Friday, December 30, 2005
On the other hand, I have just seen the Narnia move, and I heartily recommend it. I was not expecting to enjoy it very much, but when the family all want to see one movie, we GO. I didn't particularly enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a book: I thought it was too ham-handed and allegorical for me. And I thought the tone was a little off -- sort of a stuffy, rather humorless great-uncle guiding one's thoughts. (I know that Lewis enjoyed jokes, cigars, and beer. But I don't pick that up in The Narnia Chronicles.)
In any event, the movie inflicted none of the irritations that book did. First, it is a beautiful movie to watch. (It also made me thirst for a trip back to England.) The cinematography was delightful -- frozen Narnia was gorgeously cold. Second, the acting was excellent. Even though Lucy was in her first movie (I think she's 8), she was believable and captivating. The other "children" (I suppose we'll learn that Peter is 40 or something) were true to their characters and believable in their responses -- and they all looked related. Of course, Tilda Swinton is phenomenal (I'll accept a ride from her in her sleigh any day!) as the White Witch -- cunning, charming, and e-v-i-l! Third, the special effects are wonderful and do not seem like special effects. I was stunned, for example, to learn that all of the lion was digital. I was convinced that they had filmed a lion and then over-written when he talks. And the battle sequences were quite chilling. Fourth, I enjoyed the theology around Aslan's death: It wasn't straight "buying-God-off" Anselmian doctrine. I haven't quite worked out what it is (it's probably pretty straightforward, but I keep dredging up concerns from other Lewis material and it confuses me, frankly). But it's an interesting take on things salvational.
Today the ballots go out for nominations for Oscars, so it is appropriate to discuss movies. I have no sense whether Narnia will figure into the calculations. But I know that I have my own favorites that I'm figuratively lighting candles for! (HINT FYI: I'm hoping for nominations for Tilda Swinton for Narnia and Catherine Keener for playing Harper Lee, author of my favorite American novel, in Capote.)
I wish you the very best in 2006, with eagerness for the festivities of the Theophany next week.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
I received the new catalog from Eighth Day Books yesterday -- and it was ample evidence that good things can cause bad results. My temptatioin index has gone through the roof. Here in one place are almost all the books I could want to read. (Well, not all: You can't buy the St. John's Bible, e.g.) Butwhat a collection! I set the catalog before my wife and said, "Here's my wish list for the rest of my reading life." Check it out here.
I was graced by my wife and daughter with the first volume of the St. John's Bible, Gospels and Acts. It is a very rare treat to the eyes and the soul. I have attended the traveling exhibit about the Bible project and I have sat in on the mini-lecture and film at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library at St. John's University (at the Abbey producing the book). And I keep getting more and more excited, fascinated, and inspired by the project. Despite my initial objection to any group's spending perhaps $7 million to produce a hand-lettered and -illuminated manuscript, I am now a shameless promoter of the project. Having seen some of the actual pages, I cannot begin to describe the depth and subtlty of the work. It is pure praise of God! Check out St. John's Bible website to get a mere sense of the project.
To boast further about the quality of family, I now own, by virtue of the generosity of my in-laws, Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses -- his translation of the Torah that attempts to capture in English the sound, sense, meter, and soul of the Hebrew original. (He writes a long essay on what that means as the introduction to the volume.) This work will be a classic, too. (It is another title unavailable from Eighth Day Books, but use your Barnes & Noble discount card to get it there -- it's set in the Judaica section, not in the Bible section: Go figure! Or save lots of money and get it from Amazon.com. )
Now that I have commercialized Christmas, let me note that these books will enhance your spiritual health, even if they lighten your wallet.
A most blessed season to you!
Friday, December 16, 2005
Thank you to Fr. Joseph for assembling them.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
One point I especially appreciate about his analysis is the implied question whether redemption is only backward-looking or whether it is also forward-looking: Are we redeemed only from what has come before or are we also redeemed for.
Here is the column:
Redemption on trial in California
by David Batstone
One man, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, faces execution Tuesday, Dec. 13, at San Quentin State Prison in California. With him our belief in human redemption also sits on the gallows, pending a decision in the clemency hearing conducted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Williams, a founder of the notorious Crips gang, is charged with the murder of four eople in the Los Angeles area in 1979. At the time of the trial, he proclaimed his innocence, a position he maintains today. A jury convicted him wholly on circumstantial evidence; in other words, no eyewitnesses or incontrovertible material evidence linked him to the murders, according to attorney Verna Wefald’s appeal.
In one of the robberies that led to a murder, an accomplice was given clemency for
pointing his finger at Williams for the murder. Beyond the self-interest involved, the accomplice's reputation as a truth-teller was less than stellar. The prosecution produced a shell casing tied to the murder weapon found at the motel where Williams was staying. But the science that matched the casing to the weapon was speculative and its results have not been revisited in the intervening years, the Los Angeles Times reported.
I revisit the facts of the case because Schwarzenegger's decision to grant Williams clemency will depend more on the possibility of his innocence - or at least the uncertainty of his guilt - than it will turn on the contribution that Williams has made to society over the last two decades.That's tragic, because Williams has become a major figure in the gang peace movement. He has co-authored 10 books from Death Row.
The message is clear: Violence is never a solution. He urges young gang kids to get out before it destroys them and the lives of their family members. That's a powerful message from one of the founders of the Crips.Williams first made a public plea to hundreds of gang members who gathered at a Los Angeles hotel in 1993 for a summit called Hands Across Watts. He did not hide his early role in the Crips, but on a prerecorded videotape filmed for the summit told the young gang members that he lamented his history. Recounting this first public event to the San Francisco Chronicle, Williams said, "I told them I never thought I could change my life, that I thought I would be a Crip forever. But I developed common sense, wisdom and nowledge. I changed."
Williams has gone on to build on this witness. In his 1998 prison autobiography Life in Prison, he directed young people to seek an alternative life beyond violence. Prison, he stressed, was no place to spend a life. Two years later he launched the Internet Project for Street Peace. His memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, and the movie, Redemption, came out in 2004.Williams has a bevy of supporters calling for his
clemency. They argue that he has changed thousands of young people's lives, and if allowed to live will continue to be a force for good. His street credibility with gang kids is high, so he can reach them in a way that a teacher or social
In the eyes of the criminal justice system, a redeemed criminal is simply another criminal. I recall my first visit to a federal prison back in seminary when starting a prison chaplain residency. The warden of the prison came to the orientation I shared with other interns. His message was clear to us: "I want you to remember that the prison system today is not about reforming criminals. We are here to punish them."Redemption, in other words, has no place in our justice system. We do not offer a path for conversion. Once marked for condemnation, an offender's destiny is fixed.Elsewhere in the world, four Christian Peacemaker Teams members are marked for execution by a radical terrorist group in Iraq. The circumstances are dramatically different, so I hesitate to make the connection. We are appalled by the blind ideology that drives the terrorists and leads them to cheapen the value of human life. In this ideology, the individual is a tool for political expediency.Don't we want to offer our citizens more in a democracy?
From 12/7/05 SojournersMail.
Permission to reprint is inferred from the invitation, which appeared at the end of the column, to share the article with friends.
Think on it.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
I still like to keep up on publishing (I lament the state of consolidation of the book trade -- both publishers and retail outlets). And I really appreciate it when someone (scholars, book lovers, or otherwise) takes the trouble to write a kind of synthetic essay, comparing and contrasting works of literature around an certain theme or issue.
John Utz, of the Duke Divinity School, has done such a service with respect to the issue of terrorism in literature. And it's a really helpful guide. I encourage you to read it here.
Terrorism, as if we all don't know, is the issue in the lives of USAmericans (that, and the breakup of Jennifer Anniston and Brad Pitt -- if you believe the front page of my local newspaper). And it has theological ramifications galore. Easy to identify is how "Islamist fundamentalists" identify what we consider "terrorist acts" with devotion to Allah. But slower to come to mind is the role of terror in our own Christian history. To cite only a couple of scenes from the Bible: We shall soon celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The civil authority slaughters children in order to try to wipe out a "pretender" to the throne. An undeniable act of terrorism that -- if state-sponsored (which, by some lights, renders it non-terrorism). But keep in mind that that act is a kind of mirror image of The Lord's wiping out innocent Egyptian baby first-borns -- all in order to convince Pharaoh to "let my people go." Is it terrorism if the Creator of All is the perpetrator?
