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Religious amnesia

On Beliefnet today, Rod Dreher has a column on religious illiteracy. Dreher refers to a three-year-old interview with Camille Paglia, with thesesobering paragraphs:

The decline of religion in Europe frightens this stalwart atheist. "The Europeans have become very passive, all of them," she said. "There's a fatigued worldliness typical of Europe right now, and that's why nothing very interesting artistically is coming out of there."Can you have a vibrant culture without cult? Traditionalist conservatives say no. Dr. Paglia is inclined to agree and says that our lazy secularism and superficial religiosity puts America at risk of succumbing to acedia, the Greek term for spiritual slothfulness. She is shocked to discover how few of her college students grasp basic biblical concepts, characters and motifs that were commonly understood one or two generations ago. This stunning loss of cultural memory renders most Western art, poetry and literature opaque."The only people I'm getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans," she said. "And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism."What are they left with? "Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods that's what's left," Dr. Paglia laments. "And that's what's going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there's fervor. Fervor will conquer apathy. I don't see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West."

Dreher also refers to the comment of a Christian theologian that "unlike ages past, when it was most important for the church to preach the Good News to the world, our situation today in the West makes it more important for the church to focus on articulating its teachings, and its distinct way of seeing the world, to itself."

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the quiz: yes, I have read the Bible all the way through, and various OT and NT books from time to time. I have not taken a course in Bible study other than a "sacred studies" requirement in a Protestant school (which at least introduced me to Job and Isaiah). Two points. a) thinking back to pre-Vatican II days, how much of the OT did we ever hear in church? All I can remember are the Prophecies read on Holy Saturday. Perhaps I'm mis-remembering. But I certainly never remember being encouraged in church to dip into the OT.b) how much is the failure to recognize biblical references of the sort C. Paglia talks about simply part of the larger failure to recognize historical and cultural references in general? Graeco-Roman myths, references to Vergil, Dante, Hobbes, Locke, the social contract, the Reformation, the Franco-Prussian war, the state of nature, etc., etc. (and I'm only talking about western ones here -- forget Confucius, the Ming dynasty, the Meiji restoration, and so forth).

In the pre-conciliar liturgy, each the same readings were read on the same Sundays, and there were hardly any from the Old Testament. So, Prof. Clifford, your memory was correct. I suppose we learned parts of it from classes in Bible Stories. I don't remember whether the Baltimore Catechism had anything about it. I agree that there is a larger cultural illiteracy, too, and a quite discouraging ignorance of history.

Kathy and Joe Gannon: It turns out that there is a very well-attested variant reading at Mk 6:22, which apparently the NAB translation has followed, so I was wrong to call it a mistake.

I have read where some predict the Catholic Church will get smaller, but more devout. Maybe this "amnesia" is part of it.The problem of course is that a people without any religious convictions or philosophical foundation, have a very fragile culture and society. They live off the previous culture and as long as things go along smoothly, things seem Ok, but in fact their society is quite weak and is vulnerable to any number of moral attacks and/or political trickery and ultimately, to great tragedy.Think of German society during the Weimar Republic days. Both society and government were so corrupt, decadent and weak that the people did not notice old Hitler sneaking up on them or how dangerous he and his ilk were - until it was too late. The rest as they say; is history.I think it was old Abe Lincoln who said something like; 'People who do not stand for something will fall for anything.'

Fr. Komonchak wondered about the Baltimore Catechism and the OT.I can't say anything about Baltimore Catechism Nos. 1 & 2, but No. 3 includes one or more scriptural passages mobilized to support each one of its points. Many come from the OT. I guess people would be concerned over proof texting here. There is no question in the catechism about what the Old Testament is or how to classify and read responsibly its different kinds of books. There is a question about revelation that mentions the Old Testament and scripture generally though.Related to interest on the OT in the catechism is the topic of scripture more generally in the catechism. Scripture is not really singled out. There is no question about it. And the section on prayer in the standard No. 3 does not mention lectio divina or "devotional" reading of the Bible. But if you have the special Father Connell's Confraternity Edition of No. 3, things are different. There you will read in Connell's summary following No. 3's prayer section that spiritual reading advances the life of prayer, and that under the heading of spiritual reading fall (a) family Bible reading, perhaps after dinner (following Psalm 137: "Daddy, does the little baby cry when the 'happy man' smashes it against the rocks?") and (b) prayerful reading of the Bible for at least 15 minutes daily, for which Leo XIII set up a 300 day indulgence.On Scripture, the CCC smokes the Baltimore Catechism.

