Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Where Did the Bible Come From? Part II

           After the attacks of September 11, 2001, something changed in the United States. I distinctly remember watching a commercial on television that showed a row of houses with a voice-over that said something to the effect of "On September 11, terrorists tried to change America forever." Then it faded to a image of those same houses sometime after 9/11 with U.S. flags waving in the wind on each one of them. The voice-over then said, "Well, they succeeded." (You can click here to see the ad on Youtube.)

            However you may feel about said commercial, I bring it up for purely anthropological reasons... not political ones. To me, the ad illustrates something about the effects of trauma on a nation, a group of people, or even an individual. For better or for worse, each of these in some way will change as a result. After a devastating event, their attitudes, outlooks, and values change – or at least become stronger. Last week, I mentioned how the Israelites didn't have a pressing need to preserve their religious tradition until they were faced with the threat of losing it altogether. Although parts of it had been written, the Torah was not compiled and consolidated until after the traumatic experiences of the Temple's destruction (586 BCE) and the Babylonian exile. But fear of their tradition's disappearance was not the only motivation behind its preservation. National trauma has a way of strengthening people's convictions about identity, religion, and culture. The increase in patriotism that took hold after the events of 9/11/2001 is one example I can think of in our own time of this sort of phenomenon. This apparent effect due to devastating circumstances seems to play out as the Bible begins to take shape in the centuries after the exile.

"The Flight of the Prisoners" James Tissot (1836-1902)
Google Images

Image from www.newtestamentchristians.com/bible-land-maps/

            Last week we looked at some of the sources that contributed to the formation of the Torah. The developers and authors of the Priestly source were the ones mostly responsible for its final form (post exile), and by about the 5th or 4th century BCE those first five books of the Bible were more or less considered authoritative. Thanks to the Deuteronomists' fine work, we also have a sense that a fair few of the "historical books" were composed and collected by that time as well. But what of the other books of the Old Testament? How did those get lumped among the Scriptures?

            The Jewish canon of Scripture (the Tanak) is divided into the Torah, followed by the Prophets, which begins with the Deuteronomic History (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings), and finally everything else (the Writings). I rather prefer the Jewish arrangement of the Hebrew Scriptures because the categories of books are organized somewhat more closely according to chronology and importance than the Christian canon. But then, as anyone who knows me would tell you, I love all things Jewish anyway. So given the placement of the prophets in the Tanak, it's fitting to talk about them next.

            Like the Torah, the prophetic works were edited (redacted) over time, especially the pre-exilic prophets, such as Amos. Some prophetic texts, like Isaiah or Zechariah, are even compilations of separate works written at different periods in history. However, much of the prophetic material derives from the oral sayings of a prophet during his ministry. What we have in written form was probably composed either by the prophet's disciples or those within the prophet's school of thought (like the so-called "school of Isaiah"), by the prophet himself, or by a combination of both. We know from Scripture that Jeremiah used a scribe named Baruch, for example. Most, if not all of the books, faced some degree of redaction. Some of the biographical material in the prophets, for example, was surely written by redactors some time later than when the prophet lived. For more about prophets, see my post, "The Bible Library: The Prophets," and check out the table of dates for an idea of when the prophets were active. I know how people feel about dating prophetic activity, so if you want to print the table out and put it on your fridge or bedroom wall, I totally understand. I found this one below on Google Images and loved it so much I posted it on Facebook.

Google Images. Thank you Dr. Bandstra and this webpage: http://barrybandstra.com/rtot4/rtot4-09-pt2.html

            Although they were not apparently always well heeded, The pre-exilic prophets were influential enough for their works to be copied and preserved through the traumatic events of the 6th century. As Marc Zvi Brettler writes, "The complex activity of preserving and developing the prophetic oracle collections reflects a conviction that a prophet's words were not only significant for the circumstances in which they were originally pronounced but potentially relevant for later ones as well."[1] In other words, those preserving the prophetic material saw something of universal value in it. At this point, however, there wasn't a fixed canon of Scripture; works were still being redacted, especially in ways that reflected the social and religious needs of the time. It's unclear as to when the prophetic works actually became fixed and scribal editing began to cease – perhaps sometime before the end of the 3rd century BCE. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were long enough to each have their own scroll. The twelve minor prophets, however, were small enough to fit on just one – thus, the "Book of the Twelve." Coincidence that there were twelve like the twelve tribes of Israel? Probably not. I'm sure the scribes intended it that way, even if it meant putting separate material under one name.

            This now leaves us with the Writings – basically everything else. More than any other collection of books that reflects post-exilic, national/religious attitudes are the books of Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. Having lost both Temple and homeland, the Judahites in captivity reflected on their experience. What went wrong? The answer, they felt, was that they had been unfaithful to the covenant. So after the exile, in the period known as the Restoration, the religious beliefs of the Jewish people began to become more concretized, and cultural/national identity likewise intensified. (I can't help but think back to that aforementioned commercial.) Ezra, a priest and scribe, was a religious reformer. Nehemiah was an administrative reformer and governor of the province of Judah now under Persian domain. These books, once considered a unit, reflect an urge to rebuild the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They are also not a little xenophobic. Both have very harsh  stances with regard to marriages with foreigners.

            1 & 2 Chronicles fall under a similar school of thought as Ezra and Nehemiah. Chronicles retells Israel's history and is rather nostalgic for what it believes were the nation's glory days: the reigns of David and Solomon. It's attitude: We were once a great nation, so let's write our history to highlight the greatness of David and Solomon (as we gloss over their faults), as well as those kings who were faithful to the covenant. And let's just not talk about the northern Kingdom. They were unfaithful and didn't worship in Jerusalem, and it muddles our ideal of a unified Israel. And we can blame our past problems on the infidelity of the kings who did not follow the covenant. That's our version of history.

            As far as the rest of the Writings go, each has its own tradition and are hardly, if even at all, connected to one another. Proverbs and Psalms have long oral traditions, and since they are collections of assorted sayings and songs, the dating of each one varies. Some were surely written before the exile, but some prove to be post-exilic. A fixed composition of Psalms and Proverbs did not exist until after the exile, maybe during the 4th century.

            Much of the wisdom/poetical writings (Job, Lamentations, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes) can be dated between the 6th century (the traumatic one) and the 4th century (the one that transitioned from the Persian period to the Greek period). Lamentations was written shortly after Jerusalem's destruction. Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and perhaps Ruth seemed to have been written after the exile. The latest books in the Jewish canon were Daniel, which takes place during the Babylonian exile but is secretly concerned with life under Greek domination (sneaky, sneaky), and Esther, which is set in Persia but was likewise written later during the Greek period.

            As I mentioned earlier, there is something about the experience of trauma that incites a desire to preserve and strengthen former ideals. This is perhaps why Ezra-Nehemiah are so religiously rigorous, and Chronicles so idealistic about history. And this is my guess as to why much of the Torah, the Prophets, and some of the Writings, were edited and compiled after the exile. Imagine what would happen if your house caught on fire. Say, your dog died, and a lot of your antiques and mementos perished in the tragedy. You have to find some other place to live. You're utterly crushed and devastated. Somehow or other though, a great deal of photographs and letters from deceased loved ones survived. What would you do with those things? Would you value them differently than before. Make copies of them? Keep them in a safe place?

            It seems that in the centuries after the exile, certain writings took on a significant meaning, and the Jewish people wanted to maintain them. Obviously some were considered authoritative more readily, namely the books of the Torah. The Prophets also would become especially meaningful and their words considered timeless. In time, so would the Writings. Interestingly enough, a lot of this biblical material has a wide range of perspectives and ideals. We've already seen how disparate sources are put side by side in the Torah. The anti-foreigner attitude of Ezra-Nehemiah contrasts significantly with the favorable attitude toward a foreign woman in the book of Ruth (A Moabite becomes the great-grandmother of King David. Shocking!) And the wisdom of Proverbs, which suggests that the good are blessed and the wicked are punished, is turned on its head with Job's bad-things-happen-to-everyone ideology. It doesn't seem like this bothered them that much, though. The compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures were literary hoarders. They didn't throw anything out.

            However, not everything made it into the Jewish canon of Scripture either, but that canon did not become fixed until sometime after the Christ event. There were many Jewish writings circulating in the centuries before the time of Jesus. Some of them never made it into any canon of Scripture. Some made it into the Christian canon but not the Jewish one. Later, several of those books would be omitted from some Christian canons after the Reformation. I hope to go over these sorts of things in the following posts of this "Where Did the Bible Come From" series. For now, I'll just wrap up today's post. (I hear a sigh of relief.) Today's topic was a little heavier, having a lot to do with trauma, bringing up painful memories from history, and even asking you to imagine your dog dying in a house fire. Who knew writing about the compilation of Scripture would get so dark?

