Miłosz, Penderecki, and Jeremiah: On the Contemporaneity of the Bible

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

Rembrandt, Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.

I’m taking a bit of a break from my Catholiclandia series before I tackle the trends in Polish Catholic media and intellectual life. Part I is an attempt to provide a differentiated picture of both homogeneity and diversity in Polish religious life. Part II briefly sketched the mixed legacy of Solidarity. There’s a little bit more on Solidarity here.


In an issue of ZNAK Monthly (557) from 2001 Czeslaw Milosz uses the following words from a Polish musician as the epigraph to his response (“Polish Snarls”) to Chantal Delsol’s article “God in Exile” in the same issue:

“Igor Markievich was disturbed by Penderecki’s texts, ‘But there are no more religious people these days. All that is behind us.’ Penderecki responded that it’s different for us [Central Europeans]. There are no texts more contemporary than the biblical texts: Psalms, Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the New Testament, or the Apocalypse. What’s more contemporary? You think Ionesco or Beckett? Igor didn’t respond to it, he just looked at me, searching for support. But he didn’t get it from me, because I also think that we have no more contemporary texts than the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Penderecki was right.” –Zygmunt Mycielski, Journal, Autumn 1966

Penderecki conducting his "Credo" at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz's grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Rosman, 2008

Penderecki conducting his “Credo” at Skalka Church in Krakow. Milosz’s grave is in the crypt of the church. ⒸArtur Sebastian Rosman, 2008

As far as I know, neither Milosz’s “Polish Snarls,” nor this text from Mycielski have been previously translated.  More on Milosz from Cosmos the in Lost here and in a post recently mentioned by the Book Haven right here.

Here’s Penderecki’s “Seven Gates of Jerusalem,” which includes passages from the Lamentations as you can see here.


Coetzee on the Stillbirth of the Humanities Out of Theology

You dropped something.

You dropped something.

I suspect the endless essays about the rethinking, protecting, death, in other words, the “crisis,” of the humanities in The Chronicle of Higher Education (if only) have cleared more than one forest.

I’ve written about the religious uses of the “secular” academy elsewhere in my post about Warhol and Blau.  As you can tell from the post it’s not like I’m first in line to bust up the idols of the secular academy. On the other hand, the disappointing exchange surrounding yesterday’s post about (classical liberal) ideology in what passes for theology in America brought me back to Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. (See: comment section)

I would like to highlight this novelistic account with the qualification that there is no reason to identify it with Coetzee’s own opinions, or to totally dismiss them as having no connection with them.

The argument presented by his character, Sr. Bridget Costello, in her lecture “The Humanities in Africa,” is that the humanities were a stillborn child of theology, even perhaps more so than futile academic projects such as the Death of God movement of a/theology. Without further ado, here’s a large chunk of her lecture:

‘Textual scholarship, I would want to say if I had more time, was the living breath of humane studies while humane studies were what we can properly call a movement in history, namely the humanist movement. But it did not take long for the living breath in textual scholarship to be snuffed out. The story of textual scholarship since then has been the story of one effort after another to resuscitate that life, in vain.

‘The text for the sake of which textual scholarship was invented was the Bible. Textual scholars saw themselves as servants in the recovery of the true message of the Bible, specifically the true teaching of Jesus. The

figure they employed to describe their work was the figure of rebirth or resurrection. The reader of the New Testament was to encounter face to face for the first time the risen, reborn Christ, Christus renascens, obscured no longer by a veil of scholastic gloss and commentary. It was with this goal in mind that scholars taught themselves first Greek, then Hebrew, then (later) other languages of the Near East. Textual scholarship meant, first, the recovery of the true text, then the true translation of that text; and true translation turned out to be inseparable from true interpretation, just as true interpretation turned out to be inseparable from true understanding of the cultural and historical matrix from which the text had emerged. That is how linguistic studies, literary studies (as studies in interpretation), cultural studies and historical studies–the studies that form the core of the so-called humanities–came to be bound up together.

‘Why, you may justly ask, call this constellation of studies devoted to the recovery of the true word of the Lord studia humanitatis? Asking this question will, it turns out, be much the same as asking, Why did the studia humanitatis come into flower only in the fifteenth century of our dispensation and not hundreds of years earlier?

‘The answer has much to do with historical accident: with the decline and eventual sack of Constantinople and the flight of Byzantine men of learning to Italy. (Observing your Dean’s fifteen-minute rule, I will pass over the living presence of Aristotle, Galen and other Greek philosophers in medieval Western Christendom, and the role of Arab Spain in transmitting their teachings.)

‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The gifts brought by the men from the East were not only grammars of the Greek language but texts by authors from Greek antiquity. The linguistic command that was intended to be applied to the Greek New Testament could be perfected only by immersing oneself in these seductive pre-Christian texts. In no time, as one might expect, the study of these texts, later to be called the classics, had become an end in itself.