We had bible history in Catholic elementary school, and after about sixth grade had weekly visits from the pastor who invited us to ask any questions we had about religion , the bible, etc. As I recall we badgered him about Adam and Eve, original sin, limbo, free will, predestination, and Divine foreknowledge. Poor man. But we did appreciate him. We had four years of religion classes in high school, but not scripture but church history loomed large in that school. We were conscripted to work on a huge mural depicting the flow of European history and the church's role in it . I recall the invasion of the Huns, Henry shivering at Canossa, Francis Xavier on a missionary journey, St Ursula and a token few of her virgin companions being dumped into a river, but those were only from the parts I had to work on. In the first year at Catholic college we did at last a close reading of the New Testament, and it was an eye-opener. We used early Liturgical Press commentaries. I remember being impressed especially by Raymond Brown's on the Gospel of John. It was ahead of the curve then. And embedded in his later works, it still is. (I gave my old book to my daughter to use two years ago when our scripture group was doing John.) In college we had to take 18 credits in religion and 18 credits in (mostly) scholastic philosophy (not always very well taught, I am afraid). Christian Tradition and Culture was one of my favorite classes. It covered the early years of the Church, offering readings of the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the letters of many of the Fathers, documents from early Councils, lots of St. Augustine, etc. The exams were fiendishly hard, with baffling short answer questions. At one class reunion we tried to remember some of the stumpers. But all we could recall was one of the more obscure answers: "Ibas of Edessa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret of Cyr." The question probably had something to do with the Nestorian heresy, but exactly what, none of us could remember.

KathyThe text of Mark 6:22 says "and when the daughter of Herodias herself had come in and danced..." The NAB says "Herodias' own daughter". No one who knows anything about the persons in question would think otherwise. I shall not further characterize the person or persons who produced the lectionary. What have we come to?

KathyOops! Having looked further I see that that situation is more complex. The girl was actually named Salome and she was Herod's niece, not his daughter. The NAB says "Herodias' own daughter". But the translator of the NAB was fooled as I was. I failed to look at the Greek text carefully. It seems clear that Mark himself was confused and thought that Herod had a daughter by Herodias and that she was also named Herodias. That is the only way to account for the variations in the tradition. Philology triumphs again. The Codex Sinaiticus and the others that agree with it are surely right. So the editor of the lectionary properly corrected the NAB. But our homilist was wrong to believe Mark! And the lectionary desperately needs a footnote or we need better educated homilists.

Joseph,What I'm not sure about is, when did Herod take Herodias from Philip? Could Salome be the daughter of Herodias and Herod?

KathyHerod had been married to the daughter of Aretas IV, the king of Nabataea, for diplomatic reasons and he rather undiplomatically divorced her and married Herodias. Jerome Murphy O'Connor cites a source as putting the new marriage about 23 CE. John was probably executed in 28. Salome must have been at least fourteen at the time of the dance.

Kathy The hour is late but it seems that the half-brother of Herod was not named Philip either.

"eiselthouses tes thugatros autes tes Herodiados" in Mark 6:22 does sound like a cumbersome correction of "eiselthouses tes thugatros autou". But in 6:24 and 28 Herodias is called "her mother", suggesting that even if Mark wrote "autou" it was little more than a slip of the pen. The NAB translation emphasises this slip heavily.After reading the proposed new translations of the Eucharistic Prayers no mistakes amaze me any more. See http://www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org/readcomments.htmRecently I heard a preacher talk about Jesus taking Peter, Matthew and Mark up Mount Tabor with him.At an IAHR conference in Rome I heard a Catholic missionary denounce superstitious natives who claimed that someone in the Bible slew his own daughter in obedience to a vow made to God! He was embarrassingly corrected by a voice in the audience.In school in Ireland in the 1960s we read St Luke's Gospel and memorized the Farewell Discourse from John (the latter a rather ill-advised exercise). Handed the RSV on arrival in seminary we all thought of reading it right through -- but of course Leviticus put a stop to that!

