Monday, 16 April 2012

Cardinal Pell: "It Ain't Necessarily So"

'It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The things that you're liable
To read in the Bible
It ain't necessarily so

It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The things that your preacher
Is liable to teach you
Ain't necessarily so'

These lyrics are from Australian pop singer Normie Rowe's 1965 version of George and Ira Gershwin's 'It Ain't Necessarily So', taken from their 1935 opera 'Porgy and Bess'. The song's lyrics go on to question the veracity of several Old Testament narratives including David's slaying of Goliath, Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the Great Fish and Methusaleh's age, each stanza beginning with the refrain: "It ain't necessarily so" (musicologists believe the Gershwin's lifted the melody of the refrain from the sung liturgy of the Jewish synagogue, specifically the blessing before the Torah scroll is read from - just to drive the point home!).

It's noteworthy that in the opera the song is sung by the character 'Sportin' Life', a drug dealer from whose corrupting influence Porgy is trying to save Bess. Taken out of that context, Normie Rowe's 1965 version, which became a "number one hit" on the pop charts in Australia that year, took on a different function: the ostensibly clean-cut Rowe was inviting the nation's youth to question the Bible and their ministers (the reference to "what your preachers tell you" was not in the original, it was added by Rowe or his manager), reprising the ancient role of the agent provocatuer seeking to corrupt the faith of the innocent.

This may all seem rather trite now in our cynical, "post-Christian" times when even ordained ministers blithely contradict Holy Writ, but Australia in 1965 was still a very naive and believing Christian society in which most children still went to Sunday School and civil laws preserving the "English Sabbath" still applied. It was, however, a society on the cusp of an epochal change which would effectively sever the nation from its cultural roots in Christianity. Statistically, the present decades long decline in church attendance begins in the late 1960s. Of course, I'm not suggesting that's all down to Normie Rowe (!); his song simply crystallises the culturally revolutionary sentiments that were in the air at that time and which would only increase in intensity as the heady 1960s waned into the jaded 1970s.

In 1965 Australia's then "most listened to" commercial radio station, Sydney's 2SM, was owned by the Roman Catholic Church, which ordered the station not to play Normie Rowe's song, which it regarded as sacrilegious because of the lyric's urging to question the literal truth of some Biblical narratives. How times have changed! Barely a generation later the top-ranking clergyman in the Australian Catholic Church, Cardinal George Pell, successor to the very Archbishop of Sydney who banned Rowe's song from 2SM's airwaves, can effectively endorse the sentiments of the Gershwin/Rowe song on national TV.

I'm referring to the Cardinal Pell's comments on the widely watched Australian TV program Q & A [i.e. Questions and Answers - a moderated, interactive discussion program in which a panel of guests, often including politicians, other public figures and intellectuals visiting these shores, answer questions from the studio audience and, via SMS, Twitter & computerised video links, the general public). Last week, in a debate with Richard Dawkins, Card. Pell stated that Adam and Eve were not historical persons, as the Bible clearly presents, but "mythological figures" who are meant to represent humankind in general. Further, the Cardinal - sometimes mentioned in the press here and abroad as a possible successor to Benedict XVI - averred, modern humans are descended from Neanderthals (an egregious error if one accepts - as Card. Pell purported to do - the paradigm of human evolution which Richard Dawkins immediately jumped on). I half expected the Cardinal to jump up on the Q & A set and give us his rendition of "it ain't necessarily so, the things that you're liable to read in the Bible, it ain't necessarily so", like a character in a Dennis Potter play (if you've never seen Pennies From Heaven or The Singing Detective, click on Potter's name to learn more).

Now, it might be said by some that to question the truthfulness of individual Biblical narratives is neither here nor there as far as the integrity of Christianity as a salvific religion is concerned. Personally, I don't doubt that a person could be saved by God's grace despite denying the great age of Methusaleh, Jonah's sojourn in the fish's belly and David's battle with Goliath, but I would never counsel a person to acquiesce to such denials, but to courageously exercise faith in the face of such doubts (to paraphrase another RC Cardinal, John Henry Newman, these Bible stories may be difficult to explain, but just how are they difficult to believe?). But it is quite possible that by a "felicitous inconsistency" a person who denied the truth of some OT narratives could accept the veracity of the NT narratives which form the historical-doctrinal basis the basis for saving faith. But to, to actually dismiss the historicity of Adam and Eve with a wave of the hand and an appeal to mythology presents a grave danger to the integrity of the Christian Gospel. It is quite remarkable, then, that a man in Pell's position should apparently so carelessly venture such a questionable opinion publicly - I shall explain precisely why shortly. Then also, I'm afraid it is entirely to be expected and reflects the lamentable influence of liberal theology upon even that supposed citadel of doctrinal conservatism, the Roman church.

To be continued with further analysis...

In the meantime, you may wish to watch the debate via You Tube here.


Schutz said...

