Don’t mention the Bible

I was quite flattered in a seminar the other day to be asked to explain the Catholic position regarding the Virgin Mary. Whilst I have been explicit that I am a practicing Catholic to my fellow students and tutors and corrected a few misconceptions regarding the faith, whenever they have cropped up, I have tried to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Though one could argue that Christians should grasp every opportunity to evangelise, effective evangelisation needs to be appropriate and given that I am attempting to build up friendships with fellow students, this isn’t going to work if they feel wary that every conversation is going to lead to a lecture involving Jesus and the Bible. None of them know, as far as I am aware, that I blog. Also seminars are a time to be discussing that week’s reading and the exchange of ideas and information thus it would be inappropriate and inconsiderate if every single session were hijacked by a tiresome Christian on a mission to convert. I don’t want to garner a reputation for being the class Dot Cotton. I remember the two Evangelical pilots everyone used to dread being rostered with in my flying days. One used to come down to the bar in the evening clutching a copies of various books with rainbows and doves embossed on the front cover and use every pause in the conversation to introduce a Christian theme. Dodging the inevitable “have you asked Jesus into your life” lecture was not the most relaxing way to spend the evening or wind down following nine hours of self-loading freight. The other overtly Christian pilot was summoned to tea and biscuits with the management, after his praying on his knees in the front galley during turnarounds put the wind up the junior crew as did his enigmatic statements such as “sometimes, I just want to point the aircraft in the direction of the Sun, take my hands off the controls and let the Lord take over”

I tend to find that simply living a life of witness, being myself and trying to be faithful, is more effective than real-life hectoring or lecturing. If people find you an interesting and engaging person (not that I am) then they are much more likely to be open to what you might have to say, rather than if they feel that you constantly have an agenda to push. There’s nothing I can say or do, to force or impose conversion upon anyone in any event. That’s entirely down to the Holy Spirit, but what I hope to do, albeit unsuccessfully judging by some of the blog comments, is help people to remain open, to want to search a bit further or simply to see that Catholics aren’t ignorant or brain-washed, that actually what we have to say, even if one vehemently disagrees with it, is thoughtful, intelligent, cogent and coherent.

In the case of explaining Our Lady to a class of mainly 18-19 year olds, I was trying to communicate that she is not, as had been suggested, revered purely because of her virginity. A student had made a connection between a literary character and suggested that she could be seen as “a religious extremist like a Catholic” because “like Catholics she thinks sex is dirty and was attempting to be pure like Mary who is important to Catholics as she is a virgin”. Quite a bit to unpick there, hence my tutor handed it over to me.

After explaining the reasons aside from virginity as to why Mary is important to all Christians, not just Catholics, I made the point that Catholics don’t actually view sex as dirty, quite the contrary, it is something that we are encouraged to enjoy, but it should be in the appropriate context. I deliberately caused both amusement and controversy by highlighting the fact that the previous Pope, Blessed John Paul II had specifically stated (in his book Love and Responsibility) that husbands should ensure that their wives reach orgasm and not be selfish in bed. Hardly the words of a misogynist! “I will have no prudery” he wrote, “I’m dealing with God’s creation”. Cue many aghast expressions and laughter, in amongst which someone stated that it was a load of nonsense, Catholics didn’t want anyone to like sex, due to their opposition of both contraception and abortion. The tutor pointed out the non sequitur, and then asked me to briefly explain further, whereupon I elaborated the reasons behind Catholic social teaching on sex and philosophical reasons for choosing NFP or fertility awareness over contraception.

“That was a very thorough, detached and academic explanation” she said, “well done”, no doubt noticing that my face had gone beet-red. I went for a coffee with some of the class afterwards, when the subject of sex was brought up again. It’s quite a tough one, because whilst I don’t want to be encouraging a group of young people to be sleeping around, suffice to say I remember all too well what it is like to be 18, and a lecture, be it on abstinence or use of condoms is going to prove off-putting and counter-productive, especially to non-Christians, who are expecting me to be quoting the Bible at them every two minutes. So whilst keeping my counsel, one of them said to me “do you mind me asking, you’re really religious and stuff, but you never ever mention the Bible, it’s really weird”. To which my response was, how would she react if I were to mention the Bible. “I’d find it really boring to be honest” she said. “I don’t believe in all that stuff, so I’d think what’s that got to with me? Why should I do what a primitive book written thousands of years ago tells me? I think the Bible is a load of cr*p personally”.

That’s why I don’t mention the Bible, I said. I’m sure I probably should and I’m sure there’s loads of Christian who would insist that it’s a dereliction of duty, but I don’t think it really helps if I’m trying to convince you of something. I do recommend that you should read the New Testament at the very least, because so much of what we are doing is based upon the Bible and you’ll be missing out so much if you don’t read it, but it’s certainly great as background reading and general knowledge if nothing else.

