25 December 2004
On the Sunday before Christmas, the Sunday Telegraph newspaper published a major article by Biblical scholar Geza Vermes claiming the Matthew's Nativity is a "Jewish Myth". The central point of the piece is that in the phrase "a virgin shall give birth" (from a prophecy of Isaiah quoted by Matthew's Gospel) the word "Virgin" is derived from the Greek Septuagint translation of Isaiah and not from the Hebrew of the prophet himself, which may have meant in its original context simply "young (pregnant) woman".
It was a shame to see such an article given such prominence at such a time. Many readers will have wrongly assumed that it implies the falsity of the traditional teaching that the mother of Jesus Christ was in fact a virgin, which in turn (they might think) would demolish the authority of the Catholic Church and even of the Koran (which also teaches the virginal conception of Jesus). That is not the case, for several reasons.
We have, of course, the Gospel of Luke which gives us more detail concerning the virginal conception of Christ, probably derived from Mary's own personal testimony. Matthew and Luke both emphasize the virgin birth and were presumably delighted to find that it seemed to fulfil an earlier prophecy as that was understood by many in the Jewish tradition. It is important to remember that many scholars do still hold "virgin" to be a possible meaning of the Hebrew word almah. It has the same ambiguity as the English "maiden" (an example of such usage can be found at Gen 24:43). The Jewish Septuagint translation of the second century BC, which uses the unambiguous Greek word parthenos (virgin), has also long been held to have been inspired. If so, the words chosen by the seventy-two translators, far from distorting the text may actually have added truth to that which it contained in the original Hebrew (or discerned it, in the case of a mere ambiguity).
An even more interesting point is that the perpetual virginity of Mary in believed on the authority of the Church, which for Catholics is protected by the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit. Even if the tradition of Mary's virginity were originally derived exclusively from a (mistranslation) of the prophecy of Isaiah, or on some other argument from false premises, its adoption as official dogma would nevertheless imply its truth. In other words, the Church's infallibility (or divine protection from error) applies to her conclusions, not to her means of arriving at them.
We hope all our readers had a very happy Christmas, secure in the faith that the father of Our Lord is none other than God himself. G.K. Chesterton wrote about the Nativity on many occasions, and a poem called "The House of Christmas" (Collected Works, X, p. 140) concludes as follows:
To an open house in the evening
Recently Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger expressed profound concern over the spread of "radical secularism" in Europe. "We are in a very grave moment in which radical secularism may destroy humanism," he said (according to the news service Zenit), reducing everything to mere materialism, trade and the "predominance of the market." "The Second Vatican Council stated that the Church wishes to dialogue with the modern world, and the Church today desires it even more," Cardinal Ratzinger emphasized. But in recent months, John Paul II and several officials in the Roman Curia have clarified the difference between a healthy separation of church and state, and a secularism, or laicism, which seeks to deny all public manifestation of religion - a denial that will logically lead to the repression of religion in the name of freedom. These views are echoed in a brilliant analysis by the Orthodox Bishop Hilarion which we have placed on our web site, and which we recommend to your attention. (If anyone reading this site is unconvinced about the importance of religion, or the credibility of Catholic belief in particular, we welcome debate and hope you will correspond with us.)
As you will see from the announcement at the top of this page, we are offering a free membership in an online Community so that readers can discuss among themselves and with the Editors any issues raised by items on this site or arising from our conferences or publications. It is at present only an experiment, so if people don't use it (or if they abuse it) it may be discontinued later. But in view of the fact that our readership is international and not easily able to come together face-to-face it seemed worth trying, and we are grateful to Steve Law for getting it started.
Last month saw our celebration in London of the 30th anniversary of The Chesterton Review. Stratford Caldecott's speech on that occasion is available here. The UK distribution of the Review has without warning recently left the hands of Continuum. If people are concerned with delivery or want to subscribe for the first time (do try it for a while!) the best thing to do is contact the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Meanwhile the sixth issue of our other journal, Second Spring, has been printed and is on its way from Canada. If you are a subscriber and want faster delivery next time, please let us know that we should invoice you for airmail delivery.
