Most Excellent Theophilus

I recently came across a very interesting blog by Lee Thomas Dahn. It’s called Most Excellent Theophilus, and astute bibliophiles will recognize the name Theophilus immediately. Theophilus, of course, was the addressee of Luke the Evangelist’s 2-part series, The Gospel According to Luke, and The Acts of the Apostles – both of which became part of the New Testament canon. 

It has become de rigeur in New Testament studies to suggest that Theophilus was a Roman nobleman or official of some sort, who was the patron bankrolling Luke’s evangelistic project. But Dahn suggests otherwise:

Theophilus was the high priest of 37-41CE. This Theophilus was the son of Annas, high priest of 6-15CE. Theophilus was brother to four other first-century high priests: Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias, and Ananus. His brother-in-law was Caiaphas, high priest of 18-36CE. This family filled the office for 35 years between 6 and 43CE.

If this is the case, this would challenge some cherished assumptions about Luke’s work. Commentators commonly suggest that Luke was writing to a predominantly Gentile audience, being one himself (in fact, the only non-Jewish NT author). But Luke was also well acquainted with the OT, given the artful allusions to it he makes in his Gospel. It is quite possible that Luke’s work, although universal (Catholic) in scope, was of particular interest to his Hebrew audience – especially a certain man who was once High Priest.

This thesis also has great explanatory power. It explains why Luke opens his Gospel not with the Annunciation, but rather with the account of Zechariah the priest, serving in the Temple. It also sheds light on certain accounts from the life of Christ only recorded in Luke (and likely obtained through interviews with Mary herself) – for example, the relating of Jesus’ disappearance in Jerusalem at twelve years old, where he is found debating in the Temple precincts with the teachers of the law.

This incident in particular would have caused quite a sensation in the Holy City, and certainly would not have escaped the notice of Annas, Theophilus’ father, who was High Priest at the time. Theophilus likely would have heard about this from his own father’s lips – and now, Luke mentions it again to buttress his case for Christ, the true, eschatological high priest.

Dahn’s blog features a post about this passage and many others from Luke-Acts, all of them well worth reading. Here’s hoping he continues the project!

Worship God’s Way

(Another of my recent articles from Catholic Insight.) 

When I ask my Protestant friends (some of whom, sadly, are ex-Catholics) the question, “Why do you worship where you do, as opposed to somewhere else, some other congregation?” the answers vary: “I like the preaching.” “I like the music – love that contemporary Christian worship.” “I like the nursery program for my kids.” “I like the fact that it’s close to my home.” 

 

Yet the answers, although different, are also strangely alike – for they all have a common theme: “I”. “I like this; I prefer that. This is the worship that I like.”

But what kind of worship does God like?

Throughout salvation history, we do not see flexibility on God’s part here. God has always had a preference in these matters as well, a way he “likes” to be worshipped. In the Old Covenant, it was the temple liturgy that was central to the worshipping life of all Israel.

But what about the New Covenant? Is a multiplicity of worship forms acceptable in the New Testament Church, as my friends would believe? 

Here is how the brilliant Catholic convert Thomas Howard puts it, in his book On Being Catholic: “Christian worship did not proliferate randomly. There was a shape given to it in the beginning…it is not as though the apostolic community cast about for ingredients that might be appealing to local Jewish converts, or to Greeks, or to Scythians, Romans, Egyptians, or Parthians, least of all to that ubiquitous figure, ‘contemporary man’. No market research was brought into play. No caucuses – of youth, or of senior citizens, or of the affluent or the indigent, or of women, or of men, or of anyone else – were heard from. No theologians or reformers or charismatic leaders or prophets dictated the shape of things” (p.39). 

And the shape of things was the Mass, received “from the hands of Jesus Christ himself”, as Howard puts it.

Worship has always been a gift from the “top down”, from God to us, rather than something cooked up by us – from the “bottom up”, so to speak. I often hear complaints from fellow Catholics regarding the lack of participation or interest in the Mass by many, especially the young. As Catholics, we are “born again” in Baptism, but often many of us seem “bored again” each time we go to Mass! How do we get people more involved? The solution, according to some, is to “Protestantize” our worship with more “entertaining” elements: electric guitars, contemporary worship styles, perhaps a more informal atmosphere – you know, the stuff people “like”.

As a “Pre-16” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, this attitude is fraught with danger. In speaking of Israel’s apostasy in their worship of the golden calf, he writes: 

“The people cannot cope with the invisible, remote, and mysterious God. They want to bring him down into their own world, into what they can see and understand. Worship is no longer going up to God, but drawing God down into one’s own world…Man is using God…he is placing himself above God…Worship becomes a feast the community gives itself, a festival of self-affirmation. Instead of being worship of God, it becomes a circle closed in on itself: eating, drinking, and making merry…self-seeking worship. It is a kind of banal self-gratification. (The)golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God, but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy does become pointless, just fooling around. Or still worse it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God” (p. 23).

The true worship, the Mass, is a gift from God. We must be educated about it in order to understand it. And we must understand it in order to appreciate it. And we will find that, in the end, we will “like” it, as God likes it, because it will set us free: “that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God”.

