Always read benevolently

Always read benevolently

Professor Levine is a feminist theologian, but she’s a feminist theologian second, and a scripture scholar first. So she takes exception to feminist interpretations — or any ideological interpretations — of scripture which manipulate the text.

When second wave feminism swept the Church in the 1970s, the Gospels were co-opted into the cause. First century Israel was cast as something Talibanesque, into which Jesus strode and invented feminism. Hence: Jesus spoke to women like nobody did. Jesus encouraged women disciples when nobody else did. Jesus recognised women as equal to men, when nobody else did.

Problem is, first century Israel was never as regressive, much less misogynistic, as some commentators have claimed. Women owned property. Women ran businesses. Women studied the Torah and worked as scribes. And some of Jesus’ most famous “feminist moments” are read into the text.

Consider, for example — I’ve heard this one before, and maybe you have too — a feminist interpretation of the  “Martha, Martha” episode in Bethany. While Mary sits at the Lord’s feet, Martha is overwhelmed with the duties of hospitality, until she reaches breaking point:

“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10: 40-42)

Many commentators note how progressive Jesus is, permitting a woman to sit with his disciples. Martha might think like the majority, and think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but Jesus know better.

Professor Levine calls this “a malevolent reading” of the text, which elevates Jesus at the cost of those around him. It is not historically vindicated, and it can be repudiated by an equally arbitrary but opposite reading. Ergo: ‘This text tells us that Jesus likes women who are silent and sit submissively at his feet. As soon as any woman speaks up, he shuts her down.’

The moral of the story: always read benevolently. Never permit ideology to arbitrarily diminish anyone in the Gospel.

Let the text speak for the text

Let the text speak for the text

The so-called ‘quest for an historical Jesus‘ seeks to identify an ‘historical Jesus’ distinct from the ‘mythological Christ’ presented in the canonical Gospels.

This in not an endeavour I’m much convinced by, because it demands a hermeneutic of suspicion which is not consonant with the Catholic tradition of scriptural study. I’m not sure what Professor Levine makes of it. Perhaps I should ask her.

On the one hand, she does make allusions to the Jesus Seminar, which purports to identify the Lord’s authentic sayings in contrast to other sayings the evangelists put on his lips. That’s not dissimilar to the quest for an historical Jesus.

But on the other hand, she very clearly endorses a hermeneutic of suspicion not towards the scriptural texts, but towards the common interpretations we place on the text. She insists, in the best Jewish tradition, that the Scripture should speak for itself, and we need to at least be conscious when we embellish or read into the text.

So, for example, we should question why we refer to ‘the Parable of the Prodigal Son.’ Jesus doesn’t use this title. He introduces his story with: “There was a man who had two sons.” (Lk 15:11) So on our Lord’s own terms, maybe we’re better off referring to ‘the Parable of the Man With Two Sons.’

The choice of title is not trivial. It frames the parable and guides the reader (or listener) towards a certain interpretation. ‘The Prodigal Son’ encourages us to focus on the younger son. But Professor Levine argues that Jesus (and Luke) intend for us to focus on someone else. This is the third of three parables told in succession:

  • The first: a sheep-owner counts 99 sheep, realises he has lost one sheep, frantically seeks out the sheep, and celebrates its return.
  • The second: a woman counts her money, realises she has lost a coin, frantically seeks out the coin, and celebrates its discovery.
  • The third: a man has two sons. He loses one son. The son returns. He celebrates his return. But does he lose another son in the process?

If we heed the context of the parable, it makes even more sense to describe the story in the same terms Jesus introduces it. ‘The Parable of the Man With Two Sons.’

The same goes for Gospel narratives. A few weeks ago, I preached at Mass, and I wrote on this blog, about “the unnamed woman” who washed the Lord’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair before anointing them. ‘The unnamed woman’ is a generous label. Many commentators refer to ‘the sinful woman,’ or ‘the repentant woman.’ But Jesus doesn’t refer to her in any of these ways. When he speaks of her in his talk with Simon, he describes a woman who has loved much. (Lk 7:46)

So why didn’t I co-opt the Lord’s own words? Why do I settle for alternative titles and labels, which are actually foreign to the text? This is the hermeneutic of suspicion Prof Levine endorses. I think she’s right.

Argument for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven

Argument for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven

This week, the priests of my diocese are all in Ballarat, at a clergy inservice. Our speaker is someone I’ve heard before, and she is outstanding.

Professor Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament scholar in the bible belt of America’s deep South, who is also an Orthodox Jew. Her talks during our inservice can be summed up in the title of her final talk: “Misunderstanding Judaism means misunderstanding Jesus.”

Every talk is packed with insight and wisdom, and I’m taking lengthy notes. I’m co-opting the blog to summarise and popularise each talk so I have some small hope of retaining some of what I’m learning. So if scripture scholarship isn’t your thing, maybe come back in a week.