Some years ago our summer conference was on the theme of Liturgy. It attracted more attention than anything else we did, and was even mentioned by Cardinal Ratzinger as a "sign of hope". The reform of the Catholic liturgy after Vatican II was one of the most divisive processes in the history of the modern Church, and Catholics still argue over what should be done to improve the situation. A very important new statement by Cardinal Ratzinger takes the form of a review of Dom Alcuin Reid's excellent book, The Organic Reform of the Liturgy. Here is an extract from that review: "The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose will is law, but is the guardian of the authentic Tradition, and thereby the premier guarantor of obedience. He cannot do as he likes, and is thereby able to oppose those people who for their part want to do what has come into their head. His rule is not that of arbitrary power, but that of obedience in faith. That is why, with respect to the Liturgy, he has the task of a gardener, not that of a technician who builds new machines and throws the old ones on the junk-pile." The full text of the new article by Cardinal Ratzinger may be found by following the link.
Obituary. The death took place on the 22 October 2004 of the theologian Louis Bouyer of the French Oratory at the age of 91. A friend of Balthasar, Ratzinger and J.R.R. Tolkien, and a co-founder of the international review Communio, Bouyer was a Lutheran who converted to Catholicism in 1939. He became a leading figure in the Catholic Biblical and Liturgical movements of the twentieth century, was an influence on the Second Vatican Council, and is best known by many for his excellent writings on the history of Christian spirituality. His passing seems to have gone relatively almost unnoticed so far, but he deserves a flood of major tributes. His books are highly recommended (for example, The Eternal Father, a history of religion published in English in 1999).
Our conferences in Oxford and Vilnius were well attended and are described in the attached press release. You will also find there an invitation to a reception in the crypt of St Etheldreda's Church in London for the thirtieth anniversary of The Chesterton Review, where Fr Ian Ker, Russell Sparkes and the editors of the Review will lay out the vision of the Institute for the years ahead (7-9 pm). Leonie Caldecott delivers the third Meriol Trevor Lecture on children's literature at Prior Park in Bath on 19 October. Stratford Caldecott speaks about Chesterton, Blake and Plato to 'Chesterton in the South' on 23 October and to Oxford's C.S. Lewis Society on 23 November. For details of all events, please see the Forthcoming Events section.
Second Spring 6 is now with the printer in Canada and should reach subscribers during Advent: it contains featured articles about theories of evolution, about C.S. Lewis and the Holy Grail, about liturgical reform and about important social issues.
We want to thank all those who made the Landscapes with Angels conference such a success. The conference was recorded, and as soon as we have the final versions of the papers (speakers please note!) we can put together a volume of Proceedings. This is likely to appear as a special issue of The Chesterton Review in summer 2005, and will include a great deal of material that could not be given at the conference. As soon as it is available it will be announced on this site. In the meantime you can subscribe to the Review through www.continuumjournals.com or else www.isi.org/journals.html if you live in North America. If anyone wants to submit a paper or write a letter for possible inclusion in the special issue, on some aspect of the theme (Fantasy, children's literature and the spiritual role of the imagination), or a comment on the conference, please write to me, Stratford Caldecott, 6a King Street, Oxford OX2 6DF. We would also welcome brief reviews of recent fantasy books that you think should be drawn to the attention of our readers. Please note that we cannot promise to reply to every submission, or explain the reasons for rejection. However, with your help, we want to make this conference volume a rich and exciting resource especially for parents and teachers. Keep an eye on the Fantasy section of this web site for further developments. In the meantime, enjoy what is left of the summer!
Worth noting on the site this month are a couple of new developments. Not only have a wide variety of new articles been posted in various places, but the Fantasy section now contains a cluster of articles from contrasting points of view on the Mel Gibson movie (The Passion of the Christ), and also on the work of Oxford-based fantasy writer Philip Pullman. The ads for our summer conference on Fantasy and the Spiritual Role of the Imagination have started to appear, and the response is encouraging: although Christ Church has lots of room, we advise you to book soon to avoid disappointment, using the registration form available on this site.