            For that reason, I recommend for this week reading Nehemiah 8:1-12. It takes place during the Restoration after the exile. The book of the Law is read to the assembly of the people, and they are told to rejoice and not weep. This is a community that has been through hell and back. They're survivors, and now they are being consoled and strengthened by God's law and a possibly hopeful future. As you read this passage, consider a time in your life after you had experienced a tragedy. Who or what was your consolation? Did you experience God at all in the midst of your suffering and/or recovery? Does God's word give you comfort or joy? Which passages are particularly meaningful to you?

            By the way, the season of Lent is rapidly approaching (Yay!). If you're thinking about something you might like to do to deepen your spiritual life during this special time of year, here is a suggestion. Start a small, Scripture based faith-sharing group with your friends. You can use the Gospel reading from Sunday's liturgy, a suggested reading from this blog, or go through a particular portion of the Bible that interests you. Make an evening of it. Have some wine, cheese, crackers, Lit'l Smokies Sausages (unless it's Friday). Enjoy an evening with your friends, some food, and Scripture. You don't have to be a Bible scholar to share with your friends how the Scriptures are touching your life. You can use Pope Francis' advice on scriptural meditation as a guideline: "In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: 'Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?'" – Evangelii gaudium (Joy of the Gospel).

            As always, questions and comments are most welcome via e-mail, Facebook, this blog site, or now Twitter. I'm still getting used to that last one. Any tips on how to use it more effectively would be most appreciated. Until next time...

Peace and all good![2]

[1] Marc Zvi Brettler, "Nevi'im: Introduction," in The Jewish Study Bible," ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 457.

[2] This post could not have been possible without these other sources:
Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Gabel John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The Bible as Literature: An Introduction New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Gottwald, Norman K. The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985. (Particularly the chart on pages 104-105.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where Did the Bible Come From? Part I

           In the fall I asked some friends and family what kinds of questions they had about the Bible, and one of the topics that came up the most frequently had to do with the composition, compilation, and canonization of the Bible (Yay, alliteration! I think I'll refer to these as the Three Cs). In short, people want to know how the Bible came to be. Most folks are well aware that it didn't just drop into the lap of some ancient religious leaders by the Holy Spirit. But a lot of people still aren't really sure about the Bible's actual origins.

            As I have insisted in my earliest posts, the Bible is not really a book, but more like a library of books. It is a whole corpus of literature composed over a period of a thousand plus years or so, and its content concerns events that range over two thousand years of history (delving into some undatable, legendary periods as well). The books of Bible are compiled somewhat according to the order of the over-arching narrative – where there is a narrative to follow – but certainly not according to when they were written. Some of the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures predate some of the books of the Torah (those first 5 books). Matthew's Gospel precedes Mark's in the New Testament, but Mark was almost certainly written first – not to mention the letters of Paul before any of the Gospels. And Romans is the first letter to appear among Paul's epistles, but it was likely one of his later letters. Basically, the ordering of the books in the Bible has little to do with the date of their composition.

            The who and when of biblical authorship is a rather complex issue. Regarding the Old Testament alone, most of the books were not composed by single authors but were more so the product of collaboration "– collaboration of a special kind because the various authors were widely separated in space and time, had no knowledge of one another, and certainly had no conception of the form that their work would finally take."[1] The Hebrew Scriptures had a slow development that included various authors, sources (both oral and written), editors, and compilers. This is especially true for the Torah, which brings me to source analysis and the "Documentary Hypothesis." (Exciting, right?) As technical as these sound, they're really just fancy terms for talking about how the Torah is a compilation of several sources with varying origins and points of view.

