Archives For The Ancient Church

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True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

_____

* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

csl-humorHumor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.

In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.

In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.

But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.

But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.

Amen. We can all, whatever our vocation, do with an extra dose of hilaritas. After all, it’s good for your health.

I highly commend Lindvall’s entertaining article, which you can read online here or download as a pdf here.

It is filled with references to C.S. Lewis, as one would expect from the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

One particularly beneficial section of the article is his discussion of the four types of laughter mentioned by Screwtape in his epistles.

If you don’t have access to your copy of The Screwtape Letters, the following quotation will provide the context for Lindvall’s remarks.

Because Screwtape is a devil, viewing God as the “Enemy,” his viewpoint is reversed. Keep that in mind as you read.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell . . .

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.

It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it,

So, a wise person will savor joy and fun, along with jokes proper that are offered in good taste. But they will remain wary of flippancy, from which more ill than good usually flows.

Have a joy-filled life.

 

chaldean

“Liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here [in Iraq]. Islam does not say that all men are equal.” Amal Nona

You cannot state the truth more concisely than that.

Nona is a Chaldean Catholic archbishop who “doesn’t have a diocese anymore. He doesn’t have a church. ISIS destroyed all that, and his people are scattered. But he’s not afraid to speak forthrightly, even when ISIS was at his doorstep.” (“Happy Warriors”)

The Chaldean Catholic Church is no stranger to persecution. They are descendants of the Assyrians who maintained the faith through the Muslim conquest up until today. They are a courageous people, but that is not the subject I wish to address here.

As the archbishop alludes, the reason that Western nations have been utterly unsuccessful in transplanting democracy to countries with Islamic majority populations is that democracy is alien to their worldview.

To the literalist Muslim (i.e. those who accept the words of the Quran at face value), it’s ludicrous to claim that Christians are equal to followers of Islam. Even without appealing to detailed Sharia law, the simple notion that infidels should possess the same rights as the followers of Allah is foolish, or worse. They are dhimmi—second class citizens, at best and actively persecuted and martyred, at worse.

This is the default setting for Islamic nations. Just look at Turkey and Egypt, two nations with actual democratic governments. The terrorist Muslim Brotherhood continues to exert destructive influences in both, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the excuse of the recent coup attempt to further destroy the vestiges of democracy (e.g. free speech) which he has long been undermining. Egypt is currently enjoying a respite after removing Mohamed Morsi, a man with a similar, anti-democratic agenda.

Retired military analyst Ralph Peters recently penned a frightening (and I believe accurate) appraisal of where Erdoğan will take his nation.

The ragtag ISIS caliphate is merely the forerunner of the more ambitious caliphate to come. It’s coming in Turkey.

The immense and destructive crackdown underway in Turkey now, with at least 10,000 Turks taken into custody and as many as 100,000 others dismissed from their positions—not only soldiers, but judges, civil servants, police and academics—isn’t an end-game. It’s a beginning. . . .

Erdoğan didn’t need a reason for this pre-planned purge. He had his reasons and his lists of names. He needed an excuse. The failed coup was a gift.

Now we’re witnesses to the destruction of Turkey’s secular society and the forced-march reversion to religious regimentation and obscurantism, to intolerance and oppressive fundamentalism. This is the triumph of mosque over modernity, not of the rule of law, but of its supersession.

Professors have been forbidden to leave the country. The government demanded the resignation of all the deans of higher-level schools and universities. Book-banning is on the way, and book-burning wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

To those of us in the West, including numerous Muslim immigrants who have recognized the universal benefits of freedom of conscience and equal rights, the historic interpretations of government based on the Quran seem disconcerting. Part of the reason they seem unfathomable, is because we do not take the time to study them. Nor do we listen to the voices of minority populations who have been long subjugated and deprived of what we deem basic human rights.

Archbishop Nona, and others like him, need to be heeded. His warning about the challenge of translating democratic principles, points to the proper beginning place: education. It is no accident that the Muslim countries with the highest educations and most moderate (i.e. non-fundamentalist) adherents replicate democratic freedoms most consistently.

