Pilgrims pray in front of a statue of Mary on Apparition Hill in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)


The Qur’an and the Bible

The seventh-century claim that Muhammad was the last and greatest of the prophets inevitably put Islam into competition with Judaism and Christianity, which already had their own greatest prophets. Anyone who has dipped into the Qur’an knows how frequently it asserts not only the finality of God’s revelation to Muhammad, but also its status as a correction of the previous “peoples of the Book” who had betrayed the oneness of God by first writing and then distorting the books God gave them through Moses and Jesus. Indeed, it is one of the most fascinating aspects of the Qur’an that it so consistently presupposes those prior revelations even as it supersedes them. Beginning with the second Sura (“the Heifer”), the Qur’an plunges into a lively polemic against unbelievers (especially the Jews) that corrects and even retells elements of the biblical story, sometimes in considerable detail.

According to standard Muslim doctrine, the prophet received the contents of the Qur’an directly from God; the Suras were written down only after he recited them orally to his followers. The authoritativeness of the Qur’an’s version of the history of revelation is therefore based on its coming from the very mouth of God. For scholars, by contrast, the complex and contrarian readings of biblical traditions suggest a more complicated form of interaction among the prophet and his first followers, and with the Jews and Christians with whom they had some level of communication. Such a possibility seems bolstered by closer analysis indicating that the Qur’an bears traces not only of standard biblical accounts, but also of Christian apocryphal writings and Jewish midrashic compositions. Whether through oral means, written compositions, or both, the Qur’an reveals knowledge of Jewish and Christian rereadings of Scripture prior to the seventh century.

A full assessment of these intertextual connections is now available in a new translation of the Qur’an by Ali Quli Qarai, and an extensive commentary on the text by Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame. Reynolds occasionally modifies Qarai’s translation; the result is bracingly fresh and direct, and those familiar with older versions will often find themselves invited to new thought about what the Qur’an actually means. The reason for studying this very large book, though, is Reynolds’s commentary, which searches out, identifies, quotes from, and discusses the many Jewish and Christian texts or traditions on which the Qur’an touches. In Sura 12 on Joseph, for example, Reynolds shows how the many apparent discrepancies between the Qur’an’s account and that found in Genesis can virtually all be traced to Christian apocrypha and Jewish midrash. Similarly, the statement in Sura 3.49 that Jesus as a child fashioned birds out of clay and made them fly derives from the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which dates to the second century.

Massive in size and scope, this is a reasonably priced, legibly printed, and deeply informative study that serves best not as bedtime reading but as a scholarly resource for those eager to push past stereotypes into the very heart of the Islamic tradition—and to discover its roots in the traditions with which it has always been in tension.

The Qur’an and the Bible
Text and Commentary

Gabriel Said Reynolds
Yale University Press, $40, 1,032 pp.


Medjugorje and the Supernatural

The foreground here is the mystical encounter of Croatian teenagers with the Blessed Virgin Mary, beginning on June 24, 1981—the first Marian apparition to become a global media event, and one that has made Medjugorje a pilgrimage destination for Catholics to this day. The background is the ecclesiastical and academic debates concerning the possibility of miracles in general and the veracity of these in particular. Beginning as a doctoral dissertation at Catholic University, Klimek’s impressive study manages to bring faith and science into earnest conversation in a manner that is both learned and accessible.

From the start, Medjugorje—a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose name is used to cover all the events involved—drew attention far exceeding the usual crackpot claims of seeing the face of Jesus in an oil slick or omelet. The youth, simplicity, and transparency of the visionaries were appealing. These were manifestly ordinary youngsters, and for the most part remained so, despite the crush of attention they drew. People who observed them in their trance state came away convinced that, whatever else, the youths were not faking. And as so often happens in remote places of pilgrimage where the presence of God is believed to be powerful, other signs and wonders were experienced by those who made the arduous journey there.

It is significant that such plausible accounts emerged when they did. Scholarly discourse about religion in the late-twentieth century was not hospitable to mystical experiences; Catholics were only four years into the papacy of John Paul II and still unsure how aggiornamento would be implemented in the face of sharply opposing parties within the church. But the real value of Klimek’s work is not its on-scene reporting (the author relies on generally available evidence) but its engagement with ecclesiastical and academic contexts. On the ecclesiastical side, Klimek lays out in great detail the protocol for authenticating miracles and visions—on paper, the very model of the principle of subsidiarity—and then how that process was hijacked by the enthusiastic endorsement of John Paul II.

The bulk of Klimek’s work, however, is a thorough review of all scholarly theories concerning mysticism, running from the ideas of William James and Evelyn Underhill to more contemporary secular-sociological reductionism, showing the strengths and weaknesses of each. Klimek discusses how neuroscience has been brought to bear on the experiences at Medjugorje, and argues finally that the visions reported there hold out the possibility of a new and more capacious epistemological framework for understanding mystical experiences—and for that matter, all of God’s creation. This is an important book for anyone desiring a way to think about religious experience that betrays neither faith nor science.

