Misreading the Bible: Jesus’ brothers and sisters


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Yesterday I dealt with the common Evangelical misreading of what the Bible has to say about worship and idols. Today’s target is the misreading of the NT passages about the family of Our Lord. Truly there are no new errors under the sun. There are, however, repetitions of errors by those unversed in history.

In the fourth century a man called Heldvius wrote a book arguing that Mary was not a perpetual virgin and that the brothers and sisters of Jesus recorded in the Gospels were uterine siblings. This ran counter to what Christians had always believed, and St Jerome responded with a book called  The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary  in which he suggested that they were either cousins on Mary’s side, or children of a previous marriage of St Joseph.

The word used by the Evangelist is adelfos/adelphos. For monoglots who insist that the word brother must mean uterine brother, here is Strong’s defintion:

  1. a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother
  2. having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same people, or countryman
  3. any fellow or man
  4. a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection
  5. an associate in employment or office
  6. brethren in Christ
    1. his brothers by blood
    2. all men
    3. apostles
    4. Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

This, of course, presents no problem for the Infallibilists among us, who proclaim on the basis of their own unaided reading of the KJV that that it has to mean uterine brother. Such a reading defies both the dictionary and most of Christian tradition. It also runs counter to usage elsewhere in the Bible and is, were another one needed, it is an example of the way in which such people tend to make it up as they go along (you won’t find Anglicans or Lutherans indulging in this).

For example, in Genesis 13:8 and 14:16, the word adelphos was used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot; however, these two men did not share a brother relationship, but one of uncle and nephew; so does it mean Anbraham and Lot were brothers? Of course not.  Similarly, Jacob is called the “brother” of his uncle Laban (Gen. 29:15). Kish and Eleazar were the sons of Mahli. Kish had sons of his own, but Eleazar had no sons, only daughters, who married their “brethren,” the sons of Kish. These “brethren” were really their cousins (1 Chr. 23:21–22). So, if we are going to insist on a single meaning for ‘adelfos’ then we are going to find ourselves with a pile of egg on our face.

There is an excellent post on this and links to other other explorations of the problem. You will note that like all true apologists, this one deals with care and in detail with the evidence; not once does he state that it must be as he says because the word in English is ‘brothers’ – as though it has only one meaning in English.  When I refer to fellow Christians as brothers in Christ, I am not implying that my late father and mother had lots more children.  When my Trades Union colleague refers to his ‘brothers’ in the Union, he is not implying that he is related to them by birth.

When the Holy Family go into exile in Egypt, there are three of them; when they go to present the child in the Temple, there are three of them; when they go to take the young Jesus to the Temple when he is 12, there are three of them. At the crucifixion Jesus does not commend His mother to Her other sons, he commends her to St John, His cousin. Of course, it could be that all those sons were hiding, or, as Bosco maintains, that they were not Christians, or that they just happened to have the same names as the sons of Mary and Clopas. Of course, it could also be that the Church and most Christians for most of history have it right. The Lutherans are wrong, the Catholics and the Orthodox are wrong, the Anglicans are wrong, but a few monoglot Englishmen with access to a dictionary know better than the people who spoke kione Greek. We see, once more, the effects of Original Sin at work. Mankind fell because it sought to be as wise as God. Some of those ‘born again’ claim such wisdom, and neglect, alas, to take advantage of the accumulated wisdom of Christians down the ages.

Argument for Purgatory

The Catholic Thinker

Perfection is, broadly speaking, a state of completeness and flawlessness. If people were perfect, they would be incapable of performing a task in a mediocre, sub-par fashion. Whatever act they may perform would be done with the utmost skill, sufficiency, and grace. To put it plainly, those who could be perfect would have, in a way, one of the perfections of God.

Judging from what God has revealed to his creation humanity, through the written form of His Word, the Bible, for a human to enter Heaven, he must be perfect. This what God created humanity for; perfection. God is constantly reminding us with this teaching, and always exhorting His people to be perfect.

(Matthew 5:48) “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”

St. Paul even says that without holiness, “no man shall see God.” (Hebrews 12:14)

Jesus does not say the sinful, but rather “the…

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A decadent civilization?


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Yesterday something remarkable happened. Bosco, our resident evangelical anti-Catholic stopped repeating his script and wrote:

No problem. I believe you. The world is like it is, no matter what we call it. We can jabber about it, but we cant do much to change it. Now, Europe has a immigrant problem. This is a game changer. The Europe of the 40s and 50s and even 60s is gone. Now its a shooting gallery, a killing field.Instead of being grateful, these muslims are running down the very people who let them in. Europe is in chaos. Trump is trying to keep them out of here, and that means the good ones with the bad ones. the good ones have to suffer because of the bad ones. Could this be the beginnings of Jacobs troubles? The muslims are raging all around Israel, but are largely leaving Israel alone. That is going to change.This is when Gods fury comes up in his face. I want out of here.

The old, shall we say, random spelling, and the same old script were both gone, and suddenly we saw something of the man behind the persona. There was enough of the old apocalyptic Bosco to stop me asking “who are you, and what have you done with Bosco?” – but the tone and content was serious. As well it might have been.

The Roman Empire into which Christianity was born was a civilization of license for the elite, and it has much in common with our own, except that here that license is for the many and not the few. We fail to reproduce at anything like the level needed to replace ourselves, and whilst the NHS spends millions on abortions, it also spends millions on IVF treatment, often for older women who have reached the age when their fertility was not what it was twenty years before. We do not join this up and suggest that ‘unwanted’ babies should be born and then matched to families who would want them; instead we kill them in the name of a ‘woman’s right to choose’, and in Europe at least, apart from some Christians, no one bats an eye-lid. For all the talk about ‘British values’, it seems that our school inspectors insist that gender ideology is taught in schools – or else. even Catholic schools adopt ‘gender neutral’ uniforms, despite the Pope himself, on this issue, speaking against the liberal tide. Dissent will, it seems, not be allowed.

Within this decadence, there are immigrant communities, some now in the third generation, who do have families, and who do have firm values based on their religion. When Bosco says that Muslims are ‘running down’ our society, I would qualify that by saying that what they are criticising is our decadence; many Christians would agree with the moderate Muslim critique that we have become a decadent society. A society which has no confidence in its own future, so does not reproduce, and which seeks it own pleasure first, and so aborts when convenient. That’s not to deny the hard cases, but it is to say they are very far from being the majority.

One of my youthful heroes was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who received great acclaim in the West during the late Cold War period because of his status as a dissident against the Soviet system. He fell out of  favour in the late 1970s when, in 1978, he delivered a stinging cruitique of Western decadence in an address at Harvard:

Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevents independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.

A prophetic set of comments indeed. As an Orthodox Christian, Solzhenitsyn did not need to wonder what ‘values’ he supported, they were those formed by Christianity.

Many years before, in his The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), as well as other works, T.S. Eliot argued that the humanist attempt to form a non-Christian, “rational” civilization was doomed. “The experiment will fail,” he wrote, “but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide.” He did not want society to be ruled by the church, only by Christian principles, with Christians being “the conscious mind and the conscience of the nation.” We are now well into that experiment, and it has failed. Only Christianity can redeem the times.



The Sacrament of Confession


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Why do Catholics confess their sins to a priest? The priest is just another sinner, is he not? Why not just confess our sins directly to God?

This is the usual set of questions that Protestants ask when regarding the Catholic sacrament of Confession. They are reasonable questions, questions that I hope to answer in this article.

The sacrament of Confession is an ancient sacrament of the Catholic Church, dating back to its institution by Christ. In the early Church, public sins, like apostasy, were confessed publicly, in front of the congregation of Christians. Privately committed sins were confessed privately to a priest.

The writings of the first Christians shed some light on Confession:

The Didache

“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. . . . On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure…” (Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]).

Ignatius of Antioch

“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of penance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ…” (Letter to the Philadelphians 3 [A.D. 110]).


“[The bishop conducting the ordination of the new bishop shall pray:] God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Pour forth now that power that comes from you, from your royal Spirit, which you gave to your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and which he bestowed upon his holy apostles . . . and grant this your servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, [the power] to feed your holy flock and to serve without blame as your high priest, ministering night and day to propitiate unceasingly before your face and to offer to you the gifts of your holy Church, and by the Spirit of the high priesthood to have the authority to forgive sins, in accord with your command…” (Apostolic Tradition 3 [A.D. 215]).

Cyprian of Carthage

“Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner and in sorrow, making an open declaration of conscience. . . . I beseech you, brethren, let everyone who has sinned confess his sin while he is still in this world, while his confession is still admissible, while the satisfaction and remission made through the priests are still pleasing before the Lord” (The Lapsed , 28 (A.D. 251]).

John Chrysostom

“Priests have received a power that God has given to neither angels nor archangels. It was said to them: “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose shall be loosed.” Temporal rulers have indeed the power of binding, but they can bind only the body. Priests, in contrast, can bind with a bond that pertains to the soul itself and transcends the very heavens. Did [God] not give them all the powers of heaven? “Whose sins you shall forgive,” he says, “they are forgiven them; whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” What greater power is there than this? The Father has given all judgment to the Son. And now I see the Son placing all this power in the hands of men [Matt. 10:40; John 20:21–23]. They are raised to this dignity as if they were already gathered up to heaven” (The Priesthood 3:5 [A.D. 387]).


“If the serpent, the devil, bites someone secretly, he infects that person with the venom of sin. And if the one who has been bitten keeps silence and does not do penance, and does not want to confess his wound . . . then his brother and his master, who have the word [of absolution] that will cure him, cannot very well assist him” (Commentary on Ecclesiastes 10:11 [A.D. 388]).

The Early Christians believed that God gave His priests the power to forgive sins. They believed that a person must confess their sins to the priest in order to be forgiven. This is the same doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church teaches today.

What exactly does the Catholic Church teach on Confession?

First, the Church teaches that God alone can forgive sin. However, God chooses the way He wishes to forgive sin; using a priest. Even in the Old Testament God used His priests to forgive sin.

“If a man lies carnally with a woman… they shall not be put to death… But he shall bring a guilt offering for himself to the Lord… And the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin which he has committed; and the sin which he has committed shall be forgiven him.” (Leviticus 19:20-22)

God used a priest to administer forgiveness, and this did not take away from God’s power to forgive. He merely forgave the sinner through His priest. Just as God used His priests to forgive sin in the Old Testament, He does the same in the New Testament.

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” (John 20:21-23)

Having been raised from the dead, our Lord was here commissioning his apostles to carry on with his work just before he was to ascend to heaven. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” What did the Father send Jesus to do? All Christians agree he sent Christ to be the one true mediator between God and men. As such, Christ was to infallibly proclaim the Gospel (cf. Luke 4:16-21), reign supreme as King of kings and Lord of lords (cf. Rev. 19:16); and especially, he was to redeem the world through the forgiveness of sins (cf. I Peter 2:21-25, Mark 2:5-10). (1)

One instance of God using a man to forgive sin is in 2 Corinthians 2:10. Paul speaks:

“And to whom you have pardoned anything, I also. For, what I have pardoned, if I have pardoned anything, for your sakes have I done it in the person of Christ.”

St. Paul made use of his power to forgive sins in Christ’s name, despite being a sinner himself. Just because a man is a sinner does not negate the fact that he has God given power. St. Peter was a sinful man, and yet he was able to preach and baptize people in Christ’s name. How is the power to forgive sin any different?

