Votes : 0

The Bible as a Cultural Gift: Four words for today

Giovanni Cucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, May 31st 2021


Father Timothy Radcliffe, who was Master General of the Dominicans, has presented the relationship between faith and culture in these terms: “I grew up in a Catholic subculture that interpreted existence and the world in terms of gratitude and blessing. We believed in a God who heard our prayers, who loved us, and who at the hour of our death would let us go to heaven […]. We had a host of friends who were neither Catholic nor Christian, but it was clear to all that life was oriented toward eternity. Now this subculture is largely disappearing […]. I believe that the only way for Christianity to grow is to keep alive a lively, self-confident and vital Christian culture that is in dynamic interaction with contemporary culture.”[1]

This is our primary task as a believing community: to keep alive the cultural dimension of the Christian faith, and, in particular, the decisive value that biblical instruction has for some of the grave problems of our time. It is not by chance that Sacred Scripture has been studied and commented upon for centuries by the generations that preceded us, and has had a profound impact on every aspect of European history.

In our own time, which is marked by profound institutional and economic instability, by the crisis of meaning and by the failure of the great ideologies, the Bible continues to stimulate culture and the way of seeing and evaluating the problems of life. It is in this “sapiential” encounter that we can experience God.

The prohibition

As we reflect on this theme, some key words of the Bible can accompany us, paradoxical words, even words strongly critical of certain aspects of the culture of our time, but which are indispensable for living.

The first word is prohibition. It is the first great instruction that God gives: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:16-17).

An utterly unpopular word. Yet it is a word that is indispensable for living. The prohibition to eat of the fruit of that tree is the prohibition of wanting to be God, the criterion of all things. God says at the beginning of the history of every person: if you want to live, if you want to taste life, remember that you are a creature, that you have limits. This is your truth as a creature, because it is the limits that allow you to live; if you do not respect them, you will destroy yourself.

It is an education that has formidable cultural repercussions, first of all, on a pedagogical and psychological level. Developmental psychology summarizes the three fundamental stages of growth through three different renunciations of omnipotence, of believing oneself to be the center of everything: birth, weaning, and Oedipal defeat.[2] These are three “points of no return” that are typical of growth (with respect to the prenatal condition, breastfeeding, an exclusive bond with the mother), and are essential to enter into life as men and women.

At the root of many requests for psychological help is often the non-acceptance of one’s own truth as a creature, marked by limitation and fragility. One does not accept oneself as one is, one does not accept one’s own body, one’s own family of origin, one’s own history and personality, one’s own abilities.

The French psychoanalyst, Catherine Ternynck, has written a significant book titled L’Homme de sable (The Sandman). She notes that when a generation believes itself to be the center of everything and disregards the prohibition, it becomes incapable of living: “For several decades, we have seen young people trudging along the margins of adult life without reaching it. They seem to be in the grip of an anxiety focused on a threshold that they cannot cross.”[3]

Cultures of all times have always introduced young people to life through rites of initiation. Their task – like the sacraments of Christian initiation – was precisely that of helping the newcomer to cross the threshold, to enter adulthood, acquiring awareness of aggression, suffering and death – in other words, awareness of one’s own fragility – expressed concretely by one’s corporeality.

These rituals, when disregarded, do not disappear, but give rise to the “pack” behavior that is widely spread in our society. Gang violence, male and female bullying, group rape, Saturday night highs, risky sexual behavior, group drug-taking, the practice of piercing, tattoos, the attraction to horror and the macabre are wild distortions of initiation rites They are misplaced attempts by young people to make contact with the dimension of corporeality, relationships, aggression, suffering and death, as well as their own limits as creatures, but without an adult or a community capable of accompanying them. For this reason, these attempts remain unfulfilled.

The second serious wake-up call involving forgetting the prohibition is embodied in a strange paradox: the more they proclaim autonomy and independence, “doing one’s  own thing,” the more men and women turn out to be dependent or addicted. “The term ‘autonomy’ is all the rage, yet never have so many dependent personalities been observed in adulthood as they are now: drug addiction, sexual addiction, pornographic addiction, internet addiction, emotional addiction, gambling addiction, work addiction, alcohol addiction, shopping addiction. Today everything is susceptible to addiction.”[4]

“You shall be like God” (Gen 3:5), the serpent had suggested, evidently touching a sensitive key. But when he forgets the prohibition, man loses his roots: he does not become God, but becomes “like sand.” The more he tries to reach perfection, the more he discovers himself naked.

We can think about the so-called “health and wellness culture,” which is very much in vogue today. The more research we do on health, the more we find ourselves ill, unable to bear the burden of life: “A British government survey found that in 10 years the number of British who considered themselves disabled had increased by 40 percent. In the 16-19 age group, the increase was as high as 155 percent! The authors of the survey conclude that 10 years are ‘too few to explain a real increase in disability,’ but they cannot say why more and more people seem to be enthusiastic about adopting the label of disabled […]. Today’s culture, with the exaggeration of the victim role, leads to ‘belittling the self, with the consequence of accentuating fragility and vulnerability.’”[5]

Despite the technology and the wealth of possibilities, people continue to feel naked. Significant from this point of view is the development of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), once considered the bible of the mental health professional. In its first edition of 1952, 106 disorders were classified and presented in as many pages. The fourth edition, in 1994, listed 300 disorders in a 900-page volume. How should one interpret this data? Over the course of 40 years, have disorders increased, or, is it that the more they are studied the more they spread?

The paradox of Gen 2:17 returns: recognizing that we are fragile, that we have limits, is not only our truth, but also our true strength. This is why God’s first instruction is a prohibition. Ternynck concluded her reading on the current difficulty of growing up with a question, “Who today is prohibiting?” The prohibition, the limit, if presented correctly, that is, in the context of the gift and the esteem, allow us to experience reality and the other who, insofar as being different from me, cannot be reduced to my image and likeness.


Another decisive word for life is suggested by Gen 3: failure. In this passage the fall is not seen as a global catastrophe: God does not withdraw his trust, but continues to dialogue with humanity. Recognizing fragility also means accepting failure, looking for a lesson in it.

This, too, appears to be a largely disregarded concept: the possibility of making mistakes, of failing, is rejected with horror. But in this way, it becomes even more disturbing, especially in the age of growth. Think of the difficulty of dialogue between parents and teachers on this issue: the possible detection of problems or deficiencies is rejected a priori.[6] The parent, from generation to generation, finds it increasingly difficult to recognize and accept the fragility, limitations and failures of the child, perhaps because he or she has not first recognized and accepted these failures in themselves . But it is not by covering the nakedness that one helps them to grow.

Those who pay the price for this state of affairs are the most vulnerable. Think of the staggering increase in suicides among adolescents and young people. Data from the World Health Organization show a significant increase in suicide in general over the past 50 years – more than 60 percent – but, for adolescents, it has been 400 percent (from 2.5 to 11.2 per 100,000). In the United States, every 90 minutes a teenager takes his or her own life.[7]

Why is there such a significant increase, especially in an age group that should be the most open to life? Research carried out in Italy in 2009 hypothesized that the spread of suicide among adolescents was mainly linked to a change in mentality, which does not tolerate defeats, defects or incapacity: you have to be a winner at all costs.[8] This personality style, if dominant in the course of development, reflects a worrying inner fragility: every failure – a bad school grade, the teasing of peers, the “no” of a loved one, the reproach of a parent – may be experienced as a total denial of the value of self, with catastrophic consequences.

At the root of this is, once again, the theme of rejected fragility, which prevents one from facing the obstacles and difficulties of life. Wanting to spare the boy or girl any difficulty, actually makes them weaker, incapable, with perennial doubt about their self-esteem.

The third chapter of the book of Genesis recalls the presence of an original wound, which must be recognized so that the human being can grow without fear of failure. To become familiar with this wound in all cultures has always been the task of the father, who marks a different stage in the life of the child, whose privileged reference figure has been until then the mother. It is what psychoanalysis calls “the Oedipal defeat”: “The father inflicts the first wound, affective and psychological, interrupting the symbiosis with the mother […]; he wounds the child to make it stronger […]: when loss comes, a non-avoidable experience in human life, it will not destroy the person psychologically and spiritually. On the contrary, she or he will know how to draw from it the most precious outcome: love. Love for oneself, love for others: both are tempered in the experience of loss, not in the illusory security of possession.”[9]

Prohibition, injury, punishment: these are three unpopular words, but experience of them is indispensable to becoming an adult. Christopher Lasch, in his study of narcissism, understood as the illusion of having no limits, reports an interesting letter from an 11-year-old boy about his father’s inclination to avoid any kind of punishment: “He teaches me to play [baseball and] other sports [and] gives me everything he can”; but he regrets: “He never gave me a slap when I deserved it.” Lasch’s comment: “What this child seems to be trying to say is that his father cannot give him what he feels he needs to become a person: the proper punishment for his misbehavior. For people living in a permissive culture, it is astounding to learn that a missed punishment can be experienced as deprivation. But for some children, it is more painful to bear the guilt unpunished than to take a clip around the ear.”[10]

The Bible specifies that penance and atonement are a way of returning to life, a way of rising from the fall, from evil and guilt: they are above all a message of hope and reconciliation offered. This means that it is possible to dissociate oneself from evil, as opposed to denied guilt. The philosopher Paul Ricœur summarizes all this in a provocative conclusion: “True punishment is what makes one happy, restoring order; true punishment results in happiness; it is the meaning of the true paradox of found in the Gorgias […]: ‘escaping punishment is worse than suffering it.’”[11]

In fact, when guilt is denied, there is a tendency to always doubt oneself, to live relationships in a precarious and unstable way, seeking in them an illusory and unrealistic recognition; aggression then ends up becoming something that the child, and later the young person and the adult, is not able to manage.

