Wednesday, October 26, 2005

95 Theses for a New Day

LutheranChik has issued a challenge to develop 95 theses for the reformation of the Church in our time. She proposes 6 and invites 89 more. Now's your time and here's your place, you Martin Luther wannabees.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Animals and Sick People

Last night, we had a good meeting of my congregation's worship committee. In reviewing the past month's activity, it struck some as surprising, unfortunate, and strange that while we had 50 people bring pets to a St. Francis-inspired blessing of animals (1 evening service which took place in such a downpour that only the densest person would not have thought of Noah and the ark), we had only a total of 15 people come to a St. Luke's Day services of healing (over a noon and an evening service on a very nice day).

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

"Renewing Worship": What's that all about?

In recent e-mails and in a couple of suggestions to this blog, I have been encouraged to comment on the the ELCA’s project, called “renewing worship,” under which banner some souls hope to publish a new “worship resource” – which now apparently means a new hymnal and liturgical rites book, together with downloadable “online” resources. I hope that non-Lutherans won’t be offended that I’m taking on such a parochial project. (But really: is it parochial? Is there anything more central to Lutheranism and its relationship to society than the way it worships?) It seems a little off the path of a blog devoted to the intersection of “faith” and “life.” But liturgy is at the heart of all my thinking, and I have been thinking about this issue for a long time and fulminating to anyone who will listen about the wrongheadedness of the ELCA’s project. So I take another personal privilege and risk some kind of a critique.

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

Did Luther say ... ?

Apparently, ‘tis the season to debunk myths about the blessed Martin Luther, I guess. Perhaps that’s because it’s almost time to celebrate the Feast of the Lutheran Secession -- oops, Reformation Sunday. (True Lutherans do not really, I think, celebrate the further division of the Church occasioned by the Reformation -- whether unfortunately necessary or not. But one cannot often discern that truth in Lutheran services on the Sunday before All Saints' Sunday. See my earlier rant.) Or maybe it’s just an accident of my reading.

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.

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


It was once the operative saying: Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. In looking at the news about the allegations against and the clouds over Bill Frist, Tom DeLay, and Karl Rove, together with the close ties they claim to have with the Religious "Right," I am led to conclude that that should be amended: Relgion is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

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

Belated thoughts on Bill Bennett

I wasn't going to post this, but my bile is up and I have to get it out of my system. William Bennet is a big fat liar -- and he lies on purpose.

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.)

"Theology": A description

Thanks, in advance to Clint, over at Lutheran Confessions, for this description or definition of "theology" as offered by Marilynne Robinson (lately famous for her novel Gilead, but here quoted from her book of essays The Death of Adam: Essays in Modern Thought):

"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

Feat of St. Francis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis, and I wish you all inspiration by his example and knowledge of the joy that a pet can give.

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.