It should also be noted that the Apostles were given spiritual authority by Christ in Matthew 18:18:

“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This authority was passed down by the Apostles to their successors, from bishop to bishop, from bishop to priest. It is the Catholic Church who can trace her lineage all the way back to the Apostles, as the power to forgive sins are passed down to the Church’s priests. This is why Catholics confess their sins to their priest; their priest received the same power over sins as the Apostles.

As the Apostles were men who were given power to forgive sin, how would they have known what sins to forgive? The only way for them to know would be that the penitent tell them their sins. That is why Catholic confess their sins to a priest. Priests are (often) not mind readers. How else would they know what to “bind and loose”?

Many Christians claim to be “Bible-believing”. If they do not confess their sins as God wanted them to, are they truly Bible-believing?

— Patrick E. Devens

(1) https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/is-confession-in-scripture

Two Babylons?


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Our friend Bosco is fond of writing about Catholicism as the ‘religion of Nimrod’ and calling Catholics worshippers of Semiramis. He seems not to know that such stuff, which nowadays tends to be spread by Jack Chick and his devotees, derives from an early nineteenth century Scottish clergyman, Alexander Hislop, who wrote an anti-Catholic book called ‘The Two Babylons’. Whilst seldom recommending Wikipedia as a source to my students, I did ask Bosco to look it up, as it contains helpful comments and links which, essentially, show that the book is based on out-dated ‘scholarship’ that was not strong when it was written, and which has been comprehensively debunked since. To take one example, key to Bosco’s views:

Lester L. Grabbe  [an expert of Judaisim and ancient history] has highlighted the fact that Hislop’s entire argument, particularly his association of Ninus with Nimrod, is based on a misunderstanding of historical Babylon and its religion.[1] Grabbe also criticizes Hislop for portraying the mythological queen Semiramis as Nimrod’s consort, despite the fact that she is never even mentioned in a single text associated with him,[1] and for portraying her as the “mother of harlots”, even though this is not how she is depicted in any of the texts where she is mentioned.[1]

In 2011 a critical edition was published.[13] Although Hislop’s work is extensively footnoted, some commentators (in particular Ralph Woodrow) have stated that the document contains numerous misconceptions, fabrications, logical fallacies, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, and grave factual errors.[14]

Woodrow is an interesting case, as his Christianity occupies the same end of the spectrum as Bosco’s, and he published a book based on Hislop. He, however, had the grace and the guts to (at some cost to himself as the book sold well) to withdraw the book when he realised how baseless its claims were. I wonder if Bosco has the same intelligence, humility and honesty? After 5 years of experiencing him, I am, sadly, betting that he will simply ignore all of this and then repeat the same of script. He has no argument left, just an immovable prejudice against the Catholic Church, which only a miracle can shift; but miracles happen.

As Wiki puts it in relation to the nonsense about Nimrod and Semiramis:

Much of Hislop’s work centers on his association of the legendary Ninus and his semi-historical wife Semiramis with the Biblical Nimrod. Hellenistic histories of the Ancient Near East tended to conflate their faint recollections of the deeds of ancient kings into legendary figures who exerted far more power than any ancient king ever did. In Assyria, they invented an eponymous founder of Nineveh named Ninus, who supposedly ruled 52 years over an empire comparable to the Persian Empire at its greatest extent. Ninus’s wife Semiramis was in turn a corruption of the historical figure Shammuramat, regent of the Neo-Assyrian Empire from 811 BC.[7] Hislop takes Ninus as a historical figure, and associates him with the Biblical figure Nimrod, though he was not the first to do so. The Clementine literature made the association in the 4th Century AD. An influential belief throughout the Middle Ages was that Ninus was the inventor of Idolatry,[8] a concept that Hislop clearly drew upon. However, Hislop wrote before the historical records of the ancient near east had been thoroughly decoded and studied, and it became apparent in the decades after he wrote that there never was any such figure as Ninus, and that the Greek authors whom he quotes were without credibility on the subject.[9]

