Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is the Bible embarrassing?

No kidding: there are parts of the Bible that most of us would be ashamed to read out loud, never mind post in our blogs. (A certain passage from Ezekiel comes to mind. There's a reason the lectionary has an optional abridged version!) Are we guilty of Cafeteria Catholicism by not focusing on these texts, or making them foundational for theology and spirituality? Is that a kind of bowdlerization of the word of God? Are we presuming to "edit" the Bible and only highlight the nice, agreeable parts? What gives?

The fact is, there are some ways in which the Bible is like a family album. The pictures in the album tell you a lot about where the family came from, or the challenges it faced. Some of the pictures celebrate momentous events: the weddings, the baptisms, the graduations.

But not all the pictures in a family photo album belong on the wall in the front room. Some of them tell a cautionary tale, but one the family can't afford to forget. These are not necessarily the pictures that tell you who the family is today, or who the members were who set the family on its course to the present. But they are part of the family story, even if they serve to highlight the progress the clan has made since the time Uncle Zeke escaped from the County Jail and got his picture in a Most Wanted poster. (No wonder Aunt Zelda ran off with the undertaker.)

That we can laugh about Uncle Zeke's exploits now only shows that we have a different perspective. What brought that about? Not only the passage of time, but a change of outlook.

As Catholics, of course, we don't see the Bible as so many divine words, all cut from the same holy cloth, any more than we treat all the photos in a family album as equally meaningful. The really important word, the one that makes sense of all the others, is Jesus himself. Every word in the Bible points to the Incarnate Word and finds its authentic meaning (its interpretation) in him. So the One Word, Jesus, is the key to all the other words in the Bible.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Another practice which I have observed is that of someone making the sign of the cross when passing by a church, chapel or shrine.I call edifying.

Anonymous said...

We should have no qualms about letting our light shine before men. Making the sign of the cross when passing a Catholic Church, adoration chapel or shrine is without a doubt giving "witness".

Anonymous said...

We are all obligated to evangelize.

Nicole Resweber said...

"As Catholics, of course, we don't see the Bible as so many divine words, all cut from the same holy cloth, any more than we treat all the photos in a family album as equally meaningful. The really important word, the one that makes sense of all the others, is Jesus himself."

I love this. :)

Anonymous said...

The problem isn't the portrayal of people who behaved badly. That, after all, fits nicely into Christian theology. The problem are the dumb, barbaric, and plain evil commands that allegedly came from the Christian god. He orders genocide. He orders blasphemers and disobedient children to be put to death. An entire chapter describes a trial by ordeal for the wives of jealous husbands, where they must drink a potion that shrivels their wombs if they have been unfaithful.

It's easy to say King David sinned. Moses sinned. Everyone sinned. But if Yahweh himself is prescribing this kind of law, either Yahweh is a horrible god. Or there's not much reason to believe the Bible's authors really had access to him.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Anonymous, there is another "option" there when it comes to interpreting the Old Testament. It's that God communicated with those people of the late Stone Age and Bronze Age in a way that created an opening into their culture, an opening that God's ongoing revelation could continually refine to the point where (thousands of years later) he could tell them in all seriousness to love their enemies. In other words, the revelation was not complete from the first; there was a pedagogy involved.
It reminds me of Flannery O'Connor's remark, "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."
And the harsh regulations addressed to that primitive society, for all we know, may have actually been ways of reducing the violence that was the norm, the way the later law of "an eye for an eye" restrained the more customary vengeance of two eyes for an eye.
The thing is, the people didn't stay in the Stone Age. Which is why we can be scandalized today by those old precepts. Our very values owe so much to the revelation that was received, step by tiny step, starting from those barbaric nomads.

Anonymous said...

The problem with that explanation is that there are plenty of passages where Yahweh's commands can't be interpreted as moderating the culture of the time, because what he orders is so much worse than what otherwise would have been done. At one point Yahweh commanded genocide. The Israelites prevailed in battle but hesitated at killing everyone. Yahweh gets pissed at their failure of will, and orders them to slaughter their captives, including children, except the young maidens, to be taken as concubines.

There is an out. You recognize it as myth. Whoever first told it had no problem with his god doing such a thing. Whoever later committed it to written word, and whatever editors later revised it, respected the myth. Instead of believing that Yahweh was more bloodthirsty than the people he led, you recognize the story itself as the myth of a people who at one time were involved in bloody, local wars.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Perhaps this homily from the bishop of Little Rock says it better than I: