A Lenten Bible Story for Catholics: April 6, 2003

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I have often found it strange to open a hotel table drawer, in search for a phone, and find a Gideon Bible. What is this doing here I wondered? I admit, sometimes I picked it up and flipped through the pages. Yet, given my Catholic upbringing, that Bible served more as a reminder of how sacraments and spirituality dominated my life. Later, I found myself again taking a glance at the Bible on that table when I saw that person, behind the goal posts, hold up a John 3:16 sign during an extra point attempt. In retrospect, such simple events are valuable reminders of how the Bible is part of United States culture.

Part of the Lenten Bible story for Catholics requires openness and respect for the Protestant Bible story as well. Such a shared appreciation helps us understand the importance of local Bible centered churches, the gift of faith among our fellow Christians, and a respect for converts to Catholicism or for those Catholics who opt to practice their faith in another Christian context. Since some commentators go as far as to say that the American story is a Bible story, it does us well to see the Bible in a wider cultural context.

Founded in 1899, The Gideons International is the oldest Christian business and professional men’s association in the United States of America. A board of distinguished Christian laymen coordinates the efforts of more than 150,000 members located in 176 countries. Their evangelical effort is to win others to Christ by making Bibles available in places where people live their life-such as a hotel room. Each year The Gideons International makes available more than 59,000,000 Scriptures worldwide.

Some of us may have passed by the Maryland Bible Society at 9 East Franklin Street in downtown Baltimore. I was surprised to learn, through an internet investigation, that the Society began “in 1810 by a butcher, a teacher, a dry goods merchant, a milliner, a stationer, a surveyor, a silk dyer, the collector of the port of Baltimore, the President of the Athenian Society, a businessman from Bowley’s Wharf and clergymen from the Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Swedenborgian Churches.” Another place of interest may be the Christian Science Reading Room at 711 W 40th Street.

The three above organizations indicate the diverse efforts and ideological interpretations surrounding the Bible. I found the Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United Statesedited by George H. Shriver and Bill J. Leonard (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997) showed the impact of religion in American society and the relative importance of the Bible.

One way is the Fundamentalist movement. In 1844 Robert Baird 1844 separated evangelicals from nonevangelicals based on six defining characteristics. Then in 1910 the Stewart brothers of California needed to let the world know what constituted “literal” not liberal. Through their publication The Fundamentals the idea of fundamentalism began to gain a voice. This led to “Five Fundamentals” which are considered essential to Christian belief. 1) the inerrancy of Scripture. 2) the Virgin Birth of Christ. 3) Christ’s substitutionary atonement. 4) Christ’s bodily resurrection. 5) the literal Second Coming of Christ. By 1919 these conservative evangelicals formed the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association as the means to spread this view. During the 1920s, faced by the rise of liberalism and the Scopes moneky trial in Tennessee which showed the lack of intellectual rigor for the fundamental position, they became a staunch minority voice. However, during the mid-1970 their strict fundamentalist view became a bit more tolerant of modern social change. Such an approach allowed for emergence of evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell. He used television ministry, publications, his college, and the politics of the Moral Majority to promote long-standing Bible values.

The Jesus Movement is another example. Emerging in the 1960s, this California based view promoted that God has a simple plan of salvation. 1) God loves you and has a plan for your life 2) sin separates you from God, and cuts you off from God’s love and plan. 3) Jesus Christ died for your sins and is your only way to God, for through him you experience God’s love. 4) you must ask Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior and being saved you must read the Bible, pray, and tell others, avoid sin which meant no drugs, pre-marital sex, no hassling, no violence. 5) affirmed, most of the time the fundamentals of Christian belief. These ideas gave birth to the Jesus hippies, set the mood for the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. The desire to educate others about the power of the Bible led to experimental ministries such as Christian based coffee houses, nightclubs, and recording of Christian music. Some of these ideas impacted the Catholic Pentecostal Movement. The Jesus Movement also helped in the establishment of intentional based Christian communities who would use their knowledge of the Bible as the basis of their lives.

Each week of Lent serves as a reminder of the many interpretations of the Bible around us.

by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.