One important point that Utz makes in his essay is that terror is in the eye of the beholder. (The same might be said of torture: Witness the casuistry in the current USAmerican Administration's attempts to say that if we do it, it's not torture; but if it's done to "our boys" -- when will they realize that women are warriors, too? -- then it is.) And fiction can be a good way of coming to understand what that means. I don't urge trying to sympathize or empathize with terrorists. But it seems to me that a good way of reducing the efficacy of programs to enlist terrorists -- whether international or intranational -- is to understand the "terror" dynamic.
I am tempted to read Doris Lessing this Christmas.
Willow Creek Community "Church" (the archetype of the seeker-friendly megachurch) has cancelled services for December 25 -- get this -- because it's Christmas. Better, say the pastors, that the people should be at home with their families. (In their defense, they do make Christmas program tickets available -- 6 to a household -- for their various programs between 20 and 24 December.) See here.
For a liturgically oriented Lutheran, which I am, this makes absolutely no sense -- except as an expression of the complete surrender of the traditions of the Christian Church to the wishes of culture. I used to chide, but have now foresworn doing so, my friends at Mount Olivet (not to be confused with my own Mount Olive) in Minneapolis, where Christmas Eve services run on the hour from about 3 p.m through 11 p.m. (Of course, they only have 2 services on Christmas Day -- another reflection of the culture within we Minneapolitan Christians live, perhaps? Mount Olive will worship at one liturgy on Christmas and "New Year's," too.)
But none of that compares to giving over entirely to a wider culture that views this major Christian festival as a "time for family"? It's a celebration of the Incarnation of God, for heaven's sake; how is that a "family-oriented" event? And if it is family-oriented, why does it draw one Christian family away from another?
What kind of theology so atomizes the life of faith that fellowship with the Body of Christ is considered a distraction?
OK: No comment.
Friday, December 02, 2005
Well now: She has turned her sights from vampires to a new type of immortal -- Jesus. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt is apparently a first-person narrated novel about Jesus at the age of 7. Even more interesting is that the book is a reflection of a very intentional return, on Ms. Rice's part, to communion in the Church.
I tend to be cautious about prodigal son/daughter stories, but I found myself touched by Ms. Rice's story -- as reflected in this interview article published by Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/012/11.50.html
She sounds very sincere to me -- and she has not abandoned her sense of complexity or wonder. (Is it not, for example, too appropriate that her son is gay and that she is a sincere Catholic who advocates for the Church's acceptance of gayness? After all, half my gay friends read the Vampire novels as gay stories -- and Interview with a Vampire is a gay classic, isn't it? The movie ends with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise entwined in some sort of vampirish Tantric act.)
I don't know: I may have to read the new book -- and while I'm at it, go back to some of the vampire books. I think she is generally a good author. And since I judge authors partially on their personal characters, and since Ms. Rice's character seems pretty strong, I am inclined to give her another crack.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
A very blessed Advent to you.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
I'm opening up myself up here, I know, but I invite you to share with the Versus Populum community a favorite or challenging or touching Advent verse (or paragraph or two).
On the first Monday of Advent, I'll post a short message offering space for contributions. Feel free to add your favorite to the Comments space. (I don't encourage more than a couple of paragraphs -- unless it happens to be one of my favorite thinkers
You have been notified, "noticed" (in legal jargon), and warned.
Here's the story as reported by the LA Times last week. Apparently, just before the 2004 election (on Reformation Day, as it turned out -- though Episcopalian haven't received that feast into their calendars), a retired rector of All Saints Church in LA preached a sermon in which he imagined that Jesus debated with George Bush and John Kerry. The rector several times told the parishioners that he was not telling them how to vote, but he came down squarely against the Vietnam, Gulf I, and Gulf II wars. Following a complaint, the IRS has issued a warning that the tax exempt status of the parish is in danger because of its partisan activities.
Here's a blog post from Hugo (admittedly partisan in the last election) who actually heard the sermon. He follows up here. (Thanks to Camassia for bringing this to my attention through her own blog -- and for raising my hackles.)
The issue of church life and politics is at the heart of what I try to think about through this blog. I do not support pastors' preaching their partisan politics -- either from the pulpit or from their lapels. Even I, as difficult as this is to admit, must acknowledge that on most -- i.e., the vast majority -- of political issues, people of faith may disagree. (It's a sign, often, that the devil is alive and well that some of my friends don't agree with my clearly correct positions. But what can I say?) Endorsements of specific candidates or causes is not something the Church may do because it invariably means endorsing something that the Gospel stands against. That's because any candidate or cause has made compromises to get where he or she or it is. So while Al Franken might make a better senator than Norm Coleman, no church may say so because Al Franken also supports many things that faithful Christians ought to oppose (e.g., easy -- indeed, almost unthinking -- of abortion "rights").
The Gospel doesn't compromise: It is not Gospel to say "Let's compromise on the matter of sin. You're not so bad; you just need a little boost to be perfect and saved." Neither is it appropriate for the Body of Christ to encourage something less than faithfulness to the Will of God. Put another way, it is not the Church's business to adopt the agenda of anyone or anything other than God.
Of course, the Gospel compels the faithful into the streets and institutions of the world. We are called and commanded and empowered to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the lonely and relief the oppressed and ... and ... and ... . Sometimes we may be called individually to give Gospel care to someone. With respect to the big issues of the day -- e.g., relieving the need for food or shelter or healthcare -- group (read: political) action is necessary. And that group action is not dictated (at least usually) from any passage of scripture. Prudential analysis takes into account other considerations than the Gospel mandate to do something: Economists, sociologists, nurses -- the disciplines may and should reasonably be employed to inform believers as they work our (i.e., live out) their salvation with fear and trembling.
The Church has no special expertise to set (or promote) the political agenda. But, of course, that does not mean that her voice should be denied access to the "public square." There is every reason for the Church -- by means of her members' acting individually and collectively and through missives from her bishops -- to petition the governmental structures for actions that will shape the society more along the lines that comport with the Will of God, who is, after Lord of all.
It's an art, more than science, to draw the line. I remember my amusement when Lutherans on a listserv of my acquaintance were excoriating +Mark Hanson for a letter to President Bush criticizing his proposed budget: "Where does Jesus show that he has an economics?" they asked. Well, I personally think that Jesus does indeed have an economics -- and it isn't capitalism. But their point was that Jesus was not speaking to governments, but to individuals. But I've suggested my take on that point above. But what is politicking and what is proclamation? Why does the IRS seem unconcerned about the -- shall we say -- right-leaning (if lying flat on the ground is leaning) congregations of certain note that notoriously promote right-leaning Republicans by name and party? And what about all those campaign appearances during worship services? Why has the IRS chosen this congregation for singular treatment?
I am convinced that the current US Administration has no shame and is not above using for purely partisan reasons the various agencies of government which have the authority to wreak havoc on people and institutions. (And, yes, that is a partisan opinion -- although I am not a member of the Democratic Party or even a hanger-thereon. But I think the evidence bears that out -- or will in a couple decades when the various public media get out from under the self-imposed censorship that gives the Administration a free or, at least, inexpensive ride. I think this is a purely partisan move against All Saints congregation, and I lament it.
But, by the same token, I see coming out of the situation the opportunity for renewed attention to the role of church in society. Is Church the guarantor of the society in which it dwells? (I think that theory is alive and well in many Anglican and Eastern branches.) Is the Church "a player" in the political drama? (That is certainly the Falwell-Robertson-Reed-et.al. understanding.) Ought it to be a "player" or a critic or above the fray? Ought Christians concern themselves only with individual action or perhaps even with withdrawal from the public "arena" all together?
Preachers, how do you proclaim the gospel in such a way as to unfold its political meaning (for to avoid that is to render the Gospel pretty much nugatory) without thereby falling into partisan traps? (It is certainly possible -- and I don't encourage any preacher deliberately to avoid any mention of partisan issues. That's a sort of gnostic impulse, in my opinion.)
Are there ways for congregations to teach their people "how" to vote without telling them "for whom" to vote? (I'd sign up for such an adult forum, for sure.)
You have a chance to join in support of All Saints by signing a statement that both raises concern about the IRS pressure on All Saints and rejects efforts to change the law of the land to allow express partisan activity by congregations and pastors. (There is apparently an effort afoot in Congress to allow political endorsements and activity by pastors and congregations. And the law would, so says the statement, allow parties to funnel money to congregations in exchange for political campaigning. (Can you imagine what that would do to the unity of the Body of Christ?) Check it out here. Perhaps needless to say, I signed. (It couldn't hurt, could it?)
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
I have followed up on Clint's lists of good authors by suggesting for his enjoyment Robertson Davies and Reynolds Price.
Now I invite you into the conversation. How about sharing the name of a splendid author on your shelves or one or two novels that you return to, or would return to, to read again.
To put myself on the line: Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow is one of the most touching novels I have read. (It is also one of the best meditations on the nature of fidelity that I can imagine.) (Nelle) Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been on my re-read list since I was in 6th grade (which I think is about 12 years after it was written, and which caused my mother to question the propriety of the book for a sixth grader: Who knew Mother read high-class literature?) Incidentally, I hope the book gets a boost in sales as a result of its treatment in the movie Capote. Harper Lee, of course, accompanied her nearly life-long friend Truman Capote to Kansas to begin to gather material that became the book In Cold Blood. It was while doing that that Lippincott accepted the book for publication and that Paramount (I think) made the movie (one of the all-time greats, too). I also recommend Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety and almost anything by Robertson Davies.
So here's a list to which you should add some:
Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Robertson Davies, Rebel Angels
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Louise Erdrich, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety
Reynolds Price, A Promise of Rest
Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy's Daughter (for the liturgically inspired: read the sequel, Evensong, though it's not as good)
Now, friends, it's your turn. Share some ideas. I don't care if you prefer "the Classics" (you'll notice a conspicuous absence of such from my list -- although certainly Mockingbird might arguably be included -- even though I am a subscriber to the Library of America and have a roomful of the slipcased, acid-free papered, fabric-bookmarked volumes) or "cyberpunk" (a passion, apparently, of Clint's) or romance or science fiction (does anyone want to comment on The Sparrow and Children of God?). Share the wisdom.
Because Advent is not so far away, do you have any suggestions for a good read during Advent?
Sorry to steal your idea, Clint, but thanks for the idea.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
The death of compassionate conservatism
by Jim Wallis
Last week, I spoke with other religious leaders at a press conference in the U.S. Capitol, urging the House of Representatives to oppose cuts in social services in their budget bill. When it was over, we walked to the rotunda to offer a prayer for our nation and its leaders, that they would do the right thing for people in poverty. Suddenly, we were face to face with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and took the opportunity to deliver our message directly to him. He listened politely, but offered little response.
The House is scheduled to begin debate tomorrow on its budget bill, which includes $54 billion in cuts. On the table are cuts of $9.5 billion in Medicaid - by requiring co-pays for pregnant women and children for the first time; $8 billion in foster care, child support enforcement, and aid to the disabled; and $844 million in the Food Stamps Program, which would prevent 300,000 people from receiving food stamps. Forty thousand children would be cut from reduced-price school lunches. Lawmakers intend to follow these with a further cut of $70 billion in taxes that will primarily benefit the top 3% of taxpayers. The message from Congress is that in
response to Hurricane Katrina, we're going to cut services for the poor, cut taxes for the rich, and increase deficits for our children and grandchildren. These plans for deep cuts to social supports, paid for by tax cuts for the wealthiest, are contrary to the national priorities we need to protect our most vulnerable citizens. We need strong moral leadership in Congress, especially during this time of war, record deficits, rising poverty and hunger, and natural disasters. Cutting food stamps and health care that meet the basic needs of poor families is an outrage. Cutting social services to pay for further tax cuts for the rich is a moral travesty that violates biblical priorities. The House leadership seems to be saying they literally want to take food from the mouths of children to make rich people richer. If this ideology and politics of rich over poor prevails and our leaders fail to govern from a set of moral values, then the religious community must conclude that compassionate conservatism is dead.
As this battle for the budget unfolds, I am calling on members of Congress, some of whom make much out of their faith, to start Bible studies before they cast votes to cut services that will further harm the weakest in our nation. They should focus on the gospel imperative - what Jesus tells us about our obligations to the "least of these." Some of them have heard the slogan "What would Jesus do?" Now they should ask, "What would Jesus cut?" Budgets are moral documents, and they reflect our national priorities and values. In the name of social conscience, fiscal esponsibility, equal opportunity, protecting our communities, and the very idea of a common good, the upcoming budget votes will be closely watched by people of faith. Call your member of Congress. Tell him or her to show political will in standing up for the least of these, as Jesus reminds us.
Two kingdom theology (a popular Lutheran theme) or not, this is a serious -- and sad -- time for Christian USAmericans. Trying to pay for (at least) two wars plus humanitarian relief for victims in this country (and in some cases that relief goes for beachhomes for very rich people, let's not forget) and in other lands plus significant tax cuts for the very few very rich people in this country -- regardless of the rightness or wrongheadedness of those programs -- ought not to be done at the expense of those members of our society most in need of support and services and least able to secure them. One can hear Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and other prophets -- not to mention Our Lord Himself -- virtually bleating their dismay and condemnation on a society that "sell[s] the rightous for silver, and the needy for a pair of [Guccie] sandals -- [that] trample[s] the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push[es] the afflicted out of the way." (Amos 2:6f.)
I have been rebuked in the past for suggesting that the prophets' calling on the nation to reform can be translated to calls for our nation to reform. (We are not, after, the "chosen nation" -- regardless of our claims to the contrary.) And I have been told that Jesus' call to care for those in need is a call to individual charity, not government programs.
I consider such notions hooey: Christians are called, as a facet of our discipleship, to work for the reform of government programs along the lines of the eschaton. It is precisely greed, dishonesty, trickery, and all the other political virtues that are called vices by Our Lord. And unless we are part of the process of correcting them, then we share the blame and threat for supporting them. (I always enjoyed the line of -- was it Huey Newton? -- "If you ain't part of the solution, you're part of the problem." I think there is some Christian truth there.)
In any event, I hope you will give Jim Wallis' letter some thought and be moved to contact your US Congress person and US Senator.
And while you're at it, check out this (rather bland) letter from the ELCA bishops (all of them) here.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
Now come Border's and Barnes & Noble, the book companies, which invite me to "pre-order" some books and CDs that will be released over the next few weeks. And I ask you: What on earth is a pre-order? If I enter the required data and click on "send", have I not placed an order -- not a pre-order? Is not "pre-ordering" the stuff I do before I order -- e.g., opening the e-mail announcement, musing on whether I can live without the newest teenybopper CD, checking bank balances, and the like?
Let me display my true old-curmudgeonly side: Are we doomed to the complete breakdown of language, all under the specious rationale that "if you know what I mean, it doesn't matter how I say or spell it"? My stars and garters! Language is the measure of a culture. (Rome began to crumble when it forgot Greek.)
As Christians, we have a special stake in this issue: We are, after all, people of the Word -- the word spoken, the word made visible in sacraments, and the Word made flesh. It is incumbent on us to care for language with the same zeal some of us display toward the "environment" (another loosey-goosey term) or "poverty" or abortion issues.
And we Lutherans (others may look at this without guilt) should be especially mindful of how we use language. We are the tradition that, for better or worse, has built a theological edifice on the "proper distinction between law and gospel." "Law" and "Gospel" are ways of talking (and enacting words -- and precision in grammar is key.
Fn: Ranting on this topic seemed a better idea than commenting on the general quality of driving in Minnesota (which is of very real concern this morning!).
Wednesday, November 02, 2005
In my training, Dom Gregory Dix, the great British monk who wrote The Shape of the Liturgy (which at least used to be the single-source reference that all people serious about liturgy had read and stored on their shelves -- even seminarians like me, who had to shell out it seemed like a thousand dollars to get a new copy of the British-published book) set the stage (to continue the metaphor): He defined the liturgical action around the institution narrative of the eucharist -- viz., Our Lord took (bread/wine), gave thanks/blessed (it), broke it, and gave it to his disciples.
