Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Weigel on Bible Babel

George Weigel is well-known in Catholic circles, most notably for his magisterial biography on the life of Blessed John Paul II, Witness to Hope.  He is the Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC and is a frequent speaker and commentator on NBC News.  Recently, he wrote a column for the Denver Catholic Register, which can be read via Crisis Magazine.    The article is a mixed bag, some of which I agree while other parts I do not.  Mr. Weigel relies on an earlier essay by Baylor University's David Lyle Jeffrey entitled "Our Babel of Bibles" which can be read here from the March/April edition of Touchstone.   Give time to both articles!  I will just be focusing, in this post, on the Weigel piece. 

Weigel's argument consists of decrying the lack of Biblical literacy among Catholics since Vatican II, even though this was one of the Council's main objectives.  At first, the main reason for this, he argues, is the promotion of the historical-critical method in both the parish and the academy.  As he says, "the historical-critical method of biblical study has taught two generations of Catholics that the Bible is too complicated for ordinary people to understand."  I tend to agree that for many years since the 60's too much emphasis, particularly by pastors, has been focused only on the historical-critical analysis of the text, to the neglect of principles of interpretation as set forth in CCC 112-114.  Yet, it must be pointed out that, as Pope Benedict wrote in the preface to Jesus of Nazareth, the historical-critical method is an "indispensable tool" for studying the Bible.  Without a doubt, there have been excesses in how the historical-critical method has been utilized, as the Pope has mentioned on numerous occasion.  However, it remains an important tool for scripture study, even with its limitations.  The Church supports its use and the historical-critical method will not be going away any time soon.

Next up on Weigel's list is the New American Bible, which he refers to as "the pedestrian translation to which U.S. Catholic are subjected in the liturgy."  For a moment, I though I was reading an article by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.  We have had plenty of discussions about the NAB/NABRE on this blog, so I am not going to rehash my views about it.  As I mentioned last year, I think the NABRE is a considerable improvement over the previous edition which allows it to stack up well against the RSV-CE in many ways.  I wonder if he is even aware of the recent NABRE update, particularly with the improvements to the Psalter?

For the remainder of the article, Weigel follows very closely to Jeffrey's essay.  He points out, and rightly so in my opinion, the proliferation of "niche" Bibles that are being published each year, like HarperOne's Green Bible or the Woman Thou Art Loosed edition.  I might also point out the CS Lewis Bible, the American Patriot's Bible, or Joel Osteen's Hope for Today Bible.   While I would agree that these are not necessary and my even be self-serving or simply money-making ventures, how am I to respond to some similar Catholic Bibles like the upcoming Saints Devotional Bible, the New Catholic Answers Bible, or even the CSSI Study Bible RSV-CE?  There are certainly extremes, like the American Patriot's Bible, but is having various "niche" Bibles that focus on the Church Fathers or the Saints or Apologetics a bad thing?  What about Youth Bibles? 

Weigel, then, takes aim at the lack of traditional language found in many modern Bibles, most notably the Common English Bible.  However, his complaint against the translation philosophy of the CEB, which avoids traditional terminology and classical English sentence structure as found in the KJV (or RSV), is actually represented in the NABRE, which he had previously panned earlier in the article.  Just take a look at his example of Psalm 122:1 in the NABRE and the sacral vocabulary he promotes, both of which are typically found in the NABRE.  Now, I am not saying the NABRE is identical to the RSV in this, but it is much closer to the RSV than the CEB.

Finally, Weigel concludes by writing: "My suggestion is to get yourself the Ignatius Press edition of the Revised Standard Version, and read it over and over again until its language works its way into the crevices of your mind and the texture of your prayer.  Maybe, some day, we can hear that translation at Mass."  A couple of thoughts immediately pop into my mind.  First, yes!  We need to read good versions of the Scriptures over and over again, so, I completely agree with him there.  However, is the RSV-CE the only acceptable version for Catholics?  Second, is Weigel aware of the RSV-2CE?  Third, does sacral language mean using archaic English? Fourth, what are the benefits of memorizing the Holy Scriptures from a translation which will never likely be heard at a majority of English-speaking Catholic Masses?  Remember, the NAB is not likely to change in the USA anytime soon, the NRSV is approved in Canada, and the ESV is being prepared for many of the remaining English-speaking countries. 

Your thoughts?

HT: Reader Tim


Theophrastus said...

Weigel's essay consists solely of multiple conclusory assertions with no evidence. He starts by claiming there has been a "slow-down" in Catholic biblical literacy, but he provides no evidence of that at all. (In fact, he provides no evidence of the degree of biblical literacy, or precisely what he means by "biblical literacy," or whether he is talking about the United States or English-speaking countries or the world.)

He claims that historical-critical method of biblical study is a "hegemony," but he provides no proof of that; one has little trouble in finding Catholic Bible teaching resources that do not use a historical-critical method. He then attacks -- with no particular evidence -- "inept preaching," "dissecting the biblical text with historical-critical scalpels" (hey, George, you already mentioned that above), and "reducing Scripture to a psychology manual" (hey, George, this is a different way to read the Bible than the historical-critical method.)

