Brief Book Review: Abba Isn’t Daddy

Abba Isn’t Daddy and Other Biblical Surprises:
What Catholics Really Need to Know about Scripture Study
by William L. Burton, O.F.M.

Who is it for? Roman Catholics who want to learn more about the formation of the bible and its contents.

What’s the main point? To raise questions and explore answers on what is helpful knowledge to apply when reading the bible or studying the bible in groups.

Why is this book useful? It provides an elementary background on the history of the formation and interpretation of the bible.

What intrigued me the most? The questions that were raised in my own mind that I hadn’t considered before that I don’t think the author might have intended.

Where would I push back? On assumptions of authority.

Kudos. It is rare to read a book that makes me want to be in conversation with the author from the beginning to the end. Part of that is, perhaps, trying to read the book from two perspectives at the same time. One, what I bring to the book myself and the other trying to read like the intended audience, a Roman Catholic with little knowledge or experience of the bible. The book encouraged me to have this three-way conversation among the author, a member of the intended audience, and myself. Burton’s presentation of “What Catholics Really Need to Know about Scripture Study” is solid as he launches into each section with a grounding question. For example, What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who put it together? Who is the subject of the Bible?, What are the problems with language? Were mistakes made? The book challenged me to ask more questions that I hope the author will take up in another book.

Implications. What were the politics involved at each stage in the history of the bible and how did the political decisions affect the outcome? The author acknowledges that mistakes were made by translators, scribes, and researchers along the way, which leads me to ask the question about how we know that the original “oral” stories and traditions we received were what the original tellers intended. How did the politics of power change the stories along the way, lead to the choice of one word over another, or decide what would be included and what would be omitted? Does the fact that the bible was written, compiled, officially interpreted, or authorized by only men throughout its history raise serious questions about what might be missing, inadequate, biased, or wrong. What about the political history behind the stories, the compilation, the translation, and the scholarship? Who decided, for example, that “eventually God-inspired” people to tell stories and to write them down? How does the desire for power over others play into the mix? Whose stories finally got chosen, whose discarded? Who held the power? What were the politics behind “you are my chosen?” and how has this “chosen” status played out in history? How do we validate divine inspiration?

Applications. Turning one of the authors opening statements into a question takes us to the heart of how the church (and I do mean all the baptized people of God) can live fully into the future, “Why are so many Catholics intimidated by Bible study?” One of the most important sections of Abba Isn’t Daddy is the discussion about an understanding of baptism derived from the scripture. One of the biblical understandings of baptism arising from the scriptures is growing a new community formed in radical equality. This biblical understanding of baptism, I believe, throws into question the dependence on “authority and magisterium” on which the author relies heavily at several crucial points. Does not the interpretation of scripture belong to all the baptized throughout every age and not just to a hierarchy or a particular point in history? How different would the scripture and the church be had the church organized itself around its biblical theology of baptism rather than around a clerical ecclesiology? Would there not have to be a more radical equality lived and practiced in the church? A church that lives into its baptismal formation, including studying the bible together, reflecting together and together doing the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world (doing theology).

Burton, O.F.M., William L. Abba Isn’t Daddy and Other Biblical Surprises: What Catholics Really Need to Know about Scripture Study. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2019. 192 Pages. ISBN: 978-1-59471-839-7.

REVIEWER: Alan Barthel

Alan Barthel served as The St. Andrew’s Professor of Church Music at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Executive Director of the Presbyterian Association of Musicians, and past President of The North American Academy of Liturgy. Alan is the author of numerous articles on Liturgical Music, Liturgy, Baptism/Confirmation, Justice, and Equality. 

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