By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Crucifixes Stay Up in Europe

A surprising ruling from a European high court allowing crucifixes to stay up in classrooms is important news. Read the article by journalist John Allen at this link.

Misimpressions About Augustine

The well-known writer Garry Wills recently wrote a book review that a friend brought to my attention. The review itself is not so interesting; but, in the course of the book review, Wills makes some misleading observations about Augustine and his world that beckon for some adjustment. Now, since Augustine, unlike the book review itself, is in fact very interesting, I, for one, find details about Augustine worth correcting.

First, I think Wills is wrong to give the impression that Augustine read no Greek--my own reading indicates that he had at least some rudimentary or greater knowledge of Greek (see 10th paragraph of the book review). 

Biographer James O'Donnell, Augustine, p. 126, writes: "A word on Augustine's Greek; pathetic. This is not to say that he was completely ignorant of the language, but he had resisted it at school and never mastered it. All his life he seems to have been able to look at a Greek text of Scripture and make some sense of it if he had a Latin translation at hand . . . ." 

But the eminent, late Henry Chadwick is more generous, saying that Augustine "was . . . able to use a Greek book whenever necessary, and in his maturity he was competent to make his own translation of quite technical philosophical texts," in Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, p. 8 (Oxford Univ. Press). 

Second, the famous passage about Augustine being surprised to find Ambrose reading silently (Confessions, Bk 6.3.3) has been misused by both sides of that little debate (see, for an example of this debate, the article by A.K. Gavrilov, with whom I do not fully agree but who provides a nuanced argument). The surprise at Ambrose's silent reading does not necessarily mean that the ancients did not read silently; but can reasonably imply, at the least, that in certain contexts, reading out loud was expected where for us moderns it would not necessarily be expected or customary. 

In contrast, when Augustine is going through his famous conversion moment in the garden (Confessions, Bk 8.12.29 ; a scene I have recently translated for a class presentation), Augustine himself reads the Bible silently because he is in a very emotionally charged state and in a highly personal context in which, presumably, he is not interested in being overheard by his friend Alypius, who is sitting nearby. 

On the related issue of silent reading in the ancient world, Wills is also wrong to give the impression that the 1968 article by Bernard Knox is the last word on the issue (see 11th paragraph of the book review). One scholar, in Wills'  own hometown of Chicago, makes the case for reading out loud in the ancient world because of the difficulty of silently reading texts where the words are not separated by spaces ("scriptura continua"). This scholar's 1997 book is published by Stanford Univ. Press (see this link and this link).

Saturday, March 19, 2011

New Blog on Scripture

Dead Sea Scroll - part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 5...
Here is the link to a new blog "Speaking of Scripture" by some highly qualified, academic friends:

Take a look and enjoy! The doctoral degrees of some of the writers include the Gregorian University in Rome and Oxford University. Not your typical religious blog.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Not All That Glitters Is Gold

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a ...Image via Wikipedia
That is a well-known mashal or proverb from our Anglo-American culture. It reminds us that skills are many, skills can be very useful, skills can be impressive--but they can also be beside the point if they do not lead to wisdom. Here is an excerpt from a movie review in which the lead character in the movie is a writer who takes some kind of drug in order to overcome his writer's block. The drug supposedly helps him use more of his brain capacity, but to no ultimately worthwhile end:

The expansion of Eddie’s mental capacity does not lead to any corresponding growth in wisdom or imagination. Quite the contrary: the more clearly and quickly he thinks, the shallower he becomes. To be sure, he learns to play the piano and picks up fluency in a smattering of foreign languages and high-flown cultural idioms, but these skills are mostly useful in getting women to sleep with him. And the cultural knowledge that is most handy comes from the kung fu movies and boxing matches he suddenly remembers from childhood when he is attacked by a bunch of thugs on a subway platform one night.

Source link (emphasis added).

There are even many intellectuals and scholars, prodigies of knowledge and memory, who have ended up in a dead end. There must be many Mensa members who are just spinning their wheels. The Hebrew Bible tells us to "get wisdom," not just skills to show off and to impress others who are not worth impressing. 

Similarly, Augustine spoke about two kinds of communities: those bound by love for something ultimately unworthy (the "Earthly City") and the community bound by love of God (the "City of God"). Both form communities, both are similar in certain respects, but there is a qualitative chasm between the two cities, as there is a qualitative chasm on the individual level between mere skills and wisdom.

