Getting Benedict Wrong

Getting Benedict Wrong December 1, 2012

Mark Brumley looks at a couple of the illiterate ways in which the press completely misunderstand Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. F’rinstance:

The problem of the media misread has become noticable enough that Spanish theologian Jose Maria Gil Tamayo, writing in L’Osservatore Romano, has criticized the media for missing the point of the Pope’s book and  focusing instead on whether the Pope says a donkey and an ass were  present at Jesus’ birth. The Washington Post, in turn, has reported on the theologian’s criticisms. The Postpiece tries to present the theologian’s criticisms and winds up itself  misrepresenting Benedict’s position in the process. For instance:  “Benedict also writes that the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the  shepherds probably didn’t actually sing, and that the three wise men  could have been inspired by a ‘theological idea’ rather than by a  ‘historical event’.”

When the shepherds in the field (Lk 2:12-14)  encounter the multitude of angels praising God for the birth of Jesus,  are the angels “singing”? Benedict notes that the evangelist says that  the angels “said” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased”. Does that amount to what the Post reports Benedict as maintaining, that “the angels …probably didn’t actually sing”?

Benedict observes, “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they  proclaim becomes tangibly present” (p. 73). He goes on to link this  “song” with the singing of Christmas carols and the singing of the Gloria at Mass. That does not amount to saying that the angels “probably didn’t actually sing”, as the Post reports. Indeed, Benedict appears to maintain that in some sense they did sing, even though Luke doesn’t say they did.

In addition to the sheer wrongness of the media on this point, I am also struck by something else: the sheer rightness of J.R.R. Tolkien’s aesthetic instincts.  His mythology, after all, has Eru literally create the universe out of music.  In Middle Earth, the more musical a character, the more sure we can be he or she is good.  Tom Bombadil is marked out by the fact that even when he is not singing (as he usually is) even his prose speech is always obedient to meter (seriously, go read it, he *always* speaks in the same meter).  I *love* the notion that the speech of angels is song.  Peter Kreeft has long argued that it is significant that the earliest records we have of human language are not prose or grunts, put extremely high poetry and song: Egyptian funeral odes, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the book of Job, the Iliad.  Music comes first, then poetry, then it cools into prose and finally into the language of ordinary speech and bookkeeping.  There’s something here that does not fit the normal evolutionary narrative we’ve been told.  Modern language is not an advancement but a declension.  It is evidence, not of the ascent of man from the beast, but of the decline of man since the fall.

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  • Those last four sentences of yours (not to denigrate the rest) are beautiful, powerful, and thought-provoking. I therefore assume they will cause some fool or other to take them as evidence that you are a Creation-denying, crypto-Teilhardian heretic. Be proud of those lines, therefore. They’ll keep me pondering them a few days at least.

  • Elaine S.

    Also, C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape states in one of his “Letters” that he detests both music and silence, which are the marks of Heaven, and instead prefers the “grand dynamism” of noise. “We will make the entire universe a noise in the end,” he vows, adding that “we have already made great strides in this direction as regards the earth.”

  • I think you would find McLuhan interesting in this regard, Mark: he wrote extensively about the value of the oral tradition and the ways writing gave us stability but robbed us of intensity.

  • Alton

    Great stuff. Just as in Tolkien, it’s also notable that in C.S. Lewis’s mythology, Aslan literally sings Narnia into existence. At the beginning of “The Magician’s Nephew,” it is noted that to those present it was “the most beautiful noise” they had ever heard.

  • kmk

    Excellent post and comments–I was thinking of Aslan, too!

    Can’t wait to get Papa Benedict’s book. May we have him here on earth for a good while longer!

