop Spong, and they published books under his name. Why? Clearly, these publishing houses had their own theological agenda which they were willing to advance, even in the face of such enormous ridicule. Their reflection on the meaning of Spongian theology prompted them to take a courageous attempt at promoting work largely inspired by his own teachings but which was itself a radical development of them. This is a standard model for the era.
The writings of all the post-Jesus Seminar theologians are typically dated to the late 21st to early 22nd century. It was a common pious mentality of devotees of the historical-critical exegetes, and especially those following the Jesus Seminar, to view the writings traditionally attributed to figures such as Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Paul Bradshaw as being written much earlier than they really were. It has been firmly established, however, that Bradshaw did indeed write his work first, and Spong and Ehrman based their writings on his, and upon other accounts of the Jesus Seminar and the tradition it represents. Furthermore, these three works draw on a common source, “Q,” (from the French, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” – “What is it?”) which links them together. They are altogether in a different tradition, however, than the Reza Aslan tradition, which is decidedly more “spiritual” than historically minded in its presentation.
Of course, as is well-known, current academics consider many of these texts to have been compiled by the communities which gathered around these figures. The Spongian community, the Aslanian community, and so on. (Bradshaw, it is true, perhaps did actually write his own works – but it is altogether clear that he himself could not have come up with the idea that John was unaware of an Institution Narrative – this was a later redaction by the publishing house.) The growing majority also views most of the writings attributed to Bart Ehrman actually to be complete forgeries – fully dishonest, albeit clever, pseudepigraphy. (Several editions and translations of his work have also left us wondering what the “true” or “original” texts were in the first place – the recent unearthing of hundreds of copies of the text “Jesus Interrupted” in what is thought to be a 25th century Siberian landfill may prove to be a crucial discovery to aid us in getting to the bottom of this vexing problem. My own forthcoming work “Misquoting Bart Ehrman” will investigate this data at length.)
The motivation for our project is simple: it is altogether unrealistic that such men would have really existed, taught, and written as they are traditionally have thought to have done. Their doctrines are too systematically bizarre and radically incoherent to have been the products of single authors; it is altogether unthinkable that, even given such bad scholarship, they somehow gained wide acclaim to the point of wielding true academic and intellectual authority. Therefore, what was at stake in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what was carried on by the disciples of historical-criticism in the centuries which followed, must be studied under a hermeneutic which takes the spirit of the tradition seriously while retaining the position that such fantastical theories themselves were not taken literally by those who first originated them. It was only later generations of devotees of historical-critical exegesis who, in their zeal, took these traditions to be literal works of Biblical scholarship.
Post by: Eamonn Clark (NB: Faith is a gift – let no man boast… Let us pray for souls who lack such a great grace to see and know the Living God!)
Due to recent events, priestly formation is on the brain of many Western Catholics. Everyone knows we should improve education, ascesis, accountability, etc., etc., ad infinitum. How do we do it?
While I am certainly not an expert, I do have relatively broad experience with priestly formation from a variety of perspectives. Here are 10 extremely practical suggestions, which could be put in practice in seminaries across the Western world, probably with some success.
Well, that’s it. Surely there are plenty more, but those are mine for now. Do you have any practical suggestions? Keep in mind that adding “one more thing” is always a big deal – the current programs of formation are already packed to the brim with “stuff.” Here I tried mostly to avoid adding more obligations and duties and mainly tried to suggest changes to the character of pre-existing realities. If you have any thoughts, let me know in the comments – including if you disagree with any of my own proposals!
A final thought, somewhat related to formation, but a little outside… It could be worth investigating a split-model for diocesan vocation programs… Namely, a “vocation director” who gets men into the program, and then a “director of seminarians” who manages the men already in. A young guy deals with the rah-rah, come join us kind of stuff, and an older, more experienced, less vulnerable guy (even a “retired” priest) deals with the men already in. Some dioceses already do it, and basically every large religious order does something like this. Just a bonus thought.
Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!
The little writing I have been able to do outside of normal work has recently been quite fruitful. Allow me to share a schema which identifies seven false messianic paradigms (or expectations of what the Christ is supposed to be or do)… We all gravitate toward one or more of these, and it is the task of the Gift of Understanding to correct these errors (crushing our little mental idols of God), leading us toward the truth rather than imitations of it.
The Messiah is not primarily about any of the following things: politics, rubrics, therapeutics, economics, theatrics, academics, or aesthetics. He is concerned with each, but only halfheartedly, as it were. One can easily identify an “antichristic” figure who would fulfill each of the seven the way we are inclined to desire… But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Politics – This is the paradigm which dominates the Gospels, and its zenith is found in Peter. The Messiah will throw off Roman rule and usher in an age of peace in Israel, and there will be a big Jewish party in Jerusalem. When Peter tells Jesus he is ready to die for Him, he really means it: he will die for this cause which he has fallaciously projected onto Jesus. When he discovers in the Garden of Gethsemane that the political Messiah is not Jesus, his whole world of hopes and dreams collapses – this is not the Messiah Peter signed up for. It is also not a Messiah which can be legitimately invoked to sanction any prudential legislation which a state might have to produce. The things that are God’s are God’s, the things that are Caesar’s are Caesar’s. The Christ does not deign to sanction public policy which exceeds the boundaries of the Ten Commandments – it is beneath Him.