More recently, we have sought to structure the liturgy around another great four -- gathering, listening (to God's Word), communing, and leaving (for service to the world). I think that this arrangement rather trivializes the matter by being so painfully obvious. Of course, we must gather -- and I grant that such is a liturgical action. (My liturgical guru, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of most revered memory, convinced me that the first act of worship on Sunday is getting out of bed as preparation for going to mass.) But gathering is a rather pedestrian phenomenon when set side-by-side with communing, isn't it? And hearing God's word and communing are not actually separate experiences -- no matter how much Lutheran congregations think they can do one (especially the "Liturgy of the Word") without the other (the so-called "Liturgy of the Meal").
Now comes to my attention this meditation on the mass by a pious Roman Catholic woman in Milwaukee (a beloved town in my life): I don't know why exactly, but I'm quite taken with it. And I think it would be a helpful model by which congregations could develop a resource for inquirers, catechumens, and others who wonder what we're doing when we "worship."
The author identifies six stages -- or movements -- to the mass, which I think is a more reasonable number, though I wonder if we can't somehow get seven or eight to make it more biblical. And she is rather heavy on the priest/bishop language -- which will not be all that familiar to protestants. And I can hear Lutherans screaming protest about all the attention to the offering/collection. (The ur-Lutheran Oliver Olson, with whom I have discussed liturgy to the satisfaction of neither of us, will have a stroke over this.) But I think such complaint betrays a lack of perspective on history and liturgy -- or an oversensitivity to Lutheran formulae. And I'm not sure about distinguishing praying the Great Thanksgiving from the communion is right: I'd prefer attention to the intercessions (which get short -- virtually no -- schrift here). (Of course, while the Roman tradition does have a separate section of the mass for intercessions -- prayers of the people -- it also includes them in the Great Thanksgiving. So maybe that's the issue for the author.) But I did call this a model, not a reprint, eh?
The "shape" of the liturgy is important, but for me the greater issue is the integrity of the mass: It's one action, with many parts -- sort of like Shakespeare's "seven ages of man" which highlight the developmental stages of human growth, but place them in the context of the integrity of the one person's life.
I think this meditation helps balance things nicely. When I retire, maybe I'll try to write my own.
Tuesday, November 01, 2005
I know the work of Rodney Clapp and Ron Sider, who are two of the main presenters. They are terrific writers (I can't speak for their speaking), and they'll present interesting stuff, I bet.
I've already put it on my calendar (at $85, I'm registering early), even though it comes but a month before the annual conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (about which you may expect to hear/see more when the brochure is finalized).
I hope this excerpt from the abstract of the conference sparks your interest:
Consumerism is the driving force in our society—a spirit of our age. It is
enmeshed within the fabric of our society. There are many critics to
consumerism—those who are rightly concerned about the destructiveness of
consumerism when it comes to economic justice or environmental issues. However,
consumerism also reaches deep into the heart of American spirituality.
Consumerism shapes the way we relate to each other, to our society, and to our
God. Christians need to intentionally and carefully navigate our consumer
culture, responding to its dangerous complexities with a deepening awareness of
its promises and perils. The Conference on Christianity and the Consumer Culture
will be both informative, fostering a deeper understanding of consumerism and
its role within our society, as well as formative, providing strategies for
faithful living in light of the promises and perils inherent to our consumer
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
I believe that part of the reason so few people came is that, like the rest of society, many of us Christians are solipsistic: We are, as Luther said, homo incurvatus in se (i.e., a people turned in or curved in on ourselves). If something doesn't affect or involve me, it's not important or it doesn't exist. So unless hurricane Wilma is ravaging US soil, it's not important for the newscasts to say much about it. And so unless I'm ill, I don't see the point in St. Luke's observances. (Not incidentally, that merges wonderfully with the individualistic, pietistic brand of theology rampant in most Christian traditions now: Salvation has been reduced to my own eternal fire insurance policy, church life is a voluntary-organization thing, and morality becomes a matter of my own conscience and desires.)
This self-absorption gets mixed up in Minnesota with good Midwestern stoicism: I will battle on by myself without whining or seeking help. There's no honor in weakness or in relying on someone else.
Of course, as is evidenced by the fact that Mount Olive's bulletin lists almost fifty people for whom prayers for healing are requested, we stoics are not averse or afraid to offer help. Like most Midwesterners, we are mostly generous (although I think that is changing, too, to reflect a society gone mad with greed and success) and willing to help. And for the most part, I don't think we devalue those whom we help (either in prayer or practice): That's a delicious irony of the Midwestern psyche. (And it may be true of other regions of the world; I'm just not qualified to speak about others.)
Now, I cannot claim to great affection for the blessing of animals -- although I don't know that I feel any distaste for them, either. (What with all the to-do over blessing same-sex relationships, I think it odd to have no reservations about blessing animals -- whatever that might mean -- while fighting over the blessing of people. I just throw that out for your amusement.) On the other hand, my daughter Erika was really gung-ho about it this year, because we now possess -- or rather, are possessed by -- a really cute and lovable Havanese puppy, and this would be Krissie's first blessing. So Erika not only took our dog, but she corralled two friends to bring their new pets for the blessing, too. (There's something here about evangelizing, but I prefer not to think it through. And, no, my friend who shall remain nameless for your own protection: The animals were not baptized, even though they were "asperged." Warren raises an interesting query about the use of asperges in the rite, when asperges is normally associated with remembrance of Baptism. How does that all fit together?)
I fear that the blessing of animals -- read: pets -- rather trivializes Francis' witness: I think he might be put off by the effete treatment many of our pets get, at the same time as people are living in cardboard boxes and going without food. And Francis' respect and affection for animals was inextricably tied up with his celebration of the manifold graces of God to be found, not just in living creatures, but in the natural cycles, the heavenly spheres -- in short, in all that exists (whether it has life and breath or not).
Thus, it would seem to me to be a better tribute to St. Francis if the Church were to devote more attention to catechizing the brothers and sisters so that they are prepared to see the relevance (and even urgency) of and to participate in the multitude of services by which we celebrate the world God has given into our care and for our enjoyment. Rogation services, saints' days, feasts and festivals -- these are all important to the life of faith.
But, even giving our congregations the benefit of the doubt with respect to self-obsession, I think it's fair to convict the church generally (and worship and education departments in denominational bodies and in congregations) of dropping the ball on training the minds and souls of believers to full expression of the life of faith. And with the entry into the church of innumerable people who have no background in the church, it is terribly important to catechize believers -- i.e., not just to train their brains (i.e., educating them in the theology and history of the church) but to train their lives of worship, too. (That was, after all, the early church's model and practice, wasn't it?)
So how can the church do this? How do we help all our members make the
"connections" among the various things the church does? Obviously, preaching is
a key way; but so is plain old-fashioned education: Talk to children about how
we plant gardens and pray God's blessings on them -- and why. Discuss with adults
how praising God for the ministries of pets is related to praying for healing
for people who need it (even if I don't think I do) and how the whole enterprise
reveals my own need for healing in ways I didn't see before.
I used to teach confirmands that when Luther asks, in the Small Catechism, "What does this mean?", he is asking, "How does this connect? How does it connect with other parts of the creed, Our Father, Ten Commandments, church theology? How does it
connect with Jesus and the Church? How does it connect with your life?"
I think that Mount Olive's experience with Francis and Luke days highlights disconnections. And though we are a relatively sophisticated congregation, "even we" have difficulty drawing the connections and putting them into operation. I think that mandates another program for the church. At a time when the ELCA is drafting a "successor" to the Lutheran Book of Worship, I wonder whether that effort is a little like (to quote from other contexts my favorite teacher, Robert Jenson) "rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic." Unless we (re-)catechize Christians into the liturgical expression of the faith, all the worship books in the world, with all the fanciest technology available, will be just so much waste of paper and power.
On the other hand, this may be a way of carrying on the vital ministry of the "liturgical renewal" movement that has served the church well for the last decades. We have learned well that liturgy is a vital component in the growth in grace, but we often forget that our growth in and into liturgical life can be enhanced by educators, poets, and prophets. I have urged our congregation to get with it and begin to realize that to be the Church is to be the worshipping Church.
Friday, October 21, 2005
Let me say that I am not completely informed about what product the renewing worship process will produce. As I understand matters, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (the Disneyworld Assemble, I am wont to call it) authorized the production of a worship book and it placed responsibility for revising and approving the book in the office of the Presiding Bishop. We are promised that by March 2006 we will have a sampler of the contents of the book an that by mid-October 2006 a new book with supporting materials. But right now, no body seems to know what’s going to be in the book beyond hints provided by the previously published resources and overviews offered at the Renewing Worship website. That makes it difficult to discuss and criticize. That will not deter me however. I find it possible to criticize both process and product based on what is now available.
