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Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kneel Before Zod.

Brant Pitre's new book about the Jewish roots of the Eucharist has received the sniffy treatment in the National Catholic Reporter, in the form of a largely dismissive review, quelle suprise. The Rev. Richard T. Lawrence has determined that while it nicely points out that Jewish stuff, Pitre is a sinner who must wear the scarlet "U" for "Unscholarly."

Well, allow me to retort, starting off with a couple of seemingly unrelated quotes.

"[T]ruth to tell, the contributions of critical biblical scholarship either to real history or to authentic theology have not up to now been particularly impressive and have certainly not had the character of transmitting faith to succeeding generations."

--Luke Timothy Johnson.

"I'd rather push a Chevy than drive a Ford."

--Popular bumpersticker on Chevy trucks.

Alas, I had some hope early on that this might be a fair-minded review, but that was dashed at word five, when Rev. Lawrence cued the "boo, hiss" sign for Reporter readers by identifying Pitre as one of those "conservatives."

Frankly, the criticisms Pitre's work begin with the exceptionally petty, starting with Rev. Lawrence's profound disquiet with the accurate quoting of Dei Verbum, followed by the pointless nit-picking about "Jesus of Nazareth" and plummeting downhill from there.

Frankly, if the Catholic biblical academy is as monochrome, dogmatic and lockstep as the Rev. Lawrence claims, then this review can be safely written off as a defensive clerical back-raising, equivalent to my cat hissing at the strange felines who dare walk across *his* lawn. Certainly, the sniffing about the alleged distinction between proper scholarly methods of systematic theologians and those of biblical scholars has more than a whiff of feline cattiness about it. Leaving aside the more important point that it is a meaningless bit of inside baseball as far as the wider Church is concerned.

But the real gripe is that Pitre dares to partially reject the results and methods of his elders. If the functional motto of the biblical guild is "freedom of scholarship for me but not thee," (and the defensiveness of the review suggests that it may be) then the sooner we get more lay scholars like Pitre to infuse the clerical guild with new blood, the better. For both parties. It's difficult to know what to make of a group of scholars that expects newbies to genuflect before findings which are always supposed to be open to revision. In other words, let's jettison the uncritical attitude toward historical criticism, please. For the Rev. Lawrence to insist that biblical scholarship which doesn't uncritically parrot every hypothesis beloved of a certain section of the academy is deficient is...odd. Especially if scholarship is supposed to be open to revision. Otherwise, he has the same mindset as the Chevy driver with the bumpersticker quoted above. Which is fine, but is a matter of de gustibus, not doctrine.

Besides, all right-thinking folk know Fords are way better.

Finally, I've often wondered how a hack novelist like Dan Brown, one whose research skills wouldn't pass muster at Wikipedia, could come up with gob-smacking howlers like "Jesus was a human being who was declared God at the Council of Nicaea."

Then I read paragraphs like this:

"To cite but one example, after taking as literal quotations Jesus’ words as reported in John 6, 8 and 10 and related texts, Pitre concludes that one cannot understand Jesus’ claims about the Eucharist “without first grasping his claims about his divine identity.” He even quotes C.S. Lewis’ statement that such words are those of a madman, a demon or the Lord himself. Surely all orthodox Christians believe that Jesus is, as the councils confessed, the Incarnate Word of God.

But to state without qualification that Jesus, during his lifetime on Earth, thought and spoke of himself in that way is far from the consensus of modern scripture scholars and theologians. I would think that a book intended for a popular audience would take some note of that fact."

So, according to the "assured results of biblical scholarship," Brown's got a point? Well, no, he doesn't. N.T. Wright, the Anglican biblicist par excellence, has written convincingly of how Jesus could have expressed himself in divine terms in a thoroughly Jewish milieu.

Oh, and wait a minute--who's mixing up scripture scholarship with theology again? Tsk, tsk.

But still, it's grimly funny that the nuttiness of Dan Brown finds fertile soil in the wasteland of endemic doubt that constitutes too much of modern biblical study. That this no-man's land was created by in part by Catholics who, with unimpeachable sincerity, declare themselves orthodox Christians just adds to the wan hilarity.

I for one have done my part to encourage Pitre to write more by purchasing the book for my wife.


  1. I threw up a little reading the fawning NCR comments when Spong was mentioned as providing "a superb account" of the "Authentic Jesus" [sic].

    The spectacle of "more intellectual than thou"'s thinking that they're thinking when they're just parroting the party line is rather depressing.

    God have mercy.

  2. Oh, the author is pastor of St. Vincent's here in Baltimore. The parish webpage is an absolute marvel.

  3. Hi, Dale!

    I happen to be rereading part 1 of Benedict XVI's JESUS OF NAZARETH. Very good, looking forward to reading part 2 of the same book.

    Sincerely, Sean

  4. Zach:

    Actually, I barked laughter at that one. I'm reminded of Luke Johnson's header for the analysis of Spong's "scholarship" as "Amateur Night."

    Then Johnson started to get critical.


    I can't bear to look.

    Sean: I have a confession to make--I just started reading the first one. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  5. But... but... Dale! Spong is quoted by (cue reverent pause and music theme) The New York Times!

    What higher authority to validate his scholarship and general wonderful wonderfulness does one need?

    </snark off>

    Yeah -- when a hayseed fundamentalist Behemoth U engineer like myself can poke holes in your "scholarship" without working up a sweat, sheesh. You're Not All That. But he tells people what they want to hear, so they credit him as being profound.

    I like the old idea of seeing how much respect he'd get if his books were subtitled "A Plumber Rethinks..." rather than "A Bishop Rethinks..."

  6. Hi, Dale!

    At least you are STARTING to read JESUS OF NAZARETH. Good enough for me!

    The justly derisive comments about Jack Spong reminced me of the late Fr. Raymond Brown's gently SCATHING comments about the shoddy "scholarship" of the so called Jesus Seminar in his book AN INTRODUCTION TO THE NEW TESTAMENT. The book is well worth reading even if I no longer believe, as Fr. Brown did, in the Q Theory and Markan Priority.

    Btw, I'm glad your daughter is MUCH better! Deo gratias!

    Sincerely, Sean

  7. I scanned the website--didn't seem that bad, from a cursory review.