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Do Catholics really know their bibles? See post at Jericho Tree by Hannah Vaughan-Spruce.

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I’ve written a short piece about Pope Francis and the Priesthood for the commemorative edition of Faith Today that has just come out.

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I won’t copy the whole article here – you can order the special edition of Faith Today online –  but this is what struck me about Pope Francis’s approach to ethics and life issues (in so far as I could draw any hesitant conclusions from some of his words and actions as Cardinal Bergoglio):

Pope Francis has given witness to ‘a consistent ethic of life’. This phrase was coined by Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996. It can be applied to Pope Francis in his approach to justice and life issues over the last few years.

In Buenos Aires he stood firmly against abortion, euthanasia, human trafficking, and all forms of violence against the human person. He criticised ‘the culture of death’ that influenced so much of society. He said, ‘The right to life is the first among human rights. To abort a child is to kill someone who cannot defend himself’.

At the same time, he fought for social and economic justice, and was always on the side of the poor. He said, ‘The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers’.

His ethical approach was entirely consistent. He believed in the fundamental dignity of every human person, not excluding those who are sick, elderly, poor, oppressed, powerless or unborn.

He did not fit into the categories of secular politics because he was both ‘conservative’ (pro-life, pro-family, against same-sex marriage) and ‘progressive’ (fighting for social justice and for the poor).

Priests are called to have this same passion for life, and this same consistency. Not to be single-issue campaigners, but to speak out courageously whenever human dignity is threatened. Yes, we must be gentle, compassionate and forgiving to everyone we meet. But if we meet injustice in any form, it is our particular vocation to take a stand and be on the side of the poorest and most vulnerable.

This has made me want to go back and look more closely about what Cardinal Bernardin said about this ‘consistent ethic of life’. I know this approach was sometimes criticised, as if it were a way of watering down the core life issues, by suggesting that all social justice issues were equally important. But it seems to me to be a very straightforward point that shouts out from bible, the Christian tradition, and the Catechism: the need to defend human dignity against any and every threat, and to stand on the side of whoever is most vulnerable in society.

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I’ve had great fun experimenting with “Logos 4”, the latest edition of the Logos Bible Software. It does everything you’d expect, and much more.

Just take my last search as an example. I wanted to look up Hebrews Chapter 12, so I just typed “Heb 12” into the search box on the home page. Immediately, as a default setting, it opens up a set of windows displaying a vast array of tools and information to help you make sense of the scriptural passage: the English text in five different translations (there are many more to choose from), the Greek text together with all its variants (with an option of transliteration if your Greek is getting rusty), links from every Greek and English word to a set of dictionaries and concordances, numerous cross-references, biblical commentaries on the passage, handouts to photocopy for bible study groups, illustrations, and even a Wordle-style word-cloud to highlight which themes are coming up most consistently in these chosen lines. This is all before you have customised the page or used the drop down menus to link the scripture with your own preferred theological resources.

The danger, of course, is that you spend all your time racing down every exegetical rabbit hole you discover instead of reflecting on the Word of God itself, just as you can get lost in the footnotes and cross-referencing system of any printed bible. But this is a risk with any tool: that we become fascinated by what it is in itself rather than what purpose it is built to serve.

Here is the demo:

There is a profusion of bible software available today – some of it online, some of it downloadable. I can’t give an honest comparison of Logos with all the other packages, simply because I haven’t used many of them. My ordinary practice of bible study and sermon preparation still involves sitting down with pen and paper, an interlinear bible, and a pile of printed dictionaries and commentaries. It’s very old-school and pre-internet. But from my limited time spent with Logos I can say that it is attractively designed, easy to use, and delivers a huge amount in terms of everyday bible study and exegesis.

The other plus is that there is now a set of Catholic texts to supplement the largely Protestant cross-referencing system that Logos was designed for. So you can call up Catholic bible commentaries and Catholic translations (e.g. the Catholic edition of the RSV) to link with the scriptural texts, and you can also explore these texts in their own right using the same software. So you have a library of Catholic theology and some very sophisticated tools to explore it with.

The best example here is the Catechism. Open this and you have the text itself. Click on a scripture reference in the footnotes, and it opens a set of windows at the side with all the biblical tools to study that passage in context. Click on another quotation in the footnote, and it gives you the whole passage (and usually the whole sermon or book) from which the quotation is taken. It links to patristic sources, magisterial documents, writings of the saints, etc. – all there in front of you without having to go to the bookshelf or search the net. Just as one example: I was reading paragraph 1371 of the Catechism about how one aspect of the Eucharistic sacrifice is that it is offered for the souls of the faithful departed, and it quotes St Monica’s request to her son St Augustine that he remember her at the Lord’s altar after her death. And with a single click you open up in the box below Book 9 Chapter 11 of Augustine’s confessions with the whole quotation in context.