The New Testament presents Christ as the "wisdom of God."  Give it a shot.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St. Joseph's Day: Doing It Right

Saturday is, of course, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and patron of the universal Church. I recall from growing up in New Orleans the Italian (Sicilian) custom of building large altars to St. Joseph, abundantly and profusely bedecked with pastries and bread to celebrate this solemnity. The altars were set up in homes and schools. It was fun and interesting to visit the various St. Joseph altars and taste the Italian pastries (disclaimer: I am not Italian). Here is more on how St. Joseph's Day is celebrated:

Many traditions and customs have developed around St. Joseph and his feast day. March 19th has been a traditional day to show hospitality in the Italian culture. On this day, all who come to the door are invited to dinner. The family table is extended full-length, moved against the wall (like the Church altar), and a statue of St. Joseph surrounded by flowers and candles is made the centerpiece. After the guests have enjoyed the bounteous feast (blessed by a priest prior to the meal), the guests leave so other guests may enter. What is left is given to the poor. On a variation of this theme, a table is set up in the town square, and all families bring food. After Mass, everyone comes and shares a meal, which consists of a variety of foods, including bread baked in the shape of scepters and beards.

Source link.

That "bright" way of celebrating the day contrasts with what I see and hear around the college campus, with which I am most familiar, concerning St. Patrick's Day. The focus is on preparing for an alcoholic binge (defined as "episodic excessive drinking" according to this link). Compared to the feast of St. Joseph, that of St. Patrick is relatively limited in significance. Still, he, like any saint, deserves much better than to be exploited as an excuse for some of our worst and most harmful tendencies. Yet, it seems that the horse is now out of the barn in the wider culture and beyond the scope of any restraining influence from Christians.

One priest overseas expressed a similar view in 2007:

A CATHOLIC priest has launched a scathing attack on how St Patrick's Day has become "Paddy's Week" - and is now "an excuse for mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry".
Writing in the current issue of The Word magazine, conservative theologian Fr Vincent Twomey also calls for the reclaiming of St Patrick's Day as a church festival.
While recognising the Irish have restored the fun to St Patrick's Day in recent decades, Fr Twomey regrets that the faith and religious element is often absent in the festivities.
"It is time to bring the piety and the fun together," he writes.
"It is time to reclaim St Patrick's Day as a Church festival, one that should have a special ecumenical perspective, since all Christians in Ireland trace the origins of their faith back to Patrick.
"It is also time to rediscover the man himself, his triumph over adversity thanks to his faith in Jesus Christ, and his deep spirituality, so needed today." After looking at the history of St Patrick's Day and the transformation of the country's parades over the past decade, Fr Twomey attributes this change to Ireland becoming an increasingly secular and vulgar country. "Paddy's Week is descending into an excuse for mindless alcohol-fuelled revelry. Must it be so?"

Source link here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More Religious Persecution in Iran: Targeting Bahai and Christians

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957Image via Wikipedia
Here is the Wall Street Journal link. Look, let's be honest: it took a long time for Christians to fully embrace religious freedom for all, but we eventually did it because we realized that is exactly what Jesus would want us to do. (The common, trite-sounding slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" is actually a pretty good rule of thumb.) Jesus also wants Muslims to embrace religious freedom for all, whether they are Bahai or Christian or anything else.

P.S. In another honest admission, we Catholics were not exactly the first of the Christian traditions leading the way toward the now accepted democratic model of legal religious freedom for all. But we are there now, especially after Vatican II--another reason to be thankful for that great Council.

Signs of the Times


VATICAN CITY, 15 MAR 2011 (VIS) - The Holy See Press Office has published the following communique:

  "In view of the beatification of John Paul II on 1 May 2011, Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Centre (CTV) have organised a number of initiatives and made a wide range of documentary material available.

  "A new page dedicated to John Paul II for his beatification has been activated on Youtube. The page is available at the following address: and includes video clips on the pontificate year by year, as well as video clips with the Pope's voice in various languages and situations (on trips and in the Vatican).

  "These are audio recordings supplied and selected by the language programmes of Vatican Radio, which have then been mounted onto video by CTV. The audio of the Pope will be in the original language in which it was pronounced, with English-language subtitles indicating the place (country), day, month and year of the event.

  "The dedicated Youtube page - as well as the normal channel which has existed for some time in four languages - will be supplied with video clips of current events and information concerning the days of the beatification.

  "A new page has also been activated on Facebook concerning John Paul II in view of his beatification. It may be consulted at this All the video clips uploaded to the Youtube channel will be available at the same time on this page.

  "The aim is to diversify the instruments so as to give this initiative as great an exposure and as wide a coverage as possible. Unlike other initiatives already present on the Internet in various forms, initiatives by private individuals not associated with the Holy See, this carries the joint signatures of Vatican Radio and of the Vatican Television Centre, it has been agreed with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and is, of course, open to all users of Facebook.

  "The general objective is to accompany the course of the beatification using the instruments technology makes available, making full use of the resources at our disposal and, at least in part, of the vast documentary archives held by Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Centre".

Friday, March 11, 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A New Lent: Beyond Chocolate

"The Wilderness" - IsraelImage by wmrice via Flickr
Let's try something new for Lent, new at least to me who is not used to hearing much about the particular approach to Lent on which I focus here. First, let's look at some basics. "Lent" is from the Old English meaning "spring." So much for the unconscious image of Lent as somehow a dark season wrapping up the leftovers of a now dreary winter long past the bright beauty of the Christmas season.

Lent is a springtime of a renewal, not a dark abyss that we have to endure with gritted teeth. In Latin cultures, the season's name is derived directly from the Latin "quadragesima" (e.g., in Spanish "cuaresma") focusing, with impeccable logic, on its very biblical length of 40 days--40 years in the wilderness by Israel out of Egypt, 40 days by Jesus in the wilderness facing down Satan, the old Exodus repeated and surpassed by the New Exodus. The centrality of the number 40 recalls the great importance of the theme of the New Exodus in understanding the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.

ChocolateAs Catholics, we are very familiar with the practice of giving up some food in which we love to indulge--say chocolates or some other kind of mouth-watering treat. Who can argue with that? Yet, I have always found that exclusive focus to be a bit trivializing of the season. Rather, than just give up something "accidental" to our lives, something not too significant which we will take up again after 40 days, why not give up something that should be permanently abandoned--such as a part of our fallen personality?

After all, quadragesima is the season of repentance and conversion which means, if anything, abandoning some form of bondage and embracing liberation through Jesus--recreating and reliving the Exodus in our own personal lives. Why not give up permanently something bad for us, rather than just spiritually harmless bits of chocolate? Jesus' own 40 days of "Lent" involved permanently rejecting the temptations to power and ego proposed by Satan. If anything is a model for Lent, Jesus' own "Lent" surely is.

In the Gospels, Jesus often tells us not to be afraid, not to be anxious, not to worry. I, for one, will try to give up for Lent the tendency to worry too much, too think too fearfully about the future and about challenges. You may have something else that the Spirit leads you to abandon. Do it and make of this Lent something more than a temporary suspension of the dessert tray for 40 days. Other viable candidates to target for abandonment include pride, egotism, the lust for power and control, self-righteousness, legalism, greed, status-seeking, envy, hypocrisy, money-grubbing, indifference to past and present evils. There are many others waiting to be targeted. You know what they are.

Monday, March 7, 2011

For Sale

The figure of Jeremiah on the Sistine Chapel c...Image via Wikipedia
of the Prophet Jeremiah
The fancy word is "venality" which the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as the "prostitution of principles for mercenary considerations." Now, be aware that those engaging in venal behavior will protest forcefully that mercenary considerations play no role at all in their actions. You be the judge of the matter. I will give three cases that, over the years, one finds commonly described in the media or simply observed in daily life.

1. As is common today, numerous women, although having other alternatives available, give full live-in sexual access to males willing to pay all or half of the monthly rent. Of course, the transaction is whitewashed with transient, delusional romantic fiction of one kind or another--romantic fiction which is suspiciously easy to jettison when circumstances change.

2. Public officials shrewdly manipulate legal technicalities to maximize their ability to gain financially from public employment and, with great chutzpah, expect voters to applaud and honor them for being so willing to serve. The whitewash in this case involves the fiction that we should be thankful to have someone willing to make such "sacrifices" to serve the public.

3. Teacher's unions focus excessively on financial gain and benefits for those with seniority, while students languish and younger, qualified teachers depart to greener pastures. The whitewash here is that the failure of students to learn is the fault of everyone except the mediocre teachers themselves who would supposedly be able to find other lucrative employment if pay and benefits did not keep rising and job security were not guaranteed.

These are just three common cases of venality: in sexual relations, in public service, and in education. As I recently read in a book on philosophy, we can define "culture" as the ways of living practiced by a certain group of people. Our culture bears too many marks of "prostitution for mercenary considerations," a prostitution that betrays the ideals of meaningful love, of selfless public service, and of teaching as a calling to serve students first. These cases of mercenary behavior, all of which are perfectly legal, culturally embraced, and boldly defended, breed cynicism. The Scriptures below give the ultimate commentary on all such cases.

Mark 8:36 (Douay-Rheims) on mercenary behavior:

For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul? 

Matthew 6:24 (ESV) on money-worship:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Jeremiah 8:12a (ESV) on bold shamelessness:

Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. 

Matthew 18:6 (ESV) on causing cynicism:

but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,a it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Rare Political Comment

George W. Bush speaks at a campaign rally in 2004.Image via Wikipedia
Of late, I have avoided outright political commentary because Christian wisdom is not tied to any one political party or agenda, but rather is superior to any and all political points of view. But the events in the Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Iran and now Libya are too important to leave alone, especially for those of us morally committed to the spread of human rights and the intoleration of tyranny anywhere in the world.