We then moved onto a historical conversation about the content of the Bible and did I think that everything in the Bible was literally true and what parts did I believe and why. Before moving onto an entirely different topic, someone said “but all that other stuff you said, it did make sense. To be honest, I know you’ll probably think I’m really ignorant, but it’s much more interesting cos you don’t bang on about the Bible when you’re explaining things. I found the stuff you were saying about sex and contraception and fertility really interesting. And you obviously like sex a lot and are really experienced and stuff”…

Intuitively it feels like a betrayal not to be mentioning the Bible and no doubt it will be one of the things that I shall be called to account for on the terrible day of judgement. Equally it seems to me that unless one is talking to someone who has at least some scriptural knowledge and/or faith, using the Bible as a basis for arguments or debate, is a total minefield for Catholics. One is either met with “well that’s got nothing to with me, it’s a load of old bunkum” or else people chose to quote mine, my pet hate. Generally when people quote-mine from the Bible, it’s either an attempt to prove what a load of old nonsense the Bible is, full of contradictions, nonsense and a God who likes to smite people at random, or an attempt to prove personal hypocrisy or inconsistency. Deuteronomy and passages pertaining to Mosaic dietary laws being the perennial favourites. Catholics then need to explain that they are not fundamentalists and get into discourse about the magisterium versus sola scriptura, followed by detailed and contextual exegesis as well as explanations on typology and covenantal interpretations, by which time your audience is fast asleep and wishing they had never brought up the passage on shellfish.

If Catholics and Christians want to be taken seriously in the public square in what seems at times to be an aggressively secular culture, then we need to appeal as much to philosophy and ethics as we do the Bible. Of course the Bible must not be ignored and the Biblical case must be made, but only to those who are open and want to hear it. Making biblical arguments for issues which are of crucial importance to society, such as social justice,  euthanasia, abortion and marriage to name but a few, means that many will sadly write them off as irrelevant, illogical and ignorant, why should they be dictated to by a religion that they don’t share? The Bible must be defended as must the fact that one’s faith is grounded in it, but it seems to me that making a case which stands up on its own philosophical and ethical merits is every bit as important and more likely to ensure that one’s voice is heard and listened to. People may disagree, but they cannot doubt the inherent logic in a certain position; when they resort to a “well you believe xyz because of the Bible which is proof you are illogical/stupid/ignorant/brain-washed”, it shows that the case is being put coherently.

The sad thing is that Dot Cotton has a heart of gold and has won the affection of the TV viewing public, her piety cannot be in any doubt. But in terms of evangelisation, they are far more likely to empathise with and emulate the Vicar of Dibley, a Sean Bean loving chocoholic, not averse to a bit of pre-marital bed-hopping. That doesn’t mean we should emulate her behaviour or attitude. As my father always taught me, we should level up not down. But if we need to meet people where they are, we need to accept that sadly for many, that the Bible is an alien text.  The way to introduce it is by the witness of our actions and words, which may then in turn lead people to those of the Holy Spirit.

16 thoughts on “Don’t mention the Bible

  1. A very good post. 🙂

    I giggled quite a lot at “And you obviously like sex a lot and are really experienced and stuff…”

  2. Great post. Not a Catholic myself, but I agree with your reasoning on how/when the Bible should be applied when talking with nonbelievers.

  3. Lol at self-loading freight.

    Look at St Augustine – he found the Bible a turn-off. It was neoPlatonism and discussions with others that brought him to a point he could read the Bible and get anything from it.

  4. I always distinguish, in my mind, pre-evangelisation and evangelisation.

    Pre-evangelisation is like hoeing the ground, removing some weeds, clearing away some rocks – readying the ground so that it may be possible for the sower’s seed to take root. That can be done through all sorts fo discourses within all sorts of frameworks: ethics, philosophy, gossip…

    Evangelisation is sowing the seed. That is where the Bible is most likely to come in. Though of course one preaches the Gospel at all times, using words only when necessary…

    There is a time and place for both, but in our society, there is a huge need for pre-evangelisation, and that is what I normally undertake at work, for precisely the reasons you articulate.

  5. I think the basic tactic in public engagements on moral issues such as euthanasia etc should be a) to make clear that anything that’s said is only the tip of the iceberg and that there is a much richer system behind it; but mainly b) to argue a philosophical case based on human nature and its flourishing rather than mentioning any scriptural or explicitly divine backing. Otherwise it makes it too easy for our views to be sidelined as merely faith based and it simply doesn’t get a hearing for them anymore. And with our natural law and Thomist traditions, we can with integrity put forward such arguments in a way that other Christians relying on sola scriptura can’t.

  6. I entirely agree except for two things:

    “Intuitively it feels like a betrayal not to be mentioning the Bible and no doubt it will be one of the things that I shall be called to account for on the terrible day of judgement.”

    Why does it feel like a betrayal? We are not commanded to mention the Bible!

    “The Bible must be defended as must the fact that one’s faith is grounded in it.”

    This is not false when understood correctly but in fact it is the Bible that is grounded in the Judaism and Catholic/Orthodox Christianity. For example we do not believe in the resurrection of Christ because the Bible says so. Rather the Bible says this because we–our fathers–encountered the risen Christ, and then wrote about it.

