An intelligent look at traditional Catholic beliefs

By  Noel Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • May 4, 2011

Women of the Torah: Matriarchs and Heroes of Israel
Abraham: Father of All Believers
David: Shepherd and King of Israel
Women of the Gospels: Friends and Disciples of Jesus
Peter: Fisherman and Shepherd of the Church
Paul: Apostle to All the Nations
(Brazos Press, softcover, $10 per volume).

For people interested in learning something about current Catholic Scripture scholarship, and more importantly want their lives to be inspired by the biblical stories, Ancient-Future Bible Study is a valuable instrument. Anyone who completes the meditations will be significantly more familiar with the Bible, and these books should inspire readers to learn more and pray more.

Lectio divina (sacred reading) is an “ancient art” for exploring the Word of God with mind, heart and imagination. It’s a way to experience Scripture as real communication with God, with reference to what the Bible texts meant in ancient times and their transforming power to change our lives into the future.

These six books by Stephen Binz invite the reader to explore more than 180 Bible passages by following a format in five “movements.” Lectio (reading) includes both a passage and an explanation based on contemporary Catholic scholarship; Meditatio offers a series of often perceptive and challenging questions (with space to write notes); Oratio (prayer) begins with a suggested prayer and invites the reader to continue praying; Contemplatio invites quiet internal reflection; and Operatio is a call to action.

All the books are interesting. The explanations about the context and original purpose of passages are of high quality. Perhaps the most important part of each reflection is Meditatio, in which readers are offered penetrating questions. Taking the questions seriously could have an effect on one’s life. Inevitably, some sets of questions will be more valuable and more relevant than others.

Each book has distinctive characteristics that may help readers decide where to begin and perhaps what to avoid.

The introduction to the Women of the Torah is perceptive and thought-provoking. It expresses the value of story (understood as something far deeper than a simple report of facts) in our lives and in our relationship with God. I would suggest rereading this introduction before attempting the volume about Abraham and again before beginning the book about women in the Gospels.

But Binz takes these stories far too much at face value. One of the most problematic issues not confronted is the oft-repeated idea that God promised the land to Abraham’s descendants, and that the Lord as war god would drive out its previous inhabitants. Think of a parallel. Would we portray God as joining the Europeans in driving out the indigenous peoples of North America?

Unless you are interested in dealing with the stories of Abraham rather literally, I would suggest you leave the Abraham volume to the end of your endeavour.

Binz makes a valiant effort to find relevant reflection questions about the need for discernment in difficult situations, about the role of music and dancing as an experience of the presence of God and about new beginnings in new places. He misses the opportunity to invite readers to reflect on themselves as being chosen to take leadership roles, even as parents. And the idea of the Lord as a war god is uncritically accepted.

The introduction to Women of the Gospels is excellent, comparing the status of women in biblical times with women today. Binz speaks of women as individual people rather than primarily on the political level. He points out that some women are named in the Gospels, some identified only by reference to the men in their lives and some known only because of what they did or what happened to them. That information gives rise to the reflective question, “What does it feel like to be recognized and called by name?”

This book invites thoughtful reflection from the point of view of the many women in the Gospels — some suffering or oppressed and some resourcefully taking unexpected initiatives.

Almost half the book about St. Paul is dedicated to his biography as narrated in Acts of the Apostles. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s difficult to find valid points for personal meditation in the biography of such an exceptional character. The accounts in Acts, written more than 20 years after Paul’s death, tend towards the legendary but are treated at face value.

When Binz begins to use passages from Paul’s own letters, it becomes much more valuable. The explanations of passages that are often confusing for an average reader are clear and helpful, and the questions for reflection will resonate with most believers.

The role of Peter in the Gospels is well known to most Catholics. Peter, Fisherman and Shepherd of the Church brings together episodes where Peter plays a role, and invites the reader to associate with Peter’s feelings of joy, anguish and remorse as he follows Jesus, deserts Him and is forgiven, and emerges as a leader in the early Christian community.

The meditation on forgiveness based on Matthew 18:21-35 is significant, but it leaves out some vital questions. In the turbulence of relationships, some offences are considered unforgivable by most people. How can we apply Jesus’ teaching to such situations? In all cases of offence, is the injured party supposed to “forgive and forget,” or is it not wiser to forgive and remember, to prevent further victimization?

Binz’s approach to the Bible is doubtless too progressive for fundamentalist or evangelical believers, but at the same time, many Anglicans and Protestants (as well as some Roman Catholics) would find his explanations too literal in several areas. Ancient-Future Bible Study is primarily directed towards intelligent Roman Catholics who cherish their traditional beliefs.

(Noel Cooper is a religious educator and the author of three books related to the Bible.)

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