Columnnist Charles Krauthammer, not surprisingly, has stated the obvious that many will recoil from ever admitting: the current Middle East uprisings confirm the often wrongly mocked intuition of former President George W. Bush that the thirst for freedom throbs even in the hearts of Middle Eastern peoples long accustomed to tyranny. This intuition has been mocked as unrealistic and unsophisticated by Democrats who claim that the U.S. cannot impose democracy overseas, although the Bush strategy was not to impose but rather to remove the obstacles to democracy so that democracy could have a chance to develop in the first place. The actual implementation of democracy would be left to Middle Easterners themselves, as we see in Iraq today.

Here is an excerpt from Krauthammer's Washington Post column, a point of view that I have been holding since the first revolt in Tunisia:

Now that revolutions are sweeping the Middle East and everyone is a convert to George W. Bush's freedom agenda, it's not just Iraq that has slid into the memory hole. Also forgotten is the once proudly proclaimed "realism" of Years One and Two of President Obama's foreign policy - the "smart power" antidote to Bush's alleged misty-eyed idealism.
It began on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first Asia trip, when she publicly played down human rights concerns in China. The administration also cut aid for democracy promotion in Egypt by 50 percent. And cut civil society funds - money for precisely the organizations we now need to help Egyptian democracy - by 70 percent.
This new realism reached its apogee with Obama's reticence and tardiness in saying anything in support of the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. On the contrary, Obama made clear that nuclear negotiations with the discredited and murderous regime (talks that a child could see would go nowhere) took precedence over the democratic revolutionaries in the street - to the point where demonstrators in Tehran chanted, "Obama, Obama, you are either with us or with them."
Now that revolution has spread from Tunisia to Oman, however, the administration is rushing to keep up with the new dispensation, repeating the fundamental tenet of the Bush Doctrine that Arabs are no exception to the universal thirst for dignity and freedom.

Source link.

Let us welcome the converts even if they cannot bring themselves to admit to their own obvious and well-documented conversion.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Quest for the Historical David

This is dervative work of Image:Davids-kingdom...Image via Wikipedia
For decades now, the big controversy among archaeologists in Israel and abroad is whether the United Monarchy of Kings David and Solomon really existed in the splendor described in the Hebrew Bible ("HB"). The "minimalists," who look askance at the historical reliability of the HB, at one point (some still do) doubted the very existence of David. But, in 1993, the discovery of a 9th century B.C. Aramaic inscription mentioning the "house of David" put that view to rest for most reasonable people who do not have an agenda behind their archaeology. This important discovery affirming the historicity of David and his monarchy is known as the Tel Dan inscription or stele (from the Greek term for a pillar; see this link).

David SM Maggiore
King David via Wikipedia
I raise this issue to direct readers to a very interesting National Geographic article, "Kings of Controversy," from Dec. 2010 on the issue of archaeology and Kings David and Solomon. This discussion is something you should be familiar with as people interested in the Bible. You can access the article at this link .

Why is this matter important?

1. First, as I say to my seminary class, the single most important lesson for interpreters of the New Testament ("NT") is the following: if you want to interpret and study the NT, know as much as possible about the Old Testament;

2. Second, the quest for the historical Jesus involves, at times, some of the same broad questions and methodological issues about the Bible and history as the archaeological quest for the "historical David" and the "historical Solomon" and the nature of their kingdoms. 

In my view, the National Geographic article confirms an opinion I already held based on my prior study: that archaeology is a very subjective art where different interpretations abound concerning the very same data or discoveries--and where personality and temperament play an unignorable role. So, when you hear an archaeologist pontificate, be sure to retain a reasonable skepticism until you read more widely on the issue. Archaeologists are often proven wrong, whether they are ever able to bring themselves to admit it or not.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

More Persecution: This Time Pakistan Again


VATICAN CITY, 2 MAR 2011 (VIS) - Given below is the text of a declaration made this morning by Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. concerning the assassination of Shabbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister for minorities.

  "The assassination of Shabbaz Bhatti, Pakistani minister for minorities, is another terrible episode of violence. It shows how right the Pope is in his persistent remarks concerning violence against Christians and against religious freedom in general.

  "Bhatti was the first Catholic to hold such an office. We recall how he was received by the Holy Father in September last year, and how he bore witness to his own commitment to peaceful coexistence among the religious communities of his country.

  "Our prayers for the victim, our condemnation for this unspeakable act of violence, our closeness to Pakistani Christians who suffer hatred, are accompanied by an appeal that everyone many become aware of the urgent importance of defending both religious freedom and Christians who are subject to violence and persecution".

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