INTERFAITH21: Uniting people of faith, or no particular faith, in the 21st century

By C.B. Hanif

A different way of thinking about the Bible — namely through the lens of modern biblical scholarship informed by reason — is the premise of Thomas G. O’Brien III’s 15-week course at Bethesda-by-the-Sea. Each class is a treasure, thanks to his love of the richness of the Bible, his encyclopedic knowledge of its history and his depth of spiritual insight.

“He provides great information in an understandable way without talking down to us,” is how one classmate describes Discovering the Bible: Introduction to the New Testament. O’Brien conducts the two-hour classes on Monday evenings at the historic landmark Episcopal church, just south of The Breakers in Palm Beach. The very information that might disturb some folks is what he considers the “gateway to a more profound and rewarding understanding of the Sacred,” and a source of meaning about ourselves, our relationships with others and with the rest of creation.
For example, he notes what can be learned from the recommended New Oxford Annotated Bible or other good study Bible, and Kerygma: Discovering the Bible, the workbook used in class: that the Bible is not a history book, science book or even a single book, but a collection of books — 39 in the Hebrew Scriptures and 27 in the Christian Scriptures. That it was written, edited and revised by numerous people over the 1,000-year period between 950 BCE and 150 CE. “It is a theology book,” his course syllabus attests, “that uses story, poetic language, and metaphor to express truths that are difficult or impossible to express.” Bethesda’s O’Brien is eminently qualified to put it all in context. After a 30-year corporate law career in New York City and Florida, the Notre Dame and Yale law graduate and former Navy officer earned an M.A. in theology, summa cum laude, from St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach.
He was an excellent student long before that, but, he said, “It was more important to my father, in grade school and in high school, that I won the religion medal, than that I won the general excellence or was valedictorian.”
A licensed lay preacher, honored for his work in interfaith understanding, O’Brien provided two illustrations of how the Bible can reveal itself and lend a stronger sense of meaning to our lives: “One is the story of what Christians call the near-sacrifice of Isaac. What’s important to me in that story is not whether Abraham actually had a conversation with God in which God told Abraham to go take his only son whom he loved, whether in the Jewish-Christian tradition it was Isaac, or in the Muslim tradition it was Ishmael. What is important there to me is the theological insight that God, the Sacred, sometimes calls upon us to be willing to give up that which we regard as most dear, in order to move to a higher level of appreciation of the Sacred. That’s a story that really comes through to me.”
“In the Christian Scriptures is the story that we find in all of the Gospels about the baptism of Jesus, by John the Baptist. Again, whether or not that happened as a matter of history is not what’s really critical to me. What’s critical to me is that all of the Gospel writers understood clearly that Jesus of Nazareth was truly a human being, and that he did not seek to separate himself from other human beings. And all of the Gospel accounts, when they talk about Jesus’ baptism, have him participating with the mass of other people who are seeking, who are called by John’s message of repentance. And here Jesus is presented as someone who would have been a blameless young man, who nevertheless doesn’t separate himself from the mass of humanity, but instead plunges himself in with other human beings.
“That, it seems to me again, is another story, where whether or not the baptism was historical, whether it happened, that’s not what’s important. But the Gospel writers are seeking to convey the theological truth of Jesus’ humanity with us, and conveying that just as the conveying of Jesus’ death, his sharing with us something that all of us human beings have in common: We’re all going to die. And the fact that Jesus of Nazareth did die says he was one of us — he was truly a human being. Therefore our relationship with him is our relationship with another human being whose DNA we share.”
O’Brien cites Marcus J. Borg among the writers he’d recommend, including Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not Literally, and Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time, the Heart of Christianity.
“Another person who has been very influential in terms of my spiritual thinking is Martin Smith. The books that I have read by Rowan Williams, who is the archbishop of Canterbury, like the book Resurrection, have had an influence on me. As an aside, I think Rowan Williams as a scholar and teacher does a much better job than Rowan Williams as the archbishop of Canterbury.”
Although he hasn’t rejected the idea of writing a book himself, for now “I feel that my teaching is how I connect most with people.” He has done that for the Palm Beach Fellowship of Christians and Jews, for Florida Atlantic University’s Lifelong Learning Society and elsewhere.
Tom O’Brien can be reached at
A full listing of the courses to be offered next year at Bethesda will be posted at, he said. “My plan is to teach the Old Testament,” another free course which he alternates with the current one, “over a 15-week period starting next January.”
My classmates and I hardly can wait.

C.B. Hanif, former news ombudsman and editorial columnist for The Palm Beach Post, is a freelance writer, editor, and media and interreligious affairs consultant. His blog,, debuts soon. Look for more insights as he visits or speaks at synagogues, churches and mosques from here to infinity, seeking folks who are making the Golden Rule real, not just an ideal. C.B. can be reached at .

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