And yet it is on such stuff Bosco relies. Why, you might ask, waste time on such poor stuff? The answer is simple. If you look on Amazon, which is still selling the book, you will see hordes of people praising it to the skies. some even saying that if it were not true, why has the Catholic Church not responded to it? That is a bit like saying why has it not responded to David Icke’s claims that the world is ruled by reptiles? Incidentally, and coincidentally, Wiki adds this:

Author and conspiracy theorist David Icke incorporates Hislop’s claims about Semiramis into his book The Biggest Secret, claiming that Semiramis played a key role in the establishment of a global conspiracy run by Reptilian aliens, whom he asserts is secretly controlling humanity.[18]

There is something heartbreaking about the thought of human beings so adrift from the real message of Christ’s Gospel, and the truth about His Church, that they find refuge and a truth they can believe in such sources. St Paul’s verdict applies:

22 Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,

The good news, for Bosco and for all who are misled by such toxins, is that the Church is there, opening its arms, which are the arms of God, and has the power of Christ to forgive all our sins and to help guide us on the road to Heaven.

Anti-Catholicism: the last acceptable prejudice?


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Bosco has been joined here by a fellow infallibilist – that is one who believes that his own, personal interpretation of Scripture is infallible. They both tell us that bowing is an act of worship, and when told that it is an act of veneration, insist it is an act of worship. This is not, one suspects, the best way to argue their point; insisting one is right without an argument other than ‘bowing is worship’ rather cuts off the possibility of dialogue.

But let us turn to Scripture for guidance. Let me take a few examples.

Luke 24:4-5New King James Version (NKJV)

And it happened, as they were greatly[a] perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments. Then, as they were afraid and bowed their faces to the earth, they said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?

We see here an act of veneration, not worship. If Bosco and his friend are correct, we should expect to find the Apostles being rebuked for worshipping the angels; that bit is not in my Bible; perhaps it is only in the iconoclast’s Bible? Is this an isolated example? Perhaps it is OK because they are angels? Let us see what happens in Acts 21:29-31 when Silas and Paul are released from jail by the earthquake:

29 Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

Do Paul and Silas say that Bosco and his friend say – bowing is worship, you must not bow to us? No, they don’t.In the world outside that of the iconoclast with an anti-Catholic prejudice, bowing is form of veneration often practiced. On the two occasions I have been fortunate enough to be introduced to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I have bowed to her; I was not worshipping her, and she certainly did not suppose I was. Indeed, I was following the example of those who bowed to King David in 1 Chronicles 29:20.

There is a very clear distinction between worship and veneration. When, in Acts 10:25-26 , Cornelius falls before Peter, Peter tells him to get up because he, Peter, is just a man – and the word used, proskuneo is not the same used when bowing means veneration. But then being a monoglot born-again American means you don’t read the Greek and don’t know these things, and being infallible in your interpretation of Scripture, who needs to know such things?

What do we see in the OT with the Ark of the Covenant? Let me quote:

Joshua 7:6-7 Then Joshua rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark of the LORD until the evening, he and the elders of Israel; and they put dust upon their heads. [7] And Joshua said,“Alas, O Lord GOD, why hast thou brought this people over the Jordan at all, to give us into the hands of the Amorites, to destroy us? Would that we had been content to dwell beyond the Jordan!”

So there we have it, in sharp contrast to the injunction of Bosco and his friend, we have the Irsaelities bowing to an ark, the work of human hands, inanimate, containing on it images of two cherubs with outstretched wings. The Temple itself, the holiest place of worship, contained images according to the accounts in Exodus and Chronicles. This all sounds much more like the inside of a Catholic Church than an Evangelical chapel.

So, from Scripture itself, by sola scriptura if you will, the myth peddled by Bosco and his friend is rebutted.

