Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Joe Sobran: A Small Tribute

Guest post by Ben Carmack

Just last night, reading through some the archives of Joseph Sobran's columns and newsletters, I realized anew what a national treasure this man was, and what a treasure he was to me in my intellectual development as a young man.

I was something of a prodigy as a youngster: at the age of 16 I was writing regularly for two Internet publications that reached maybe a few thousand readers. In the process I refined my writing and rhetorical skills, learned to do research, learned about how politics worked and learned about history--by doing, not by repeating the instructions of a professor or English teacher.

Sixteen was an interesting year for me. I had done a few things (very few, in retrospect), but my thinking had never had to undergo a serious challenge (I hadn't fallen in love yet, obviously). Joe Sobran was that challenge.

His style was never insulting or petty or loud-mouthed. He was a scholarly, literary-minded, polite sort of conservative that, for the most part, is gone from the scene, replaced by crude, rude shouters like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and the talk radio corps.

While polite, Joe never left you wondering where he stood. His prose was always clear. He was honest and unafraid to go against the tide. That made him interesting and it differentiated him from everybody else.

Sobran was also the first Christian writer I had ever read who was completely outside my own evangelical/fundamentalist/Bible Belt tradition. He was a devout and serious Roman Catholic, a true believer in the Church's teachings on all subjects, including abortion, contraception, the papacy, Mary and all the rest. He was also a skeptic of the Vatican II Council and advocated a return to the Latin Mass.

Joe and I were both orthodox Christians who loved Jesus and the Bible, but we came from completely opposite sides of the spectrum. Realizing that somebody could be as serious of a Christian as I was, and yet not go to my church or share my theological convictions on a host of issues, was an important turning point for me. It's probably why I've felt so comfortable exploring other Christian traditions, and why a lot of my friends think I'm crazy or liberal in my casual belief that, of course! Catholics are Christians too!

Because Sobran was completely outside my Bible Belt, Republican-voting world, he was free to insult, critique and lay waste all my cherished beliefs without mercy or forethought. Joe, as I wrote above, was never afraid to say what he meant or take an argument to its logical conclusions. He was fabulously "intolerant" and inconsiderate. A real gem!

He never thought with the group. He was a non-conformist of the highest order. He thought about things in a deeply personal way that lacked pretense or concern with "the party line." He was a life-saver to me, a youngster who was too taken with the party line and should have been doing other, more worthwhile things.

Last night I looked through the archives for an article he wrote over 
a decade ago on Jesus. This article, like many of his others, showed his deep love for Christ and Christ's salvation. It also opened a theological window for me that has never closed, but only grown wider as time has gone on.

When I was 16 I was a sophomore at Portland Christian School, a small but dear Christian school in Louisville in the fundamentalist Church of Christ tradition (I use "fundamentalist" as a term of accuracy and endearment, not as an insult or pejorative). All sophomores at Portland take a Bible class that goes through the Gospel according to Saint John.

In just one paragraph of this article, Joe reflects, almost as an afterthought, on one of Jesus' hardest of "hard sayings." Read it:

His teachings are inseparable from his miracles; in fact, his teachings themselves are miraculous. Nobody had ever made such claims before, enraging pious Pharisees and baffling his pious disciples at the same time. After feeding thousands with the miraculous loaves and fishes, he announced that he himself was "the bread of life." Unless you ate his flesh and drank his blood, he warned, you have no life in you.
This amazing teaching was too much. It cost him many of his disciples on the spot. He didn't try to coax them back by explaining that he was only speaking figuratively, because he wasn't. He was foretelling the Last Supper.

Before I read that paragraph, I had been disturbed by the lengthy discourse in John 6 where Christ had said, without explanation, that His disciples would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, else they would have no life in them. We had covered the passage in class but we didn't spend a lot of time on it. The teacher, I recall, threw up her hands and said she didn't understand it. We moved on. I was still bothered.

I had been reading through the Old Testament law in my spare time. I was aware of the rules against eating blood that Christ's Jewish hearers were no doubt aware of. I was also aware, on a guttural level, of the evil of cannibalism.

Reading Sobran was the first time I had ever heard anyone use John 6 to refer to Communion. The concept that the bread and juice I drank at my humble little church actually somehow transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, thus fulfilling His instruction in John 6, creeped me out at first. But I couldn't deny that it made perfect sense, and that it fit the literal meaning of the passage. As a fundamentalist Protestant who prided myself on taking the Bible literally, Joe Sobran had me cornered!

It was then that I realized that, on this one issue of Communion, the old Protestant broadside against Catholics for "rejecting the Bible" was false. Catholics were not rejecting the Bible. They were taking it literally, as we claimed we did. If anything, it was 
we who were rejecting the Bible! Talk about a paradigm shift!

I never talked about my new-found revelation with anyone for several years afterward. I have tried to believe, sincerely in my heart, that when I take Communion Jesus is becoming present with me, and that I am receiving grace and power for living. It has made me more solemn about the whole affair. It has grown in me an appreciation for mystery, for not always having the answers. It has made me aware of the vast holiness and judgment of God.

Joe's paragraph about the Eucharist planted a seed in me that (thankfully) never matured, the thought that I belonged in the Catholic Church. I respect Joe Sobran greatly, but I do so from a distance. I do not belong in the Catholic Church. Too many disagreements, too many legalisms, too many distractions from Jesus and too many historical wrongs and failures prevent me from embracing Rome. But, thanks to one of Rome's own, I do have a greater understanding of my faith and a greater relationship with Jesus.

Thanks Joe, for everything! Hope to see you in the New Heaven and New Earth someday. 

*       *       *

Comments always welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment