Salvete! It’s officially fall, and starting to get chilly outside here in Front Royal, but in classes we’re still going full speed.
In theology class, we’ve moved past the Creation account and on through the stories of Cain and Abel and then Noah. As we read the biblical texts themselves, Professor Jenislawski also has us read selections from biblical commentaries by a host of brilliant authors, mostly Catholic but occasionally Jewish as well. He often reminds us that the Jews have been interpreting and studying the Old Testament even longer than we have, and they often have interesting insights, particularly with regard to ancient Hebrew languages, idioms, practices, and customs. However, he also reminds us that the Old Testament can only be fully understood in light of the New, and Scripture can only be fully understood in light of Tradition, so Catholic scholars can often see the big picture and the salvific implications of the Old Testament better. For instance, alongside the Cain and Abel story, we read parts of John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which discusses the culture of death, and shows that its origin lies in the first murder of brother by brother. I’m extremely grateful to be studying Scripture under the guidance of so many great saints and scholars who have been grappling with the hard questions for so many centuries. It really gives me a sense of security knowing that I can learn to understand and interpret Scripture, but without being entirely lost or running the risk of wildly misinterpreting an important teaching. This also means I’m starting to get excited about the exegesis we all have to (or get to!) write later on in the semester!
Interpretation is important in more than just theology though. In literature, we’ve been reading some of the late-medieval mystery and morality plays that were performed to help educate the laity in catechetical matters and celebrate important feast days in the Church. We started with the Second Shepherds’ Play, which is a humorous, partly slapstick retelling of the story of the angel coming to the shepherds and announcing the birth of Christ. The play starts with a personal and comedic portrayal of the shepherds in the fields, and a sheep-thief named Mak who steals a sheep and, with his wife’s help, hides it in their house disguised as a baby. On the surface, the scene where the shepherds arrive and discover their sheep swaddled up in a cradle is a ridiculous one, and hardly seems to have much moral bearing. However, it is a hilariously inverted manger-scene, which may serve the purpose of showing how “topsy-turvy” the world had been turned by sin, until Jesus was born to set it straight again. Or, it may be humor used as bait, to get people to pay attention before the moral lesson is depicted. Our class discussed both possibilities, and even though we might not ever know exactly what the anonymous author intended, we can still enjoy the play’s humor and its serious side. This morning, we discussed another anonymously-authored play, Everyman, which shows the human process of repentance, death, and salvation, with different physical and spiritual “possessions” — good deeds, worldly goods, beauty, fellowship, etc. — represented by characters. It’s a more serious, less literary play than the Second Shepherds’ Play, but still requires a discerning eye to catch the full implications of the words. It illustrates the general feeling about justification in England at the time, which was largely a negative view, and emphasized good works much more than faith, which turned out to be problematic later on. Dr Reinhard is a good guide for literary interpretation, allowing us to voice our thoughts first, and then suggesting the ideas of other scholars and his own opinion to help us see all the various interpretive options. We’ve also begun working on papers in his class, interpreting some aspect of either Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Canterbury Tales, so it’s a little bit like an exegesis for secular literature!
In history too, most of us are beginning work on papers. Our assignment for Dr Shannon’s class is to read one of a few different classic articles by secular historians on either the Renaissance (which we’re finishing up studying) or the Reformation (which we’re about to start). We have to read the article and then compare and contrast the viewpoint it presents with the views of Catholic historians. Both secular and Catholic historians are attempting to interpret primary sources and give a clear picture of what was happening at that time period, but often the interpretation is very different depending on whether the historian takes anything supernatural into account, or simply ignores God’s role in history. In a way, I guess this history paper will be sort of an exegesis of two or more exegeses, interpreting the interpretations! This sounds challenging, but is meant to help us learn better how to understand historical writing and think critically about facts as well as opinions. I’m excited to get started, and see if I can succeed in discerning which arguments are better, and where knowledge of Christianity really helps in writing about history.
So, it’s all about interpretation around here! Hopefully you’re able to interpret my interpretation of this week’s classes. :) Valete until next week!