For my Lenten reading I’m slowly working my way through the Holy Father’s latest book. I’ve been reading a little bit at a time just before bed each night. As I remarked to Dom last night before he drifted off, I feel like I’m only skimming the surface. Not because this is a hard book to read. On the contrary, it is very readable. But because there so much there that could be chewed on and discussed and pondered and I don’t have the mental reserves to do so right now. I’d love to read it with a group; but as that’s not an option right now I’ll take what I can get and plan to re-read later. Maybe when Bella reaches high school age…. In the meantime I am getting something out of it, just nothing I can yet formulate into a worthwhile blog post.
A few things have struck me as I’ve read that are not really about the content of the book as much as about the book as a cultural phenomenon. I’m not sure I’ve untangled exactly what I want to say, so bear with me. First, I am struck by how scholarly the book is and yet at the same time how accessible. One of the tragic flaws of modern academia is the way in which “scholarly” has become synonymous with “impenetrable except by the inner circle”. That was one of the real sticking points in my academic career, the gnostic tendency to obfuscate and confuse rather than clarify and enlighten. It seems to me the goal of the academic should be about seeking truth and knowledge and bringing the light of what that quest uncovers to the world. Instead academics seem to see themselves far too often as a sort of high priesthood, the gatekeepers of knowledge and only those who are initiated may fully enter in.
Anyway, I don’t mean for this to become a rant about academia, though my dissatisfaction with academia is a large factor in my response to the book. The point is that Pope Benedict’s book is well-informed and fully cognizant of current and former academic trends and fashions, it engages in full dialogue with them and yet does so in a way that is accessible to the well-read Catholic housewife, the pewsitter who is not afraid of a little hard work but who would be intimidated by most of what passes for scholarship these days. It that it is a remarkably pastoral book. It’s main concern is clarity, spreading the Gospel message as far and widely as possible.
And thus I ponder how perfect a vehicle it is for helping to reform the dreadful state of basic catechesis. Because this book is so accessible and given the cachet that attaches to the name on the cover, the interest that the common man has in finding out what the pope has to say, it seems to me that there is real potential that this book could be a key component in a renewal of adult Catholic interest in learning more about the faith.
Of course, Diogenes writes much more succinctly and coherently about the subject. Perhaps I should just leave the final word to him:
One of the glories of Pope Benedict’s extraordinary book Jesus of Nazareth is how completely it overturns the facile reductivism we’ve been spoon-fed for so long. Benedict takes modern scripture scholarship seriously—more seriously than many of its practitioners—yet there’s scarcely a page in which he does not give back to us, as fact, some event in the life of Jesus that had been taken away from us by the critics. And he does this not by some appeal to fideism (or even to conciliar teaching) but by reading the Scriptures as a unity, by obliging the critics to account for the whole of revelation and not just for the particular problem that snagged their attention. Pope Benedict examines the same process of composition and redaction that the union-card-holding critics do, yet argues that the only adequate explanation for the emergence of the biblical text in the form we now have it is that Jesus was God. In brief, Benedict is Greeley’s anti-toxin.
I hope I may share more thoughts about Jesus of Nazareth at some point in the future. We’ll see.