    • Loud

      Ah, yes. Aslan sang Narnia into being. I also like how some of the most of his memorable deeds involve his breath. Lion kisses, breathing on statues, floating Pole away with a breath, restoring a tail, victory at a roar, ect. Our appreciation of words and the things that pertain to them seems to have vanished. No wonder people are confused when Christ is called the eternal word, ‘talk is cheap’ is the saying of the day. And NOBODY takes time for poetry… 🙁

  • I agree with Kevin. That last part is wonderful. I couldn’t help but want to add ‘then comes texting, and finally tweeting.’ I also loved the first time you pointed out that the more musical a character was in Tolkien’s world, the more likely he or she was good. Don’t know how many times I’d read LoTR, but it never hit me. That’s the Mark Shea we sing about around the campfire.

  • Timbot2000

    Not sure about Kreeft’s linguistic historiography. IIRC the earliest cuneiform writings we have are business receipts and invoices. But what started as a tool quickly became art, and back to a tool again.

    • You’re correct, and I’ve actually had the privilege of handling one of these clay receipts. (It was less a tablet than a flat rock small enough to hold in the palm.) But writing came out of the need for persistence, and its origin is in business, politics, and mathematics. But art and language developed together in an entirely different manner. That we now represent them both with the same symbols in the written arts is a convenience.

    • Brian A. Cook

      What’s wrong with prose, normal speech, and bookkeeping?

  • Jim

    You know, right, that the Bible doesn’t state that the angels “sang?” It simply says that they spoke. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t include the wise men (magi) at the nativity scene. About a year or two later, they arrive “at the house” where the “toddler Jesus” lives with his parents. Regarding the actual setting of Jesus’ birth, we simply do not know. Perhaps a cave or a barn. But we do know that the talking donkey was definitely not present. These things have been common knowledge even though we enjoy the romanticized version of Jesus’ birth.

    • Noah D

      From the book:

      “Christianity has always understood the speech of angels is actually song,”

    • Andy, Bad Person

      Also, while the Bible refers to the house where Mary and the Child were staying, no where does it indicate that he was a toddler.

      • not directly no, but the inference from Herod’s edict for the murder of all boys 2 years old or younger after he asked the Magi when the star appeared would seem to indicate that the Jesus was likely at least a year old if not 2 by the time the Magi show up.

        But Jim, did you even read Mark’s post? Your comment reads like you’re correcting Mark and the Pope but all of your content agrees with them.

        • Rosemarie


          Or perhaps King Herod was just being overly cautious, since he didn’t know exactly when Jesus was born. The star could have appeared a while before His birth, to announce it. We don’t know for sure His age when the Magi arrived, but I have a hunch the Holy Family didn’t stay in the stable for very long, anyway. That was temporary lodging since Our Lady was about to give birth and there was no room for them in the inn that night. St. Joseph was too good a (foster) father and husband than to allow his wife and her newborn Son to remain in a smelly old stable for long. I wouldn’t be surprised if he began pounding the streets of Bethlehem the very next day, looking for better, more permanent lodging for his new family. So even if the Magi arrived within a month of Christ’s Nativity (I’m not saying they did or didn’t), they would have found the Holy Family in a house.

        • Andy, Bad Person

          Sure, and I have no probably with the interpretation that he was no longer a baby when the Magi arrived. I was pointing out that if we were talking a Sola Scripture look at it, as Jim was, then we can’t take “toddler Jesus” away from it.

          • Andy, Bad Person

            *No problem*, that is. I sound like Senor Cardgage.

            No probalo!

  • ivan_the_mad

    The Silmarillion is probably the single most rewarding work of fiction that I’ve read.

    “Tom Bombadil is marked out by the fact that even when he is not singing (as he usually is) even his prose speech is always obedient to meter (seriously, go read it, he *always* speaks in the same meter).” Mark, this is the coolest thing I’ve read on the Internets this year. I have a weekend project now.

    I’m also still amused that during my time at an academic institution, one of my atheist colleagues tried to convince me that Tolkien’s work had nothing Christian to it at all. I of course disagreed, but it was my Muslim co-worker who disagreed most vehemently. Good art really does speak across cultural and religious divides.

