Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The New Evangelization and the Bible Part 3

As we continue our look at the relationship between the New Evangelization and the Bible, I would like to turn to an article from Frank J. Matera, the Andrews Kelly Ryan Professor of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America. The article is found on the USCCB's Doctrine site, under the Intellectual Tasks section. You can read the whole article here. Below are two selections from this paper. The first assesses the current situation in the West where the Christian narrative is competing against others, both religious and secular. The second section comes from the end of the paper, where Matera makes three points about how Scripture can contribute to the New Evangelization:

"Consider for a moment why movies, literature, art, and pop culture are so important. On the one hand, they entertain us. But on the other, they are always telling us stories that capture our imagination. These stories are important because they help us to understand the story of our lives. And so, when we read novels, listen to music, look at art, or watch movies, we insert ourselves into the story world they create to understand something of the story of our life. Christianity has a compelling narrative inscribed into its architecture, music, and especially its Scriptures. But today we live in a world of competing narratives: secular stories as well as religious ones, narratives that de-construct meaning as well as narratives that create meaning. Whereas formerly Christianity could present its holy men and women as models to be imitated, today we live in a world that models itself after entertainers and sport figures; we live in a world of competing narratives, and all of them are vying for our allegiance."


"First, it reminds us that we must provide people with a narrative that will help them understand the story of their lives. We must provide them with a narrative that explains who they are, what God has done, and what God is doing. We must provide them with Scripture’s story that gives them a profound and abiding sense of hope. Second, the outline of this narrative is already found in the sacred texts we proclaim every week. But the narrative will only come alive if we understand and present it in a credible way. Our task, then, is to understand the narrative anew in light of our time and our place. Third, if we hope to proclaim the gospel in a world of competing narratives, we must proclaim a narrative that enables people to understand the full dimension of salvation: the salvation of the body as well as of the soul, the salvation of the community as well as of the individual, the salvation of creation as well as of humanity. In a word, we must proclaim a vision of salvation that includes the whole of God’s good creation."


Theophrastus said...

I do not find Matera's argument compelling. Matera claims that the Old Testament consists of three great narratives: the Pentateuch, Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings, and Ezra-Nehemiah-Chronicles.

Ignoring for a moment that Matera thus omits the majority of the Old Testament (including some of the most cherished portions: Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Songs, the major Prophets, and the Twelve); it is hardly the case that the Pentateuch, is primarily narrative; after the first half of Exodus, it becomes largely Israel's legal code. Similarly, Chronicles -- while technically a narrative, is difficult for most readers and hardly compares to the compelling drama of Samuel. Finally, we must also admit that a plain reading of the Hebrew Bible at times leaves us unsettled; for example, we must interpret Joshua in such a way that we do not see him merely as a militaristic conqueror of Canaan.

Turning to the New Testament, Matera speaks of the narratives of the Gospels (but is the Fourth Gospel famed for its narrative or its philosophy?) and Acts. Matera then turns to the Pauline epistles, and claims to find a narrative in Paul. However here he is confusing types; he draws out two examples, one from Acts 13:16-41 and the other from Romans 5:13-21. These are not so much narratives as they are examples of Paul's preaching; Matera claims to find a narrative in Paul, but actually finds two examples where Paul relates narratives. Further, Acts 13 ends with Paul's expulsion; and Romans is addressed to those who were already committed Christians -- not really new evangelization.

I'm not convinced that import of Scripture is primarily recitation of narrative. After all, classical texts such as Homer are famed for their universal presentation of the human condition; but we do not expect those reading the Odyssey and Iliad to be converted to worship of the Greek gods.

It seems to me that Matera both ignores the bulk of Scripture (by reducing it to narratives) and fails to explain why the story of Scripture inspires while other great stories (say, Shakespeare) mere illuminate.

Of course, I am not saying that we should hold narrative parts of Scripture in low regard; rather I am saying that Scripture is much more than narrative.

Francesco said...

I don't think that Dr. Matera was saying that there wasn't anything outside of the three series of books he mentions, merely that "contemporary biblical scholars are interested in the narrative world of the text, by which I mean that story that Scripture tells." Aside from the OT books that deal explicitly with the Hellenistic period (1-2Macc and Ben Sira come to mind), the other OT books place themselves in one of the periods mentioned there.

For instance, Psalms and the Song of Songs claim to be authored or mostly authored by David and Solomon, who easily would fit in groups 2 and 3.

Additionally the non-narrative portions of the Pentateuch still use the narrative portions to introduce themselves.

Instead of reading the article as saying that the primary focus of scripture is narrative (which, I agree would lower the Bible to merely a highly valued history book), I see Dr. Matera suggesting that we need to have a good explanation for how the world got to its present state. This doesn't need to cover all of history (for instance, St. Paul skips over important facts as the Babylonian exile and Judah's Persian, "Greek", and Roman masters), but it should offer a story which people can relate to.

I am not sure, however, what is "new" about this evangelism. Unless we want to speculate about how recent events (various wars, the financial crisis, the latest presidential election) are foreshadowed in Scripture (something I wholeheartedly hope we do not do), I'm not sure how you weave the Bible there in a new way. Countless Christian nations have seen themselves as continuations of ancient Israel, for instance (Americans are familiar with the Pilgrims and the Puritans, but even the Visigoths and Franks had similar ideas). What is new about this method of evanglization?