Letters to the Editor: March 1985
The Little Ones
The exchange of Letters between Donald J. Keefe and Edith Black (Nov.) regarding a book on biblical criticism and Fr. Raymond Brown occasions the following reflections:
Raymond Brown, a Sulpician, is beyond doubt the leading American Catholic scholar of the historical-critical school of biblical study. Many readers will recall that he and his academic supporters very nearly blocked the publication in English of the distinguished French theologian Laurentin, who had ventured to criticize Fr. Brown’s work on the Infancy Narratives. Fr. Brown must not be confused with “The Great God Brown,” which is a play by Eugene O’Neill.
Although not myself a theologian, I am educated (a scholar, that is) in other areas, including Greek and Roman history, and know something of the limits of scholarship. I once wrote Brown of my own interpretation of something he had written about, and he replied kindly that he agreed with my “nuanced” position. It was only later that I learned that from Brown “nuanced” is the accolade, the highest praise.
A year or so later, having read other works by him including The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (hereafter VC & BR), I was emboldened by that “nuanced” to write again, a long and cordial letter raising two questions. Despite a follow-up note, he did not reply. Perhaps I was no longer “nuanced.” That was two years ago.
One of the questions I put to him was this: Since the object of the historical-critical method is to confirm or modify or discard the articles of faith, and since biblical criticism has flourished for a century and a half, what, in fact, has been established — proved or disproved — by it? That the Apostle John did or did not write his Gospel? That that Gospel (now that a scrap of papyrus has scrapped all the books that “proved” it to be second century) was written round the end of the first century or written before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70? That the bodily Resurrection did or did not occur? That Mark was the first Gospel or (as a scholar at Downside Abbey in England maintains) was written with both Matthew and Luke before him? Not one of these can be said to be established. Only doubted. But there have been doubters ever since Thomas. Christianity is a faith.
The other question I put to Brown was this: What of “the little ones”? He says in various places that questions such as the “Virginal Conception” (as he calls it) and the bodily Resurrection “must be faced and discussed by all Christians” (except perhaps French theologians). But the average Christian, who, after two to four years of college, sells cars or farms the land, is not equipped for scholarly discussion; indeed, he is likely to assume (mistakenly) that famous theologians must be right in their skepticism. And Brown tells him that, in addition to the VC&BR, “the doctrines of creation, of original sin, of the incarnation” and others are “under reexamination today.” In other words, the entire Christian faith. But if a century and a half of biblical criticism by devoted scholars (if “devoted” is precisely the word) has established so little, what is the average Christian to do besides facing and discussing? Hold his breath for another century and a half to see what the scholars have left him?
What is happening is that, instead of man being judged by revealed truth, the Revelation is being judged by man. Those whom Brown encourages to doubt might well doubt his approach.
Brown’s books are said to have considerable popular appeal, though I wonder whether the average buyer knows what he is getting into. (I would urge that “average Christian” to read C.S. Lewis’s brilliant address to Cambridge divinity students, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.”)
In all the first three Gospels, Christ speaks a grave warning: “If a man is the cause of stumbling to one of the little ones who have faith, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied round his neck and sink in the salt sea.” After concluding that the “scientific evidence” leaves the Virgin Birth in doubt and adding “yet discuss it we must,” Brown says to the “little ones” (his term) that he hasn’t forgotten that all generations shall call Mary blessed. But if Mary lied about the Virgin Birth and slept with a man out of wedlock and was only saved from disgrace by Joseph, how, precisely, is she blessed? Anyhow, why must we discuss it? Only Mary knew — and we by faith. Indeed, what woman’s virginity in all history could be established by “scientific evidence”? What “scientific evidence” (except the body) could prove or disprove the bodily Resurrection? All Brown and his colleagues can do is to sow doubts among the little ones. And my question is, what Christian is going to be willing to go to the lions for a faith his theological teachers say is a dubious possibility?
I asked Fr. Brown, seriously and politely, how he reconciled his injunction to all Christians to face and discuss these doubts, their faith shaken, with Christ’s warning about causing the little ones to stumble. He did not answer. Perhaps he couldn’t.
The NOR constantly encourages me, supplying evidence that others in the world share what sometimes seems like only my own entirely idiosyncratic view of things.
No Spiritual Superjock
After reading the two Letters on Evelyn Waugh (Oct.), I find myself a select member of the Ornery and Nasty People for Christ.
I spent most of the first four years after my conversion comparing myself to others and attempting to be a “spiritual superjock.” Though I was sincere, I could never be as perfect as others seemed; nor could I demonstrate the self-control they appeared to have. Eventually, my continual attempts at self-denial brought me close to a nervous breakdown and a faith crisis.
At the evangelical Christian college I attended I was viewed as a “nasty,” though fellow students were polite enough to deem me a “radical.” My crimes were much more atrocious than hating children and smoking cigars. No! I had a vulgar mouth which caused many an embarrassing situation. On top of that — heresy of heresies! — I hated Christian music (the very popular Keith Green, the Imperials, the Resurrection Band) and Christian theater (the Jeremiah People) and most of that commercial Christian art stuff that sprung out of the Jesus movement. Billy Graham bored me and I didn’t like Ronald Reagan, either.
Luckily for me, the administration would not permit the student body to have witch hunts and burnings on campus.
The students couldn’t understand two things: (1) I was a lot worse than they could ever imagine; (2) all I had was Christ. While others had Christian homes and parents and Christian music and Christian this and that, Christ was the only hope I had of ever being spared my vulgar mouth, my perfectionism, my hypocrisy, and the meaninglessness of a nervous breakdown.
How often I cried in my dorm room, desiring to follow the Nazarene over every hill and valley, only to leave my room, catch a glimpse of an Imperials poster and being tied in a knot all over again.
Comfort came at one point when a professor, in referring to C.S. Lewis, said, “We are responsible for repenting and correcting sins of our moral behavior; God is responsible for the continual transformation of our personality.” And this transformation is the work of grace.
No! I am not a very nice person. Dale Evans makes me sick; so, too, Pat Robertson. But I try overcoming my allergies out of love, out of gratitude, and out of fear, a holy fear and reverence of Christ for having saved me from forever being subject to my own shortcomings and failures.
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