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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