Years ago, in a newspaper article, an interesting observation on this matter appeared. In an English school, among the teaching activities, a paradoxical initiative was celebrated, a “Week of Failure”: “The reference model is sports training that proceeds through trial and error in the belief that even failure, if accepted and processed, is an integral part of the path to the best possible result, never definitively achieved. Often, however, the strenuous defense of security, the fear of making mistakes, the inability to accept and value one’s own mistakes block the exposure to risk, making children conformist and passive […]. Parents take part in the discussion and videos are shown where successful people tell how much they have learned from their mistakes.”[12]

The newspaper columnist hoped that a similar initiative, capable of identifying an educational value even in the experience of failure, could be implemented in other countries, such as Italy, so that the drive for perfection and success could be balanced by a realistic contact with one’s own frailties: “In an increasingly competitive school system (just think of the selection process for access to the best high schools, as well as universities) children are urged by families and teachers to always give their best, without admitting any possibility of failure or error. Frustrations, if commensurate with the maturity of children, help to develop antibodies against despair. Thinking that the evolutionary path can take place entirely under the sign of happiness is a dangerous illusion, because there are no assurances in this regard. Sooner or later the time comes to make choices that involve risks, and avoiding them may serve to survive, but not to live. Instead, our children grow up at the same time overprotected from frustration and overstimulated to success: they are encouraged to excel in school subjects, in sports, in artistic expressions, in social relations, promoting the ideal child to the detriment of the real one. Admitting that the young can make mistakes requires, to the benefit of all, that the educators renounce perfection, recognize their own limits and, overcoming the desire for omnipotence, gradually entrust young people with the responsibility for their lives.”[13]

All this constitutes, in the context of the present discourse, a very stimulating commentary on the instruction of the book of Genesis. The one who places the prohibition comes to remind us of “what our age seems to have forgotten: the happiness of the permitted limit.”[14] The fundamental task of the mother and the father, who are a powerful symbol of the heavenly Father, is to re-present to their children this teaching of Genesis: to become aware of and reconciled with one’s own limits, an essential condition for becoming adults and bearing fruit in one’s life.

The religious dimension plays an indispensable and inalienable role in this regard. Unfortunately, in the majority of Italian families of the last thirty years, parents – for a series of reasons that would be interesting to analyze – have been less and less concerned with educating their children in the faith, preferring to assure for them a material but fictitious well-being: “They have been raised with brioche and cartoons and no one has helped them to develop any sense of the importance of prayer, of reading the Bible and of a life within a confessing community. Their own parents have distanced themselves from all this.”[15] And this with serious consequences from the educational point of view, not only in terms of religious practice.

Narrative and feelings

Biblical culture does not focus on concepts, ideas and debates, but invites us to listen to the heart (which is the seat not only of emotions, but also of evaluations, decisions and desires). The Bible presents the mystery of life, not in an abstract and theoretical way, but through narratives, from which the fundamental questions emerge: What is the meaning of all this? Why is there evil, death, sexual violence, environmental disasters?

Addressing such questions, which are inevitable for human beings, means establishing a dialogue between the world of the text and the world of the reader. This dialogue, rather than offering answers, engages, it arouses emotions, presents a possible path. Even on an individual level, people know themselves, understand who they are and what they are looking for (even in therapy) when they begin to narrate their stories to others.

As Umberto Galimberti observes, at the basis of the current youth unease there is above all the absence of narratives, which are capable of giving meaning and order to events, identifying desires and discrepancies. Today, many young people are not well, but they are not even able to give a name to their malaise, because they no longer have at their disposal narratives that can offer them an identity and a reading of life; they find themselves immersed in a scattered collection of experiences and events without a unifying project. Feelings and desires do not exist in nature; they are not a biological fact, but are known and understood by confronting narratives, events and models presented in them. Feelings are an element of truth in our relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. They are also an alarm bell of discomfort.