Wegel then quotes Jeffrey about the proliferation of Bibles, without mentioning that the Bibles he mentions are primarily directing at our Protestant friends. Does Weigel believe that Protestants have seen a similar "slow down" in biblical literacy? If so, he provides no evidence of it, and it certainly does not support his hypothesis that this is all something that went amiss with the Vatican II plan (which, although far reaching, did not exactly extend to biblical literacy among non-Catholics.)

Weigel is not even clear that the Bible was not written in English originally, he writes:

[P]lease note that the CEB renders “Son of Man” as “the Human One.” Yuck.

Well, in fact, the CEB translated from Hebrew and Greek, not English. I wonder if he is speaking of בן–אדם and ὁ υἱὸς τοὺ ἀνθρώπου. The phrases do, in fact, relate to the human quality of the individual, groups, or types named, so, while Weigel may discount “the Human One” on aesthetic grounds, I very much wonder in he fully understands its meanings on semantic and contextual bases.

Dr. Jeffrey claims that many words entered the English language from the Vulgate, but his etymology is flawed. "Virgin," for example, came into English from Anglo-French and Old-French (which received it from Latin). "Temple" came from the Latin, but not through the Vulgate -- but rather to describe locations used by an augur.

As Tim points out in the article, it seems Weigel is ignorant of the NABRE revision.

All of which makes me wonder -- just how much time has Weigel devoted to reading Scripture himself -- even better reading Scripture in native tongues. I suspect that it is much easier to criticize than to propose constructive solutions.

It is an interesting research problem to ask how we can best teach the Bible. But why do the hard work when one can simply dash off a throw-away essay like Weigel's?

Timothy said...


As one who is currently involved in a Catholic Biblical School and has participated in numerous Bible study related conferences and gatherings in my home diocese, I find his initial assertion of the state of Catholic biblical literacy to be simply incorrect. Most parishes in my area have at least one Bible study going on, and along with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan, Sacred Heart Major Seminary, which has some fine biblical scholars, has a large population of lay students.

rolf said...

I agree with you Timothy that there is more emphasis today on Bible study among Catholics than in the past. I attended a two year Bible Institute (for Bible Study Leadership) that was put on by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which 25 years ago would have been a fantasy!
Maybe what George Weigel is referring to is the breakdown of the Catholic family since the 1960's. It seems to me that fewer Catholic are sending their children to Catholic elementary and high school, many of these kids are not being confirmed and lot of them are not attending church once they are old enough to make their own decision. A result of this is that many of these kids grow up 'Catholic' but don't know much about their faith, much less about the bible. Just an observation from my 'neck of the woods' (teaching RCIA and Bible study in my parish).

Timothy said...


I think you are pretty much right in your assessment about Catholic education these days. I just take issue with Weigel's emphasizing the historical-critical method and the NAB as the main reasons for the decline in biblical literacy.

rolf said...

Timothy I agree, I came into the Church 9 years ago and was taught the Bible using historical-critical methods and if anything it increased by desire to learn more about the scriptures. Sure historical-critical methods can be abused (Jesus Seminar), but even Pope Benedict acknowledged its value, when used correctly! In my Bible study and RCIA classes I try to blend the theological and historical-critical methods of teaching the scriptures.

Theophrastus said...

The concern I have for broad statements such as "the breakdown the breakdown of the Catholic family" is that it seems to fly in the face of massive demographic changes in the American Catholic population. Consider the following report:

Since [1970], nearly 50 Hispanic priests have been ordained bishops. Today, some 40 percent of Catholics in the United States are Hispanic, accounting for more than 70 percent of the growth in US Catholic population since 1960. Hispanics form the majority of Catholics under 35, and the majority of Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic in the decades ahead, though recent estimates of when exactly this will occur vary from 2025 to 2035.

It seems to me that it is very hard to make meaningful broad statements about American Catholics over the last fifty years when the population of American Catholics has changed so much. In fact, the American Catholic population has grown quite dramatically during that time.

For example, there is a widely held perception that attendance at Mass is dropping. But that perception is wrong. One can not simply rely on anecdotal evidence or "general feelings" for these sort of statistical statements -- the changing demographics of the Church mean that our anecdotal experiences almost always fall short of what rigorous statistical evidence demonstrates.

Chrysostom said...

I'm just like those Aristotelians of the apocryphal story - if I want to know the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse, I'm not going to go to a farm and pry open a horse's mouth and count - I'm going to meditate on first principles and consult the ancients.

With a little imagination that can be applied just as well to how a man could draw at least somewhat valid conclusions about Biblical literacy and the causes of the breakdown of sectors of Catholicism without ever having recourse - if recourse is the correct word - to empirical evidence of any sort, but starting from first principles alone, and deducing from that point likely causal chains.