Feb. 19-25, 2004
A New Way
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Local Author Reflects on the Gospel and the Message of Jesus
Anthony Bartlett grew up just outside prison walls in the south of England. His father was a prison officer who moved the family from prison to prison as his job required. Barlett’s mother was from Ireland and came to England in the 1930s. She met Bartlett’s father just before he left to fight in India during World War II. She could just as easily have immigrated to the U.S. as her brother and two sisters had, but the recession in the U.S. placed barriers on immigration at the time. His Irish mother shared her love of the Catholic Church and her deep faith with young Tony, and the family went to church two or three times a week. “My mother wasn’t comfortable in some of the social settings and church was very comfortable for her,” Bartlett remembered.
When the family moved to Portsmouth, the youngster attended St. John’s College which was run by the LaSalle Brothers. He did very well academically and it was around this time that he expressed his desire to become a Roman Catholic priest, he said. His first moment of clear recognition of a relationship with God had come when he was about 12 years old, Bartlett explained.
Reflecting upon the prison walls that were ever-present, the youngster felt what he called the “lack of charity and love that the prison walls were built upon.” Bartlett said he didn’t really reflect on the rightness or wrongness of the people in the prison system, but the great emptiness that it represented. As he walked by the prison one day feeling its cold desolation, he let out a cry to God, Bartlett said. “It was a real turning moment and the time I made my first real commitment to God. It came out of an aching need and from that time on God became more important to me,” Bartlett said.
His relationship with God led him to join the Claretian order. He was ordained a priest in the mid-1970s and went to work as director of a youth center. Weekends and summers were spent working with young people in a retreat setting. Bartlett said this period of his life was very productive. But, after several years at the center, he was sent to a parish where he shared the duties of parish life with two other priests. The highlight of this period for Bartlett was the time a fellow priest brought back the idea of the RCIA from a visit to the U.S. The program appealed to Bartlett’s love of spiritual teaching and evangelization. His parish then became the first parish in England to facilitate the RCIA program and Bartlett led the first group through the process. “What I liked was sharing the Gospel for those who were seeking and wanting it,” Bartlett said.
Eventually, Bartlett said he grew to realize that the priesthood as he was then living it was not what he wanted. He was given the opportunity to leave his position and to reflect on the decision he was considering. After a year of reflection at a retreat center just outside of Assisi, Bartlett made the difficult decision to leave the priesthood. The decision was extremely hard for his family, Bartlett said. Eventually, Bartlett married his wife, Linda, and the couple today have three children.
After spending a few years working with the homeless in London, Bartlett returned to academic life which led him to Syracuse University in 1993. His desire to study the theory of atonement is what led him to the U.S. and the university. He earned his doctorate in philosophy in the late 1990s. Bartlett was reading books that “illuminated” him — books that helped him better understand his own situation, he said. One of those was a book on the theory of atonement. “When I was in seminary I remember the professor discussing the various theories of atonement and none of them made sense to me,” Bartlett said. “None of them were really satisfactory. They would try to explain why it was necessary that Jesus died.” The idea of atonement is very much related to sacrifice, Bartlett said. He began to study the violence he felt was at the heart of sacrifice.
“Jesus of the Gospels made a tremendous amount of sense; the fact that he was killed is unintelligible,” Bartlett said. “But, when He says he has to go, there is power to it.” Up until the 12th century, Bartlett said, the dominating opinion was that the devil was both fooled and/or defeated in the death of Jesus. History has implied a “deal” or a “transaction” between the devil and God, Bartlett explained. Theologians have posed varying opinions over the years from the idea of God’s vengeance to God being almost a type of fuedal lord. Culture has built upon the crisis of violence somehow twisting things around to make it seem as if God is calling for violence. This idea, Bartlett said, is what has caused so much trouble over the last 2,000 years.
Bartlett’s book, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement, takes a look at these concepts on a deeper level. His latest book, The Jonah Zone: Jesus, History and the Birth of the Human has not been released yet. Study and a quest for knowledge led to Bartlett’s desire to write, he said. At a bible study class held at St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Liverpool, Bartlett has tried to bring the Gospels to life. “The Gospels are not just a pattern of correct behavior so that you get into heaven, but a way to transform human life. A radical change can occur in human life. If we get back on Jesus’ pathway, we can make it happen. The community has to respond, has to go along with Him,” Bartlett said. “When you carry this on in your life, it becomes discipleship and it can transform the living on earth.” Jesus’ radical teachings and his extreme example on the cross when he did not call down judgment on his persecutors flies in the face of culture. The Gospels, Bartlett explained, show Jesus’ true teaching ability. He uses real teaching methods such as parables, stating the obvious, moving from an easy concept to a more difficult one to teach all of humanity. “If Jesus were to walk in here today and you would hear Him speak, you would be riveted,” Bartlett told the bible study class.
The class at St. Joseph’s was clearly invested in Bartlett’s teaching. Discussion ran the gamut from the similarities and differences between Jesus and Buddha (Buddha sat under a tree, Bartlett said, Jesus died on one) to why Jesus was so utterly revolutionary, why he became part of the world and not some figure who was not of the world. Bob Dugan, a parishioner of St. Joseph the Worker, said he feels Bartlett has tremendous insight into Scripture. “He turns it around and gives you a different viewpoint. It gives a whole new meaning that we have missed,” he said. And Karen Machell, who has been scheduling adult education events at St. Joseph’s for some time, said that the attendance at Bartlett’s classes typically runs much higher than most other events. “We’ve offered a number of events but this just touches people. It offers something they are looking for,” Machell said. “Tony presents Scripture in a very intellectual, cerebral way. He appeals to my sense of wanting to know more.”
For anyone interested in attending the bible study, there is one more evening scheduled, Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. downstairs in the rectory of St. Joseph the Worker Church, Tulip Street in Liverpool, or send an e-mail for information to firstname.lastname@example.org.