Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Marriage, Scripture, and the Word of God Conference

Some of the readers of this blog are aware that Brant, Michael, and I—along with Peter Kreeft—were all involved in a large Catholic Bible conference in New Orleans a few weekends ago, the Word of God conference sponsored by Catholic Productions.

The conference was focused on the sacraments of service—matrimony and orders. After an introductory lecture by Brant, I delivered a talk on the Catholic view of marriage, based on reason and revelation. My first major point was that Catholic teaching on marriage is in agreement with reason—social scientific data supports the view that the two-parent, heterosexual marriage is superior to all other arrangements for the raising of children. Since the state has a vested interest in the welfare of the next generation, the state justifiably identifies and protects the life-long mutual commitment of a man and woman—marriage.

After making this point, I went into a biblical narrative theology of marriage starting from Genesis 2 and moving through the Pentateuch and even into the Historical Books, pointing out how the narrative implicitly valorizes monogamy and critiques other arrangements—i.e. polygamy and homosexuality. My students will remember this as the “implicit critique of polygamy” in the Old Testament. Of course, this view is not original with me. It has deep roots in the Jewish interpretive tradition, and my eyes were opened to it by reading the superb Jewish biblical commentator Umberto Cassuto on Genesis.

I also mentioned the concept of marriage as the climax of the creation story (Genesis 1-2) and the iconic significance of marriage vis-à-vis the creation of mankind in the image of God. Marriage is two persons whose love becomes hypostasized (personified) in a third; inasmuch as this is true, it is iconic of the relations of the persons of the Trinity.

In any event, after the talk was over, an officer of the local secular humanist society, who happened to be in attendance, approached me cordially and shared with me that he disagreed with “everything” I had said, and invited me to debate the issue of marriage in a forum provided by his organization. I declined to debate, but offered to arrange someone else to do so. I contacted Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, who has since accepted the offer to debate. We will see how that develops.

In any event, the encounter led to some self-reflection, and I began to wonder if I had overstated the case for the importance of the two-parent family, with biological father and mother present, for the raising of children. That led me to do some searching on the internet, which turned up a remarkable link to none other than that bastion of Catholic dogma, Time Magazine. Unbeknownst to me, since I, like many of my generation, no longer read the legacy (i.e. print) news media very much (internet is faster and cheaper), just last month Time ran a cover story on the importance of marriage to society. I’d like to call our readers’ attention to this Time Magazine article, which is worth the read.

This remarkable piece of reporting is notable for several acute insights that in fact support the case I was making for traditional marriage in New Orleans.

At one point, the Time article quotes Princeton sociologist, feminist and single mother Sara McLanahan: "Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent," she found, "are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background." Of course, Princeton is a real center of Catholic bigotry, superstition, and fideism, right? McLanahan is making her point in the context of two-parent versus single parenting; but her observation also indicates why homosexual “marriages”, by their very nature, cannot provide an ideal context for raising children. Even if homosexual couples adopt a child, the child will necessarily be raised without at least one of her or his biological parents.

The Time article’s concluding questions are most poignant, and were, in fact, precisely the questions I raised, in different words, during my talk in New Orleans:

“The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the game-changing realities of birth control [my emphasis], female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it?”

Notice that the author recognizes the fundamental shift the wide-spread use of artificial birth control has had on the very notion of marriage in our society. By decoupling sex from procreation, children have become an optional rather than natural outcome of marriage. Children are OK if you’re “into that,” but have no intrinsic connection to marriage in the view of many. Hmmm, wasn’t there somebody, like maybe a Pope, who predicted that things would develop like that, way back in 1968?

Then the author proposes the alternative:

“Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood?”


The Catholic model of marriage as the life-long commitment of a man and woman is confirmed by social sciences as the ideal for the happiness and well-being of children as well as the spouses (See this recent New York Times article).

There is not a conflict between faith and reason, Scripture and science on this issue.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Maximal Synthetic and Synchronic Exegesis

Hello, y'all readers of Sacred Page!

I'm saying "y'all" because I've just spent a weekend in New Orleans and feel partially Cajunified already. "Y'all" is actually an extremely useful word, because it supplies modern English with a second-person plural pronoun that has been absent for quite some time. Seventeenth-century English, memorialized in the King James Bible, could make a distinction between second-person singular (thee, thou) and second-person plural (ye, you)--a distinction we cannot make in Standard English today without awkward circumlocutions. Therefore, regional dialects supply one: the South generally uses "y'all"; southwestern Pennsylvania uses "yinz" (a contraction of "you ones"). But I digress.