Since the project began, I have been troubled by the title taken for the effort: “renewing worship.” What does that mean? What is it meant to convey? Does “renewing” refer to process or to product?
Will the committee or task force, by its “own reason and strength,” seek to accomplish something that will renew “worship” within the Church? What, by the committee’s lights, needs to be renewed? Has worship grown flat in the ELCA? (It’s brazen arrogance to call oneself a renewer or a reformer – that title is usually granted, not claimed. But if that is the goal, perhaps the committee might have looked elsewhere than to the Lutheran Book of Worship, the rites and hymns book that has faithfully served the Lutheran Church for over twenty-five years, for a place to propose changes.)
Or is the phrase meant to carry a more consumerist note? Does/did the committee intend to develop “worship resources” that would “renew” the worshiper? That sounds current and mega-churchly, saleable and just vague enough to avoid definite meaning. (I can already see the ads: Joy Lutheran Church offers “Renewing Worship.”) But does such a suggestion – i.e., such an instrumental and utilitarian view of worship – reflect the or a Lutheran understanding of liturgy and worship? Is worship meant primarily to make us feel better? Even if one takes a very conservative position on the supposed distinction between sacrifice and sacrament, I doubt one would come down on the side of such personal fulfillment. (Rebuke and repentance may be good for the soul, but they are not necessarily good for the morale. I have heard complaints that Lent is a “downer” and ought to be downplayed in favor of Easter and joy, e.g.)
The lack of definition in “renewing worship” seems to have characterized the process that was meant to renew worship or to design person-renewing worship. The book now proposed for publication as “Evangelical Lutheran Worship” suffers from the same lack of definition.
The very title of the book is problematic, too: “Evangelical Lutheran Worship.” Is that to suggest that the book is from and for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA?)? Or does it offer a critique or worship in the Lutheran churches in America? Is “evangelical” intended to contrast with “high church”? Or are there non-evangelical Lutherans or is there non-evangelical Lutheran worship? (On that latest point, don’t get me started; I may have to cede the argument.) Is it intended to attract customers from the “Evangelical” wings of Christendom in America?
The process for “renewing worship” has also been problematic. I have checked my perceptions with others, and there is a sense that the “product” of the process has not been tested sufficiently for the Church to have confidence in it. I realize that materials have been available, and I see some evidence that supposed criticisms have been taken, at least partly, to heart. (E.g., I see that scandalously weak pastoral address of the Maundy Thursday liturgy has been corrected – but unfortunately, it has been eliminated altogether so far as I can tell from the materials now available.) Nevertheless, there is a sense among many of us that there simply was not engagement with the wider Church that characterized, for example, the development of the Lutheran Book of Worship. The process seemed, if not secretive, at least arcane.
Compounding that problem is the apparent snubbing of any member of the team that drafted the LBW. That is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Many of those people still live (and I know enough of them to know that a sizeable sample would have been available). These are people of enormous talent and insight, theological acumen and healthy experience with the Church’s worship. They could have enhanced the quality of the product – and probably improved the process by which it was developed – in ways that we can now only imagine. Furthermore, by consulting them, the “new resource” drafters could have availed themselves of the institutional memory residing in the heads and hearts of those faithful servants.
In a future post, I’ll take on criticism of the final “product” – something that is hard to do because the final product is not yet set. The previously published interim editions of the rites are just that – interim. As I understand matters, the Disneyworld Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA gave authority for the Presiding Bishop’s office to make final revisions and changes and to produce the final product (which I think has to be approved either by the bishops’ conference or the Church Council). The final texts have not yet been approved, even though evaluation materials have been sent out to congregations and a brochure exists trying to sell copies of the book at pre-publication prices. (Talk about offering a pig in a poke).
For now, I offer a few general ideas about this project. First, it seems to me that the chief reason for developing a new “resource” is that the Lutheran Book of Worship is old – twenty-seven years old and counting. I am not sure why age seems a liability in a worship book (age and provenance are often tests of worthiness in the great Tradition of the Church), but apparently that concern intersects with another concern – viz., the need for a product that will find acceptance in congregations that are not keen on the LBW’s relatively sober, serious, and (mostly) European tone and substance. “Formal worship” – which has been inestimably encouraged the the LBW – seems to have fallen from favor; happy, clappy, praisy, band-led, entertainment-style events are the rage.
But for congregations that offset their “traditional” liturgy with a “contemporary” service (in order, I guess, to “give the people what they want” – sort of like bread and circuses), there is not much to draw on (arguably) from the LBW. I mean, Bach just doesn’t swing with an electrified guitar, lousy trapset, and electric non-organ keyboard. So if we want to offer resources to that cohort of the Church, we need new resources, right?
Finally, if one may deduce from drafts of the rites, there is at least one other motive behind the movement: that of reducing the scandal of the faith. I detect in the texts a softening of the realities of grace and death – and as a consequence a moderating of the stunning surprise of resurrection.
I’ll deal with my charge that the drafters are dumbing down the language of faith in my next post. But let me just say how wrong-headed I think it is to serve the other two purposes I’m positing. The folks who favor so-called “contemporary” worship (and some musicians ought to take on that misnomer: I hear no “new music” in contemporary worship) are not going to buy a hardbound worship book from AugsburgFortress. We don’t have nearly enough people working in that field to develop resource materials that praise bands and related arrangements want. Besides, few of them want a book at all; better are projections and downloadable resources. (Customers will be able to download materials from the book Evangelical Lutheran Worship. But on that point, return to my earlier point – that the people most desiring such stuff won’t look to our new worship book.)
Worship books ought not be designed around the findings of consumer polls. Their purpose is to serve God, not to serve current taste. The test of their success is not their sales volume (so I really don’t care whether AugsburgFortress loses its shirt on this deal or not – though I suspect it will), but rather their theological integrity, clarity, Christocentrism, durability, eloquence.
I’m not insensitive to the need for AugsburgFortress to develop new products to improve its bottom line. I used to own a bookstore; I know that new sells. But I question the wisdom of this approach to solving the problem. Why, in essence, a replacement for the LBW? Why not stand-alone resources?
I suspect that the answer will emerge from a look at the proposals already in front of us. And for that, I’ll need another post.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
In any event, even though I’m not particularly fixated on reading Martin Luther or reading about him (aside from the usual interest of one who sees him as a seminal figure in the development of Western culture!), I have run across two articles that deal with the good Doktor’s writing and its misapplication or with the misattribution to Luther of things he didn’t say. And it results in some questions that relate to issues I've babbled about before.
The first is Timothy Wengert’s remarkable analysis of Luther on the “priesthood of all believers” and its application to church life. In this article, Prof. Wengert closely reads Luther with freshly Visined eyes and discovers that all the mythology floating around the Lutheran churches in America (at least) is unfounded. Lutheran doctrine does not hold that any old Lutheran is free to preach, preside at sacraments, and do all the other things that some people say "only pastors should do them." He carefully parses out a couple of distinctions.
The "priesthood of all believers" is a notion that is dearly held by most Lutherans to democratize life in the Church. All Christians are equal -- whether seminary trained or not -- and are capable and have the right to do all the things necessary to connect God to humanity: If that means carrying blankets to an earthquake site, then that is "priestly action." If that means that I decide I make more sense than my pastor, then I can get up and preach. In my view, that has led to a strain of anti-clericalism in the Lutheran Church. It has also nurtured "congregationalism," in which congregations feel authorized to go their own regardless of strictures or requirements of the larger Church body to which they belong. And it has encouraged individualism in thought and practice: I exist before God on my own and I can do my own thing because I, too, am a "priest."
Wengert tries to put such notions to rest. First, he argues that in his discussions of a common "priesthood," Luther attacks the notion that priests and religious are somehow "ontologically" superior to "lay people." Luther understood Rome to hold that "priests" represented a special "order" or "estate" of creation. They were the only intermediaries between God and humanity.
Wengert understands Luther to argue that there is only one "class" (or "estate" or "Staende") before God -- viz., believer. Thus, the priest can claim no special relationship to God that poor lay folk can lay hold of only through him (yes, "priests" were exclusively "hims").