    • Daniel J. Berger

      Maybe it’s just the inability to see myself as exceptional, but I can’t understand how anyone could have failed to notice that Bombadil speaks in strictly-metered verse. It kinda screamed at me.

      • kmk

        SOmetimes it is a gift from the Lord–I don’t have a formal musical background, but sing well, have sung in choirs, etc., and it was just a few years ago reading to one of our children that my oldest son (then a late teen and a total Tolkien geek) pointed it out to me. It was delightful–I have probably read the LOTR 100 times since I was 10 and here was this new facet. I felt surprised that I had never seen it before–but I ahve been married to my dear husband for 22 years now and am discovering (good!) things, or noticing them more, too.

      • ivan_the_mad

        I’m glad I didn’t know. I like finding new ways to enjoy the things that I love.

  • Brian A. Cook

    Is there any room at all for prose or normal speech or bookkeeping? Furthermore, I simply can’t accept romantic views of the Ancients as being magnificent musical beings. Out of charity I will type nothing more, for I am tempted to type something sarcastic.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      You mean directions on the back of the pasta box, talking to the guy in the stall next to you, and keeping track of how much you still owe on your deductible?

      Of course there is room for them. There is nothing here by anyone to indicate otherwise. Do prose, common speech and bookkeeping begin to approach song and saga in their transcendent beauty? That’s the question being answered here. If your answer is affirmative, I am afraid, dust off the yellow-pages and look up LCSWs near you.

  • kmk

    I hve read a bit about music therapy, and that there are pilot programs (one was specifically working with returning combat veterans with head injuries) where singing is used to stimulate memory and/or speech. The patients are able to communicaste by singing which leads to plain speech.

    My kids are learning to rememberall sorts of mundane facts (arithmetic drills, grammar rules, Latin, history dates, geography)in song or verse. I find it is difficult to retrieve the information apart from the song, though–(Latin prayers for example).

  • Bill Kirby

    I would say that Tolkien believes the more musical the character, the stronger he or she is. Tom’s songs are stronger than the songs of Old Man Willow and the barrow wights, but evil has a hand in music too. There is the discord of Melkor, and there is the contest in the dungeons of Sauron, where “Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the king was very great, but Sauron had the mastery.” (“Of Beren and Luthien”)

  • SouthCoast

    OTOH, I must confess that I have always considered Tom Bombadil the one Middle Earth character that I could absolutely, utterly, completely, and totally, Do Without.

  • KML

    As a singer and a poet, I heartily endorse this post. One of the coolest things I’ve read in a while.

  • KML

    Also, remember that in Mass we join with the choirs of angels and saints in *singing* the Sanctus. One of the moments in Mass when the heavens open, times stops, and we all are unified in the presence of God.

  • I’m very disappointed that some people think bookkeeping and poetry can’t go together.

    In fact, when I studied the history of the Italian literature of the fourteenth century, I learned that a number of notaries public in Florence made a habit of filling in the blank spaces at the ends of contracts with the verses of Petrarch and his contemporaries. Partly it was the desire to prevent someone from sneakily writing unauthorized stipulations into the contracts, but I think they must have enjoyed the poems too.

    • Bill Kirby

      Up my lads and lift the ledgers,
      Sleep and ease are o’er.
      Hear the Stars of Morning shouting:
      ‘Two and Two are four.’
      Though the creeds and realms are reeling,
      Though the sophists roar,
      Though we weep and pawn our watches,
      Two and Two are Four.

      There’s a run upon the Bank –
      Stand away!
      For the Manager’s a crank and the Secretary drank,
      And the Upper Tooting Bank
      Turns to bay!

      Stand close: there is a run
      On the Bank.
      Of our ship, our royal one, let the ringing
      Legend run,
      That she fired with every gun
      Ere she sank.

      -GK Chesterton

  • Obpoet

    …..but sometimes the person who shows up to help is Boromir.