            Personally, I am a fan of the concept of the Documentary Hypothesis, and I have no problem believing that the Scriptures were developed from various sources. As with many things in academic disciplines however, it's a theory, and scholars continue to debate and dispute the dating and nature of the proposed sources. However, as Michael Coogan concedes, "the data must be explained, and almost all scholars agree with the general principle that underlying the present text of the first five books of the Bible are distinct sources."[2]

             One way we can think about the use of various sources in the formation of the Torah is to imagine writing a book on your family's ancestry. You might have heard family stories from your grandma Dorothy, but then you also have a diary written by your great-aunt Bertha. Maybe you find a few legal documents that have to do with your great-grandfather Robert on ancestry.com, so you decide to add those to the mix as well. And then there are always those family legends – the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation with a few variations here and there. You're not sure if they actually happened in the same way that they've been related, but they reflect an important part of your family's character and identity, so you put them in too. Some of the materials may seem to contradict each other. Perhaps Dorothy tells a story that disagrees with Bertha's diary, but you choose to put it all together anyway and try to make a somewhat homogenized story of your family.

            All analogies fail at some point, of course, but I hope this kind helps to put in perspective what I mean by the use of sources in the Torah's composition. Just as the family stories were passed down orally before writing this book from the example, the oral traditions which influenced the biblical texts also had a long-standing history before they were committed to writing. But just like Bertha's diary or Robert's legal documents in the analogy, it wasn't only oral traditions that were used as sources in the development of the Torah. Some written material was produced as early as the monarchy, which began around the 10th century BCE (the 900s).These sources, both oral and written, would eventually would lead to the formulation of parts of the Torah.

            With some confidence, scholars can point to the reign of Josiah of Judah (640-609 BCE) as a datable period for an early edition of what would become the book of Deuteronomy. At that time, a so-called "Book of the Law" was "found" in the Temple (see 2 Kings 22:1- 23:30). Later, with the experience of the Babylonian exile and the threat of their religious faith disappearing altogether, there was an unprecedented need "to fix [their] traditions permanently as canonical documents."[3] So by about the 4th century, a good while after the exile, the material that made up the Torah was collected, compiled, and redacted to form more or less what we know as the Torah today.

            So, okay, by that time we pretty much have the Torah, and it evidently was an authoritative text for its readers (i.e. canonical), since the post-exilic Judahites needed to preserve and pass on their religious faith. But what were those sources that made up the Torah? Here is just a bird's-eye view of the four classical sources and some of their characteristics.

J (Jahwist): This source, pronounced YAH-wist (because them Germans have the market on biblical scholarship, and they pronounce Js like Ys, as in Jägermeister) is so named because when referring to God this source uses the Divine Name, YHWH. English Bibles typically never use the Divine Name, and rightly so out of respect. Instead, whenever the Divine Name appears it reads the LORD, and in fact, whenever Jewish people read from the Scriptures and encounter the Divine Name in Hebrew they instead say Adonai, which more or less means "Lord." J is probably the earliest of the traditions, and it likely developed in the southern Kingdom (Judah). God is depicted as more humanlike and speaks more directly to human beings rather than through messengers.

E (Elohist): This source is so named because it uses the Hebrew word elohim to refer to God – at least up to the revelation of the Divine Name in Exodus 3. Elohim is usually simply translated as "God" in English Bibles. In E, God is more distant and communicates through dreams and messengers (angels). Geographically it has a more northern perspective. The term "prophet" is favored in this source, for even Abraham is called a prophet. Also, the mountain known as "Sinai" in J is here called "Horeb" (as well as in the D source, but I'm not there yet). Since E is very fragmented and intertwined closely into the J source, the two are sometimes indistinguishable.

P (Priestly): The Priestly source gets its name because it deals so much with religious matters and instructions: rituals, sacrifices, Sabbaths, etc. It was likely the last of the four sources to develop – probably during 6th century, given the need to preserve the traditions in the midst of the turmoil that occurred in that period (destruction of the Temple, exile, return and reconstruction; let's face it, the 500s were a trying and pivotal century). Almost all of Leviticus is from the P source, but P is interlaced in all of the books of the Torah. God is more remote in P than any other source. The light-filled cloud described in Exodus is an example of P's distant and transcendent depiction of God's glory.