But Luther also had a horror of "lack of good order" -- i.e., of Christians asserting rights and privileges for themselves to the detriment of the congreation or church. All Christians are preachers by virtue of their baptism, true; but it is disruptive -- and counter to the clear proclamation of the Gospel -- if everyone preaches at once. The duties commonly associated with pastoral ministry (and that does not include office administration or budget balancing) do indeed belong to the whole Christian community, and not just to one class. "[But just so] because all of these things are the common property of all Christians, ... no one is allowed to proceed into the midst [of Christians] by his [or her] own authority and seize for himself [or herself] what belongs to all."
Ordination, on his view, then, is the mark that the one being ordained is authorized by the entire community to minister by "teaching, preaching and announcing the Word, baptizing, consecration or administering the Eucharist, absolving or binding sins, praying for others, sacrificing, and judging concerning all doctrines and spirits". This authorization is more, however and therefore, than the "delegation" of some duties to one or two people for the sake of efficiency. The concern for good order is a concern that the entire body be served.
As we know from the Lutheran confessions, the office of the (ordained) ministry is God-established to "secure" faith in the Gospel. It is an essential mark of the Church. (One could draw a pretty good case for the necessity of bishops on the basis of that reading, too.) If the "office" is to serve its function under the Gospel, it must be administered by the whole Church, not just individuals or a clique of a few individuals. Thus, ordination roots completely in the wider Church. One may preach and teach only with the proper authorization, in Lutheran terms, a "proper call." (Note: The call comes, not from God in some inchoate and individualized way, but through the Church, the Body, the community.)
Before I draw my own deductions from this article and show the reason I recommend the article, let me direct you to another place. The Fall 2005 issue of Word & World (the theology journal published at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul) focuses on "Work and Witness." In his editor's introduction to the number, Fred Gaiser demonstrates that two very popular quotes attributed to Luther never passed Luther's lips:
The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays -- not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors. The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.and
If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.Gaiser argues that neither of these quotes even "sounds" like Luther because they sound so modern. The first is notable for its secularity -- with its consumerist picture of God who cares, not for the effect of the work on the life of the worker or those who buy the product, but rather for the quality of the end product. Where is the concern for the welfare of the neighbor that is at the heart of Christian life? The second is not "Lutheran," either, because it suggests a kind of interest in the "moment," in the here-and-now that loses its reference to Christ and his "eschatological ethic." In both cases, Luther's theology is misshapen to the extent that it loses Luther's fundamental claim about "vocation" and "vocations" -- namely, that our vocation (or call) is to serve the neighbor, even as we have been served by Christ.
Service to the neighbor is the key to both of the concerns I raise in this post. Luther was not the ultimate individualist, not the great crusader for personal "rights," not one to focus on the short-term, not the great divider of "secular" from "sacred." Christians live under the cross and, because of that, they do not assert their "rights" to preach and preside over against other brothers and sisters. Instead, they submit to the mind of the Church and accept the ministry of those who are properly identified for pastoral ministry by the Church (whether that be a congregation or a "synod" or the universal Church -- the latest not a possibility since at least 1055). It's the same insight offered in "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church" -- viz., that a Christian is perfectly free and the shape of that freedom is to serve the neighbor. The name of the Christian faith game is service.
Despite corporations' wanting believers to swallow the notion that all God cares about in your trade is getting the work done as well and cheaply as possible, that is not the issue at all in Christians' discovering their vocations (here read: work lives). God's concern is whether his children are being clothed and fed and nurtured. Thus, the appropriate question for a Christian who works is not, are these great-quality shoes (and worth the $5,000 that Prada will charge)? It is rather, am I serving the neighbor by producing such expensive shoes? The answer may be -- as it has in the past been -- that there is certain work that Christians do not undertake to do.
This issue comes to the fore in a couple of relevant cases. First, it highlights the folly of those who argue that they have a "right" to be ordained to serve the Church. There is no such thing as a "right" in the Church. There may be responsibilities, but no rights or claims to justice. (As Jesus' parables often highlighted, there are times that life in the Reign of God doesn't seem fair or right.) Those who assert such nonsense as "rights" and "standing" don't understand the Cross. (To touch on a regular concern here: That is not finally to judge the issue of ordaining non-celibate gays, of course. It is simply to say that the argument for such ordination must be made on other grounds.) It also shows that the current turmoil over "lay" preaching and presiding (which may only be an issue for Lutherans, but seems to be growing larger in our tradition) is lamentably mis-framed. Because ordination is something other than a recognition of a seminary degree, arguments over "lay preaching" really miss the whole point of ordination to preaching. If someone is preaching and presiding on a regular basis, even though not granted the imprimatur of a seminary degree, that person ought to be examined and, if qualified (and I don't mean in Greek irregular verbs), ordained -- for he or she meets the "ordered" test.
(Sorry, my seminarian brothers and sisters, it is not the seminary education that "qualifies" you for ordination, either. There is nothing other than the call of the Church that "qualifies" or equips one for pastoral ministry. And before you trump me with the Holy Spirit, I'll put my cards on the table: The Holy Spirit works through the Church as through means. She can and does work outside the administrative stuctures of the Church, of course. It's just more problematic to identify what is truly her work outside the boundaries of the Church.)
Second, these works (and many more) commend to the Church discussion of how to discern (a good churchly word, eh?) where believers are being called to serve. What are legitimate concerns in deciding on a "life's work"? Are there restrictions on the range of work that Christians may undertake? For example, in the earliest church, as I understand history (see previous blogs), Christians were not allowed to be soldiers or prostitutes. Because of the idolatry involved in (or required by those in) those professions, they were deemed to be out of the bounds of a Christian's choice of (or answer to) vocation. Are there similar options today that are foreclosed to Christians?
With then-Cardinal Ratzinger's suggestion that no war in the modern era may be considered "just" because of the nature of warfare, one must, I think, question whether soldiering and sailoring is still a possibility. How about working as an assassin for the CIA (yeah, I know: it's a little TVish). How about a judge that must, under law, impose death penalties? (See this article
by the editor of First Things, that notorious left-wing rag, for a fascinating denunciation of the death penalty. In First Things of all places!)
It is a blessing, at least for those of us who bear the middle name "Lutheran," that the study of Luther goes on. (I won't get into the discussion of whether Luther's writings trump the Lutheran Confessions -- which would be a fun one to take on.) We discover almost every day that almost from the beginning, Luther has been read through peculiar prisms that bend and twist his words to match the ideologies and cultural concerns of the day. It may be time for us to rethink some of our long-cherished attitudes which we claim to have gotten from Luther.
Friday, October 14, 2005
I want to close there, but I'm I, so I have to say a little more: This really highlights the distinction Karl Barth drew between religion and faith. (Does anyone dispute that Karl Barth was simply the greatest theologian of the 20th Century? I don't think Pannenberg or Jenson or Rahner or Ratzinger [he's not really in the systematic pack with the rest of them] or von Balthazar [though he may be the most "cultured"] come even that close.)
At root, religion is the effort to manipulate the divine to one's own or one's people's benefits and desires. This may be more or less cynical, savage, or selfish. Faith, on the other hand, is a receptive relationship with the divine in which, at least in Christian terms, one allows God to be God and to be the measure of life for oneself and one's people.
Hence, "religion is the last refuge of the scoundrel."
Now come on, people, you have to give me points for brevity.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
William Bennett is a first-class, hypocritical, pompous scold. He has always been, and he'll likely not change -- even after all the flak he's taken for his comments on his radio show recently. He touts himself as an expert on morality and virtues, and he has undertaken to claim exemplar status for himself in those areas. (Cf. his books on "virtue" for children, e.g.) He's a passionately partisan social critic. (Cf. anything he says.) So I wasn't especially surprised to hear his analysis of a recent book that claims to show that crime rates fall with the legalizing of abortion, because presumably most of the abortions involve poor mothers of color. (I won't cite the book because I don't want to give that author any publicity.) He is an ardent foe of abortion (as am I), but he went over the line recently.
Bennett denounced the book, but in doing so, he made this observation: "But I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down," Bennett said. He went on to note that it would be immoral to do so. (Ya think?)
Now what really gets me -- and what surprises me, too, for that matter, because I gave Bennett more credit for at least some thinking -- is the blatant and simply stupid racism that he voices. It shows absolutely no sophistication about crime statistics, preferring to take them at face value. Here's what I mean.