‘More than that: the study of the texts of antiquity came to be justified not only on linguistic grounds but on philosophical grounds too. Jesus was sent to redeem mankind, the argument went. To redeem mankind from what? From an unredeemed state, of course. But what do we know of mankind in an unredeemed state? The only substantial record that covers all aspects of life is the record of antiquity. So to grasp the purpose behind the Incarnation–that is to say, to grasp the meaning of redemption–we must embark, through the classics, on studia humanitatis.

‘Thus, in the brief and crude account I give, did it come about that biblical scholarship and studies in Greek and Roman antiquity came to be coupled in a relationship never without antagonism, and thus did it come about that textual scholarship and its attendant disciplines came to fall under the rubric “the humanities”.

‘So much for history. So much for why you, diverse and ill-assorted as you may privately feel yourselves to be, find yourselves assembled this morning under a single roof as graduates-to-be in the humanities. Now, in the few minutes left to me, I am going to tell you why I do not belong among you and have no message of comfort to bring to you, despite the generosity of the gesture you have extended to me.

‘The message I bring is that you lost your way long ago, perhaps as long as five centuries ago. The handful of men among whom the movement originated of which you represent, I fear, the sad tail–those men were animated, at least at first, by the purpose of finding the True Word, by which they understood then, and I understand now, the redemptive word.
‘That word cannot be found in the classics, whether you understand the classics to mean Homer and Sophocles or whether you understand them to mean Homer and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky In a happier age than our own it was possible for people to bluff themselves into believing that the classics of antiquity offered a teaching and a way of life. In our own times we have settled, rather desperately, for the claim that the study of the classics in itself might offer a way of life, or if not a way of life then at least a way of earning a living which, if it cannot be proved to do any positive good, at least is on no side claimed to do any harm.

‘But the impulse behind the first generation of textual scholars cannot be diverted so easily from its proper goal. I am a daughter of the Catholic Church, not of the Reformed Church, but I applaud Martin Luther when he turns his back on Desiderius Erasmus, judging that his colleague, despite his immense gifts, has been seduced into branches of study that do not, by the standards of the ultimate, matter. The studia humanitatis have taken a long time to die, but now, at the end of the second millennium of our era, they are truly on their deathbed. All the more bitter should be that death, I would say, since it has been brought about by the monster enthroned by those very studies as first and animating principle of the universe: the monster of reason, mechanical reason. But that is another story for another day.’

Pentecost Vigil With Lay Ecclesial Movements In Saint Peter's Square

You Have no Idea How Much Nastier I Would be if I Was Not a Catholic

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

My post about the historical roots of resistance to the widespread and sociologically natural practice of abortion got quite a few people riled up. Luckily it didn’t result in as many stalkers, haters, and insinuators (usually about pedophilia) as my post on anti-Catholicism. I can only handle so many hatchet jobs before I get emotionally felled.

Be that as it may, the surprising reaction to the latter piece only confirmed it’s central thesis that something like anti-Catholicism is alive and even (especially?) among the exceptionally well-educated who don’t intend to offend. I was reminded of the real-world repercussions of this when Fr. Daniel berated our CL School of Community for leaving the door open given the recent threats against our parish. He went for his usual hyperbole with “Why did you leave the door open? Do you all want to get shot?”

Just to get back on track, Paganism was the topic of a previous post about how pre-Christian myths were filtered and preserved by Catholicism in ways you don’t see among both Protestants and its illegitimate twin of globalism. The topic of paganism resurfaced in the wake of the recent post on abortion and a picture I attached to it in a facebook thread:

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

My facebook friend Alexander Boldizar jousted back at me with the following provocation:

“Pro-abortion as antisemitism seems a bit of a stretch, like saying atheism is antisemetic — mixing race and religion. I know lots of atheist Jews. But the larger point seems consistent — as a very strongly pro-abortion atheist I have a much easier time relating to Zeus or Odin than I have to the Abrahamic God, because neither Zeus or Odin totalizes the way God does — and that totalitarian impulse in the Abrahamic God is what repels me so much about all of the monotheistic religions. And at its most basic, my support for abortion is rooted in relativism — that it’s not my place to make moral decisions for someone else.”

There is a lot to untangle in the response to this. First of all, there are plenty of pro-abortion Catholics who are unfaithful to their tradition, so there is nothing especially disturbing about there being Jews who are atheist (and pro-abortion).

The arguments of my post dealt with a faithful innovation within the Judeo(-Christian) tradition that set the Jews off from what we might presently label as the pagan groups around them.

The developments are interesting, because they arose within thoroughly violent totalitarian political structures, which used founding myths to justify their use of force against the populations. Compare the envy and violence involved in the account of creation in the Enuma Elish (or any of the creation myths of the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and so on) to the non-rivalrous and peaceful account of creation in Genesis.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

The biblical accounts are posterior (ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) to the Mesopotamian myths. They retell the earlier stories in a monotheistic manner that expunges the violence of the original polytheistic sources whose relativist syncretism required the various gods to duke it out in mythical cagematches.