:But in 6:24 and 28 Herodias is called her mother, suggesting that even if Mark wrote autou it was little more than a slip of the pen. The NAB translation emphasises this slip heavily.'I disagree on both points. In a family where more than one or two of the males are named Herodes it is hardly impossible that a mother and daughter could both be named Herodias. As to "autou" being a slip of the pen, really? In a context of feminines ending in -es it is "autes" that looks like and most likely is a slip of the pen.

Josephus has an account of the relations, but I am just copying what Wikipedia authors thought explained it. I can never follow these relationships, but if anyone cares to figure it out...I do think it interesting that Herodias is given an active role, divorcing her husband rather than being divorced by him. All of this reminds me of Bereneice, a later controversial woman in the family who was involved with Josehpus' patrons, the Flavian emperors, so there may be some manipulation to provide justification for whatever politics was important when Jospehus wrote. Josephus's Jewish Antiquities (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4):Herodias, [...], was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great, who was born of Mariamne, the daughter of Simon the high priest, who had a daughter, Salome; after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod, her husband's brother by the father's side, he was tetrarch of Galilee; but her daughter Salome was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and tetrarch of Trachonitis; and as he died childless, Aristobulus, the son of Herod, the brother of Agrippa, married her; they had three sons, Herod, Agrippa, and Aristobulus;

Has anyone checked the New Vulgate? That's supposed to be the "point of reference" for our liturgical translations of lectionary, according to Liturgiam Authenticam.Along with Joseph O'Leary, let me say that nothing would surprise me. Today's epistle reading informed us that Paul was born "unnaturally." Quite a few strange pictures flitted through my mind.

Since we've been asked to 'fess up to our scripture study, let me add mine. Besides a good program in high school, and one not very good course in college, in divinity school I had a fantastic year of studying the Old Testament with Brevard Childs (overview and Old Testament theology) another amazing year studying the New Testament with Luke Johnson (and with Alan Mitchell as my T.A.), followed by a further course, on Paul, with Abraham Malherbe. Still can't believe how lucky I was. But scripture was not my main focus, so I never mastered the languages that would allow me to pursue further study. So many books, so little time...

I had a class in OT prophets in college and our high school required a "Bible as lit" class. This year (church year that started in Advent), I'm following the Psalm readings in the daily lectionary (using the BCP Psalter), and trying to read prayerfully instead of literarily (though that's hard for an English major to do).

Has anyone checked the New Vulgate? Thats supposed to be the point of reference for our liturgical translations of lectionary, according to Liturgiam Authenticam.I have indeed and the New Vulgate cannot be squared with the current lectionary on this point. Of course following the Vulgate when it is wrong must seem absurd to most, but it seems to be the rule. I wonder what they will make of Matt 6:13b where the New Vulgate has "libera nos a Malo" which must mean "deliver us from the Evil One" if the upper case M is not a happy accident. However the Missale Romanum 2002 appears to ignore the New Vulgate and has "libera nos a malo" good old "delivers us from evil".

I meant to type "deliver us from evil"

FWIW: When I took classes in the divinity school and department of religious studies at a Protestant university, the professor was of the opinion that the Protestants in the class had a much firmer grasp of biblical texts than Catholics did, but that Catholics (even at that time) usually oustripped their Protestant counterparts when it came to Latin. Not one, but two of my very best English professors recommended that we all spend some time reading the NT cover to cover and keept it for handy reference. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that English poets and dramatists drew on sources well beyond the biblical -- particularly classical mythology, and Greek and Roman literature, and also, simply, the natural world that most of us no longer recognize with the same depth even of our parents. The equation of the western tradition to the Bible or Christianity is too simplistic, and just as we are not going to become devotees of Greek Gods anytime soon, certainly, cultural literacy need not be conditioned on religious belief. Just to take one poet, W.B. Yeats: does one "need" to be steeped as a schoolchild in Irish history or lore to "get" Yeats? Honestly, I shouldn't even start. Nothing Camille Paglia has ever said has struck me as anything more profound than flame throwing.

The "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of faith and the classical tradition from western thought and literature has been a subject going on now for two centuries. If you didn't get the reference in the quotes, I don't think that makes you culturally illiterate (I am astonished I remembered it going back to my high school days). What we have is an incredible cultural diffusion of an ever expanding tradition -- and, most alarmingly, a trending away from words altogether that rather dwarfs the other battles for cultural supremacy. Our only hope on that score is that, to a certain extent, to be human is to speak and give voice.

Thanks to Google, anyone can be an intellectual :-). Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.