I am sure there is a lot more here that I haven’t discovered, but this gives you a feel for what the software can do. The downside is the price. I’m lucky enough to be using a review copy, but the basic Catholic software package is $249.95 (see exactly what’s included here) – which must be about £150 at the moment. It’s a lot for an individual user. But if you think of what it costs to buy a decent set of biblical texts and commentaries over a number of years, then it sounds a lot less. You are buying a library rather than just a piece of software. (The other plus is that you can use it on your iPad or mobile. This doesn’t help me much because – despite my high-tech credentials – I am still getting used to texting…)

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We only had one day wandering round Dublin, but I managed to see some incredible things. I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the Chester Beatty Library, but one of the seminarians persuaded us to visit there first, and the manuscripts are absolutely outstanding. I won’t splurge or use the exclamation mark; just let me copy this short description of some of the exhibits from their website:

The early New Testament papyri are, for many visitors, the greatest Christian treasures to be seen at the Library.

These incredible discoveries were first made public in The Times (19 November 1931). Before this find, the earliest and most important manuscripts of the Greek New Testament were parchment codices from the fourth and fifth centuries, all dating from the period after Constantine had granted toleration to Christianity.

Only a few small fragments of papyrus with portions of the New Testament from an earlier date were known, and most of these were too small to be of much significance.

The discovery of the Chester Beatty New Testament papyri caused a sensation; they were at least 100 years older than the most important parchment codices at that time.

The papyri not only contained much larger portions of the New Testament than any previously known papyri, but also provided a unique witness to the biblical text at a time when Christianity was experiencing extensive persecution and destruction of its scriptures.

By acquiring these early Christian texts, including the earliest surviving codex of the gospels and acts, the earliest copy of Saint Paul’s Letters and the earliest copy of the Book of Revelation, as well as many other early or unique versions of homilies, epistles or pseudo-canonical texts, Chester Beatty’s Library became one of the major centres in the world for the study of the Christian Bible.

Here is the section about St Paul:

This significant New Testament papyrus in the Chester Beatty collection contains the texts of the letters of St. Paul, dating from around the years AD 180-200. It is one of the great treasures to survive from the early Christian church.

Paul’s letters are among the earliest surviving Christian texts and are a unique witness to the spread of Christianity and the Gospels. Only four other known papyri contain portions of more than one of Paul’s letters, and of these four, two are of a much later date. The early date of the Chester Beatty codex and the fact that it contains almost the complete text of the letters of Paul, makes this codex extremely important for the study of the text of Paul’s letters.

There was also a fragment from St John’s Gospel from the second half of the second century. I can’t resist an exclamation mark here: it was incredible! It was the Greek text of Jesus saying to Mary, ‘Woman, here is your son’, and to the Beloved Disciple, ‘Here is your mother’.

If you want to follow the St Paul up further, see the Michigan website here about the P46 codex.

I had lunch with a friend at the Dominican friary at St Saviour’s, tea in the centre of the city with another friend, and then a very disappointing pilgrimage to the church where Venerable Matt Talbot is buried – it was closed! I couldn’t believe it; in the middle of the Eucharistic Congress one of the most important shrines in Dublin was closed. Oh well – lucky I managed to venerate his relics at one of the stalls at the Exhibition Hall in the Congress earlier in the week. And then I managed to get half an hour in the Hugh Lane Gallery to see the Francis Bacon studio. If I get time I’ll post about Matt Talbot and Francis Bacon later on.

The reason we ended up in Babel was because of the Dublin Spire (or Spike as most people seemed to call it). I couldn’t find a single person in the city who liked it – and I asked lots of them out of curiosity. But I thought it was wonderful. Tall (obviously), graceful, somehow full of meaning and utterly meaningless at the same time. It is the ultimate Tower of Babel – reaching for the sky simply because that’s what human beings do.

And it created the marvellous illusion, if you stand about ten feet from the base, that it actually continues up and up without limits and pierces the clouds – like Jack’s beanstalk.

So it was a fascinating few hours in Dublin, and I hope I can go back sometime soon and visit everything I didn’t see; and get into Matt’s church!

