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Like many other students of Latin over the past two thousand years, I struggled as a young man to understand Virgil’s great epic poem the Aeneid. I have vivid memories of my wonderful Latin teacher, Fr. John Cerf, eighty at the time he taught me, eloquently holding forth on the splendid rhythms and cadences of the poem and trying, with only mild success, to get me to translate it into passable English.

One of the four or five greatest masterpieces in the western literary tradition, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a heroic Trojan warrior and son of the goddess Venus, who managed to escape with his family from the burning ruins of his native city. After many adventures, Aeneas arrived in Latium, the area around what would develop as the city of Rome, and established there the beginnings of a new civilization, grounded in the best of the Trojan virtues. Virgil, the author of this complex and deeply moving poem, was friend to the emperor Augustus, and the Aeneid is generally regarded as a sublime piece of political propaganda: what had begun under Aeneas’s aegis was coming to full flourishing under Augustus’s benign rule. We recall that Augustus was, like Aeneas, the son of a divinity, for Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar, had been declared a god after his death.
Posted: 12/23/2013 12:04:34 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments

An emergency tends to focus one’s mind and energies and to clarify one’s priorities. If a dangerous fire breaks out in a home, the inhabitants thereof will lay aside their quarrels, postpone their other activities, and together get to the task of putting out the flames. If a nation is invaded by an aggressor, politicians will quickly forget their internal squabbling and put off their legislative programs in order to work together for the shared purpose of repulsing the enemy.

Christianity is grounded in what its earliest proponents called “good news,” euangelion. There is, therefore, something permanently fresh, startling, and urgent about the Christian faith. It is not a bland spirituality or generic philosophy; it is news about something amazing and unprecedented, namely, that a carpenter from Nazareth, who declared himself the Son of God, has been raised from the dead. This is why there is a “grab you by the lapels” quality about the early Christian witness: the authors of the New Testament are not trading in generalities and abstract principles; they are telling the world about a revolution, an earthquake, an emergency. Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore he is the king. And because he is the king, your whole life has to be rearranged around him.
Posted: 12/1/2013 11:58:37 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments

Two famous men died on November 22, 1963. The first did so in the most dramatic way possible, assassinated in the full glare of publicity on the streets of Dallas; the second in relative obscurity, in the upstairs bedroom of his simple home on the outskirts of Oxford, England. John F. Kennedy’s legacy has, of course, been enormous, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis has actually, in the course of these past fifty years, had a greater impact on the culture than his counterpart. When he died at the age of 65, Lewis’s reputation was on the wane, but he has enjoyed an extraordinary posthumous vogue, as two successive generations have delighted in his literary criticism, his novels, and above all, his clever and incisive Christian apologetics.

One reason why Lewis has proven so persuasive to so many is that he was compelled to undergo a transition—halting, painful, anguished—from non-belief to belief. Though he had been brought up in a Christian environment, he had lost his faith by the time he entered university. He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.

A second reason why Lewis was successful was that he came at Christian apologetics primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view. I want to be careful not to overstate the case here: Lewis certainly understood philosophy and used it at times in his apologetics both effectively and creatively. Think, for instance, of the subtle analysis offered in his book Miracles. But Lewis was, first and foremost, a man of letters—a poet and storyteller. His area of academic specialization was the literature of the sixteenth century—he wrote with tremendous insight on Milton—and his first published writings were poems.
Posted: 11/17/2013 12:02:04 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments

When I saw that Reza Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had risen to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, I must confess, I was both disappointed and puzzled. For the reductionistic and debunking approach that Aslan employs has been tried by dozens of commentators for at least the past three hundred years, and the debunkers have been themselves debunked over and over again by serious scholars of the historical Jesus.

Here is how the method works: a scholar focuses on one aspect of Jesus’ life, finds all of the Gospel passages that emphasize that aspect and declares them historically reliable, and then casually characterizes the rest of the Gospels as the non-historical musings of the evangelists and their communities. So in the course of the last three centuries, Jesus has been presented as, exclusively, an eschatological prophet, an itinerant preacher of the kingdom, a wonder-worker, a magician, a social revolutionary, an avatar of enlightened ethics, a cynic philosopher, etc. To be sure, evidence can be culled from the Gospels for all of these identities, but the problem is that these portraits invariably fail to present “Jesus in full,” the strange, beguiling, elusive, and richly complex figure that emerges from a thorough reading of the New Testament.

The Jesus that Aslan wants to present is the “zealot,” which is to say, the Jewish insurrectionist intent upon challenging the Temple establishment in Jerusalem and, above all, the Roman military power that dominated the land of Israel. His principle justification for this reading is that religiously motivated revolutionaries were indeed thick on the ground in the Palestine of Jesus’ time; that Jesus claimed to be ushering in a new Kingdom of God; and that he ended up dying the death typically meted out to rabble-rousers who posed a threat to Roman authority. Jesus, he argues, fits neatly into the pattern set by Menahem, the heroic defender of Masada, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Giora, Simon bar Kochba, and any number of other revolutionaries who claimed Messianic identity and who, in the end, were ground under by the Romans. On this reading, Jesus indeed died on a Roman cross, but he didn’t rise from the dead; instead, his body was probably left on the cross to be devoured by dogs or the birds of the air.
Posted: 11/4/2013 7:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments

As by now everyone in the world knows, Pope Francis offered a lengthy and wide-ranging interview to the editor of Civilta Cattolica, which was subsequently published in sixteen Jesuit-sponsored journals from a variety of countries. As we’ve come to expect practically anytime that this Pope speaks, the interview has provoked a media frenzy. To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary. 

The first question to which the Pope responded in this interview as simple: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (his given name)?” After a substantial pause, he said, “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” At the heart of the matter, at the core of the “Catholic thing,” is this encounter between us sinners and the God of amazing grace. Long before we get to social teaching, to debates about birth control and abortion, to adjudicating questions about homosexual activity, to disputes about liturgy, etc., we have the graced moment when sinners are accepted, even though they are unacceptable. Pope Francis aptly illustrated his observation by drawing attention to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Matthew,” which depicts the instant when Matthew, a thoroughly self-absorbed and materialistic man, found himself looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze. Because of that look, Matthew utterly changed, becoming first a disciple, then a missionary, and finally a martyr.
Posted: 10/10/2013 10:12:25 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments

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