            If you're wondering how all of these sources got pulled together, you can thank the P source for at least being the final editors of the source materials, which is why their contributions  are found in all five books. In fact, chapter 1 of Genesis and the last chapter of Deuteronomy are from P, so it basically bookends the  whole Torah. It may have been a later source, but the Johnny-come-latelies got the final say.
D (Deuteronomic): You can thank the Deuteronomists for a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. A type of religious/intellectual movement which scholars refer to as the Deuteronomic School developed as early as the 8th century in the northern Kingdom (Israel). That school later moved to Judah after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians. Surprise, surprise, the Deuteronomic source was responsible for most of the book of Deuteronomy (from which the D source gets its name). But the Deuteronomists were also the authors of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These books make up what is known as the Deuteronomic History. They also edited and possibly collected material from a number of the earlier prophetic books, most particularly Jeremiah, who himself may have been part of the Deuteronomic School. Obviously this school of thought didn't have much to do with what we mean by "schools" today, but if it did and had I lived back then, I would have had a closet full of their T-shirts and gone to all their games with a big foam finger. I am that much of a fan of their accomplishments. Go Deuteronomists!

            This is merely a rough sketch of the four main hypothetical sources originally proposed by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).There were indeed other source traditions in existence. For example, chapters 17-26 of Leviticus probably derive from a separate source known as the "Holiness Code." And the book of Numbers is a patchwork of not just J, E, and P, but of other folklore, laws, lists and accounts that were passed down.[4] Some of the books of the Old Testament even refer to non-biblical textual sources (e.g. the Book of Jasher) which have since been lost to us.

            Lastly, we cannot pretend that the literature and oral traditions from the surrounding cultures and nations had no effect on biblical writings. The Israelites settled among Canaanites and were under Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek domination at different periods of their history. Naturally, some of the literature and lore of their neighbors and captors would have rubbed off on them. It's no surprise, for example, that multiple flood stories occur in ancient Near Eastern literature. But comparing biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts is a topic for another day. The point is that the formation of biblical literature was a rather organic process and consisted of much more than just a handful of individual authors. Even the Documentary Hypothesis can be critiqued for oversimplifying what was certainly a complicated development.
            But why does any of this matter? What sort of effect will it have on our biblical reading? Why am I going into a whole rant about source analysis? One reason is simply because I find that people are hungry to know where the Bible comes from. How did this anthology of books come about that has had so much influence over history and our lives today. The best way I could think of to approach that question was to write a bit about the ever-enthralling Documentary Hypothesis. The other reason, however, is because I am edified and mystified by the wondrous way in which God communicates God's self. As I said in my previous post, the Truth has a way of making itself know to us. The fact that multiple sources and traditions – some of which differ greatly in perspective from one another – can all be brought together to proclaim the word of God says something about God's infinite greatness and inclusivity. We find that God is more "both/and" than "either/or." Some lament the apparent contradictions in Scripture. I prefer to see them as an example of the fine tension in which all things are held, tempering extremism and giving us the freedom to stretch our arms out wider to embrace even more of the mystery of our faith.

            For this week, I recommend reading chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis. They're a perfect example of two separate sources at work. If you compare these creation myths, you'll find distinctive and differing characteristics between them. Gen 1-2:3 is from the P source, and in it there is more of a sense of bringing order out of chaos. It orders creation with the perfect number, seven, and concludes with Sabbath rest. God is more distant in chapter one; God speaks, and creation is made. On the other hand, Gen 2:4-24 is from the J source. God is more humanlike, forming a man out of the earth like a potter, planting the garden like a gardener, building up a woman from the man's rib. The narrative is much more story-like with explanatory asides and a developing plot which will unfold in the following chapters. You don't have to try to pick out all the differences in the two accounts, but I would encourage you to see how each one is unique but at the same time speaks a truth about God, humanity, stewardship, the goodness of creation and the preeminence of relationship.

            Since this post is only Part One of a series of entries on the Bible's origins, I hope to go over other areas of the Three Cs in subsequent posts. Today's has only covered a tiny speck of what is certainly a topic best explored in a lecture series with an actual professor. Nevertheless, I welcome questions and comments via e-mail, Facebook, or this blog page. And now you can even follow the Codega on Twitter (@biblecodega). Come back next week for more about the origins of the Bible, and until then...

Peace and all good!

[1] John B. Gabel and Charles B. Wheeler, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 9.
[2] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 28.
[3] Ibid., 76.
[4] Ibid., 145 & 153.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Truth, Mystery, the Bible, and... Harry Potter?