    Isaac (from CV)

    1. That is largely true, there is a sense in which the Church comes before the Bible, but we do also believe that the Bible is the inherent word of God.

      I really liked Ben’s point about pre-evangelisation.

      Thanks for the comment though 🙂 x

  7. It is important to remember that we aren’t trying to win people to a set of ideas but hoping that they will encounter the God who loves them. The most important thing is your comment about the Holy Spirit. It is God who does the work in the heart of the person. Anything we say can co-operate with this work or hinder it. Explaining to someone your thoughts behind what you believe and what the church says in the gentle way you obviously did shows this is an act of love on your part. God will honour that.

    God meets people where they are. The Bible might, at the moment be more of a stumbling block considering the prejudice that there is around what it says. People might not be ready. None of us knows that for another person but their Creator does.

    One of the fascinating things is you might never know the impact of what you have said or indeed the way you said it. It might be a piece of the puzzle that God doesn’t put in place for years but it is there waiting for God to use it.

    I have found the post very thought provoking and inspiring- as always, Caroline.

  8. Congratulations! You really handled the whole thing magnificently. I am heartily sick of people telling me what I, as a Catholic, believe; and won’t believe me when I try and correct them!

    With young people it is a lot easier especially as they obviously see you as “hot” and therefore are prepared to listen to you and where sex is concerned you obviously have a gift for getting it across to them, whether they agree with you or not.

    I fully agree on the Bible issue. They are not even familiar with it and it has no authority at all for most of them so you’d only be talking past them and lose any credibility you have.

    I’ve only recently discovered your blog and was shocked by your previous post and some of the responses. What you are doing is really worthwhile and I will add you to my blog roll.

  9. Excellent post about a wise response.

    We have no compulsion to mention the Bible – but we must live the Bible’s love.

    As a recovering protestant fundamentalist (and a Catholic of 4 years standing – or should that be kneeling) you can take it from me that agressively quoting the Bible has done much more harm than good in many peoples lives.

    btw – nice to come across your blog.

  10. Many years ago, I went to Pride in London with a friend and her two small daughters (who are now both at college, eek). We left the station and looked around for toilets before we headed off to the march, and I stayed outside with our backpacks because I’d gone on the train. I was approached by a very nice-looking lady who offered me a leaflet, of the sort which invites one to become a Christian or BURN IN HELL FOREVER, which I politely refused.

    She looked at my t-shirt and my badges, which rather blatantly outed me as a prideful lesbian, and she asked me if she could ask me a question. I agreed she could, and she asked me “Supposing you were standing before the gates of Heaven, what would you say to God to ask Him to let you in?” I thought about it, and I told her that I had read the gospels, and while I couldn’t give her chapter and verse on the spot, somewhere in Matthew it says that God’s one real test for letting you into Heaven is – Have you given food to the hungry and clothes to the naked? And, I said, I’d tell God that, within the context of my times, I’d always tried to do that, and He should therefore follow his own rules and let me in.

    Then I said: Excuse me, I think I see my friend (the lady seemed to be having a brief attack of speechlessness) – and I went off with her and her daughters to join the march.

    I have no problem with Christians who want to quote the Bible at me. I just quote the Bible back at them. Generally I find they don’t like that very much: they would rather stick to their few guaranteed quotes to support discrimination and cruelty than explore the many wise things that the early radical Jewish sect had to say about living in poverty, acting with justice and kindness, direct peaceful action by the weak against the strong, valuing women as individuals, and above all – which certainly the anti-gay wing of Christianity object to – the vision of Peter of Nazareth that no one should be rejected as “unclean”.

    I’m fond of Dorothy L. Sayers as a writer, not least because she taught me that you can read the gospels and get what Jesus was like as a person, by the same methods that you grasp what any biographical (or fictional) subject was like. Jesus would have gone on a Pride march – but you can’t imagine him standing by the side of the march waving a placard with a message about how we’re all going to hell.

    1. As a point of interest……
      My friend runs a confidential online group for Catholics experiencing same sex attraction. They offer incredible support and advice and most importantly companionship so no one need feel alone. The people in this group are openly gay, but choose remain single because they regard their faith more important than their sexuality. This gives gay catholics the option to remain true to who they are – in every sense of the word. I think they are extreamly brave people to take this incredibly contraversial stand point in a world where chastity is regarded as abnormal.

  11. This post reminds me of a VERY similiar moment at University. I was studying Literature at Warwick and in the particular text we were looking at in a seminar the Immaculate Conception is mentioned. After a brief silence the tutor turned to me almost waiting for me to offer the explanation- to ‘play’ teacher. It was a weird feeling that because I was known as a Catholic that I could offer explanation. It’s so rare to have a discussion of this religious nature in this academic forum.
    The main point to put across was that the Immaculate Conception belongs to Mary and not to Christ. Looks of surprise followed! I never cease to be amazed that the language of Catholicism and the vocabulary of our thinking faith is alien to so many. I don’t mean this in a negative way. That others don’t know what we believe ensures that we always keep the Gospel Message ‘fresh’.

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