Two Frenchmen, philosopher Miguel Benasayag and psychiatrist Gérard Schmit, in their book Les passions tristes (The Sad Passions), reflect on the alarming increase in requests for psychological help from young, even very young people in France in recent years. They are the sign of a serious inner suffering due to a deep and complex discomfort that cannot be solved by a technique or a drug.[16] The “sad passions” express an existential pain, “it is not pain or crying, but impotence, disintegration and lack of meaning that make the current crisis something different from the others […]; it is a crisis of the very foundations of our civilization.”[17]

Biblical wisdom invites us to keep knowledge and affection, heart, intelligence and faith closely united: there we find the possible confirmation of our evaluations, choices and decisions. Think of the importance given in the Gospels to feelings in the face of an event, such as the joy of the Magi when they see the star (cf. Matt 2:10), the sadness of the rich young man when he is invited to leave everything and follow the Lord (cf. Luke 18:23), Pilate’s fear when he learns that Jesus has proclaimed himself the Son of God (cf. John 19:8). The disciples at Emmaus, thinking back on their encounter with the Lord, at first unrecognized, are struck above all by the emotional resonance of his words: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us?” (Luke 24:32).

The increased amount of information available, while a precious asset, does not in itself make the decision easier and safer: the criterion is other, relational and affective. Let us think of what happens to the Magi. On the one hand, they are completely unprepared in terms of knowledge: they do not know the Scriptures, the language or the customs of the place; they are naïve, they make mistakes, even serious ones, such as asking Herod, whose intentions were quite different, for help. But all this does not constitute an insurmountable obstacle to the search for God: the most important things are present in them, the desire to find the Lord, and the willingness to undertake a journey. The narrative, not surprisingly, depicts them as the only moving characters. All the rest – lack of knowledge, incapacity, errors of judgment – comes in the background.

This passage tells the reader that it is possible to find the Lord by following the three words beginning with “S” that characterize the Magis’ search: star / scripture / sentiments; the book of nature, the word of God, and self-knowledge. These are three signs that can be read and understood within a narrative, within the story of one’s own life. Anyone who has the courage to go down honestly into the depths of their feelings can find both believer and non-believer there, to whom one may listen and with whom one may dialogue.

Significant in this regard is this consideration made by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini when he inaugurated the series of conferences La cattedra dei non credenti (The Chair of Non-Believers): “The non-believer who is in me worries the believer who is in me and vice versa […]. I believe that, in our times, the presence of non-believers who, with personal sincerity, declare themselves to be such, and the presence of believers who have the patience to want to come to their senses, can be very useful to both of us, because it stimulates each of us to better follow our path toward authenticity. Doing this exercise together, without defenses and with radical honesty, will also be useful to a society that is afraid to look inside itself and that risks living in insincerity and discontent.”[18]


Hence the last great word: dialogue. The Bible always presents to us, throughout its narratives, a God surrounded by people who for the most part seem incapable of understanding him. Let us think of the story of Jesus and of the distinctive cultural way in which he speaks of the mystery of God: the parable. If on the one hand it arouses curiosity, on the other it disconcerts, because it is a way of dealing with problems in a way quite removed from what the slogan would suggest: we find in it the narration of daily events, and at the same time an invitation to enter into another way of thinking, living and seeing things.

But, above all, in the parable the characters converse with each other, very often they even quarrel: we can note the vehement protests of the elders on, of the workers of the first hour or, in a more diplomatic way, of the servant with one talent. Their thoughts are reported without caricatures: the parables show the drama of these people, who do not understand the work of the father, the master; they are afraid of him and reject him.

But these narratives present at the same time the story of the narrator: the dialogue between the characters in the parable reflects the situation of Jesus and his interlocutors. At the same time, they reveal a style, a way of dealing with misunderstandings and conflicts. Faced with those who reject his proposal, Jesus does not react by appealing to the incomprehensibility of faith, nor does he cut short the discussion in the name of a supreme authority. Rather, he invites us to reflect, because he has confidence in the ability of everyone to find the answer: “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? […] In the same way your Father in heaven does not want any of these little ones to perish” (Matt 18:12-14); “‘If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?’ And the Pharisees had nothing to say” (Luke 14:5-6); “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?’” (Luke 12:54-57).