          Happy New Year! I wasn't planning on writing this week, but I had a bit of time and thought I'd write something before I get off the grid for awhile. I've been doing some thinking lately about the concept of the truth of Scripture and how best to approach that topic. As I mentioned last week, there is a difference between Truth and fact, particularly when it comes to the Bible. This can be a tricky concept for our post-modern, western minds to wrap around. In fact, many of the questions I receive about the Scriptures directly or indirectly pertain to this topic. In light of this, I couldn't help but muse about literature in general, and specifically (because I was watching some of the movies over the holidays) the Harry Potter novels. Given this theme, today's post probably won't be the most scholarly, but that's also because I didn't have time to do a lot of researching through commentaries and textbooks either. But why not start off the new year with a lighter fare anyway.

            Whenever we think about something we know to be true, we usually think of that which can be measured and proven. For example, we know it's true that the earth revolves around the sun. We can observe that, measure it, and prove it scientifically. But other kinds of truth cannot be measured. I believe it is true that every single human person has innate dignity. Yet we can't measure this, and we can't prove it, because dignity is not something we can necessarily observe and evaluate with our five senses. Likewise, things such as goodness, love, beauty, suffering, evil, and salvation, are not quantifiable, but that doesn't mean we deny their existence. God himself is not measureable (or gendered, so forgive my use of the masculine pronoun), and frankly, I wouldn't want much to do with a god who could be scientifically proven anyway. That is where faith steps in, because ultimately it takes a leap of faith to have belief in and a relationship with some reality that is so beyond conclusive evidence.
            All of these kinds of realities – God, love, goodness, evil, suffering, etc. – are mysteries, which isn't to say they are mysteriously unknowable but that they are infinitely knowable. We can never exhaust our exploration and knowledge of mysteries and the ultimate truths of the universe. No matter how much we come to discover about them we will always find ourselves digging for more. (For the record, I cannot take credit for the concept that a mystery is something that is infinitely knowable. I heard it at a retreat from a woman who was quoting a deceased friar, Howard Hansen, and I don't know whether it was original to him or if he got it from somewhere else. Either way, he made an excellent point.)

            Now just because God and love, and goodness, and suffering, and all the like are not measurable, provable categories, that does not mean that they aren't communicated and revealed to us. Love is not something we can look at under a microscope, but we can experience physical signs and manifestations of love: a warm embrace, a kiss, generous giving, actions of self-sacrifice. Similarly the word of God in Scripture – and ultimately the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ – makes known to us the mystery of who God is. Just as an aside, this is also the way sacraments function. They are visible signs that point to and make manifest God's invisible grace. Even beyond the seven sacraments of the Church there are many other ways in which we experience God's grace in signs and symbols. But I digress. The point is that mysteries may not be quantifiable, yet even still, we can never exhaust our knowledge of them. Furthermore, they are revealed to us, communicated in signs, deeds, the person of Jesus Christ, Sacred Scripture and even literature, art, and music... but today we're just going to focus on literature.

            I've heard from friars and professors alike that the quickest way to the truth is through a story. Obviously  this does not refer to the kind of stories your children might tell you in order to cover up the truth, because the only thing those stories are the quickest way to is a time-out... or a wooden spoon... or more chores. (I don't know; I clearly don't parent children). Regardless, this is a motto I can enthusiastically get behind, because I love a good story. I have a mild – though some might say disproportionate – obsession with Sondheim & Lapine's Into the Woods (the play, not the movie). I even wrote my term paper in moral theology on this show, and with that being said, I could go on and on about the musical. Instead, I'll just reference one of the more poignant lines sung by the Witch in the Finale: "Careful the tale you tell," she cautions the audience, "that is the spell." And ain't that the truth!

            Fairytales, fables, myths, parables, and all other kinds of stories are our teachers, and so we should be careful of the stories we tell. Hopefully the stories we hear as children or adults teach us truth and not lies, for the latter can have disastrous effects! Where would we be, though, without the wisdom of stories? Little Red Ridinghood teaches us not to talk to strangers, and the Three Little Pigs urges us to make practical, well-thought-out decisions. Many of the Greek myths have so artfully depicted the realities of the human condition that we still make allusions to them in our everyday lives (Achilles' heel, Sisyphus' boulder, Cupid's arrow, Pandora's box, etc.). And frequently, Greek mythology warns us against a critical human weakness: arrogance ( or hubris). Jesus himself used stories, and his parables reveal to us the mysteries of the Kingdom, of God's love, justice, and mercy, and how we are to relate with one another as human beings. All of these examples are merely stories, but they are more than mere fiction. They cannot easily be cast aside as irrelevant simply because they are not grounded in historical or scientific fact... which finally brings me to Harry Potter.

