Saturday, May 10, 2008

Violating Plain Text

This past week's program on The Journey Home was about one Stephen Budd's conversion from the Baptist church to Roman Catholicism. He had been a bold Baptist, and believed then that it was his duty to convert Catholics from their ways. He went through a litany of bumper-sticker sized condemnations of Catholicism he had made as a Baptist.

One critique from his bygone does stood tall, and resonates with my emotions, even though my intellect sees it to be vacuous.

He described an anti-Catholic tract that he would give to Catholics he found in his home town (in Ireland, I believe). On it was a depiction of Pope John Paul II praying before a statue of Mary, and beside this image were the words "thou shall have no other gods before me..." These tracts have power in their simplicity. This one sets up a contrast, and draws you immediately into it.

The plain text of Sacred Scripture warns against creating likenesses and bowing down before idols. Its whole timbre is one that merits great caution and prudence. The plain text of scripture, what could be more plain?

Then I read an article/book review in the May, 2008 edition of First Things (with finals, I've been a month behind) which made me consider a different angle. Robert Louis Wilken wrote Jews as the Romans Saw Them (subscription required), discussing Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient ­Civilizations by Martin Goodman. In it, he says "Romans were puzzled as to why Jews refused to eat pork (which the Romans loved) and why they circumcised infant boys. They could not understand that there was no image of their God in the Temple..."

Maybe you can follow where my mind went at this point.

"Thou shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)"



"You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. (Genesis 17:11)"



[I can't depict an uncircumcised Christian here, but if I could, my intent would be to juxtapose that image with this verse to the Catholic image and the Bible verse given above it. I hope you can accept this picture of a Jewish briss in its place, though it's the opposite of what I mean to depict, in that it is in strict conformity with the commandment of the Sacred Scriptures.]

"And the pig, though it has a split hoof completely divided, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. (Leviticus 11:7)"



Now I know full well that New Testament passages address circumcision in the New Church and consuming unclean and ceremonial meats too. We have, then, either a contradiction within Scripture, or a new authority able to override the old. If the old can be overridden in its ceremonial aspects, surely it can be given more precision (vis-a-vis idols, images, and the like). At any rate, my point is simply that plain text is often a poor guide. The meaning beneath the text is a harder thing to depict in tracts...

10 comments:

Tim A. Troutman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim A. Troutman said...

Repost for grammatical reasons:

And neither of the laws were taken lightly even in the recent BC years. Consider the mother in Maccabees who watched her seven children literally fry to death not because they refused to bow down to pagan gods but because they merely refused to eat Pork and break their dietary laws.

Similarly, when Pilate brought in images to Jerusalem from Caesarea the Jews protested. Pilot said, fine and ordered his soldiers to prepare to kill the protesters. The Protesters threw themselves to the ground and exposed their necks - ready to die before allowing images near the temple. Hippolytus informs us that some of the Essenes were so strict that they wouldn't handle coins with images or enter towns through gates where statues were present.

Even NT Laws have been "overridden" in a sense among all Christianity. The Jerusalem council forbade Christians to eat blood but no one pays this law any attention these days. You'd get rebuked quicker for lighting up a cigarette at a church picnic than for eating a rare steak and yet the latter was expressly forbidden by the New Testament Church.

I think you're right though,if you used "the plain text" of Scripture as your end all be all guide to morality, you could easily come up with some radically different ideas of Christianity (not just from Catholicism but also from Protestantism or even Fundamentalism).

Thos said...

Tim,

Maccabees isn't in my Bible.

(A little levity).

You make an excellent point about how seriously these matters were taken; how detestable violations of the "ceremonial law" were. We (at least I) tend to minimize the importance of obedience in the past because of our present dispensation.

I'm not sure about the blood in steak thing entirely. I've thought of it before and heard that even a rare bloody steak has been drained of its blood (though some will invariably remain in the tissue), thereby meeting the Council's requirements.

My juxtaposition was certainly not perfect, so I wasn't entirely happy with this post. But it was more of a defense to the tract I mentioned. You can't just show an image and a verse, and maintain there is a violation of God's law. I could show someone worshipping an image, say in India, and that may be more apropos. I believe the Ten Commandments have enduring truth and force, whereas the ceremonial law may only have enduring truth (in terms of that to which they point). That's why I wasn't happy with this post.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Anonymous said...

Maccabees isn't in my Bible.

You mean the Jewish canon after the destruction of Jerusalem (post 70 A.D.), right? Not the Septuagint that the Early Christians used, including Our Lord and the Apostles. You know, the Old Testatment canon that all Christians were familiar with until Martin Luther decided that God's intentions were that break with the Christian past and use the canon provided by those who still obstinately refused to believe that Christ was there Messiah? Ah, I see... in that case, it wouldn't be in your bible... but it's in ours!

(A little more levity) ;)

Thos said...

Anonymous,

Yes that's my Bible. You and I are both using "levity" in its sarcastic sense.

If you'd care to recommend a Catholic Bible, I'm all ears. I am familiar with Fr. Neuhaus' (of First Things) criticism of the NAB, which is what is used in the liturgy. I have an old D-R (very old), and I really like the Catholic footnotes, but wouldn't mind having something in more modern English at hand. In addition to my personal interest, I've been thinking of buying one for an old Catholic friend, in the hopes that he'll start reading it(note: not sarcasm, and not so that he leaves Catholicism, but so that he becomes a better Catholic).

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Anonymous said...

I personally use the Douay-Rheims Haydock, whose English is not that far removed from ours. I find the hurdles easily overcome by making use of a dictionary and comparing English translations (I'm not fluent in Greek or Hebrew) of the Early Fathers' writings (since they always quote from Scripture). With the Fathers' writings, I believe help is provided to get a better sense as to what the context and meaning of the Scriptures are, especially the problematic ones, within the boundaries of Church interpretation.