What, then, is going on here? In part it is the result of centuries of State-sponsored anti-Catholic propaganda; tell people a lie often enough, especially at the risk of going to jail or being burned, and it is wonderful what people can be persuaded to believe. On top of that, there has been a long tradition in Christianity of iconoclasm, of which this Evangelical obsession is a sub-set. It led to acts of destruction matching that of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. All of this has been explained to Bosco many times, but it does not matter. Bosco, like his friend, say they have been born again and the spirit in them tells them all they need to know. Having been accused of lying by Bosco’s friend, I do not accuse them of the same, I simply ask prayerfully, that they might consider the origin of a spirit which wilfully guides them to tell untruths about Catholics.

In an era when we are sensitive to most forms of prejudice, it seems that this anti-Catholic bigotry is an ignoble exception. Satan attacks what he fears most, and he never lacks for humans foolish enough to fall for his wiles. You might, at the end of this, ask why I bother to allow such people to post here? This post is the answer. It is the duty of every believing Catholic to explain to these misguided people that they are misguided. Will they be convinced? Bosco has been here for five years repeating his sad litany and convincing no-one, so it is unlikely. But with the Lord, all things are possible, and if he and his chum are not convinced, I know there are others here, genuine seekers, who will be helped by this. God be with them, and with Bosco and his friend.

Reflections on Sociology (3)

A major perspective in sociology is postmodernism, not to be confused with late modernity. In late modernity, individualism is rife, but there are still shared norms, values, and reference points. In a postmodern society, the degree of diversity and pluralism is such that the plausibility structure of various worldviews has been so undermined that few believe in absolute truth. Relativism and scepticism rule the day.

This may remind some readers of Kuhn’s paradigm shifts and his argument that Truth with a capital T should not be considered a component of knowledge. According to Kuhn, we are always within a particular paradigm (except for the brief moment when we transition from one to another?). We have no theory-neutral way of judging different paradigms, so we cannot obtain objectivity. This being so, each paradigm could be true in its own terms, so we have no real grounds for privileging one over another.

Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:6). Our ability to reliably pursue and grasp truth has been damaged by the rebellion of mankind and the divine beings, but our failure does not constitute proof that there is no such thing as truth or that the human apprehension of truth is insufficient for various purposes.

If Kuhn were right, scientific and technological progress would be impossible. The fact that we can build machines that produce predictable results in accordance with our theories indicates that the theories that produced such results were more accurate as interpretations of the world than the other options under consideration at the time. This does not entail that such theories are perfect, but since accuracy is a component of truth, it indicates that there is at least some truth content to such theories and methods.

People have the freedom to go their own way, but this does not guarantee them freedom from the consequences of their choices. The idea of the Last Judgement places the day of reckoning at the end of history, but, in truth, God acts throughout history (consider occasions in the Bible where the phrase “Day of the LORD” refers to an identifiable historical event, e.g. the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar).

Faith and public life


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For a long time in our Western civilization, Christianity was the dominant intellectual and social force; it was the lens through which mankind looked at itself and the world. It was not tolerant of other points of view, or even Christian points of view which varied on points of doctrine from the orthodox position. Notwithstanding that, and perhaps in part because of its own internal divisions, Christianity has failed to retain its position as the main lens through which mankind looks at itself and the world. In the public square, at least in Europe, it has almost ceased to count; indeed, those who make arguments on public policy based on its presuppositions are regarded much as atheists used to be regarded by the Church – wrong-headed, foolish and perhaps not terribly bright. If I have had the words “oh, you’re a Christian, but how can you, I thought you were intelligent” or a variant on them said to me once, I have had them a dozen times. We’re allowed to retreat to the private sphere, and to deal in mysticism and poetry, but when it comes to public policy, if we do not speak in the language of the secularists, then we are ignored. There is, literally, no point (other than our own witness to what we consider truth) in saying to society ‘this is wrong because it goes against God’s law’. As a fulcrum to move society where we want it to go, such a line is actually counter-productive because it simply confirms the secularist view that we are irrelevant. It’s hard enough to get people to obey the law of the land in some instances, so the idea that they should do something because a God in whom most of them don’t believe forbids it, not only gets no purchase in the public sphere, it invites ridicule and confines Christians who use them to the political margins.