I consider the best course for promoting peace to be educating all people, and encouraging freedom of conscience, especially when it comes to religion and speech. And I recognize that the statement with which we began remains a vital fact that must be recognized at the outset of that effort. The following observation appeared in an article last year.

The lust for power corrupts religion, just as the quest for piety is vulnerable to hubris. As Cengiz Erdoğan, a CHP [minority political party] member who runs a car repair workshop, put it to me: “He’s power-hungry and he’s dedicated to the Islamist way.” Or, as C.S. Lewis once warned: “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

The principles guiding Democracies and Republics arose in the Western world. There they found fertile soil. Yet even here in the West, we see on a daily basis that democracy is fragile. Tolkien and Lewis scholar, Joseph Laconte, wrote an “optimistic” essay about the 2015 elections in Turkey. Erdoğan had been prevented from achieving an absolute majority.

The danger, at least for the moment, has been averted. . . . [Some Turks fear] Erdoğan’s early reformist talk was a mere façade for his hardcore Islamism.

That may be reason enough to cheer Turkey’s election results: they offer the hope that corrupted religion will find it harder to derail the nation’s experiment in democratic self-government. More than hope, of course, will be needed. For if secular authoritarianism has left the stage in Turkey, its religious counterpart is waiting hungrily in the wings.

Unfortunately, what political minorities in Turkey feared, is now coming to fruition, with a vengeance.

A Positive Postscript from the Chaldeans

Christianity rejects the notion that any person possesses greater worth than another. In the Christian world there are no castes . . . there are no dhimmi.

Each and every life is precious. In fact, the Good Shepherd is not content to keep the faithful ninety-nine under his protection, he leaves them to go out in search of the one—the individual one—that has strayed.

Chaldean Christians have some of the most ancient roots in Christian history. Despite the fact that most the Assyrian Christians have been driven from their ancestral homes, and are unlikely to ever be allowed to return, they have retained their hope. That is because they do not place their faith in humanity or their own strength. The following description of Archbishop Nona comes from another article.

I’d even go so far as to say that before me is a happy man. Indeed, he tells me: “We were always a minority. We always knew it was not important what we have but what we do. The Lord shows us how it is important to be happy in all situations.”

He emphasizes that the Christian has no other identity than as a Christian. The Gospel is what you want to conform your life to, he says. “For us, we want to practice our identity. We are not another identity. Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ.”

There is no other life, he says, for a Christian. Christ becomes everything, and so there is no life without Christ. “I think all our problems lie in this point: that in our life, sometimes we forget to live like Jesus. It’s not theology, it’s reality.”

It is not difficult to hear echoes of C.S. Lewis in his words. And these come not from a mutual acquaintance between the two . . . rather from a common acquaintance with the Messiah.

In the end, it’s not about theology, philosophies or human political institutions. It’s about a Redeemer.

_____

The icon above is of Saint Addai (Thaddeus of Edessa). He was a missionary to Mesopotamia, and contributed to the Divine Liturgy used by much of the Eastern Church. The image portrays Addai presenting the Mandylion to King Abgar of Edessa.

Curious Christian Trivia

December 9, 2015 — 17 Comments

beatlesHow many of these Christian trivia questions can you answer?

In my last post I shared a number of fascinating facts that I learned reviewing Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®. Read on and discover some intriguing information about the history and theology of the largest denomination in the Christian world.

How are the following for odd facts?

Question: What Iowa city has a name which means “of the monks” in French?

Answer: Des Moines

Here in Washington State we have city named Des Moines (pronounced with the final “s”) which is named after the Iowa township and not the monks who first helped established it.

What New York museum was built entirely from stones of Christian shrines imported from France by John D. Rockefeller?

The Cloisters

Leave it to the Americans to denude a country of their historic shrines to aggrandize a civil monument to a political dynasty.

Was St. Patrick Irish?