Reading the Scriptures by themselves can be a dangerous practice in my opinion. Especially for me being raised in a multitude of different Protestant traditions. I'm always tempted to "interpret" the Scriptures myself, then fully accept and defend my interpretation. The Haydock Douay-Rheims gives a brief reference to the most common and acceptable Church interpretation without having to do the extensive research, but in its brevity many valid renderings of Scripture are excluded (not deliberately, of course, since the Haydock is about 1/3 footnotes in total). That's when I appeal to the Fathers.

Basically, you can't save your Catholic friend's faith. Perhaps giving him a new Bible may inspire him, or it could bore him. Reading the Scriptures is not light reading. For example, I have an uncle who reads the Scriptures (Protestant Bible) every day. He has probably read the entire Protestant Bible a dozen or more times. However, his personal interpretation rules so he is always in conflict with his denomination buffet. Not only that, his interpretation remains very infantile and he clearly overlooks many important passages that don't agree with his personal framework. So, the Bible all by itself is not always to be encouraged. How many denominations have sprouted up since the Reformation because of that mentality?

On the NAB. The Scriptures are God's Word, but whether that translation truly reflect it, I find questionable. So did the Vatican over time as it has constantly forced the USCCB to make revisions of both its erroneous translations and its erroneous modern-day footnotes. Because the priest who gave me my copy also blessed it, I will not destroy it... but it has literally been collecting dust since the first couple of times I opened it up. Very Protestantesque translation.

I haven't looked at any others, but I've heard that the RSV-CE is a good one. Like I said, though, I'm afraid to read the Scriptures by themselves and trust my own interpretations. St. Peter warns against it in his second Catholic Epistle and the devil himself used a faulty interpretation of Scripture to tempt Christ. No servant is better than his master, right? Am I to expect not to be tempted with faulty interpretations planted in my head from the evil one? Scriptures cannot be read without the help of the Church, the sole interpreter and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Body who put the Scriptures together in the first place, even after the Church had spread without them from Ireland to the Far East.

Anonymous said...

By the way, just because the NAB is used in the lectionary, doesn't mean that it's the "official" English translation of the Catholic Church. It doesn't replace any other translations and holds no authority over the other translations. What is used in the lectionary also, until recently, did not match up with the NABs on the shelves at bookstores. The Vatican has been battling with the very rebellious American Church for decades. The corrected the translations in the Lectionary first so that the Liturgy, where God's Word is read, wouldn't be harmed by the "progressives" who aided in some of the more questionable translations in the NAB. I've heard that the latest NAB matches the Lectionary, which makes it an acceptable translation. However, the footnotes are troublesome as they rely heavily on the historical-critical method and they tend to abandon traditional Church rendering of Scripture.

Basically, it's the footnotes that scare me in the NAB, not the "latest" translation.

Thos said...

My still anonymous brother,

I appreciate your thoughts on Catholic bible editions. The Haydock comments to the D-R looks intriguing (but pricey!). I have heard enough critiques now (adding yours, for sure) to know to steer clear of the NAB. It is reassuring that the Vatican takes some effort to interject itself to put a halt to clear problems.

Your anxiety over Scripture reading is interesting. I don't share it, and don't know that I would as a Catholic. I would (perhaps do) share your anxiety over unchecked individualist readings. I have enjoyed checking my Scripture reading against the Fathers via InterVarsity Press's "Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture". As an ecumenical effort, I believe it is commendable. But as for anxiety over Bible reading for devotions, one observation: when my Baptist-pastor grandfather died, I was able to have first take at books on his shelf. He left in a city in Maine with a large French-Canadian population, so obviously a large Catholic population. My old D-R Bible is from his shelf, and pasted to the front cover is a Catholic information sheet on a plenary indulgence (I believe) for anyone reading the bible in personal devotions for 15 minutes a day. My grandfather's hope, obviously, was that Catholics reading the Bible that much would come to the 'truth' (as he saw it). But my point is that the Catholic Church seemed at least at the time that Indulgence was issued to be in favor of personal devotional reading of Scripture.

(Another anecdote while I'm rambling: he had a lovely French bible I was able to take that had about 20 "proof-texts" against Catholicism that he had penciled in to the front cover. Very charming, his enthusiasm.)

I should state clearly that I accept as true the observation that all of the early church's heretics used the Scriptures themselves to "prove" their position. So I think we might agree that individual laymen using the Scriptures as exclusive evidence to support or craft a given doctrinal position is a faulty proposition.

Bottom Line: I think I'll get the RSV-CE and save up for a Haydock edition.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.

Anonymous said...

Thos,

I had a laugh at your last post... several times. First, I suppose you imagine me staring at the Bible across the room, shaking and sweating, in fear of opening it without pulling out the collection of Early Fathers' writings I have in my bookshelf. I didn't mean to portray that type of anxiety, but it was a comical thought. I'm in agreement with you... only when it comes to the temptation for novel interpretations do I have angst. I'm currently in Sirach (not in your Bible as well ;)) and I have yet to open any Fathers' commentary on it, partially because I have the D-R and the problematic verses have nice explanations, but mostly because Sirach is instructional. I'm sure there are layers to it, but, at this moment in time, I feel a greater need for correction and guidance. A devotional reading of Sirach is helpful for that... now if I can only apply it to my life!

The second laugh came with the story of your Grandfather's Scriptures.

I would've gone with the more affordable RSV-CE had the lay head of my RCIA team not purchased the D-R Haydock for me as a gift.

Thos said...

Anonymous,

Fabulous. I shall have to read Sirach one of these days. A while back I was reading through apocryphal/deuterocanonical books in my grandfather's old D-R. In some books the older English was more of a hurdle than others.

Peace in Christ,
Thos.