Comment Opinion & Features

The Bible doesn’t need ‘trigger warnings’, just sound analysis

A detail from The Taking of Christ (c 1602), by Caravaggio

It’s been recommended that some passages of the Bible should be accompanied by “trigger warnings” – the phrase coined in American universities to indicate possible offence to minorities, to women, or to racial or ethnic groups.

The European Jewish Congress (EJC) has pointed out that certain passages in the New Testament (and the Koran) can be seen as anti-Semitic, and seem to blame Jews for the death of Jesus.

Actually, as scholars have pointed out, what these passages describe are tensions between different Jewish groups of the time rather than a blanket blaming of the Jewish people as a whole.

And that, I would suggest, is precisely why we often do need guidance and authoritative interpretation of Scripture.

There was a radical division between Catholics and Protestants on this issue: the Protestant tradition claimed that we could each read the Bible for ourselves and come to an understanding through our individual conscience. The Catholic tradition was that Scripture needed interpretation and the explanation of context, which Protestants often saw as a “priestly caste” withholding individual access and knowledge.

The debate could well be revisited with the EJC’s suggestion of “trigger warnings” for those parts of the New Testament which they feel could be anti-Semitic (St John’s Gospel is often singled out).

But surely, if “warnings” are required, then they should be “interpretative” rather than “trigger” ones. The texts of the New Testament (and indeed the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, as well) often needs to be contextualised and elucidated.

The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t make full sense until it is explained that the Samaritans were a despised group among the Jewish people. St Paul’s views of women must be seen within the context of his Hellenic education. There is a complex meaning behind the words “it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”. It does not need trigger warnings, but rather knowledgeable analysis and clarification.

Holy pictures were one vivid means of interpretation which could reach an inner understanding that went beyond the text. In Caravaggio’s stunning The Taking of the Christ, it is the force of the Roman soldiers that frames the story – perhaps an apt trigger warning against the might of military rule?

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Back in the Victorian era, the Methodists (supported by Baptists and Quakers) campaigned energetically for the closure of public houses and taverns through pamphlets, meetings and even musical performances. Young ladies sang temperance ditties such as The Lips That Touch Liquor Will Never Touch Mine.

Catholic temperance societies also flourished, particularly with the inspirational Fr Theobald Mathew in Ireland, whose statue still bestrides the main thoroughfare in Cork. But Catholic temperance movements tended to emphasise prayer and renunciation of drink for spiritual and family reasons, rather than direct campaigns against the pub and the tavern.

In America, many of the tavern-keepers were Irish Catholic emigrants – like John F Kennedy’s grandfather – which may have inhibited hostility towards the trade. Besides which, the local pub often had a cordial role in bringing communities together and alleviating social isolation.

How astonished – and pleased – those Victorian Nonconformists would be to see their targets being realised in the most unexpected way: public houses in Britain are closing down rapidly, and being replaced by coffee houses.

For every two pubs shut in the past five years, a coffee house has opened: that’s 4,150 bars gone and 2,158 coffee shops opened. By 2030, it’s predicted, coffee shops will have overtaken the pub and the bar completely.

If this occurs, I hope that the coffee shop will do more than serve coffee and provide a location for connecting to Wi-Fi. I hope it will grow into a place of genuine community interaction, friendliness, and a “local” where you can be sure to bump into neighbours and friends.

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All commentators reported an air of valediction – la cérémonie des adieux, as the French might put it – to Sunday’s EU gathering, endorsing the United Kingdom’s Brexit. But no one said it more elegiacally than the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk: “Regardless of how it will all end, we will remain friends until the end of all days – and one day longer.” The Pole has soul.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4