I Hennepin County, where I live, the number (and per capita) of blacks arrested way outpaces that of whites arrested. But that does not support the claim that blacks commit more crime. Studies have shown repeatedly that cops are more likely to arrest blacks than they are whites for the same supposed offences. Whites are also (throughout the process) allowed more releases on their own "recognizance" (as they say on TV) and to be "diverted" -- i.e., to be dealt with in non-judicial and -penal systems. In this county, it is not blacks that need fixing; it is the system.
But even if it were to be demonstrated that blacks do commit more crimes, that is not even one step along the path to showing that all blacks share equally in the issue. (And that is something that Bennett implied.) Studies also show that people who commit crimes are hundreds of times more likely to re-commit crimes than "ordinary people" are likely to commit even one crime. That means that criminal activity is concentrated among criminals, not equally distributed throughout the community. Mr. Bennett, wake up.
Fascination with the unexamined big lie is quite natural. What is also natural, unfortunately, is the knee-jerk reaction to the big lie -- protesting without offering any kind of rebuttal. That latter has been the case with partisan lefties, who take great umbrage, but don't spell out why Mr. Bennett is the liar that he is.
He is too smart (he will be happy to tell you that he has a Ph.D. and was once Secretary of Education -- imagine that!) not to know what he said. And he's too glib to have misspoken. And he knows something about statistics and their misuse (lies, damned lies, and statistics?). One must conclude ... . (And here I try to avoid further violating the eighth commandment.)
"Great theology is always a kind of giant and intricate poetry, like epic or
saga. It is written for those who know the tale already, the urgent messages and
the dying words, and who attend to its retelling with a special alertness,
because the story has a claim on them and they on it. Theology is also close to
the spoken voice. It evokes sermon, sacrament, and liturgy, and of course,
Scripture itself, with all its echoes of song and legend and prayer. It earns
its authority by winning assent and recognition, in the manner of poetry but
with the difference that the assent seems to be to ultimate truth, however
oblique or fragmentary the suggestion of it. Theology is written for the small
community of those who would think of reading it" (117).
Those are words worth savoring.
Anyone disagree with Ms. Robinson?
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
This evening at my church, Mount Olive, we will observe the annual "blessing of the animals" in the spirit of Francis' assertion that all of creation shares in fraternity and sorority in God. If that sounds a little snide, I meant it to sound ironic.
It seems that all we really value about the witness of Francis is his love for our four-legged (and more!) friends. The link above, for example, calls him patron of animals and the environment. That seems to miss the meaning of the man and the saint. Certainly, it is certaininly legitimate to see in Francis the model of one who sees the interrelationship of all aspects of creation. After all, the rule he devised for his "Order of Friars Minor" forbade riding horses for transportation. To treat an animal such was as wrong, he asserted, as riding on the back of one's brother for transport.
But we need to remember more about Francis than that. His was a witness to and call for complete surrender to the love and authority of God. Give up all trappings of other attachments: That was Francis' way. And I can't help wondering whether the whole institution of blessing animals wrongheadedly trivializes his life and witness. For he was about more than animals (and, by some counts, stars and moons). His devotion to self-less service of God -- including service to all of God's -- gets lost, I fear, in the cacophany of barks, meows, neighs, and (if one is unlucky enough to know people with snakes) hisses. Do those who bring their beasts to church think of bringing a person from off the streets for that kind of blessing? Or of taking a blessing to their political representative -- a blessing that might call for reformation or repentance? Do the pet owners (for only pets get brought, in most places: What about strays or unpleasant beasts -- e.g., rats or chinchillas?) see beyond their pets to the grace of God or do they see in them another symbol of their concern for their own comfort?
Of course, I do not object to thanking God -- indeed, blessing him -- for the gift of the animal kingdom. I'd get astronomers and geographers in on the schtick, too. And we should tie it all together with the Benedicite omnia opera.
But what is with the blessing? I guess it's my lack of clarity on this that got me going on this post.
At Mount Olive, we are exploring the possibility of authorizing the pastor to preside at the blessing of same-sex unions. (I'll forego the joy of unmasking the actual agenda of the discussion -- which is to establish a rationale for a decision already informally made.) I thought it ironic in the extreme that we were talking on Sunday about that topic and debating whether it is appropriate (guess which side I took). And that happened directly after announcing the service for the blessing of the animals. So: We can bless animals but not human relationships?
In our discussion, we have been singularly unclear about what a "blessing" is. On the one hand, the pastor wants clearly to distinguish blessing a same-sex union from a wedding or marriage. And yet in his review of a rite of blessing, he opined that if we go this route "nothing would change at Mount Olive" because we would simply do for two men or two women what we do in other "marriages." And that has gotten me going on the whole question of what a blessing is.
Does anyone have a good resource for helping me sort that out? God blesses; we bless God; we "bless" others; we are 'just truly blessed.' What's with that?
In the rites for animal blessings that I have seen, "blessing" means little more than thanking God for the joys of pets and asking Him to keep them safe. Is there more?
I wonder what St. Francis would say about the extravagance of keeping pets and if he would grant his blessing to our rites of blessing animals.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Last night we saw The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and I'm glad we did. (And this one I don't have to feel guilty about, because Kathy has no interest in seeing it.) The movie centers on the trial of a Roman Catholic priest who is brought up on criminal charges of negligent homicide in connection with the death of college-age girl whom he from whom he tried to exorcise demons after a period of her behaving increasingly strangely and self-destructively. The trial conflict focusses on whether the girl died primarily of medical causes, which the priest should then have prevented by forcing the girl into medical care, or "supernatural" causes, which the priest ultimately was unable to defeat and for which he would not be ultimately responsible.
We see sort of cartoon characterizations of the lawyers involved -- indeed, the concern of the movie is the trial more than the claimed demon possession. The prosecutor is a good, church-going, choir-member, Bible-reading (so he tells a witness and the jury) Methodist who will go from "tearing a witness apart on cross-examination" to Bible study at the church (where "he practically lives," according to a colleague) without setting a mustache hair out of place. He is trim, tightly dressed, and absolutely disdainful of any notion of "supernatural" powers or causes. In his summation to the jury, for example, he distinguishes between "facts" (which are properly the subject of judicial inquiry) and "belief" (which, of course, has nothing to do with "in here" -- i.e., in the courtroom). He was especailly cartoonish, I thought: I don't see that he could be much of a Methodist if he so neatly separates off his life of faith from his work as a prosecuting attorney -- but he is a wonderful send-up of the modern Liberal Protestant for whom faith is religion and life is life and the two really don't have much to do with each other.
The defense attorney, on the other (and ironic) hand is a hard-drinking, ambitious, tough lawyer who is fighting against the glass ceiling in her law firm by taking on and winning difficult criminal cases. (Laura Linney can act, but I was constantly distracted by how much she looks like Jennifer Anniston -- so I never did quite suspend disbelief about her.) She begins somewhat sceptical of the possession theory of the case, until she realizes that she is losing badly on the medical testimony. And once she begins to listen to her client (well, that's an issue: who really is her client -- but more later), she gets on board and begins perhaps to experience herself the assaults of darkness (as the priest calls it). She even tracks down and brings in a very sophisticated Northwestern University anthropologist (trained at Yale and Oxford -- can you get more respectable?) to describe (in the most gorgeous, Eva-Gabor-like accent) the worldwide phenomenon of demonic possession and who is able to opine that it was demons, not medical causes, that were the ultimate cause of the girl's death.
What we are meant to appreciate, and I guess I can, is the irony of the positions adopted by the two lawyers. In one corner is the church-going prosecutor. This person of faith utterly denies any notion of the influence of the supernatural in daily events. His is a world in which courts deal with "facts" -- which are not interpretations, but things you can get your hands on, undeniable, scientifically verifiable. Anything incapable of a physical explanation is out of bounds. He is merciless on insisting that if a doctor diagnoses it, it is a fact; there can be no more to it. (The movie is clearly on the attack against the mythification of medicine -- the scientific trump of any explanation of anything dealing with the human body.)
In the other corner, the defense attorney begins from a position of scepticism and may be moved to an appreciation that "there are more things "twixt heaven and earth than are dream'd in your philosophy." She has a heart, if hidden among intra-firm wrangling and soothed with a couple of dry martinis (but Tanqueray? -- really). She argues finally, in the real value of the movie, that what are posited as facts are not "facts." "This trial is not about facts," she says. "It is is about possibilities."
