Sunday, September 27, 2009

John the Baptist: Prophet and Disciple

By Alexander J. Burke, Jr., St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Secular society calls the contemporary academic to thrash all the bits and pieces of the Christian tradition into nothingness. English literature professor Burke does the opposite. He develops the Catholic artistic, spiritual, intellectual, and liturgical understanding of John the Baptist in all of its diversity and puts together a biblically-faithful image of the prophet. He takes most of his cues from the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, yet uses technical, academic scriptural analysis.

Fearlessly counter-cultural, he states on page one a most Catholic of positions, not only by declaring his intention of pursuing a unified portrait of John but by celebrating rather than critiquing mystery. He cites Gabriel Marcel on the difference between a problem and a mystery: “One relates personally to a mystery--it is a subjective experience--but a problem is an objective intellectual exercise. One becomes involved intellectually and emotionally in a mystery.”

Burke’s whole approach to John the Baptist is therefore highly refreshing: “John the Baptist is not a problem to be solved. He is a mystery to be plumbed and appreciated.” The author appreciates the poetic side of the mystery, something that contemporary theologians have been failing to do. He offers us a refreshing way to do theology.

Burke borrows from diverse areas of the tradition rather than bogging the reader down in specialization and fancy vocabulary, which makes John the Baptist highly readable and approachable. The parallels Burke makes between the lives of Jesus and John are especially effective, yet readers also see how John fits into some Old Testament molds for the prophet.

Burke puts his excellent knowledge of the Bible to good use, then, laying the theological foundations for the Baptist’s work from the poetry and spirituality of the Hebrews, and offering the reader interesting tidbits: “We know from 1 Kings 17:6 that when Elijah was famished at Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan, the Lord sent ravens that fed him bread and meat, and when he escaped to the wilderness, an angel provided a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water.”

In fact, the integration of the mostly-neglected traditions of the ancient Israelites is the best part of the book, as we learn, for instance, of the importance of the desert for the Hebrews. This was both a place to meet God and grow in spiritual strength, and a place where demons, bandits, and jackals roamed.

John and Jesus’ places in the wider history of Israel also feature in the book, as do parallels between John and later Christian figures such as Saints Bruno and Anthony, who, like the Baptist, felt attracted to solitude. Black and white photos of Christian art and an appendix on John in the liturgy add a nice touch.

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