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I’m staggered by Keith Ward’s suggestion in a recent article that the Church of England should ‘modify it’s traditional basis’ so that ‘it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts’. His vision for the Church of England has hardly any room for revelation, truth, authority, scripture or the supernatural.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

The Christian community becomes a place where people can express themselves, their aspirations, their questions, their explorations, and their tentative answers; Jesus hardly gets a mention; and even when Ward proposes, as an alternative to ‘the acceptance of some formal creed’, a basic commitment to ‘an objective morality, and loyalty to a God believed to be revealed in and through Jesus’, he qualifies this by stating that ‘many interpretations of that revelation’ will be possible.

It’s a fairly hollow version of Christianity. Or, to be less judgemental and more theological, it’s a presentation of Anglicanism in this country as a purely natural religion, a holding place for all our human religious and quasi-religious longings and instincts, but nothing more.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but just read a few paragraphs here:

The opportunity for the C of E today is so to modify its traditional basis that it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts.

The Protestant heritage can best be expressed today as the encouragement of freedom of thought and rational criticism of all authority. The church should raise the big questions about human meaning, purpose and value, and encourage their exploration, without pretending it has the final answers.

The national basis of the church must today take fully into account the diversity of modern England, and aim to be fully inclusive — open to all without exception, but not seeking to decry alternative options of thought and belief where they are conducive to human well-being. It will never be, and never has been, the church of all English people. But it can be a national church, in expressing the moral and spiritual ideals of our society and aiming to promote compassion and spirituality throughout society.

Establishment in its present form may not remain. But the church can continue to reflect and help to shape the moral and spiritual values upon which our society at its best is founded — freedom, democracy, justice, a concern for the flourishing of all persons, and a concern for the weak and disadvantaged. All religious and humanist groups can co-operate in this, but it is beneficial to have a national institution formally committed to promoting those values.

This requires a liberal and humane approach to the Christian faith, a commitment which is not narrowly restrictive and doctrinally inflexible, but which preserves a distinctive vision of God as morally demanding, unrestrictedly loving and personally enabling. That vision is seen in many different ways in the person of Jesus and the inner power of the Spirit which filled his life and is present in human hearts. There is no thought here that God is not seen in other ways, too. But this is a way that should attract by a desire to love the good for its own sake, not by a fear of punishment by a basically vindictive God.

Many — I hope, most — Anglicans in England already believe this. But there can be a certain timidity about making senior appointments in the church which, afraid of the anger of those who want a much more exclusive and doctrinally divisive church, and who seem obsessed with gender and sexuality, will opt for a safe and therefore insipid archbishop. What the Church of England needs is an uncompromisingly liberal archbishop, who can lead a Protestant (which must now mean critical and questioning), national (which must now mean inclusive and tolerant) and established (which must now mean committed to the promotion of broad humane and spiritual values) church in an age of rapid scientific advance and moral change.

There is a mistrust of certainty that makes it impossible to believe or propose anything as being true, and Ward states this quite clearly:

[This new Church of England] would have to stop any ordained ministers from pretending that they alone are ‘true’ Christians, and get them to accept, as a condition of ordination, that they are part of one inclusive church with many diverse interpretations of Scripture and tradition, none of them certain and unchangeable.

Has this version of Anglicanism got legs?

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I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 – a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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I had a few minutes in the British Museum last week – not long enough to visit the Hajj exhibition, so instead I wandered round the Islamic section by the back door.

I came across this beautiful unbound copy of the Qur’an from West Africa, together with its leather carrying case. There was a tradition of having an unbound edition of the book, so that the individual leaves could be distributed around a class of boys for study and memorisation, and then collected together at the end.

I have always loved unbound books, filing cards, manuals that come apart or consist of discrete detachable sections, etc. I don’t know if it takes me back to pre-nursery flash cards (although I don’t think my mum had a stash of these!), or my huge collection of Top Trumps.

I certainly remember being fascinated by a series of history ‘books’ at school which were really folders filled with facsimile documents, and one of my favourite birthday presents was a set of architectural blueprints (or whatever the technical word is) of each individual floor of the Starship Enterprise – with every lift shaft and escape hatch and ‘beam me up Scotty’ floor-disc carefully marked.

And I have had such a disrespect for books (or a love at the idea that they can easily and usefully be deconstructed) that – don’t be shocked – I have been in the habit of cutting them up into different sections so I can take just the next few necessary pages with me on the bus.

Perhaps it’s the idea of a ‘whole’, a unit, that can be taken apart and put together again – like a Lego or Meccano structure. Perhaps it’s the joy of taking out a beautiful object (in this case a piece of paper) and knowing that it has its proper place to go back to – the delight of storage. Or it’s just that something is useful and adaptable and practical.

Is there such a thing as an unbound bible? Bible flashcards? So you can take out your chapter of the week and carry it around with you without having to carry all two thousand pages? Let me know if you have something useful like this.

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