Tue 21st Oct 2014 | Last updated: Mon 20th Oct 2014 at 22:34pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo
Hot Topics

Comment & Blogs

Our current ignorance of the Scriptures is a terrible loss to our culture

Knowledge of the Bible gave Anglo-Saxon poetry its resonance and depth

By on Thursday, 1 September 2011

A scene from the 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf

A scene from the 2007 film adaptation of Beowulf

I had lunch with a young evangelical the other day and we talked about the Bible. This led me to reflect that I do not often have conversations about the Bible, and that interest in the Holy Scriptures as such (as opposed to proof texting, which means picking out quotes that back up your opinion on some controversial subject) seems to be a rare thing these days. This is a great pity, I think, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council which was supposed to inaugurate a new appreciation of the Scriptures among Catholics.

That Catholics are not as interested in Scripture as they might be could be a reflection on how academics treat the Scriptures. I will never forget (and I fear never get over) the way the Scriptures were taught so badly in the Roman Pontifical University that I attended. The course on the synoptic gospels was good, and we had a lively and interesting teacher, who clearly loved her subject; but the courses on the Old Testament were dismal in the extreme. Before I studied theology, I had read English Literature at university, and in my humble opinion the approach to Scripture could learn a great deal from the study of Eng Lit. In other words, start with the story the Old Testament tells, and spare us the memorable (in all the wrong senses) opening lectures on who the Hittites were.

Once upon a time there used to be a whole industry dedicated to what was called “the Bible as Literature”. A search on Google confirms that this industry is up and running still, but I can’t say that it has ever impinged much on my seminary studies. And yet the Bible is literature, isn’t it? We can legitimately ask what makes the Psalms good poems, and it is right too to look at the four gospels are the fruits of four different stylists at work.

My favourite book of the Bible (this was one of the topics covered over lunch), as far as the New Testament goes, must be the Letter to the Hebrews, a tour de force of rhetoric. As for the Old Testament, I confess to loving Tobit and Ruth, again as perfect self-contained works of art which expound timeless truths. The same goes for Jonah, one of the best comic tales with a serious message ever produced. My interlocutor was very keen on Jeremiah, whom I admitted to not knowing well; and he also said he liked the Old Testament more than the New.

There was once a time in England when people spent hours discussing the Scriptures; and it used to be said that the King James Bible was one of the great monuments of the English language. But this healthy interest in Scripture long predates the Reformation. In my first year at university I had the great privilege of studying Anglo-Saxon Literature with the late Bruce Mitchell and the late Reggie Alton both of whom opened my eyes to the fact that the first speakers of English produced a literature that was, in a sense, written in the shadow of the Bible. One of the greatest poems in our language is the Dream of the Rood, a meditation on the Cross and its meaning. And what about the epic poem Beowulf? According to Bruce Mitchell “Beowulf was the first boy scout”, and the poem was, though set in a pagan past, inspired by the deeds of heroism that pervade the Old Testament. Wikipedia’s entry has this to say, which I think is a fair summary:

Whether seen as a pagan work with “Christian coloring” added by scribes or as a “Christian historical novel, with selected bits of paganism deliberately laid on as ‘local color’”, as Margaret E Goldsmith did in The Christian Theme of Beowulf, it cannot be denied that Christianity pervades the text, and with that, the use of the Bible as a source. Beowulf channels Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel in its inclusion of references to God’s creation of the universe, the story of Cain, Noah and the flood, devils or the Devil, Hell, and the Last Judgment.

My own view is that Beowulf is a Christological poem, though it can be enjoyed by people who are not receptive to its religious message too. But the important point is that knowledge of Scripture and the flourishing of the saeculum are intimately connected. Our Anglo-Saxon forbears were great artists, and they knew the Scriptures; these two go together, and do not pull in opposite directions. It was their knowledge of the Bible, among other things, that gave the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons its resonance and depth, a quality that is sadly lacking in so much of the literature of subsequent ages.

Our current ignorance of the Scriptures represents a terrible loss to our culture. So: next time you sit down to lunch with someone, why not ask them which bit of the Bible they like best? Who knows, you might be in for a pleasant surprise. You might stimulate their interest or revive your own. Whichever way, it sure beats discussing what was on the telly last night.