Trying to be a full time professor, husband, father of seven, a faithful Catholic, and actually get any scholarship done is a tall order for me, as it is for my colleagues on this blog (mutatis mutandis--Brant and Michael don't have seven kids [yet]). One of the things you learn to do is to try to squeeze all the time you can out of the day by "multi-tasking." Today I had to drive my youngest son to the Cleveland Clinic--a six-hour round trip from humble Steubenville. Not wanting to lose all the time, I brought along my second son to read to me out of a book I'm working on, Jean Corbon's The Wellspring of Worship (Ignatius Press).

Corbon, like a good modern Frenchman, doesn't actually argue for a position or tell you what he's doing--he just begins describing his vision in beautiful semi-poetic language, and any argument behind his thought--if there is one--is either aesthetic ("it's so beautiful it compels me!") or implicit. It made me wonder if the last Frenchman to write with logical clarity was Thomas Aquinas (if teaching in Paris makes you French), but not being familiar enough with French culture, I decided I wasn't in a position to affirm that definitively. My apologies to the French if my impression of their literary style is inaccurate.

In any event, Corbon writes beautifully. The book is about liturgy, and the early chapters are about the divine economy or salvation history, which Corbon views as the true object of the celebration of the sacred liturgy. What fascinated me at times was the maximalism of Corbon's interpretation as he re-told the biblical story line. His basic perspective is that the water motif--a common one throughout Scripture, from the river of Eden in Gen 2 to the river from the New Jerusalem in the final chapters of Revelation--really points to a metaphysical reality: the continually self-outpouring of the persons of the Trinity, one to another, and the self-gift of the Godhead to humanity by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Corbon's perspective leads him to make some striking statements. For example, he will affirm that the outpoured Holy Spirit is essentially what the patriarchs were digging for when they sunk wells during their sojourn in Canaan. Striking thought, no? It's the kind of thought one would expect from the Church Fathers but not from a twentieth-century theologian. So what do "y'all" think? It what sense can a Christian affirm that the patriarchs were really searching for the Holy Spirit as they dug wells in Canaan? What metaphysical presuppositions does such reflection on Scripture require? Or is this too "maximalist" for contemporary Christians to affirm? I may wade in with some more thoughts in a future post.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Are the Gospels Historical Biographies--Or Not?

Michael and I had a great time at the Catholic Biblical Association this past weekend.
Among the highlights of the weekend--the chief of which was meeting biblioblogger Jim West and being invited to a semi-liturgical ritual honoring Rudolf Bultmann, an invitation which we respectfully declined--was a lecture by John P. Meier summarizing the results of his fourth volume on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew: Volume 4, Law and Love (New York: Yale University Press, 2009).

Over the course of Meier's presentation, it became evident to me how fundamentally the question of the literary genre of the Gospels affects the way one deals with the historicity of various passages in the Gospels. If one, for example, takes the classical form-critical view that all four Gospels are the end-products of a long period of anonymous oral tradition, one will evaluate the historicity of episodes differently than if one thinks that they are historical biographies.

In that light, I recently found a rather revealing quote from Geza Vermes, at the beginning of his famous book, Jesus the Jew (Fortress, 1973). Vermes spends all of a paragraph on the important question of the genre of the Gospels (which is about one paragraph more than most books on the historical Jesus). In it, he says the following:
"It is generally agreed that, whilst maintaining a definite interest in time, space, and circumstance, the Synoptists did not aim to write history proper. Although they adopted the biographical literary form, their life of Jesus was intended principally as a vehicle for the preaching of the early Church. In consequence, however brilliantly analysed, the Gospels cannot be expected to provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus of Nazareth as he really was." (Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew, 42)
This is a fascinating quote. First , it reveal Vermes admitting that the literary genre of the Gospels is that of ancient biographies. Like biographies, they maintain a "definite interest in time, space, and circumstance," and they even adopted the biographical "literary form." Despite this, admission, Vermes goes on to claim that even though the Gospels 'look like' biographies, they aren't; rather, he claims the Gospels are a vehicle for "preaching." I don't know what ancient literary genre he has in mind here, but it seems to me like he's involved in a category mistake in which he is forcing the Gospels into the mold of say, the letter to the Hebrews, or James. But is that what they really are? Not biographies, but "preaching"? Really?

Second--and this is important--this quote shows that Vermes' skepticism about the Gospels ability to tell us anything more than a "skeletal outline" of Jesus' life derives principally from his decisions about their genre. Because they aren't biographies, they can't tell us very much about what biographies usually tell us about: what their subjects did and said.

Now, all this begs an important question: What if Vermes is wrong? What if the Gospels look like historical biographies because that's what they are? That is, after all, how genre usually works. What if, for example, when Luke says he intends to give an "accurate" account of what Jesus did and said, based on the testimony of "eyewitnesses" (Luke 1:1-4), he actually means it?