Medjugorje and the Supernatural
Science, Mysticism, and Extraordinary Religious Experience

Daniel Maria Klimek
Oxford University Press, $99, 392 pp.


How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World

As the papacy became forcibly detached from worldly claims to power, it became ever more powerful within the church itself.

Paul Collins is an Australian historian and broadcaster whose 1997 book Papal Power: A Proposal for Change in Catholicism’s Third Millennium made the modest suggestion that papal infallibility ought to be balanced by the sensus fidelium (“the sense of the faithful”). His proposal led to a three-year wrangle with the Vatican’s CDF and to his eventual departure from the active priesthood—upon which the wrangle ceased, nicely illustrating the Vatican’s abiding attitude toward heretics—namely, “those who cannot be controlled need not be noticed.”

We might well expect, then, a certain amount of bias in Collins’s historical survey of the papacy from 1799 (the death of Pius VI) to the first days of Pope Francis. Perhaps because I share some of his bias, I notice it less—or it bothers me less—than it might other readers. I happen to agree with him that both Pius IX and John Paul II were, each in his fashion, disasters for the church: the first because of what he accomplished in Vatican I, and the second because of how he subverted the reforms of Vatican II. But it is important to emphasize that Collins’s account is no mere polemical payback. Far-ranging, subtle, and instructive, his story includes sharp delineations of each pontiff over this long period, accounts that focus on both personality and policy even as they locate each papacy in the complex social and political realities facing the church at the time. Collins may have his personal grudges, but his book does not show them; empathy, rather than hostility, is the dominant emotional tone throughout.

The account nevertheless argues a strong and paradoxical thesis: namely, that as the papacy became forcibly detached from worldly claims to power, it became ever more powerful within the church itself. Ultimately, through a combination of internal control and external communication, the pope became “the most influential man in the world.” The book closes with the hopeful thought that Francis will not carry forward the ethos of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but rather that of John XXIII. From his pen to God’s ear.

Absolute Power
How the Pope Became the Most Influential Man in the World

Paul Collins
PublicAffairs, $30, 384 pp.


Beyond the Cloister

The English Reformation celebrated the dissolution of convents where virgins prayed and worked and celebrated a queen, Elizabeth I, whose vaunted virginity asserted independence from any male dominance. In this small but dense scholarly study, Jenna Lay examines and critiques the effect of this paradoxical combination that profoundly shaped English literary history. She speaks of a double erasure evident as early as George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie (1589), which set the standard for a Protestant and male canon of English literature. Catholic women were doubly ignored or, when noticed, ridiculed. Both the lay recusants who resisted the Reformation in a way their husbands (by law) could not, and the nuns who went into exile in France, Spain, and Portugal to continue their cloistered life, were considered to have nothing to say.

Lay does not put forward all the evidence of the extensive literary activity carried out by women, especially in continental convents, but her footnotes provide leads to these rich resources. Instead, she undertakes intense interrogations of canonical and non-canonical literary texts. She begins, for example, by demonstrating how “virginity” is a fraught topic for Spenser, Marlowe, and Shakespeare, some of whose passages reveal a suppressed anxiety she credits to the collision of a Protestant ideal of chaste marriage, an ascendant virgin queen, and the ugly fact of recently banished virgins.

Her most effective discussions are those in which she allows Catholic women to speak for themselves. One noteworthy instance is the response of the nuns of Syon Abbey, exiled in Lisbon, to a scurrilous pamphlet by Thomas Robinson that portrayed them as passively manipulated by corrupt priests. Their published response, skillful and rhetorically sophisticated, demolished the pamphlet’s assertions and showed that the nuns were nobody’s patsies. Another example is The Spiritual Exercises of Dame Gertrude More, which made nuanced arguments concerning the discrimination that ought to be exercised by religious women in the matter of obedience. Obedience is owed to God alone, More argued, and even the orders of a spiritual director should be resisted when one’s conscience speaks against them. Writing in the aftermath of the conflict between the ruminative Benedictine spirituality of Augustine Baker and the more stringent direction found among the Jesuits, Dame More showed herself a worthy great-great-granddaughter of St. Thomas More.   

Although Lay repeatedly asserts the vitality of the female literary culture found in recusant Catholic manors, the specifics she adduces make a less forceful case for inclusion within English literary history than do her discussions of the literary activity within convents. By contrast, her concluding discussion, which compares the transparency of an anonymous woman’s poem on the passion of Jesus to the congested versions of Milton, Donne, and Herbert, is excellent. Whether her work has implications for the “canon” of English literature—which in most universities already seems so expanded as to lose significance—I am not in a position to say. But if the first job of feminist scholarship is to recover the voices that history has silenced, Lay has certainly succeeded.

Beyond the Cloister
Catholic Englishwomen and Early Modern Literary Culture

Jenna Lay
University of Pennsylvania Press, $69.95, 256 pp.

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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