Dear Rev. Know it all,
I have friends who are not Christians and they are challenging me about my religion. They ask, “how can I believe in a religion that has talking donkeys and talking bushes that burn and prophets popping out of fish and giant boats full of animals?” Can you explain all this?
Albert “Al” Bondigas
Of course I can explain it. I am, after all, the Rev. Know it all. First of all, the stories you are talking about are in the Bible. If you treat the Bible as a history book, you are going to run into things that are patently absurd. Even if you treat it as a book, you are going to run into trouble. It isn’t a book. It’s a library. There are 73 books all collected in the anthology. There is poetry, parables, proverbs, visions, law, history and much, much more.
The first Catholics understood this. Take St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo, for instance. Augustine taught that the Biblical text was sometimes to be taken metaphorically, not literally, when it contradicted science and reason. St. Ambrose before him taught the same thing. Catholics have never believed that the Bible was intended to be used as history except in those accounts which are clearly historical. They do not necessarily give us history, but the Holy Spirit’s explanation of history.
Let’s start with the book of Genesis. There are three primary stories in the first 11 chapters of Genesis. They are 1) the divine origins of humanity and all creation, and humanity’s subsequent fall from grace, 2) the tower of Babel, and the subsequent divisions of humanity, and 3) the great flood. Every culture has its origin stories. A lot of cultures have a flood story. It seems that at some point, somewhere there was a flood. Clearly the world and human beings exist and are separated by language and ethnicity.
The Bible doesn’t tell you how these things happened, as much as it tells you the meaning of these realities. They can be summed up very simply by saying that the world is not a random creation, but willed by God, the Supreme Being. Humanity is not composed of lesser and greater races, as some nonsensical racial theories propose. We are all descended from the same ancestors, no matter our ethnicity, language or skin color. It was disobedience that deprived us of our relationship with God and towering pride that deprived us of our relationship with each other, but we are still one human family. The Bible taught this long before genetics proved it. These allegories are not so much history as they are God’s statement about history and the human situation.
“So they aren’t real?” I can hear you asking. Oh yes, they are real. They are as real as a love-struck poet telling the object of his desire that her eyes are pools of light, her hair a torrent of gold. Where the poet sees light and gold, the chemist sees a carbon based life form. Both are right, but most of us would rather chat with the poet than the chemist (though I have met some very poetic chemists and some very boring poets.)
In the 11th chapter of Genesis, we enter a kind of history more in keeping with the tedious standards of our age. Still, it is filled with poetry and meaning. What about all those numbers, like Methuselah living for a gazillion years? Numbers have word meanings in certain cultures. The older the person, the closer to the Garden of Eden. It is a statement that the fall from grace continued in the worsening condition of humanity. I suspect that it’s poetry. “So it’s just poetry?” I can hear you ask. No, it’s not just poetry, it’s poetry about real events and real people in stories that have been told for thousands of years. It conveys not only real history, but God’s commentary on that history.
“Well, what about the talking donkeys and burning bushes and the parting of seas and all that? I’ve never seen anything like that. Is it just mythology? How come it happened thousands of years ago and it doesn’t happen now?” What do you mean it doesn’t happen now? Miracles are real and exist to remind us that this short and sorry life is not all there is. I dare you to do a web search on a few things.
Look up the miracle of Fatima. That was 1917. The sun appeared to fall from the sky in Fatima, Portugal. The event changed history and eventually brought down European Marxism. Not only was it seen in Portugal but all over Europe. My old pastor saw it and the father of a friend of mine who was a soldier in the trenches of World War I saw it.
What about talking donkeys? I don’t know about talking donkeys, but my grandmother knew a saint who could talk to insects. True story. Venerable Solanus Casey, a Franciscan Friar from Wisconsin, came up to a bunch of friars who were being chased by bees. Father Solanus walked into the cloud of bees, went up to the hive, reached in and wrapped a queen bee in his handkerchief, talking calmly to her all the time. The bees calmed down and returned to their hive. He explained to the friars that there had been two queens in the hive. Father Solanus wasn’t stung or hurt in any way. I knew a Franciscan friar who was there when it happened. As for voices, whether they happen in the ears or in the heart, who knows? God whispers to us all the time if we are quiet enough to hear and, like Solanus’s bees, smart enough to pay attention.
How about this? Do a web search for Marie Lebranchu or Marie LeMarchand or Sophie Couteau, who became a Little Sister of the Assumption taking the name of Sister Agnes Marie. Emile Zola, the great French novelist new all three and met them when they were at the point of death, and visibly, even repulsively sick. They were instantly cured at Lourdes. Zola saw them both the day before they were healed and the day after. He went on to lie about the whole thing. In his novel “Lourdes,” he changed the facts. He renamed Marie Lebranchu, calling her La Grivotte, and said that she died on the train home. On the contrary! She lived in perfect health until 1920! As for Marie Le Marchand whom he called Elisa, whom he also killed off in the novel, she married and had 8 children. Sophie went on to become a nun and lived many years after her healing. The great journalist/novelist Zola preferred to lie rather than face a fact that would have changed his life.
Okay, that was long ago and far away. What about here and now? How about four people I know well, two of whom you know as well as I do. My brother-in-law was stricken with polio in the early fifties. He was taken to the healing shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre. He was in line in a wheel chair, waiting for prayer. A severely handicapped girl was taken past him to the front of the church. As she struggled past, their eyes met. There was a commotion at the altar and a few moments later the young woman strode down the main aisle in perfect health. As she passed my brother-in-law, their eyes met again and in that moment he knew he would never be healed, but that God would be with him and provide for him all his life and so He did.
Then there was my cousin who, when she was a little girl, had a mastoid bone infection in the days before antibiotics. She was in such agony the night before her surgery that they packed her off in the middle of the night to see Father Solanus, of bee-calming fame. Father Solanus talked to her parents for a bit and stroked the little girl’s hair and told them to take her home. She would be fine. The little girl, my cousin, felt better and slept. The next day, the doctor who was to operate couldn’t understand why the little girl was even there. She had no infection. That was 70 years ago, and she is fine to this day.
You actually know the next two people I want to talk about. You worked with one years ago helping to feed the poor. Your friend went for a routine check up and they found blood where blood shouldn’t be. The results of the test were slow in coming, and the doctor delayed things, but suddenly our mutual friend was told he had cancer of the bladder. He went for prayer and as a prayer group prayed for him he felt the cancer leave him. He went back and subsequent tests showed that he was cancer free. Perhaps the doctors were wrong. Perhaps they misread the tests…..perhaps...explain it away just like Zola would. Our friend knew that God had given him a miracle.
The last story I have to tell is about a woman you know very well. I knew her when she was a girl. I met her the night she was healed. She was carried into church, unable to walk because she was heavily sedated. She had epilepsy. She suffered numerous grand mal seizures daily and was so ill that she couldn’t attend school. By the end of the prayer meeting she was running up and down the side aisle of the church and has never had a seizure since.
“Well,” I can hear you ask, “if God can cure the sick and speak through bushes and donkeys, why doesn’t he do it for everyone?” He does do it for everyone. Each breath is miracle, each sunrise a vision. Every breeze and each singing bird is a prophecy. “No!” you say, “They are just breezes and sunrises and birds.” For those who believe, no miracle is necessary. For those who, like Emile Zola and perhaps your friends, no miracle is possible. Jesus promised that He would never turn away anyone who called on Him. He may not give you the miracle you want, but I promise you, He will give you the miracle you need.
Always and faithfully yours,