            As I said, over the holidays I was watching some of the movies because they were on television... and because Harry Potter is awesome. Point blank. If you are ever looking for a contemporary example of literature that is imbued with the kind of truth that I'm referring to – the truth that has to do with the mystery of love and suffering and of goodness and death (maybe not about God though) – then look no further than Harry Potter. I could have suggested The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, I suppose, since they are more explicitly Christian in origin and influence, but I have not read those books (though I highly recommend them). Either way, Truth is not bound by those things which are directly connected with the Judeo-Christian tradition, which means it can even be found within other religious beliefs. After all, as stated in the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate "the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions," including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. (Nostra Aetate, paragraph 2).

            Now obviously, Harry Potter is not a religion (according to most people), and it is not my intention to put the kind of truth that can be gleaned from its voluminous pages on par with the truth and goodness found in our world's religions. All I'm trying to illustrate is that the Truth, the wisdom of God, has a way of being conveyed in and through mediums that are both secular and religious and in cultures and religions that may or may not be directly associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition. The fullness of Truth might not exist within them, but we can still learn something valuable from the arts, and other religions and cultures. Okay, off my soapbox. Now back to Harry Potter.

            As I was watching bits from films Six and Seven (parts I & II), I couldn't help but think of a few themes that certainly harmonize with some of the truths I have come to understand through the Scriptures. If you haven't read the books or at the very least seen the movies, I am very sorry. No. Siriusly, my heart aches for you, and be warned that I'll be throwing out spoilers. If you have, then you might agree with me when I say that J.K. Rowling definitely has her finger on the pulse of some universal truths. Take for instance the message we get from Lilly Potter's self-sacrificing love for her son. Because of her love, Harry is saved, and the forces of evil are defeated. I'm not saying that Lilly Potter is a metaphor for Jesus. I'm not even suggesting that J.K. Rowling was influenced by the Gospel tradition. All I'm saying is that the message we get from Rowling's masterful story-telling taps into a universal truth about the power of love, especially self-sacrificing love. It just so happens that this Truth is divinely revealed to us in Scripture and in the person of the Jesus Christ, who is the Incarnate Word of God, "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). We also know from Scripture that even among the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) that "the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). For a great explanation of love, by the way, read all of 1 Corinthians 13.

            Another example of the utterance of Truth in the Harry Potter series is in the way Rowling approaches death in these novels. The villain, Voldemort, has this inordinate fear of death – so much so that he literally tears apart his soul in order to avoid it. Harry, on the other hand, eventually comes to embrace death, and in doing so, is able to defeat his enemy. It's a hard pill to swallow – this notion of life through the willing acceptance of death – because I know that many of us prefer not to think of death too much, but Rowling is on to something, something I know to be True because of the Good News that is Jesus Christ. In accepting death Christ has conquered the grave and has given us new life. "He humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name..." (Philippians 2:8-9). The whole mystery of Christ's death and resurrection has a proper name in the Christian tradition, by the way. It is called the paschal mystery, and it is that mystery which permeates the whole of the Christian life, celebration, and story. It is not the theme of today's posts, and no length of writing or depth of contemplation will ever fully plumb the depths of its ineffable profundity, but I will say this: the paschal mystery changes everything. More about that in another post, I hope.

            Again, I'm not saying Harry Potter is a metaphor for Jesus or that Rowling intentionally wrote Harry's character to reflect the paschal mystery. Many differences appear between the two anyway. However, I think that the message of life through death, of victory through dying, is transcendent. It is obviously part of the Gospel message because it is of the wisdom of God, and God reveals this to us in Jesus and in the sacred texts. But because it is so transcendent and because the Holy Spirit is so irrepressible, this kind of Truth just naturally spills out into the universe – in literature, music, art, culture, and religions of all kinds.

            Interestingly enough, J.K. Rowling even includes in her seventh Harry Potter novel an original, wizarding fairytale that articulates this very theme of embracing death. If you recall from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hermione reads "The Tale of the Three Brothers." You can click on the title yourself to hear Emma Watson as Hermione read the whole story with graceful and haunting narration, but note the very last line: "He then greeted death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, departing this life as equals." I love what Rowling does here for two reasons. 1.) It reflects a truth that, as we can see, is found within the biblical and Christian spiritual tradition. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, embraced death as a "sister" at the end of his life as depicted in his Canticle of the Creatures. And 2.) Rowling has demonstrated the power of myth and storytelling through the brilliant literary device of a story-within-a-story. Even her fictional characters come to a deeper appreciation of the mystery of death by means of what? A fairytale.

