Monday, April 11, 2011

Leading by example

Finally, my own review:

Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection
by Pope Benedict XVI

It is not Pope Benedict's way, to the disappointment of some traditionalists, to issue anathemas denouncing the kind of biblical scholarship that seeks to explain away the Christian story in secular terms - Jesus as a great teacher (only) whose followers built legends around him, and so forth. He gives due recognition to the exegetical fruits yielded by historical-critical method, but also sees the method as limited and essentially exhausted. Instead, he advocates a different approach, one that reads the Bible in the spirit in which it was written and read, as the early Church Fathers read it, with an eye to the future as well as the past, with the eyes of faith as well as with full critical intelligence.

Rather than simply calling for a certain kind of approach to biblical scholarship, Benedict leads by example. He has produced a work of stunning scholarship and deep faith, that nevertheless amply repays careful reading and re-reading by Christians of all kinds and levels of scholarly expertise.

At the same time, with its careful consideration of the views of (especially) German scholars and exegetes, this is not a quick read. But hang in there, it gets more personally engaging in the second half. I read it right after reading Brant Pitre's stunning book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, which turns out to be a great preparation for reading this work. Both books situate the Christian story in its historical Jewish context and show how almost every recorded word and action of Jesus of Nazareth draws on, quotes, or is foreshadowed by Scripture - the Torah, the Psalms, the Prophets - as well as by Jewish custom and tradition.

I have also been reading a very different work by another great theologian of whom Benedict has spoken with enormous admiration - Hans Urs von Balthasar's Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. The two books could not be more different. Balthasar was not a biblical scholar like Ratzinger and on the other hand he gives great theological weight to Christ's going to the dead ("He descended into hell") between his death and Resurrection - something that the pope, surprisingly, does not mention. In any case, the pope's book is by contrast simply written, historically grounded, and accessible (with a little effort) to Christian readers of all kinds.

A reader who has watched how Pope Benedict has come under hostile fire from the media and denunciation from anti-Christians, anti-Catholics, and dissident Catholics for most of his career, cannot but marvel at the tone of this book. As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger at age 84 now leads a Church of more than a billion members that is undergoing in the West twin crises of secularizing ("beige Catholicism" or "cafeteria Catholicism") and scandal. His field of scholarship, biblical exegesis, has been beset for more than a century by attempts to question and discredit every tenet of Christian faith as taught by the Church.

So it seems a small miracle that the book was written at all in the midst of these storms. Even more extraordinary is the serenity and humility that suffuse every page. Even the most outrageous exegesis is discussed calmly and the most dismissive objections to the Christian narrative are fairly stated and discussed. Benedict is a man of intellectual brilliance and deep faith and on both accounts is not easily rattled. He shows by example, not only how biblical scholars should move forward on a sounder basis than in recent centuries, but also how faithful Christians can engage their critics charitably and without defensiveness.

The book ends in a way that goes some way to explain how he does it. Its final word is surely at the heart of the New Testament as well as in the hearts of the Church's great saints and martyrs. In that final paragraph, the pope addresses the question of why the disciples are joyful rather than sad at the Risen Lord's leaving them. Discussing Luke's account of the Ascension, which has Jesus stretching out his hands over the disciples in blessing as he departs from them, the pope comments:

"In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy" (p. 293).

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