In these parables there is an invitation to a conversion, first of all cultural, in the relationship with God, overcoming magical, fideistic or punitive visions: “The old logic contrary to that of Jesus is not only opposed to a divine logic that is incomprehensible to us, an inscrutable decree and no more, but we enter into dialogue, we try to reason.”[19]

This attitude of dialogue is also present in the parables in the characters who each time interpret the role of God: “The father […] tries to convince his elder son to join the feast. The owner of the vineyard does not take refuge in an unquestionable managerial authority, but calmly explains his reasons to the protesters: ‘Friend, I do you no wrong. Did we not have an agreement for one denarius?’ No right of yours has been violated […]. Or perhaps you see with displeasure this gesture of generosity of mine, would you like those who have remained unemployed to starve, to go away empty-handed? The owner of the vineyard explains to the workers why the weeds should not be uprooted immediately, with the danger of cutting off prematurely the wheat that has not yet ready for harvesting (cf. Matt 13:29); the king, in condemning the unenterprising servant, explains to him the reasons for his actions (cf. Matt 25:26; cf. Luke 19:22-23); even Abraham, from heaven, politely replies to the protests of the rich man who has sunk into hell.”[20]

In the parables, Jesus presents us with a God who dialogues, who is not afraid to face our questions and invites us to reflect, not to abandon our reason in our interaction with him, because he has confidence in our “ability to walk toward the truth.”[21] The tension remains; understanding the parable does not mean believing, but it can remove obstacles, prejudices, it can touch the heart.

This tension continues from generation to generation. It is significant that the parables conclude without reporting the response of the elders on, the servants, the workers of the first hour: we do not know if after their confrontations they changed their minds. The conclusion remains suspended, because at this point the parable is addressed to each one of us. The dialogue continues: “And you, what do you think?” the text seems to suggest.

The father continues down the centuries to invite his children to the feast, respecting the freedom of each. But not without making them reflect. Confrontation with the Word transforms us, even if it does not answer our questions.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 5 art. 7, 0521: 10.32009/22072446.0521.7

[1].    T. Radcliffe, Essere cristiani nel XXI secolo. Una spiritualità per il nostro tempo, Brescia, Queriniana, 2011, 19-21.

[2].    Cf. G. Cucci, La crisi dell’adulto. La sindrome di Peter Pan, Assisi (Pg), Cittadella, 2012, 70-81.

[3].    C. Ternynck, L’uomo di sabbia. Individualismo e perdita di sé, Milan, Vita e Pensiero, 2012, 127.

[4].    Ibid. Slightly modified text.

[5].    F. Furedi, Il nuovo conformismo. Troppa psicologia nella vita quotidiana, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2005, 139f. Cf. D. Wainwright – M. Calnan, “Rethinking the work stress ‘epidemic’”, in European Journal of Public Health 10 (2000) 3.

[6].    Cf. P. Mastrocola, Togliamo il disturbo. Saggio sulla libertà di non studiare, Parma, Guanda, 2011.

[7].    Cf. G. Cucci, “Il suicidio giovanile. Una drammatica realtà del nostro tempo”, in Civ. Catt. 2011 II 121-134.

[8].    Cf. G. Pietropolli Charmet – A. Piotti, Uccidersi. Il tentativo di suicidio in adolescenza, Milan, Raffaello Cortina, 2009, 43-45.

[9].    C. Risé, Il padre. L’assente inaccettabile, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2003, 12f.

[10].   C. Lasch, La cultura del narcisismo, Milan, Bompiani, 2001, 202.

[11].   P. Ricœur, Finitudine e colpa. II. La simbolica del male, Bologna, il Mulino 1970, 292.

[12].   S. Vegetti Finzi, “La scuola inglese che insegna la sconfitta alle sue studentesse”, in Corriere della Sera
(, February 7, 2012.

[13].   Ibid.

[14].   C. Ternynck, L’ uomo di sabbia…, op. cit., 129.

[15].   A. Matteo, La prima generazione incredula. Il difficile rapporto tra i giovani e la fede, Soveria Mannelli (Cz), Rubbettino, 2010, 45.

[16].   “Medicalization, which tends to monopolize the clinical response today, is going in precisely this direction. Are you in pain? Are you suffering? Pharmaceutical laboratories propose to deal primarily with a molecular disorder. After all, what is the human being if not a more or less successful assembly of molecules?” (M. Benasayag – G. Schmit, L’epoca delle passioni tristi, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2005, 11).

[17].   U. Galimberti, L’ospite inquietante. Il nichilismo e i giovani, ibid., 2007, 28.

[18].   C. M. Martini (ed), La cattedra dei non credenti, Milan, Rusconi, 1992, 5f.

[19].   V. Fusco, “Parabola/Parabole”, in P. Rossano – G. Ravasi – A. Girlanda (eds), Nuovo dizionario di teologia biblica, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), Paoline, 19914, 1092.

[20].   Ibid.

[21].   Ibid., 1094.

share :
tags icon tags :
comments icon Without comments


write comment
Please enter the letters as they are shown in the image above.