But those who have argued that secularisation is some kind of universal societal evolution have, it turns out, overstated their case. The rest of the world has not followed Western Europe, and even if Christianity is not the force it once was in America, it has huge influence – for example it keeps the question of abortion from occupying the political position it does in Europe (which is just about non-existent outside Ireland). It is clear, as I have argued here and elsewhere, that an absence of religious literacy has led our leaders into errors in their Middle Eastern policy which have had enormous adverse consequences in the region and Afghanistan, some of which will now impact on Europe through the millions of refugees fleeing the disaster zones. We now have within even the borders of the UK, huge numbers of people for whom faith is at the core of the way they look at and interact with the world. There is no sign these communities will succumb to the secularisation theory. Even the UK Government, which does not ‘do God’ has had to pour money into interventions in our universities to encourage programmes which will help itself, and local authorities, to understand faith rather than reduce it to something they can understand in secular terms.

How does this impact on Christians? At the very least it offers our faith leaders the chance to speak to the public square without being ridiculed. Those who used to say faith was dying, that it would have no part in the politics of the future, have turned out to be the ones who are wrong. A public discourse cast solely in secularist terms is quite as inadequate as one based on ‘it is God’s will’. Faith groups and politicians need to learn how to talk to each other – the hour is growing late, and if we will not learn from the history of the early twenty-first century thus far, then things will get much worse.

Images (3)

From its earliest days, the Christian Church has decorated its meeting rooms with images (e.g. the life of Moses; Jonah and the whale; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace). Examples of these include the Catacombs of Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catacombs_of_Rome) and the church at Dura Europos (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dura-Europos#The_house_church). In many cases images appear to have been chosen for their ambiguity, in order to avoid arrest by the pagan powers. Synagogues were also decorated during the Roman period, featuring symbols, such as the Menorah, and images of the sun in his chariot at the centre of the zodiac (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beit_Alfa#Archaeology).

However, images continued to remain controversial right into the Byzantine era, when the iconoclast debate raged. These debates are evidence of different readings of Scripture that reflect very real concerns not only about heresy, but also about paganism. Paganism died a slow death, clinging on in the countryside, when the term is derived, a paganus being a rustic fellow in late antiquity. Despite Theodosius’ effort to crush non-Christian religion, it lingered on in the Anatolian hinterland and elsewhere. Thus Christians who would not tolerate even a hint of compromise eschewed anything that reminded them of idolatry, be it a statue, a painting, or a mosaic.

Looking at this heated of the debate, where each side contended for the importance of its agenda, it can be easy to forget that images are not an essential of the Christian faith. Whether one finds a church “pure” or “sterile” when images or absent, whether one finds it “elegant” or “gaudy” when images are present, the point is the same: the faith always was, first and foremost, about reconciliation to God through the Cross of Christ Jesus (Rom. 10:1-12; Col. 1:19-23). We can do without images; we cannot do without Christ. Elaborate settings for the liturgy are not always possible, whether through poverty or persecution, but Christ has promised to be present wherever believers truly meet in His name. Where He is, there is the glory.

That lesson should remain as the foundation of the debate; nevertheless, there is an important point to be learned about the representation of Christ in art. The crucifix is a reminder of what salvation cost our Lord.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

-Is. 53:3-5

He endured physical suffering, emotional suffering, and spiritual suffering. No one can fully describe it; no one can truly know what it was like. He came as a man and died as a man, so that He might be our great High Priest, to make atonement for our sins, deliver us from the evil one, and reconcile us to God. The crucifix is a reminder of the humanity of Christ, which He has permanently assumed.

