The book for all seasonsFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
If there’s one book for all seasons, the Bible would have to be it.
If there's one book for all seasons, the Bible would have to be it. People actually do read it at all ages, from children's Bible stories to the final moments of life when, no matter how sublime The Divine Comedy may be, scholastic theology set to verse is not really the thing. There are a range of bibles on offer: men's bibles, women's bibles, bibles for college students, teenagers, the anxious, the prosperous, athletes, businessmen and, as I saw recently, one for girls who like horses.
There is a clear desire for bibles precisely for different stages of life. In some places, the Bible itself recorded the passing of stages and generations, in the ornate family Bible in which were recorded births and marriages and deaths.
Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh -- Ecclesiastes 12:12. So it is, and to choose just four books for life's passage -- four, 14, 40 and forever -- is a daunting task. Why not a more modest task? All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness -- 2 Timothy 3:16. Fine, but if all scripture is profitable, which four books should be chosen for our four ages?
Four-year-olds are generally read to, and there is no end of children's Bible stories -- many of them telling the story of David and Goliath, for example, in a manner not altogether different than Robin Hood. I would begin by reading them the Gospel of Luke in a suitable children's translation. Not the whole book, but just the first two chapters.
The first two chapters of Luke's Gospel provide us with most of our Christmas imagery -- the visit of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, the trek to Bethlehem with Joseph, the birth of Jesus in the manger, the shepherds, the angels, the going up to the Temple.
All of these details, so loved by children -- little boys and girls are fascinated by nativity scenes -- get across two essential points of the Christian worldview. The first is that the world in all its earthiness -- the stables, the animals, the bureaucratic silliness that forces a man to take his pregnant wife on a long trek -- is shot through with God's providence. The lowly of this Earth -- the shepherds -- are not excluded from the joy of the angels. Four-year-olds need to know that the little, the weak and the ordinary have great value in God's eyes.
The second is the startling reality that God has a mother. The fixed reference point in a child's world is his mother, around which everything else finds its place. That the Baby Jesus has a mother is to say that He is a real baby, just like us. Who can be afraid of a baby? Who does not draw close? Children know instinctively that this God is someone whom they can approach. That's a comforting lesson to learn early in life.
As children grow into teenagers, they need the Book of Job, one of the great literary masterpieces. William Safire wrote a book on Job called The First Dissident, identifying in Job the spirit of rebellion against authority. Certainly teenagers would identify. Few of them are as genuinely righteous as Job was, but most of them are self-righteous in spades, feeling the world is insufficiently appreciative of their needs and aspirations. "It's not fair," is a common enough complaint heard by the parents of teenagers. Job, who is more entitled than most to make it, addresses the same complaint to the Lord God. Job demands to know why he, an innocent and just man, is suffering. It is the great question at the heart of any serious philosophy or theology, and Job puts it with fierce urgency to God. God answers with greater ferocity still.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: … Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? -- Job 38: 1-4.
God refuses to answer Job on the grounds that God is God and Job is not. Job has no right to demand answers of the Lord who created the world out of nothing. Before God, Job has no rights. The rights-conscious teenager needs to hear that he is not the centre of the world, that his rights are not the organizing principle of life. He needs to learn that he is not God. Realizing that is an essential first step to wisdom.
I am not yet 40, so what 40year-olds should read in the Bible is matter of some speculation. But I was just shy of 30 when a Jewish guest professor from Chicago taught me how to read Genesis during my theological studies in Rome. Leon Kass, whose course on Genesis became the book The Beginning of Wisdom, reads Genesis as philosophical literature. Why is there something rather than nothing? Where did everything come from? Where is it going? Is the world real? Does God exist? What is He like? Who is man? What does it mean to be male and female? What is marriage and family? What is justice? Why is there evil? Why do the just suffer and the wicked prosper? Why is there order and not chaos? What about my neighbour -- my parents, my siblings, my cousins, my city, my nation?
A mature adult -- which, by 40, one should be -- should be seeking wisdom. That's not a religious view, but simply human one. There are many pretenders to wisdom who think they are awfully clever in pointing out that Genesis is not a reliable astronomy text. No, it's not, but the deepest questions of existence are more important than what one might find in the deepest recesses of space. The philosophical wisdom of Genesis is profound, and the great literary themes there -- paternity and piety, fraternal rivalry, estrangement and reconciliation -- are the heart of all great storytelling, whether
Shakespeare or Star Wars.
Finally, a Christian cannot read the Bible without meditating upon the culmination of the life of Christ -- His passion, death and resurrection. There are four Gospels, but I would recommend John. He is the most sublime of the four evangelists, plumbing most deeply the mystery of God, and he eventually concludes most simply: God is love. That love is not a saccharine emotion, but is revealed on the Cross. John identifies the hour of God's glory not with the triumph of the resurrection, but the hour of redemptive suffering, sacrificial love. John finally answers the question of innocent suffering first raised in Genesis and then put by Job. Suffering is the consequence of man's rebellion, and God's answer is not to abolish the fruit of our freedom, but to embrace that suffering Himself, preserving our freedom and manifesting His love.
At the end of life, after all the other questions have been asked and answered, only one remains. In the face of our own mortality, perhaps a line from a fifth book should be added: Love is as strong as death -- Song of Songs 8:6
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The book for all seasons." National Post, (Canada) August 13, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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