No

Now there’s a fact with which many Irishmen would take umbrage. The truth is, of course, that Patrick was Romano-British, enslaved by the Irish, who willingly chose to return to Ireland after his liberation to share the Gospel with his former captors.

The game includes a fair representation of literary questions. Two of them even deal with the esteemed author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Just one for now, with the promise of more literary insights in my next, and final, column about trivia.

Who is the Anglican children’s author that wrote the apologia The Case for Christianity?

C.S. Lewis

I can overlook the inappropriately limiting label “children’s author” since they have had the wisdom to include this reference to the Oxford don.

Students of history, including recent history, will have an advantage in answering the following questions.

Who designed the colorful uniforms of the Swiss Guard at the Vatican?

Michelangelo

They still look dandy. Fortunately for the security of the Papal See, they have advanced from relying on pikes to using modern weaponry.

Who was the most famous Bishop of Hippo?
Saint Augustine

Who in the world could name any other Bishop of Hippo?

Besides Richard M. Nixon, what other U.S. president was a Quaker?

Herbert Hoover

Didn’t know that. And, as memorable as Herbert Hoover was, I fear I’ve already forgotten . . .

Who was the Catholic, four-term mayor of Chicago known as “Boss?”

Richard J. Daley

Ugh. Two dishonest politicians in a row! I don’t believe I would want to claim Daley as a Roman Catholic if I was one . . . or Nixon as a Quaker, if I professed that creed.

According to the Beatles song “Let It Be,” who whispers words of wisdom?

Mother Mary

This must have been before the Beatles jettisoned any lip service to Christianity, claimed their renown exceeded that of Jesus, and entrusted their spiritual destiny to the philosophy of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Naturally the questions include a variety of details about Roman Catholic faith and practices themselves.

Should Catholics genuflect whenever they enter a Catholic Church?

No, only if the blessed Sacrament is present in the church.

Interesting. I had never thought about it, but it makes sense, since the obeisance is actually being offered to Jesus, present in the consecrated elements.

For what group is the annual Red Mass celebrated?

Lawyers

Observation: What? Whose idea was that, and do Roman Catholics grace all other professions with their own dedicated masses? If so, what color Masses are dedicated to insurance brokers, microbiologists and wig makers?

What was the name of the portable throne once used to carry the pope so that everyone could see him?

Sedia Gestatoria

Replaced by the bulletproof Popemobile.

When was the last time that a pope proclaimed a Catholic teaching infallible?

1954 (the Assumption, Pope Pius XII)

A good reminder to countless misguided Protestants who think Roman Catholics believe that most or all of what the popes say is “infallible.” The lesson would be better taught, however, if the cited instance was not for an extra-biblical doctrine with which most Protestants strongly disagree.

What is the day on which Judas received his payment for betraying Jesus sometimes called?

Spy Wednesday

That’s a new one for me, but it sounds like a great title for a new movie about the wayward disciple.

Who was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity?

Constantine the Great

It is good to see Constantine’s conversion affirmed here, although it is often maligned by critics. (Constantine was a child of his brutal age and after his conversion remained an imperfect sinner, just like the rest of us.) Only in the Eastern (Orthodox) Church is Constantine acclaimed a saint.

I will end with a question that holds a special place in my life, since I have spent the majority of my public ministry as a military chaplain.

What was the name of the Catholic chaplain on the TV show M*A*S*H?

Father Mulcahy

My favorite chaplain. I had the “blessed” experience of interviewing him for an article. I posted on William Christopher here and you can download a copy of the interview here.

A Trivial Windstorm

November 29, 2015 — 9 Comments

bellsIt’s amazing what we can accomplish during a multi-day power outage. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I learned a few new religious tidbits you may find interesting as well.

Several years ago I obtained a copy of Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®. While the power was out, I read all 1,000 trivia questions. It proved to be an interesting diversion.

The question of whether or not considering trivialities is a waste of time was addressed by C.S. Lewis at the outset of WWII.