  • David Lindsay

    “In order to be more fully Herself, the Catholic Church needs to encourage large numbers of Her members to learn the culture of the Word from that Evangelical tradition which is historically, if even in its own terms no longer necessarily, separated from Her full communion. Such a culture is one in which the defining narratives are those of the Old and New Testaments, and examples of it range from Handel to Holman Hunt. All cultures define and perpetuate themselves by telling stories, and the Bible culture initially arose in order to fill the gaps left after the Reformation where the Lives of the Saints had previously been. Catholicity, however, requires both, not least in order to express the indivisible continuity between the Bible and the Church. Catholics are not being asked to take on anything remotely Protestant as such here: look at the Liturgy, look at the Fathers (up to and including the Medieval Doctors), look at the Medieval and post-Medieval mystics, and look at the iconography and other spirituality of the Christian East, whether Catholic or separated. Taking on is a defining mark of Catholicism, which radically and fundamentally distinguishes the Catholic Church from the giving up that characterises Protestantism.”
    Buy the book here:

  • David Lindsay

    Oh, and:

    “Vatican II certainly did define the primacy of Scripture in teaching and practice, not that there was anything even vaguely or remotely novel in that. It certainly did not define the primacy, or even the admissibility, of secular and secularising Biblical criticism. The Authorship of God’s Written Word is, like the Person of His Incarnate Word, both fully human and fully divine. The Bible comes only with, in and through the Church that defined its Canon and has preserved it through the ages, and its implications for doctrine, for morality and for future hope are integral to its literal, Authorially original sense. The founders of Protestantism spoke of Scripture’s plain sense, but that sense is in fact canonical and ecclesial, allegorical and typological, tropological and moral, anagogical and eschatological, while also including the historical factuality of the events recorded as such at least from the Call of Abram onwards, with apparent difficulties finding their resolution precisely in Canon and Church, in Tradition and Magisterium. It is that which enjoys priority in faith and practice.”
    Buy the book here.

  • Anonymous

    The annual cyclical readings from the Old and New Testaments which compromise the weekly gospel readings at Mass would probably be the only contact that the majority of regular church-going Catholics have with the Bible.  The Bible must cease being just being the preserve of religious academics and theologians and must be part of the reading habits of the general Catholic laity.  Catholics must become as conversant about the bible as evangelicals.  But biblical exegesis should not fall prey to the sola scriptural method so beloved of the reformers but  must be part of an education program within the communal tradition of the Church to make the deposit of Faith accessible to each of Her members.

  • David Lindsay

    “Useful though the Jerusalem Bible’s footnotes are, the text itself is awful. The Revised Standard Version is preferred by all sensible people, and certainly not the New Revised Standard Version with the masculine pronouns taken out to the ruination of the sense; if the Bible is that bad, then why use it at all? At least until such time as anyone has the wit to reissue the RSV Edition of the Missal, authorisation of which has never been withdrawn, those reading at Mass (or, of course, on other liturgical occasions) should read out the appointed passage from the superlative Ignatius Bible, which no English-speaking Catholic should be without. Nothing could better accompany the move to a more accurate translation of the Mass, suitable for properly educated people. It must be said that if those entering the Catholic Church under the aegis of the Ordinariate were everything that they are held up as being, then the RSV Missal would never have gone out of print.”

    Buy the book here.

  • Parasum

    “This led me to reflect that I do not often have conversations about the Bible, and that interest in the Holy Scriptures as such (as opposed to proof texting, which means picking out quotes that back up your opinion on some controversial subject) seems to be a rare thing these days.”

    Proof-texting is only one relatively unimportant element in Evangelical knowledge of the Bible – as a read of the authors published by Inter-Varsity Press (or whatever its name is these days) will show. The love of the Bible that is the heart of Evangelicalism is one of the best things about it – the atrocious ignorance of the Bible that is part of far too much Catholicism is one of its most distressing features. Catholic writing loses immeasurably through ignorance of the Bible – the only people who are likely to be able to see this, are converts with an Evangelical background.

    Part of the problem seems to be an assumption that love of the Bible is “Protestant” – as though Real Catholics say the Rosary instead; there’s a polemical outlook, full of concerns about what divides Catholics & Protestants, and about not making Protestant mistakes – but little trace of a love of the Bible for its own sake. This is in very stark contrast to the love and veneration of it that is so evident in the Puritans (who are at least maligned as the Jesuits) – and to the mediaevals and the Fathers. For all practical purposes, the documents of the 
    Magisterium function as the Bible – it doesn’t help that Catholic doctrine has come to blur the distinction between the unispired utterances of Church authorities,and the inspired words of the Biblical authors. The Magisterium may have an advantage in being more recent, and more accessible – which may be a reason for the comparative neglect of the Bible; those books may be too alien. 

  • Parasum

    People *approve* of the notes in the JB ? In some Catholic fora, the very similar notes of the NAB are under constant attack. The 1966 RSV Catholic edition is almost identical to the Ignatius Press Bible; it’s a shame the Yanks have, yet again, been given the opprtuniuty to sell coals to Newcastle :(

  • JonnyB

    I completely agree with you.
    I am frequently astounded (as a non-Catholic) by the lack of biblical knowledge demonstrated, in conversation, by the majority of Catholics I encounter. They are, mostly, able to quote their priest, but have no knowledge of many areas of Scripture.
    I, personally, believe in most of the ethical & moral stances of true Christianity, but find the idea that people call themselves Christian, without really knowing & understanding the basis of their faith, to be extremely scary.