Rubrics – The Pharisees will immediately come to mind with this word, “rubrics.” This is correct, but it is not sufficient… The thought that the Messiah is supposed to keep everyone in line extends beyond the Torah, written and oral, and into normal human behavior as well. Why does God allow people to do evil things? How can grace come through wicked ministers? Isn’t this what the Messiah is supposed to fix? No, no it is not. The Messiah is not these people, after all, and His glory is behind the cloud.
Therapeutics – The encounter with the rich young man is one example of a search for a Therapist-Messiah. Those who merely want the Christ to affirm them rather than challenge them are falling prey to this trap. The Messiah has not come to bring peace, but a sword. The world of discipleship is not a “safe space,” it is a continual high-stakes battle against sin and self-confrontation for the sake of deeper conversion of heart. “Spiritual but not religious” is the apex of this calamitous paradigm.
Economics – The crowds are like the Devil… They want the Messiah to turn stones into bread. The feeding of the 5,000 prompted the crowd to try to take Jesus away to make Him their king (John 6: 15). They are hoping for an endless Divine buffet, not of the Bread from Heaven, but of literal bread. It turns out that the Divine medical clinic was not in the cards either, though such arrangements would certainly have improved the temporal quality of life of, well, everyone. But civic works, as nice as they are, are not what the Christ has come for.
Theatrics – We’ve had the bread, so what about the circuses? Again like the Devil, the crowds always want a show. They want signs… meaning spectacular outward manifestations of Divine power. But this didn’t work for their forefathers in the Desert, and it will not work for them either, for miracles not only aren’t the point of the Messiah, they do not even of themselves suffice to create faith.
Academics – Those who regularly pray the Office of Readings might recall St. Francis Xavier’s scathing critique of the scholars in Paris… Surely, to turn the Christ into a mere object of study and intrigue is a deadly error. We might think of Herod as a prototype, who loved to listen to John the Baptist, but would not repent, and who longed to see Jesus for some time out of curiosity (which plugs into theatrics as well). The Messiah has not come simply to be an interesting point of debate, He has come for something greater. To reduce faith to study and learning is, therefore, a colossal error. Faith is the result of grace.
Aesthetics – Finally, we have a kind of catch-all error. In general, the Messiah has not come to create a certain kind of experience of God. “Stop holding on to me,” the Risen Lord tells the Magdalene… The Kingdom is not of this world, it is of eternity and consists in grace – it is a silent and invisible reality, at least for now. No fire or storm or earthquake is necessary. While we might point to some ancient errors and movements as examples of aesthetic errors, surely we can acknowledge some in our own day, such as certain attitudes which can surround the liturgy (with both libs and trads) or spiritual growth in general, such as I have discussed elsewhere. The Messiah is not about creating certain feelings or experiences, nice as those may be.
More false paradigms could possibly be added, though these will suffice for today. It is also a worthy endeavor to explore various combinations of these errors to see what kind of behavior and mindset they cause when working in tandem, such as with so-called “moralistic therapeutic deism“… But I will leave that to you the reader to do for yourself.
What, then, is the Messiah really about? In what does “messianics” really consist? Well, it is partially concerned with the 7 things above… But only indirectly. Christ is concerned with economics, for example, but it is not the primary mission. He is really concerned with how people relate with laws and protocol, but again, that is not the fundamental point.
The Messiah is Revelator and Redeemer. He gives us doctrine ordered to salvation, and then He actually offers us that salvation through Himself. All other activities of the Christ center around and are ordered to revelation and redemption – showing the way to God, or helping us to walk it. That road is narrow, but its gatekeeper is the real Christ… The wide road has a different gatekeeper, who also is concerned with politics, economics, and so on, albeit in a direct and fundamental way – it is the Devil, or the antichrist, wherein we see fine temporal “leadership,” but a terrible eternal friend.
If you didn’t know, there is an ongoing breakdown in American comedy. It is increasingly censorious, politically biased, and generally unfunny. The most recent high profile example is the as-yet-unresolved Oscars hosting debacle… A very long list could be made of such things in the past few years, but the current content of late-night shows speaks for itself. Here’s a great interview on the subject (mild language warning):
Also, if you didn’t know, the papal court used to have a full-time comedian, or jester (a bit more than just a joke-teller), just like many other royal courts. Shortly after his election, Pope St. Pius V, of happy memory, suppressed the office of the papal court jester. Note that he did not just go find a less outlandish, less challenging, and less funny jester, but he removed the office. He had his reasons, and knowing Pius V, they were good reasons… The court has serious business to attend to, and also, having a jester makes the court look very much like a secular king’s court, which could be scandalous.
As everyone knows, jesters are to make people laugh (among other things). In doing so, they provide a little levity amidst the tension – no doubt needed these days in the Roman curia. But humor-based laughter is an overflow of the rational faculties into the senses based on some kind of dissonance being pointed to… In other words, the most important function of the jester (or comedian) is to say what everyone is thinking but nobody else will say because they are afraid to – or are perhaps unaware of the absurdity of some set of contradictory realities. He is supposed to cut right to the heart of the issue, albeit in a roundabout way that shows the ridiculousness of it all. How useful would this be today…
The jester is fundamentally a truth-teller. And to fire a jester for a biting joke would only make the joke all the more powerful… After the pope himself, nobody’s speech is more protected than the jester’s. He can say what needs to be said, and nobody can punish him without making himself look like the real fool.
453 years is enough seriousness. Ease the tension. Tell the truth. Get a jester.