“The Dark Knight” of the Soul – Part Two

 

In the lead-up to the film’s release, Nolan mentioned that the character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face was the emotional heart of the film. I had suspected that was Nolan’s way of “throwing a bone” to actor Aaron Eckhart, lest his performance be lost in the mania surrounding Ledger’s epic turn. But Nolan spoke rightly, as Dent’s character ties the film together. He represents the drama of the individual soul, as both good and evil, the way of Satan and the way of Christ, wage war for its allegiance. The Joker seeks to draw Dent, a D.A. crusading against evil and recovering from a horrific accident, into sharing his hell-bent way of life, as Satan did with our first parents (Gen. 3). Dent takes the bait and, as Two-Face, begins a reign of murder of his own, like Cain. Batman vicariously substitutes himself for Dent, taking the blame for Dent’s crimes and making himself public enemy #1 in the process, echoing Jesus’ self-dereliction on the cross.
Dent’s marred visage points to the potential evil lurking within all of us, and the ugliness of sin, although the capacity for good remains. Gotham is not Calvin’s Geneva, with its “total depravity” of mankind – a view the Joker shares. “When the chips are down, these people will eat each other, you’ll see”. The inherent good in human nature shines through even in a film dark as this, as the Joker discovers when his plan to cause citizens to kill each other fails in the most surprising of ways. Dent’s character beautifully represents the power of good example and also the nagging pull of original sin, and the choice we must all make each day: to give in to the darkness or strive for heroic virtue. Harvey Dent/Two-Face is like Simon/Peter, and so are we. We are like Simon when our faith fails; when we sin and deny our Lord by our actions. We are like Peter when we choose the light of Christ in a dark world – as Dent once tried to be: “decent men in an indecent world”.
A great theme in TDK is the personal cost involved in standing against evil. As any Christian knows, the moment one attempts to subdue sin, in one’s own life or in the culture, the spiritual battle intensifies. Temptations to fall increase, like Dent discovered firsthand: the darkness hates the light. But choosing not to stand is far worse. As Edmund Burke said so long ago, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Intentions are not enough. We must have, as does Batman, the will to act. A line from The Dark Knight himself, uttered in Batman Begins, says it well: “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” And so it is with us all.

“The Dark Knight” of the Soul – Part One

This is part one of my most recent Catholic Insight article, a film review of The Dark Knight, the latest Batman film.  

In a previous article (Catholic Insight, Sept. 06), I noted the Christological themes inherent in Superman Returns. The Dark Knight, the second installment of the Batman film franchise, so skillfully rebooted by director Christopher Nolan with 2005’s Batman Begins, also deals in spiritual issues – but in a much more nuanced manner. As Father Joseph Singh has noted, the difference between Superman Returns and these new Batman movies is the difference between C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, where Christian symbolism is obvious, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where one must look for God, and the devil, for that matter, in the details.

The Dark Knight’s devil is Heath Ledger’s diabolical Joker: tongue slithering over hideously scarred lips, he is a liar through and through – like Satan himself, who Christ called “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Joker offers conflicting (but equally disturbing) accounts of the source of his wounds, and claims there’s no method to his madness (“I’m a dog chasing after cars; I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one”). Yet, he meticulously scripts his nefarious schemes to the nth degree, exhibiting a seemingly preternatural intelligence befitting a fallen angel. The final act pictures the Joker surrounded with three hounds as if from hell, underlining the source of his destructive madness.
The late Ledger’s performance lives up to, and surpasses, all the hype surrounding it. A posthumous Oscar would be an accolade well earned – no sympathy votes necessary. Makeup notwithstanding, Ledger totally disappears into the role, and his Joker gets the chilling treatment the character deserves – his is a truly frightening and malevolent presence, not Jack Nicholson’s comic buffoon.  
Batman/Bruce Wayne is played again, ably, by Christian Bale. Fitting, for his character truly represents the Christian and his struggle against evil. Superman, like Christ, was born great, but Batman has struggled to achieve greatness. Like us, he has fought something like the spiritual battle St. Paul speaks of in Ephesians 6, as the apostle reminds us to don the armour of God to battle the wickedness of the devil. Batman uses his own high-tech weaponry and armour to whistand the Joker’s assaults, resisting the temptation to compromise with evil, to break his “one rule”: Batman will not kill. 

Batman is actually less like a Christ figure than Pauline in his approach. As St. Paul once said, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ” ( 1 Cor. 11:1), Batman has sought to inspire others to take back the streets of Gotham City. Other similarities abound: in one scene, Bruce Wayne reveals the scars on his body resulting from his war on evil. Saint Paul wrote, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6: 17), suffering numerous stonings, beatings, and lashes (2 Cor. 11:16-12:10) to proclaim Christ. The extreme measures to which both Paul and Batman will go to combat the darkness are striking. Paul traversed the known world on his missionary journeys. Batman, in one of TDK’s most thrilling sequences, even reaches Hong Kong in his pursuit of the criminal element. 

Stay tuned to this same Bat-channel for part two!!

Welcome to FX: The Faith Explained

Welcome to my new website! I pray that it will be an encouragement to you in your faith journey. You’ll find many resources here that will help you explore the priceless treasure of the Catholic faith.

Cale Clarke

Director, FX: The Faith Explained Catholic Seminars