Facts, by her description, allow no room for possibilities. Can she say that Emily was possessed? No, but is it possible? Can she deny that Emily was epileptic (as claimed by the prosecution's expert witnesses)? No, but is it possible that she was not?
Aside from the nice rhetoric, by which she hammered home the jury's responsibility to decide "beyond a reasonable doubt," it is a lovely challenge to the philosophical categories most of us are encouraged to live by. Are "facts" facts? What is an undeniable fact to me that influences how I act and react, may be idle or foolish speculation to you. For example, it is a fact for me that one man rose from very real, factual death. That influences how I view the world, how I make decisions, how I treat people. But for many "fact" that has absolutely no basis "in fact" and cannot enter into any consideration of how I live in the world. But on the other hand, can we live in a world in which all people's delusions and madnesses must be respected just because they are "factual" to that person? Must we resort to scientific, supposedly objective calculation to resolve the conflict. (See Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions if you think so.)
There was meat and drink in this movie, despite its flaws. And the flaws are Legion. The efforts to portray demonic possession were rather silly. This moviemaker is not good at horror movie stuff, and it diminishes what could have been a thoughtful movie on the subject to restrict the display of demonic possession to distorted limbs and shrieking voices. The auteur may have been restricted by the "factual basis" of the movie -- there was, apparently a real-life Emily Rose, and this movie is based on a book about her and her death written by the real-life attorney for the priest.
And the legal business is almost laughable. For one thing, there was inadequate basis for the jury's verdict (which I won't give away, I hope). Then there's the hotshot, brilliantly skilled defense attorney who only begins working with her client -- indeed, who doesn't even meet her client -- until after the trial has already begun and the jury impaneled! What we saw of the testimony was poorly presented -- and the cross-examination on both sides was pathetic. (Am I right that the DSM has been replaced by DSM-II? The prosecution relies on DSM -- and to cross-examine on the basis of facts not elicited into evidence.) I think I counted about 10 breaches of the canons of legal ethics. And I was really put off by the blatant conflict of interest that the defense's law firm seemed unaware of: They were hired by the Archdiocese to defend the priest. But they were really hired to minimize damage to the Archdiocese's reputation. The law firm never, so far as I could determine, decided who their client really was -- and that fact becomes clear later in the movie when the lawyer and her boss disagree over strategy and who gets to call the shots in the trial. The Archdiocese wanted the lawyer to arrange a plea bargain or, absent that, to control the court strategy -- even though that strategy was directly opposed to the best interests and wishes of the client whose freedom was at stake. In short, it's lamentable that the producers couldn't spend a few thousand dollars to consult a trial lawyer on the trial aspects.
They could have dropped a few dollars on a theological consultant, too -- or, if the "consultant" was a theological consultant, then one who knew about the Roman Catholic practice of exorcism. For instance, my understanding is that the Church (perhaps each diocese) designates an exorcism specialists and does not allow any old parish priest to give it a try. Here, however, the priest was allowed to go forward even though he knew nothing about the exorcism rite before he tried it. And there were other nits to pick.
Nevertheless, Brad and I found stuff to talk about from the movie, and that usually means that there's enough in a movie for me to recommend it. So I do -- if only to further conversation about the interrelation of so-called "facts" and "belief" or of the possibility of the "supernatural's" being involved in daily life.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
First, from Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), p. 128. Lamott's is a kind of spiritual journey, recounting her passage from nonfaith to faith, with descriptions of the on-going struggles that most of us experience. In this paragraph, she reflects Sunday's Gospel reading about forgiving (is it really only 77 times -- as we heard at our place -- or 70 times 7 that Jesus says we are to forgive?).
I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness -- that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years -- four former Republican preidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree -- it was "The Twelve Days of Christmas" meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, "If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo."
And then this, from the novel by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 23-24. This musing near the beginning of an old Calvinist preacher's death-bed memoir. In this "scene," he has just recounted a childhood experience in which he and some friends baptized most of a litter of barn kittens. (Raising some doubt of the sanctification in the lives of those who did not escape the waters of baptism, and in speaking of those that were not transformed into domestic pets, the narrator says, "The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell." p. 22). He goes on to think about the depth of joy he felt during his career when he baptized people. And then he switches to this:
Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, "Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies at the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance." Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religon as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. That is is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelouson the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions.
I read Lamott because she is funny (especially when I hear her talk) and insightful -- if a little too pleased about her "dirty little" past. She describes her "conversion" in this book in such a way that I had to give thanks for the little congregation that midwifed her into Christ.
On the other hand, I have had the Robinson since it came out a year ago, and I have not wanted to read it (although knew I should read it because of all the acclaim that it was receiving). But I felt guilty about buying the book and not reading it, and so I've begun it. It surprises me in that it does not strike me as a book out of the Iowa Writier's Workshop (which was also a concern of mine), even though Robinson has taught at the Workshop for years. Her prose is really quite compelling.
In both cases, I think I'll refrain from commenting (even though the liturgy student in me REALLY wants to talk about the baptism passage). I trust the passages to speak for themselves.
Tuesday, September 06, 2005
I have resigned my current job in order to take a new one. The new job is in most respects just like the one I'm leaving, but there is the promise of more responsibility and management possibilities. And it is free of the personal-political circus where I currently work. So I'm making the jump. And ordinarily, that's not a big thing.
But I'm sort of surprised by what a big deal it is turning out to be.
Oh, some of it isn't surprising: I have worked with some of the people here for about 15 years, and since the company is very small, we're more like a squabbling family than a law firm-title insurance company. And I've had good times with all of the people -- although, in all honesty, the past few months have been very tense, for a variety of reasons that I don't intend to publicize except to one or two very intimate friends and only after an evening of very good wine or Scotch!
And on another level, it really means changing my (implicity) self-identity: I went to law school to prepare to be a particular kind of "helper." (Don't all? No!) And I work with the few lawyers here in a culture that is very pro-help: advocacy for the poor and especially for the proper care of children, lots of pro bono work, compassion for divorces. My office (which is huge and beautiful) is loaded with volume after volume of both theoretical stuff and of how-to-do-it-in-law stuff relating to children, families, small entrepreneurs -- the kind of clients that I had when I really practiced law. And now, even though I have not really practiced law for 5 or 6 years, I feel that I am giving that up. (I work in title insurance, and that occasionally calls for a legal opinion, but it's small potatoes law work.) Oh, I'll probably be helping the new company set up some enterprises that call on my legal training (and membership in the Bar Association). But as I try to pack my office for moving, I'm ditching shelves of stuff that, by surrounding me, contributed to my sense that I am a real, thinking lawyer. I am pretty much saying that I'm not a lawyer anymore. (So now maybe I can watch law shows on television without going psycho over some of the shenanigans.)
But with all of that, all of which I anticipated, I wasn't prepared to lose sleep, to feel in a funk -- that whole sort-of-depressed schtick.
And that leads to this one insight: The Church simply needs to develop a sense and a means of how to counsel people in discerning their vocations. We do a lousy job of defining "vocation" unless it has something to do with someone's becoming a pastor -- supposedly the only person in the room "called" to their job. We should be teaching children to value professions and jobs in terms of Christian vocation -- the vocation of the laity is a vitally relevant topic.
I am aware that the average person now changes "careers" about -- what? -- three or four times in a lifetime. (I on my own have kicked that average up.
Is there much attention paid to lay work as "vocation"? I know that it ties in with at least Benedictine monastic thought, but I don't know much more than that. I'm aware of a couple of people who have theologized about the laity, but I don't think I've ever read anything.
And, then, of course, this implicates the Lutheran doctrine of "two kingdoms" or "two realms." And that's sort of a sticky wicket with me. But if we speak about the Christian life, we necessarily implicate discipleship, it seems to me. And from consideration of discipleship, it's a short step to not only the day-to-day ethical stuff, but also the broader issue of what I do with my life.
It'd be kind of fun to get into that, I think. (A friend asks seriously whether a Christian can possibly be called to be a stockbroker or a prostitute or a soldier/sailor: The last two were banned to Christians in the very early centuries, apparently, but the first one is an innovation on his part!)