Okay, I'll bite. But just briefly, because I don't have the time and blogger doesn't allow the space.
As I have commented on my blog, I don't think his Eminence spoke with sufficient care during the debate (on this and other issues). He adopted a style of making one liner statements and rebuffs, which he did not then fully explicate. Perhaps the format of QandA discouraged this.
On the issue of the historical veracity of the stories in Genesis 1-3, and specifically on the historical existence of "Adam and Eve", what the Cardinal said could be allowed as a "layman's rendition" of the Magisterium's teaching, but should not be mistaken for an accurate account of the Church's teaching on the matter. In my own teaching, I have found the use of the word "myth" to be particularly misleading, as it has one meaning in the Academy and another meaning in the market place.
Without citing chapter and verse of the Church's teaching documents (which would take an entire blog post - perhaps I will take this up on my own blog) I believe that it is true to say that the Teaching Office of the Catholic Church does not require its members to believe anything in particular about the historical veracity of the Genesis accounts. The Church leaves free the question of whether we evolved from lower forms of life or not. That is a question for Science, not the Church.
What the Church does teach (cf. Catechism 375; also 399, 404, 417) is that the human race did indeed have "first parents", and that these are what is meant when we talk about "Adam and Eve". Furthermore, the theological narrative about these "first parents" is that they began in a state of original justice and holiness, but that through an act of the will, by yielding to temptation, they lost this original grace (the word "fall" is not in the Genesis narrative, but comes from the 1st Cent AD book sometimes known as 4 Esdras) and hence all their descendants are deprived of this grace, a state known as "original sin".
The attempt to correlate this theological narrative (expressed in Genesis by means of what the Academy would call "myth") with what we know (or think we know) from Scientific exploration (as opposed to Divine Revelation), is a job for people much cleverer than me (cf. for example Brendan Purcell's "From Big Bang to Big Mystery"), but it does relate to the question of "the soul", which also came up in the QandA debate. Again, the Cardinal (to put a fine point on it) botched this discussion. Yes, there is a point of view that would see the "soul" (the anima or psyche) as simply the "life force" that every living being has (this is related to Aquinas' famous "the soul is the form of the body" approach), but there is another way of explaining what "soul" is (as in Ratzinger's "Eschatology") which is to view the specifically human soul as that aspect of man which is open to and relates to God. In this sense, it is perfectly consistent to understand "our first parents" (in strictly human terms) as our first hominid ancestors who came to an awareness of the divine. In such a narrative, and as a consequence of this initial awareness, it is also perfectly understandable that it was precisely these first ancestors who transgressed upon that awareness in trying to make themselves "like God".
Now as to whether it is a "felicitous inconsistency" to read the Genesis stories in this "mythological" way, and not the Gospels, I would say that the consistency lies in reading the biblical literature in

Schutz said...

Now as to whether it is a "felicitous inconsistency" to read the Genesis stories in this "mythological" way, and not the Gospels, I would say that the consistency lies in reading the biblical literature in a way consistent with the genre, that is (as I tell my students), to read the texts "literarilly" (according to the kind of literature) rather than "literally" or "figuratively". I think you will find that this is perfectly consistent with patristic tradition as well. You might want to consider hunting out the opinions of Jerome, Augustine, or Origin in your "Lutheran Catholicity" blog on this issue, and you will find that modern Catholic doctrine is completely in accord with this kind of reading of the scriptures.

Acroamaticus said...


Thanks for dropping by.
I agree with you the Bible is to be interpreted "literarily", which may not always be "literally" - Biblical Hermeneutics 101. The question then is what sort of literature is Gen 1-3? I maintain, with the church through the ages, that it is basically historical narrative - not your theological narrative, whatever that may be...myth perhaps? You appear to me to have ended up in the same unhappy place as Card. Pell - denying Catholic doctrine. Please check back for Pt 2 in a few days D.v.

The Blogger Formerly Known As Lvka said...

what sort of literature is Gen 1-3?

Prophetic, perhaps? (Since it is attributed to Moses). Revealing mysteries of ancient past in a manner similar to the way in which other prophetic books (such as Daniel or the Apocalypse, for instance) speak of events situated in a very distant future.

Acroamaticus said...

You raise a good point - if the book of Genesis is ascribed to Moses, as has been the traditional view, what was Moses' source for events that had happened many generations previous to his own lifetime? We certainly can't rule out a direct supernatural revelation, since it occurs elsewhere in the Mosaic corpus (e.g Exodus 34:28).
Another possibility, held by many conservative Bible scholars from different church backgrounds, is that Moses worked from previously existing written material and from it composed the narrative we have today. They are led to this conclusion by the recurring word 'toledoth' in the Hebrew text, meaning 'the history of' or more literally 'the generations of'. The British archaeologist Donald Wiseman unearthed many clay tablets in the Middle East which featured this or similar devices and proposed that Moses may have worked with similar records.
But whatever Moses' sources, Gen 1-3 is historical narrative by any reasonable judgment which takes into consideration the features of Hebrew narrative and how the Bible itself treats it, albeit narrative which deals with quite a different world from the one we now inhabit. To deny this possibility or to consign Gen 1-3 to the category of 'myth' is to succumb to rationalism, which in turn leads to modernism in theology, which is destructive of Christianity as a religion of salvation. I submit that Cardinal Pell has fallen into this trap.

Damo H said...

Hi Pr Mark Gods Blessings,I watched Cardinal Pells talk with Dawkins It was I believe both Good and confusing,I think society and especially the media have almost a liberal mindset and stronghold,to the point taking the bible Literally is not compatible with the platform generally,which makes explaining things on such talk shows difficult,I of course take the Bible literally, and when I too take a stand i find I come up against a sort of blurring of right and wrong devoid of absolutes a sort of syncretism of right and wrong,and getting the message across without comphromising the Gospel is it seems almost a guarantee of offense /opposition,I do like when Pell stood firm on the real presence, ( I dont say things I dont mean,)and this is the only interview with dawkins I have ever seen when he was a bit on the back foot,unlike New yorks biggest mega Church pentecostal pastor who says the muslims may not be wrong or the mormons are Christians(Yea right)at least he did make a stand on the real presence somthing I hold very dear but good review and very balanced and fair,

David Cochrane said...

Given the papist's idea, whatever is said last is the truth, he could have thrown the bible over his shoulder and made up something new.

LPC said...

Why don't we aks Jesus for his opinion about Genesis 1-3. I think there is plenty of comments he made on this passage if we look at the Four Gospels.