Sometimes the Orthodox and Protestants make the point that Catholics leave Christ on the Cross: their preponderance of crucifixes absorb the attention, so that we forget the empty tomb on Easter morning. Maybe that is so, but one can hardly generalize about so big a phenomenon. The other extreme is worse: to forget about the suffering of the Son of God.

The Church is made up of many kinds of people: rich and poor, clever and simple, male and female, “cultured” and “barbarian”. In God’s house there is room enough for all of us who bow the knee to Christ. We will have clashes of conscience – in this age they are inevitable. We must bear with one another.

Christian witness


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For those who find the news a gloomy place, especially the religious news, there is something to cheer with the number of Corpus Christi processions in it. When I was a child, these were an annual event, and I can remember watching them, with some puzzlement, as I had no idea what they were about, but also with a sense that here was a group of happy children and their parents and priests saying something important in public; colourful and buzzing with excitement, it added a splash of colour to a fairly drab inner-city environment still pock-marked by bomb-sites and rubble. My father, who liked neither the Irish (most of the Catholics there were of Irish stock) nor Christianity, thought the whole thing lamentable – not that he used that word. His attitude was not atypical among English people. My mother, who was a Methodist, thought the whole thing smacked of ‘idolatry’. Oddly, given the origins of Methodism, she thought religion was something best kept indoors, and for your ‘Sunday best’. I came away with the impression that ‘that sort of thing’ was the ‘sort of thing’ the ‘Irish’ did; as they were regarded with some prejudice by their English neighbours, that was no recommendation.

Then such processions, as with other forms of public witness, largely vanished. I recall asking a priest at University why, and he said it was ‘all to do with ecumenism’, explaining (to the last person who needed it) that ‘Protestants’ regarded such things as idolatry, and ‘Mary worship’, and so it was thought best to desist from such things. It was certainly true that that was how Protestant England regarded such things. As I discovered in my studies, there was a long history of that sort of thing. It is often hard to trace the beginning of any historical trend, but in this instance it was very easy – Henry VIII’s break with Rome (link to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s radio programme on this subject). From that time on, the English State, with the brief exception of Mary I’s reign, encouraged the destruction of statues and imagery. Three hundred and fifty years of that sort of thing, combined with a sense of English superiority over the Catholic Irish, more than explained what I experienced as a child.

But before that, in any English village or town, one would have seen many signs of popular devotion, including Corpus Christ processions and public veneration of images of the Blessed Virgin. It was a sign of the mark left on English culture that even nineteenth century English Catholics should have found the expressions of popular piety they saw in places like Italy too much to take; their Catholicism was under-stated and private – for reasons to obvious to need stating. But there, as in Ireland, popular piety had never been suppressed by the State, and there, one could still see what one would once have seen in England.

As I grew up on Merseyside, where, especially in the inner city parts where I lived, the Irish influence was strong, we were getting a taste of that Irish culture. It was one where tangible evidence was important, and where the Church was a community. Christ was present in the bread and wine, so it mattered how those elements were treated; the Saints were our friends in heaven, and so pictures of them were like family pictures – it was nice to see those who were praying to God for you. It was perhaps a sign of the insufferable smug sense of intellectual superiority of the iconoclast philistines, that they should have imagined that other people were more stupid than themselves, and that those others did not realise the pictures were not ‘real representations’. The Catholic world-view was one where the Divine was not in some other world, or purely in spiritual form, but where one encountered it in the daily round.

It was, I think, a shame that advocates of the ‘Spirit of Vatican II’ should have discouraged manifestations of popular piety – and it is a sign of the success of the new Evangelisation that it has survived such attempts. It is very sad that some Christians feel they have to make judgments about the way others worship, but a love of Jesus and his Mother and of the Saints will find a way to express itself – even among the buttoned-up English with their centuries of State brain-washing.