A major re-design of some sections of this site is in preparation, beginning with the Economy project. We are also intending to send out a free newsletter to anyone in the UK who is interested in our work, and at the same time to make it easier to donate to the Institute online. The reason it is only for the UK is that the American branch of the Institute already sends out its own annual appeal letter. If you want to be sure to receive a version of our UK newsletter over the summer, either electronically or by ordinary mail, please write to us specifying which version you want to see, and adding your address if appropriate. (This doesn't go for UK subscribers to Second Spring, who will no doubt receive one anyway.)
We are well into Lent, which is a season for spiritual renewal. Many people in the United States have found Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ an inspiring experience. The online magazine Godspy is one of the best places to look for reviews and meditations on the movie and its themes. Here on our own web-site you will find a set of meditations on the Way of the Cross in the Devotional section of our Spiritual Life section, and a personal reflection by Stratford Caldecott on the Passion movie here.
Second Spring 5 is printing right now and should be with you after Easter. (Now that we print in Canada, in future we must make sure to give subscribers the option to receive it by airmail so that it comes more quickly.) To supplement Second Spring, keep looking out for the new articles in our Archive and Interfaith sections, as well as the Economy pages.
Plans for our big summer conference are coming together well. Please contact us soon to book a place before all the residential places go. We have managed to get the costs right down to £350. That price include everything, but you can pay only £25 a day or less if you don't need accommodation in Christ Church or arranged meals. If you can help publicize the conference to friends or contacts, in your local parish or institution, or to your email address book, we would be very grateful.
In the light of recent atrocities, Westerners are trying to understand the relationship between Islamist extremism and the religion of Islam. A number of relevant articles will be found in our Interfaith section, and the most recent addition to it is this important piece by Dr Joseph Lumbard on the rise of ideology in the Islamic world.
The Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture incorporates the old 'Centre for Faith & Culture' in Oxford, and its activities include conferences, research projects and publications. Access to our web-site is offered free to those who want to explore the relationship of religious faith to culture and society, but in order to grow we do need your support. Please view the Contact Us page for details of where we are and how to help, if you are able.
Our Summer Conference this year is on fantasy literature and the spiritual role of the imagination. Book early to avoid disappointment, and please help us spread the word about the conference if you have access to networks where it would be of interest!
Each month we try to add a selection of excellent articles to the Archive section. These are drawn from a variety of sources, and some appear here for the first time. Do drop in from time to time and see what is available. Feedback is welcome, although we cannot promise to reply to every letter!
The fifth issue of our twice-yearly journal Second Spring is in production and should be available after Easter. It includes Tracey Rowland on Vatican II, Stratford Caldecott on 'The Lord of the Rings' and Modernity, Daniel Callam on Jane Austen, Glenn Olsen on The Humanities at the End of an Age, Margaret Atkins on The Good Teacher, Graham Carey on Symbolism, Catherine Rachel John on Craft, Peter Hodgson on Beauty in Science, Frederick Stocken on Music and much more.
We wish all our readers a very happy new year!
Exciting new developments on this site include two new sections, which may be bookmarked separately if you wish to return to them regularly. One is devoted to Sane Economics, the other to Fantasy (imagination, storytelling and film). We invite your participation in these areas, which have such an enormous impact on our everyday life. Please look at the information about our summer conference on Fantasy, and book early if you wish to secure a place.
Other main sections of the site are listed on the main menu to the left. The Interfaith section contains some of the best resources we have found for the dialogue between world religions. Those of you who have questions specifically about elements of Christian or Catholic belief are invited to submit them to the Questions Questions panel, after looking up the answers that have already been supplied. We look forward to hearing from you.
Good news for those readers who were concerned at the loss from our Chesterton Library of one of GKC's walking sticks. Far from having been stolen, it turned up during the recent office-move, having fallen behind some heavy furniture.
Remember the words of St Therese: "We get discouraged and feel despair because we brood about the past and the future. It is such folly to pass one's time fretting, instead of resting quietly on the heart of Jesus." May we all find rest within that Heart.