On Jordan's Bank
A Monday visit to Andrew Greeley's weekly homily site always helps me appreciate the sermon I heard the day earlier, much as dropping an engine block on your foot (in P.J. O'Rourke's image) helps you appreciate your toothache. Here's Greeley on yesterday's Gospel:
The early Christians had a problem with the Baptist. He had preached the nearness of the kingdom of God before Jesus had. And Jesus had been baptized by him. Thus the Baptist's disciples could claim that their master was prior to and therefore superior to the master of the Christians. So they rearranged history a little bit [for] pedagogical purposes. The Baptist was not so much about an apocalyptic intervention of God which would punish all sinners as he was preaching about the coming of Jesus who would embody the kingdom of God.
These text-behind-the-text sermons always rankle. On pastoral grounds, even if the proposed genesis of the biblical text were true, why is it important to the lives of the faithful that they know it? How is Aunt Doris meant to become a better Christian by learning that the Gospel of Mark was not written by St. Mark to describe what actually happened, but produced by first century polemic to show what the Marcan community very much wished to have happened?
But there's also a logical objection to this method of criticism -- at least in the self-confident and pedantic way it comes to us from the pulpit -- that I've never heard adequately addressed: how would the Gospels read differently if the events they purport to describe really happened, as opposed to occurring in the manner suggested by the homilist? There's a line in Tom Stoppard's Jumpers that sets out the problem deftly:
Meeting a friend in a corridor, Wittgenstein said: "Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth, rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend said, "Well, obviously, because it looks as if the sun is going round the earth." To which the philosopher replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?"
In the context of Greeley's example: he says John the Baptist didn't really herald the coming of Jesus, but Jesus' disciples "rearranged history a little bit" for reasons of their own. So my question is, what would the Gospel look like if John the Baptist had, in reality, heralded the coming of Jesus? What would we expect St. Mark to have written instead?
It's probably captious and in bad taste to put these questions to the good doctor (check out the edifying story with which he illustrates the message of the Scriptures). But I do wonder, it being the Second Sunday of Advent, what he would have chosen for the entrance hymn ...
On Jordan's bank the Baptist's call
Conflicted with the text of Paul;
And so the früh-katholisch claque
Conspired to roll the Baptist back.
Committees fudged the Gospel scripts
To downplay the apocalypse,
Inspiring Luke and Matthew too
To by-pass Mark and join the Q.
O Christians! put your hearts at ease:
This cloud of recent PhDs
Hath saved your Saviour from His Church
By AAR-approved research.
Then cleansed be ev'ry breast from sin
And Quellenforschung dwell within:
That faith the more enkindled be
In sound historiography.
All praise to Thee, eternal Son,
By whom is our redemption won;
'Tis pity (as our priests insist)
Thou savest, but canst not exist.
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Posted by: Fox -
Dec. 07, 2005 2:26 AM ET USA
I myself particularly appreciate sermons that give the setting & background details for the readings. There are of course legitimate reasons from textual criticism & historical comparative studies for the kind of information Greeley provided. Although it's not his personal field Greeley is very knowledgeable about current scripture studies--& a lot of other areas. If you believe the scriptures are God's word, why fear any fact that helps us understand them better. How can you not want the truth!
Posted by: Art Kelly -
Dec. 06, 2005 1:15 AM ET USA
Is Father Greeley serious in claiming that Christians "rearranged history a little bit [for] pedagogical purposes"? If he is, how could he possibly think this? What historical records does he have? If none, then his speculation is not worth a plug nickel. Furthermore, if Father Greeley believes such nonsense, why is he still a Christian, much less a Catholic? (Maybe to maintain the credentials to sell his books.) I think someone should direct him to find a new place to peddle his wares.
Posted by: -
Dec. 06, 2005 12:47 AM ET USA
O, most excellent anthem, Onkel Di! I love the Quellenforschung bit. Yes, another Darwinian bumper-sticker Wissenschaft for the elite.
Posted by: TheJournalist64 -
Dec. 05, 2005 8:07 PM ET USA
Those of us laboring (successfully) to interpret the Gospel with the understanding of the Fathers, to wit, that Matthew was the earliest, written not long after the Resurrection (a decade or so at most), and in Hebrew, find all this pretty amusing. And I think the proper old English for the last verse is cannot, not canst not. Or maybe it's cannot not exist? Ah, that ruins the metre. . .
Posted by: hUMPTY dUMPTY -
Dec. 05, 2005 6:54 PM ET USA
But Greeley is not a historian, nor a homilist. Only a second rate sociology professor who writes bodice-rippers ala Danielle Steele in the Thornbirds melieu. He aspires to be a Dominick Dunne in clerical drag, but comes across in his Making of Popes as a hysterical drag queen diva. His gadfly personna seems antique and ignorant, and he pouts when he is ignored. He is a disgrace to the lace curtain Irish. Shanty Irish me'self whose great grandfather landed in Boston in 1840. AMDG
Posted by: www.inquisition.ca -
Dec. 05, 2005 6:27 PM ET USA
Somebody, tie Uncle Di up before he injures himself! Uncle Di, honest, 12 cups of coffee a day is enough! I'm gonna get a hernia laughing :-D
Posted by: -
Dec. 05, 2005 2:14 PM ET USA
Lucky us – today we have access to twenty-first century polemic to show what the Greeleyan community very much wished had happened way back when . . . .
Posted by: Sir William -
Dec. 05, 2005 1:58 PM ET USA
Brilliant hymn, Uncle Di! Do you have a job working for OCP, too?
Posted by: Convert1994 -
Dec. 05, 2005 1:52 PM ET USA
Oh this is GOOD!! But Diogenes? I cannot believe you used the nonfeminist word "His" in the third verse and "Son" in the last verse.