The following is an interview with Christopher Bellitto, Professor of History at Kean University about his recent book Ageless Wisdom: Lifetime Lessons from the Bible, published by Paulist Press.
PTB: To jump straight into it, what inspired you – a church historian – to write a book about old people in the Bible?
CMB: Well, as a good Catholic, I’d never read the entire Bible start to finish. I’d been looking for a way to do that without just opening it and beginning: I wanted a target topic. Of course I encounter Scripture often in my research, especially as a medievalist specializing in church reform, but those are mostly proof texts without context. And I suppose there was a bit of mid-life introspection at work with a young daughter and aging parents and mentors. I am very conscious that I have been well-mentored and had been thinking a lot about what they passed onto me.
PTB: There is an inter-religious aspect to the book as well. Could you say something about that?
CMB: From the start, I wanted this to be a book for any reader, believer or not. And Jewish stories are Christian stories are Muslim stories. So first I read the Bible and then I pursued how some of those stories and themes were appropriated and interpreted through the centuries, which took me to midrashim and Islamic texts like Tales of the Prophets.
CMB: Recent popes have been trying to bridge the generation gap. The aging John Paul II captured young people with World Youth Day, Benedict XVI spoke eloquently to the aged, and Francis gives children homework: go home and talk to your grandparents. And sometimes the roles are switched: in the Book of Job, it is the young man Elihu who understands Yahweh better than his elders, though he carefully waits for them to speak first out of respect for their years. There are certainly Biblical models like this of building bridges.
PTB: You’ve written about Church Councils, and you edited the Paulist Press series, Rediscovering Vatican II. I am sure you are aware of many concrete examples of elders who have shaped the history of the Church. As you were writing about characters in the Bible, did parallels with post-biblical figures come to mind?
CMB: When I give public talks on the topic, I offer literary and real-life examples: Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Merlin but also Mark Twain, Maya Angelou, and Mother Teresa. All of them are mentors: they have this urge, this essential need even, to pass along what they’ve learned through their experience. Pope Francis said wisdom is having the grace to see everything with God’s eyes. Lots of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heroines and heroes have done just that. I think exploring them would be a great Confirmation preparation project.
PTB: Do you see this book as a resource for preachers? And if so, how might it help them?
CMB: Absolutely. Every day in the US from now until 2030—every day!—about 10,000 people will turn 65. Every social issue we discuss—healthcare, nutrition, housing—are involved in this demographic explosion. The implications for ministry are enormous, yet few are talking about them. Finding the hidden figures in the stories right in front of our eyes is key, just as our elders are often hiding in plain sight. We know King David, but how about Barzillai? The Book of Ruth’s star isn’t Ruth, at least for me, but her elderly mother-in-law Naomi (who is my favorite in the book). Two other stars are great paradoxes: we tend to see prophets as young, like Jeremiah, but the first people to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah are the senior citizens Simeon and Anna. The encounter between the young parents Mary and Joseph with them would make for a great sermon.
PTB: What surprised you in your research into this area? Does the Bible give credence to stereotypes about “the golden years” or does it blow our stereotypes, and if so, how?
CMB: I expected the Bible to say, “as you get older, you get wiser.” Of course, the very phrase “the Bible says” is false since the Bible contradicts itself sometimes and was written in different genres for different purposes by different voices for different audiences though we also believe all of its words are inspired by God.
While we have examples of wise elders, we also have examples of young people filled with wisdom and old people—even wise king Solomon—ending their lives as fools. That’s why I organized the book around Biblical paradoxes: burdens can be blessings, for instance, and laughter is key to dealing with a fading body. We typically see old age as a time to reap, but you find examples of elders still sowing a harvest they themselves will never reap, which is a Biblical way of paying it forward. Being wise means being humble—and that’s why my next project will be on recovering humility as the lost virtue.