On to talk 1.

How to read the Scriptures like a Jew

Catholics are at an advantage here, in contrast to some Protestant traditions who are literalist and fundamentalist. For starters, Catholics are comfortable with multiple readings of a single scriptural text. The Church Fathers enumerated four senses of scripture, which may contrast but do not contradict:

  • The literal sense of a text;
  • The spiritual sense of a text;
  • The moral sense of a text;
  • The anagogical sense of a text.

Jews read scripture in a similarly multi-layered way.

Secondly, Catholics recognise the role of the Holy Spirit in learning and discernment. Reading sacred texts isn’t a purely intellectual exercise; it’s also spiritual. The disciple who is open to grace will receive supernatural light. You won’t find Jews arguing against that!

But there’s also an important difference between the Jewish reading of Scripture and Catholic exegesis. Defining religion as a matter of belief, something which can be measured by orthodoxy, is “a Christian invention!” It’s part of Christianity’s revolutionary spirit that the gospel is universal (or: catholic), and anyone can become Christian. This is both liberating, and restrictive. If it’s Christian belief defines a person’s Christian identity, a person who then repudiates Christian belief — a heretic — ceases to be Christian. (This is mitigated by sacramental baptism, which is irreversible and permanent, but it still holds true at an experiential level.)

In contrast, a Jew is Jewish by birthright. Orthodoxy (“right thinking”) doesn’t define Judaism as it does Christianity. A Jew can reject every doctrine which defines the Jewish religion, and they’re no less Jewish. They might be a heretic, but they’re a heretical Jew. This gives a lot more license for dissent. Hence, Professor Levine argues, argumentation is much more central, and much more comfortable, in the Jewish Tradition. This is how correct interpretation of the Law is arrived at. This is how Jews carve out lived faith. This is an integral part of the covenant. God expects us to think through, interpret, and apply His word.

Levine goes so far as to claim that argumentation is a form of worship in Judaism. She refers to “argument for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” Thoughtful, scholarly, demanding debate is obviously not foreign to Catholic exegesis, but in the Jewish context it is crucial. This then extends to every other facet of Jewish life.

Levine tells a Jewish joke, which probably only Jews can tell, not gentiles, so I’ll make sure to frame it as a direct quote:

Q: What do you get, if you put two Jews in a room together?

A: Three opinions!

I don’t think similar claims can be said about popular culture. For all the talk of “tolerance,” we’re not very tolerant of, and distinctly uncomfortable, with vigorous debate. Friends unfriend friends on Facebook, to be spared disagreeable opinions populating their newsfeed. Leftist activists routinely harass political opponents, and seek to silence conservative opinion. At some university campuses (not all), students have carved out “safe spaces” which prohibit political debate.

* * *

That’s it from talk 1. Except for some homework. (Bear in mind, I’m talking to myself here. Blog readers are just eavesdropping!)

Cardinal Ratzinger wrote an instructive preface to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s report on The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. It’s a fascinating survey of the history of Christian exegesis, which introduces a much longer document that endorses the main message of this week’s inservice: misunderstanding Judaism means misunderstanding Jesus.

Paul Cox, auteur of Molokai, RIP

Paul Cox, auteur of Molokai, RIP

The discovery of two versions of There Be Dragons — the original version and a director’s cut — evokes the similar story surrounding Molokai: the story of Father Damien. I was sorry to learn today that Paul Cox, the director of Molokai, died last week.

David Wenham, the star of Molokai and a frequent collaborator with Cox, once said this of the accomplished film-maker:

“There is no one like Cox. He is unique, and we need him, and people like him … he is completely an auteur, because everything you see on the screen, and hear, has got Paul’s fingerprints all over it.”

An auteur, for those who don’t know (I admit: I looked it up), is a film director who influences his films so much that he ranks as their author. That explains the bad blood between Cox and the producers of Molokai, who had divergent visions of the movie. That’s where the similarities with There Be Dragons weigh in. Except, in some ways, this time the roles were reversed. The producers of Molokai (the Belgian Government) wanted something which would attract and wide audience and prove commercially successful; the director’s vision was more art-house. But what really sets Molokai apart from the There Be Dragons with is the acrimony which afflicted director and producers.

Where Joffa was very gracious, Cox didn’t hold back in his criticism:

After Cox cut his version of the film, the producers radically recut it “behind my back” and released it in Belgium with a grand premiere. Cox didn’t attend, but watched on TV. The film bombed. “If you ever saw the producers’ cut you would not believe you were watching the same film,” he says, laughing. “It was not watchable. They had totally slaughtered it.”

After the success of Cox’s multi-award-winning Innocence, the investors of Molokai negotiated with Cox to restore the film to its original form. He agreed on the strict condition that the producers were kept well away. They happily agreed.

With the film finally being released in Australia in its proper version, and re-released in Belgium, Cox is breathing a long-awaited sigh of artistic and emotional relief.

“I’m especially pleased for David’s sake, but it left a big scar on me. I will never, ever trust any producer around me on that level again. I will never, ever make a film where I don’t have final cut. F— the lot of them. This is the big, dreadful shame of modern film-making.”

Despite all those difficulties, Molokai is a great film, depicting the heroic story of a great saint. I’ve blogged about this film before. I would love to find the original Belgian version, just to compare it to the director’s cut. But in this instance, at least, I’m confident the director’s cut is the superior film.

Cox claims the profit-minded producers complained that there were “too many lepers” in his film. So perhaps they cut out one of my favourite scenes in the director’s cut. It is hard to watch, but also very moving. Fr Damien enters a drunken den and vows to clean it up. Its inhabitants respond by thrusting in his face a rotting leper, who plants a disgusting kiss on the priest’s face. Fr Damien reduces the jeering gang to silence when he responds with affection and supernatural love:

I think this scene sums up the entire film. As one reviewer puts it:

There really are just three sorts of stories: man against man, man against nature and man against himself. And the makers of Molokai have told the right one.

Cox’s film is not a story of Damien against the government and his religious superiors, though material abounds. Nor is it a story of Damien against leprosy:

Father Damien improved living conditions there, but he cured no one; he touched them, and they were not healed. But there is a miracle: he touched them. This is the story of a man of God dying to himself, putting aside his all-too-human aversion to a horrible, wasting disease, and seeing Christ in the ruined faces and bodies of his chosen parishioners.

I believe Molokai, like There Be Dragons, was a box-office flop. But don’t let that dissuade you. Molokai has earned a place among the Catholic classics, and I recommend its inclusion in your DVD collection.

Paul Cox, recquiescat in pace.

There Be Dragons: a tale of two (or possibly three) films

There Be Dragons: a tale of two (or possibly three) films

To celebrate St Josemaría’s actual feast day today, I watched There Be Dragons tonight. Well. I thought that’s what I was watching.

It turns out there are two different versions of the movie — a producer’s cut, which was the original cinema release, and a director’s cut, which is subtitled Blood and Country. The director’s cut also goes by another name, Secrets of Passion. I think.

Confused? I am.

The original There Be Dragons is the version preferred by the producers — members of Opus Dei — who had envisaged a biopic of St Josemaría and a dramatisation of the Work’s origins. This version is 120 minutes long. I recall enjoying it very much, although the plot was confusing and sometimes plodding.

Blood and Country or Secrets of Passion is the version preferred by the director — Roland Joffé — who envisaged a romantic epic, set amidst the Spanish Civil War, and focused on the themes of love and forgiveness. This version is only 100 minutes long. I did not enjoy it so much. It may be shorter, but the plot is even more tedious, and it doesn’t help that a new soundtrack drowns out the dialogue.

Those who are interested in how two movies were cut and released can read more from the director’s perspective, and from the editor’s perspective. A perfect illustration of the differences: Blood and Country omits one of my favourite scenes from There Be Dragons. It depicts the radical nature of Opus Dei in the context of 1930s Catholicism:

I can understand why details like this may not be as interesting to a broader audience. Hence the move, in the director’s cut, away from spiritual themes and ecclesial history, and towards unrequited love and revenge. Unfortunately though, both versions of the movie were box-office flops.

The biggest problem lies with the jarring leaps from one time to another time. Both versions of the film contain plots competing for attention. One plot — the more interesting one — is set in the 1930s; the less interesting sub-plot is set in the 1990s. I think the complex convolutions of the Spanish Civil War are confusing enough, without adding a trite 1990s melodrama which only serves to break our concentration and investment.

Still, I did enjoy the original cinema version. I’m now in the market for a DVD of the “St Josemaría cut,” with the original soundtrack and dialogue I can hear. Cue the power of Google . . .

Pope JPI on St Josemaría

Pope JPI on St Josemaría

Today is the feast of St Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei. Actually, his feast is tomorrow – the anniversary of his death in 1975 – but that clashes with Sunday, so his feast was moved forward a day.

To mark the feast, the very readable Opus Dei news site has reproduced an old article about Josemaría and his spirituality which I have never read before. It was written in 1978 by Cardinal Albino Luciani, one month before he became Pope John Paul.  (That means he wrote it only two months before he died!)

John Paul I is a very good writer. Outstanding, in fact. I’m inspired now to read his famous Illustrissimi, which I’m sure is every bit as entertaining and insightful as his short article on Opus Dei and its founder. I am very familiar with St Josemaría and his spirituality, which as a member of the Work is my spirituality too. But still, this article has taught me new things about both.

