The Loss of Scriptural Imagination
At the Synod of Bishops in Rome this month, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago addressed his brother bishops on the loss of Scriptural themes in the popular imagination. This year’s Synod is devoted to “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” and Cardinal George, who is also currently President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stressed the importance of the Word of God in the “conversion of the imagination, the intellect and the will.”
Noting that Western culture was historically shaped “in conversation with the Bible”, Cardinal George lamented that “our people, for the most part, do not live confidently in the biblical world of active spirit, of angels and demons, of the search for God’s will and God’s intentions in the midst of this world governed by God’s providence.”
All of this is undoubtedly true. Western culture in general has been growing progressively more secular for the past five hundred years, so it is not surprising that a Biblical view of reality is now fairly far removed from popular consciousness. That viewpoint has not been reinforced by any social institutions other than churches for quite some time. In an earlier age, Biblical stories, symbolism and imagery played a major role in literature and the arts, but in the last century alone a more militant secularism drove the last vestiges of such sensibilities out of theater, music, art, film and literature, just as God—and the classics which deal with Him—have been driven out of school. In fact, it is not just that we are unfamiliar with Scripture; we are uncomfortable with God.
While much of this decline may be attributed to unfortunate cultural movements outside the Church, the Church herself has too often been swept up in these movements, reflecting their impoverished principles both unofficially through Modernism among her intellectuals and officially through real and deliberate changes in both the liturgy and translations of the Bible itself. Thus the English translation of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, first done nearly two generations ago, deliberately truncated or altered many phrases to eliminate Scriptural references. To take but one example, the sentence “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” was substituted for its Biblical source: “Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (cf. Mt 8:8; Lk 7:6), which recalls an important Scriptural episode about authority and faith. Only now, in the new millennium, is the Church finally requiring new translations which will restore Scriptural integrity to her liturgy.
And how many new translations of the Bible have we suffered through since the 1960’s, including multiple revisions of the New American Bible, which is the one text controlled absolutely by the U.S. Bishops? A truly serviceable translation of Scripture, such as the Douai-Rheims of the preceding period, will be noteworthy for its resonant and therefore memorable language, which will be remembered all the more easily simply because it remains the same year in and year out. But in the secular enthusiasms of the second half of the twentieth century, Scripture had to be made common, like everything else. So we were treated to such penetrating images as a woman searching frantically for her lost “dime”—which was supposed to be a striking representation of God’s regard for sinners. Perhaps even worse, the words have changed so often that one almost (but not quite) hates to encourage yet another change for the purpose of getting things right.
Cardinal George is absolutely correct that pastors need to be attentive to this grave problem of the loss of Scriptural imagination. And it is high time. For until the Church allows herself to be imbued with the spirit of God’s word, she cannot radiate that spirit even to her own children, let alone the rest of the world.
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