Every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. (The Weight of Glory)

Lewis’ point is well made. When we contrast the matters which occupy our minds and energies with the things we ignore—including our eternal destiny and whether we are drawing closer to our Creator or drifting farther from him—the things of this world grow dim.

Perhaps that will be slightly less true in the case of trivia gleaned from the history of the largest denomination in the Christian Church.

Test Your Knowledge

A few questions were dated, not surprising I suppose, since the game was copyrighted in 1991. What was surprising is why they would choose to include questions about the names of prominent American archbishops of that decade, knowing it would date the product.

Question: Who is the Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas?

Answer: Archbishop Patrick Flores

Comment: He was historic, being the first Roman Catholic bishop of Mexican American heritage, and service as archbishop was lengthy (1979-2004), but the question as posed has passed its expiration date.

Name the Native American woman who may soon be canonized.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was canonized in 2012 and led a tragically short but interesting life. She was an Algonquin-Mohawk, the first Native American to be canonized.

Most other questions remain valid.

What is the name of Emperor Constantine’s decree that legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.?

The Edict of Milan

Bravo. As a student of ancient history and a Constantinian numismatist, I am pleased to see this vital moment in church history acknowledged.

Was St. Francis of Assisi a priest?

No

Good one! Most of us who’ve studied medieval history would probably get that right, but I assume the majority of Christians (Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox) would likely err on the side of ordaining Francis.

Which pope authorized the use of torture during the Inquisition?

Innocent IV

The irony of his chosen papal name is almost torturous. Admittedly, it was an improvement on his given name, Sinibaldo Fieschi.

A fair number of questions about ecclesiastical paraphernalia appear. To advance in the game, it helps to know your patens, piscina, and cinctures from your purificators, pyxes and cruets.

Is a “stermutatory” a piece of furniture found in a church?

No. A stermutatory is something that makes you sneeze.

That said, if some of the pews have grown so musty that they aggravate worshipers’ allergies, wouldn’t they qualify?

Some of the trivia provides arcane information sure to surprise one’s peers.

What is a cardinal who observers believe may have a chance of becoming pope called?

Papabile.

Nice to know . . . Now I just have to think of a way to work that into a typical conversation.

Seriously, using a word like this to show off one’s knowledge of obscure things reminds me of a passage I read many years ago attributed to St. Hereticus.* It offers satirical advice on how to upstage others in religious conversations.

The Superior Knowledge Gambit (not for beginners). Easier to illustrate than explain:

Opponent: I think my interpretation of the church has full historical precedent in Augustine.

Self: (starting hesitantly, but gradually gaining assurance until the final words are spoken with complete authority, in an ex cathedra tone of voice): But surely, much as I admire your exposition, really now, which interpretation of Augustine’s do you mean? There are at least five (eyes to the ceiling for a brief moment of counting), yes five . . . (pause, then confidently) There are at least five interpretations of the church in Augustine’s extant writings. (Give ever so slightly more emphasis to the word “extant.”)

. . .

Help from St. Augustine. A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of Opponent. Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and that not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine.”

Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .

Or,

Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.

Self:Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate your point has been made.

Well, that is enough trivia for one day. In my next post I’ll discuss some more substantial literary and theological concerns that emerge in the questions. Until then, one final trifle to entertain.

What 1975 film tells the story of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail as a comedy?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Some Python humor is too irreverent (or even blasphemous**) for my tastes, but this historic fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I especially love the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog which can only be dispatched by the “holy hand grenade of Antioch.”)

_____

* The Collected Writings of St. Hereticus by Robert McAfee Brown. An irreverent look at many aspects of ecumenical life in the mid twentieth century.

** Some (perhaps much) of the Python corpus leans towards vulgarity, but if you still enjoy the humor—and you are offended by blatant blasphemy, avoid reading the lyrics to their song, “All Things Dull and Ugly.”

There is a more positive connection between Monty Python and C.S. Lewis, however. John Cleese recorded The Screwtape Letters in 1995, lending his voice to the devilish “author” of the correspondence.

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 10 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.