            And so I return to my point. This is one of the things I mean when I say that the Scriptures are concerned with the Truth, though not necessarily with historical or scientific fact. Its concern, rather, is the truth about those things which cannot be measured, those moral wisdoms, those mysteries that are infinitely knowable yet never fully known (at least not in this life): God, love, goodness, suffering, mercy, death, evil, salvation, sin, justice, resurrection, the paschal mystery, etc. I use literature as an example because what we find in things like fairytales, myths, fables, and, yes, even Harry Potter are narratives that speak the truth even though they are completely fictional. I don't know whether or not J.K. Rowling purposefully intended for her story to have such Christ-like themes. Personally, I'm hoping that she did not intend it, for that just goes to show that there is a universality to the Christian message of love, self-sacrifice, and life through death. It demonstrates my point that Truth and the wisdom of God is transcendent and will find a way to speak to us. In my opinion, western society simply needs to recover an appreciation for narrative, mythology, symbols, and poetry in order to perceive the truth that is in its midst.
            In drawing upon stories, like Harry Potter, I'm not trying to say that the Bible is pure fiction. But the Bible is literature – albeit, sacred literature , some of which is even rooted in history. I am also not insinuating that just because different kinds of literary works can bear witness to the truth of various mysteries of life that Sacred Scripture should therefore be ignored or dismissed. That would be absurd. Sacred Scripture reveals the Truth of the mystery of God. It is God's self-revelation. The Church holds both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as a source of revealed truth, as the Vatican II document on Divine Revelation says, they "together form a single deposit of the Word of God" (Dei Verbum, paragraph 10). The fullness of Truth and God's self-communication, I believe, can be found within these means, though perhaps not exhausted by them. Even Scripture and Tradition are mediated by human language, and the mystery of God inevitably exceeds even that and will ultimately leave us speechless. Nevertheless, Sacred Scripture remains for us one of the ways in which God communicates God's self.

            I hope that some of this helps as a kind of introduction to interpreting the Bible. Humanity is inspired so much by movies, books, songs and poetry and, through them, drawn deeper into the mysteries of life. They touch our souls and tickle our brains, and sometimes they even move us to tears. So it is with Scripture, only more so! For it isn't just any narrative or poem or oracle that we encounter in these sacred texts, but God's very self-revelation.

            With regard to reading the Bible, I quote Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: "Read more poetry, literature, and mythology, would be my advice. Then we can trust you with the Scriptures..."[1] His tone is a little demanding in my estimation, but he makes a valid point. We should strive to seek the Truth where it can be found, for as surely as it is there in Grimm's Fairytales, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Hafez, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, J.K. Rowling, Elizabeth Gilbert, and countless other throughout history, it is there and infinitely more so in the Word of God.

            As far as scriptural recommendations go this week, I suggest reading 1 Corinthians 13 and Philippians 2:5-11, which were mentioned previously, but also find one of Jesus' parables and read that too if you have some time. Luke 10:25-37 (the good Samaritan), Luke 16:19-31 (Lazarus and the rich man), and Luke 15:11-32 (the prodigal son) are all good options. In whatever parable you read, ask yourself what God is saying to you. What truth about God's kingdom do you hear reflected in the story? How does it apply to your life? What challenges you? What gives you joy? What have you learned about love, mercy, justice, goodness?

            The next entry might take some extra time for me to post, as I will be traveling this week. In the meantime, however, I would like to draw your attention to the right side bar in which there are links to the Vatican II documents on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and on the Church's relation to religions other than Christianity (Nostra Aetate). Both are valuable documents, and I highly recommend those to you. There are also links to Bible Odyssey and Catholic Bible Student which are great resources for more information about the Scriptures. And as always, I encourage questions and comments via Facebook, e-mail, or this site here. And, if you haven't already done it, don't forget to subscribe by typing your e-mail address in the "Follow the Codega" box.

            Blessings to you in this new year!
            Happy reading!


[1] Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014), 261.