I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting that even the New Testament is free of positive portrayals of violence, however, Rene Girard has frequently argued the Gospels are part of a slow Jewish unmasking of the myth of redemptive violence (abortion as a legitimate solution to harms done is one such contemporary myth) whose arguments first gained their steam in the writings of the prophets.

If one wants to call the exit from the notion of violence-as-creative as totalitarian then we’ll take it, but good luck enforcing toleration.

Some might complain that history didn’t become a bed of roses after Christianity appeared upon the scene. Fair enough. Such criticism reminds me of a Waugh riposte to someone who asked him why he was still suck a jerk after his conversion. His response was, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

On a wider scale, there would be no critique of totalitarianism or totalizing philosophies (think: Levinas and how his critiques of totalizing are indebted to the Hebrew Bible) without revelation, because what we call totalitarianism would be as natural as water is to fish–we wouldn’t notice it. The fight that broke out between our four and a half year old and three year old while I was writing this piece reminds me how much freedom it takes to break the cycle of violence.

Anyway, a taste of the great and ever-annoying Evelyn Waugh:

All in all, the idea of Odin as tolerant and non-totalitarian grafts uniquely Judeo-Christian sensibilities onto pagan myth. We should remember, as I’ve suggested here, we don’t live in a pre-Christian world, nor in an entirely anti-Christian world, but in a post-Christian world whose unquestioned manners of perceiving reality are indebted to revelation. This fact, especially given the unintentional spread of theological categories (or as we antiseptically call them “Western values”) through globalism, is possibly the only non-imperialistic way of understanding Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.” 

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

The idea of an Odin-Christ reminds me of Bob Odenkirk’s last name. So here’s a relevant Mr. Show clip where he plays Jesus to David Cross’ Marshall:

Abortion, Natural Law, & Antisemitism?

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

Opponents of a state abortion bill circle its supporters in Austin, Texas, in early July.

This is the ancient history behind present day hot-button issues.

The plurality of stances possible within orthodoxy is surprising to our uncritical post-Enlightenment prejudices. On the other hand, heresy, perhaps by definition, or at least by etymology, tends to be sterile and one-sided. Ross Douthat, captures some of this heretical reductionism in Chapter 5 (“Lost in the Gospels”) of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, “The goal of the great heresies . . . has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus.” [I’ve previously mentioned the surprising role Constantine played in the development of Christian pluralism here.]

Christians have been critically aware of orthodoxy’s perennial dynamism at least ever since John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which you can read here in its entirety at the Newman Reader.

Yet, there have been some constants in this torrent of constant change. For example, Judeo-Christian sexual ethics totally revolutionized the looser attitudes of their Graeco-Roman predecessors. More importantly, given the recent mayhem in Texas over abortion legislation, there is the ancient Christian tradition of opposing abortion. It is enshrined in its oldest post-biblical documents such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

Your mom!

Your mom!

There is no direct mention of abortion in the New Testament, because the pro-life position was taken for granted by Jews. The early Christians, as good Jews, followed many centuries of Jewish tradition by rejecting abortion, contraception, and infanticide.

One example is the Alexandrian Jewish writings known as the Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, “A woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before dogs and vultures as prey.” It doesn’t take much effort reading between the lines to figure out these must have been fairly common practices among the Graeco-Roman population in which the Jewish diaspora lived. The most cursory glance at the historical scholarship done on Graec0-Roman practices will confirm what I’m saying here. You can also reference their literary output.

I can’t say what Asia and the Indian subcontinent thought about these things, but I’m guessing they were probably (unfortunately) very much like the Greeks and Romans.

The difference of the fates of Oedipus and Moses are instructive here. They hint at very different attitudes toward children. One exposed child is fated to be a criminal, while the other becomes a liberator.

"I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see."  Can't really say the same for Oedipus.

“I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.” Can’t really say the same for Oedipus.

Therefore, the interesting historical twist might be that being pro-abortion is anti-Semitic.

There are also connections with the controversy about natural law, and its application to our abortion debates, started by David Bentley Hart in First Things. He says the following:

“There is a long, rich, varied, and subtle tradition of natural law theory, almost none of which I find especially convincing, but most of which I acknowledge to be—according to the presuppositions of the intellectual world in which it was gestated—perfectly coherent. My skepticism, moreover, has nothing to do with any metaphysical disagreement. I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.

That is an argument for another time, however. My chief topic here is the attempt in recent years by certain self-described Thomists, particularly in America, to import this tradition into public policy debates, but in a way amenable to modern political culture. What I have in mind is a style of thought whose proponents (names are not important) believe that compelling moral truths can be deduced from a scrupulous contemplation of the principles of cosmic and human nature, quite apart from special revelation, and within the context of the modern conceptual world. This, it seems to me, is a hopeless cause.”

I’ll have to do some more research before taking sides in this debate. It might be the case, like with the abolishing of slavery (think Moses again), that being pro-life is yet another revolutionary innovation of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.

David Bentley Hart: Let me preface this talk by claiming some physical ailment.