Here’s a taste:

Msgr Escrivá, with Gospel in hand, constantly taught: ‘God does not want us simply to be good, he wants us to be saints, through and through. However, he wants us to attain that sanctity, not by doing extraordinary things, but rather through ordinary common activities.’

More than 300 years earlier St Francis de Sales taught something along the same lines. A preacher had publicly consigned to the flames from his pulpit a book in which St Francis had said that in certain circumstances dancing can be permissible; the book also contained a whole chapter on the “worthiness of the marriage bed.” However, Msgr Escrivá went further than St Francis de Sales in many respects. St Francis proclaimed sanctity for everyone but seems to have only a “spirituality for lay people” whereas Msgr Escrivá wants a “lay spirituality.” Francis, in other words, nearly always suggests for the laity the same practical means used by religious, but with suitable modifications. Escrivá is more radical; he goes as far as talking about “materializing”—in a good sense—the quest for holiness. For him, it is the material work itself which must be turned into prayer and sanctity.

The legendary Baron Munchausen tells a fable of a monstrous hare that had a double set of legs: four normal ones on his belly and four more on his back. Pursued by the hounds and feeling himself about to be overtaken, he flips himself over and continues running on four fresh legs. For the founder of Opus Dei, the life of a Christian would be just as monstrous if he were to go about with a double series of activities: one consisting of prayers, for God; the other made up of work, relaxation and family life, for himself. ‘No,’ says Escrivá, ‘there is only one life, and it has to be made holy en bloc.’ That is why he speaks of a “materialized” spirituality.

Follow the link to read it all.

The sensual allure of gluttony

The sensual allure of gluttony

One evening earlier this week, a friend and I were walking up Drummond Street in Carlton. The neighbourhood is very familiar to me, not only from my seminary years, but also from my university years.

We passed a building which once housed Shannyn Bennet’s famous Vue de Monde restaurant — before he relocated to the CBD. “This is where I enjoyed the greatest meal of my life,” I declared. It was a ten-course degustation menu focused on truffles. Yum! (I’m not usually given to blogging about food, but I have blogged about truffles before — here and here.)

This is when my friend surprised me. And by that, I mean he floored me. He described a French dish which is so luxurious — so excessively extravagant — that I thought he was making it up. Turns out he wasn’t.

Ortolans are a small songbird, similar to finches. Let me explain how they are served according to the finest traditions of French cuisine. You’ll probably have to read this twice just to process it.

1. The birds are caught with ground nets, set during their migratory flight to Africa. Then they are transferred to dark cages.

2. The Ancient Romans would gouge the ortolans’ eyes out, so that the poor birds would think winter had arrived early, and gorge themselves on grain. Enlightened moderns do not blind the birds, but they do keep them in complete darkness for a month or more.

3. When the gorging birds have tripled their original size, they are drowned in Armagnac, and allowed to marinate there for some time. Seriously. I’m not making this up!

4. The marinated bird is roasted for seven minutes, or eight minutes at a pinch.

5. The bird is promptly plucked and served on a plate, still sizzling in its hot fats.

ortolon-cooked

6. The diner handles the bird by its beak, and places the entire bird, feet first, into his or her mouth.

7. The bird is still very hot, and likely to burn the diner’s mouth. Its bones will often cut the diner’s gums and mouth, drawing blood. The pain and blood is supposed to enhance the flavours and culinary experience.

8. The ortolan is traditionally consumed with a napkin covering the diner’s head. There is a three-fold explanation for this strange practice:

ortolon-dining

An American chef, Anthony Bourdain, describes the experience in alluring terms:

“With every bite, as the thin bones and layers of fat, meat, skin and organs compact in on themselves, there are sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavours: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by the sharp bones.”

I must confess I am simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, this extraordinary indulgence. I am resolved never to dine on ortolan, but I readily admit that my puritanical streak informs that decision. The whole exercise of preparation, cooking and dining constitutes an exquisite example of gross gluttony.

As a child, my understanding of gluttony involved an obese king, gorging himself on food, then deliberately bringing that food up so that he could gorge himself again. But gluttony is actually much more expansive. Truth is, I am not as innocent of this sin as I once thought, and maybe you’re not either.

Pope St Gregory the Great famously defined the deadly sin of gluttony as eating food too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, or too much. St Thomas Aquinas didn’t disagree. I’ve always struggled to conceive of gluttony in such expansive terms. Until I learned about ortolon.

The following video clip really takes the cake. It depicts a probably fictional meal hosted by French President François Mitterrand — a known fan of ortolon — and enjoyed by the Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who probably never ate ortolon in his life. But forget about its historicity. The clip is fascnating in its own right. It depicts the sensuality of gluttony, but also, in this instance, frames it as something deeply and disturbingly idolatrous.

I will never think of gluttony the same way again.

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