Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What's so "Good" about "Good Friday"?

We near Holy Week, and especially the Holy Triduum (three days: Thursday, Friday, and Saturdy) leading to Easter. And all the doubts, confusion, and what-not that have plagued me since I used to preach those days will return. Specifically, I will have to wrestle with Good Friday.

In theory, understand, I don't have a problem placing the crucifixion and death of Jesus within a complete theology and liturgy of the life, death, and resurrection from death of Jesus. But for any number of reasons, Good Friday will stick in my craw.

I was raised in a pietistic theological culture (including my four years at Concordia College, Moorhead, a Haugian-pietist institution if ever there was one). In that culture, everything centered on the crucifixion, the dying and death of Jesus. Good Friday was the lynchpin on which everything else depended.

I suppose a number of factors contributed: Such theology was informed by the Anselmian satisfaction theology (you know, to be unrefined: Following humanity's sin, God's honor had to be restored; the only thing that could restore it is the suffering of someone who hadn't earned the suffering/punishment; Jesus was sin-free, so his suffering "satisfied" God's need for "satisfaction" -- remember the old dueling language, "I demand satisfaction"? --; now we're off the hook again.) And that is a theological theme that pervades European theology written since medieval times. Part of it may be, as James Farwell posits in his book This is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week, that "[i]n a human life, suffering is not merely an episode, an event, or a passing psychological state -- it is a condition. ... The soteriological force -- the saving force of Christian faith depends upon its relevance to this fundamental human condition of suffering." (p. 1) Thus, Jesus' suffering touches us where we live. Perhaps there was also at work a kind of realistic instinctive sadness and horror at the events (which are certainly more easily imagined in the mind's eye than a "resurrection" which resulted in the bodily re-appearances of a man who could walk through walls, eat, but not be recognized on sight). Oh, and the hymns are certainly touching -- and full of pietistic "Jesus and me" stuff: "Alas, my treason, Jesus has undone thee."

Of course, Easter was a rip-snorter, even in my small North Dakota town -- new clothes, girls in hats, brass choir (we had a very good high school band in my town, and half of us were Lutheran), vocal choirs (ditto the high school choir -- and the young kids and the adults could really sing well, too), and lilies, and the promise of a special meal. (It was still a cassock-and-surplice age, however, so I can't say much for the vestments.) But still ... . There was always a sense of "Whew, we escaped another one." The pall of Friday hung over the festivities -- if at a distance.
I don't mean to sneer (sometimes it just comes out that way). But such theology and practice has always bothered me. After all, isn't it the resurrection that is the key for Christian faith? Didn't St. Paul write, not that our faith was nothing without the crucifixion, but that if Christ is not risen, then we believe in vain?

In seminary, finally, I was taught to understand "the cross" as that complex of events and experiences comprising the life, passion, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate One. There can be no cross in Christian theology without the resurrection, and vice versa. And that makes perfect sense, regardless of one's particular theological bent (even pietistic!). But the "gap" between pulpit and pew seemed unbridgeable. When I "laicized," I listened for that message, but to no avail.

Throughout the year, I didn't hear much, "Christ was raised for you." It was almost always, "Christ died for us/you/me" or "for your/our/my sins." Good Friday was always evoked -- not even the life of Christ, just his legal murder. Why? What am I missing?

Recently, through the encouragement and questions of a sister of my congregation here in Minneapolis, I have been set on understanding more clearly that I am not the only person with the kind of jitters I've suggested here. In Justo Gonzalez's book, Christian Thought Revisited, I have been confirmed that there are at least three main streams of Christian thinking in the Western Church. (I have long sensed less of the "Friday theology" in the Eastern Church, but it's not altogether absent there, either.)

There is a strong (I agree that it's the dominant) strain that centers on notions of order, law and justice, proper structures. Augustine (notably for Lutherans) and Anselm feed this and follow from it.

But there is a less prominent, but still ancient and orthodox, theme that some call the "Christus Victor" model (named for scholar-bishop Gustav Aulen's classic text of that name): The focus is more on the redemption of history for the fulfillment of God's will. It involves, with respect to the passion, less emphasis on the "sacrifice" of Jesus (in the basest terms, buying God off with innocent blood) and more on the victory of God-in-Jesus even to the point of and beyond death. "Christ is risen! Henceforth never/ Death or hell shall us enthrall ... ."
In that latter theological tradition (which is as old as the other), Easter is most certainly the focus of liturgical and theological life. All Sundays are little Easters, not little Good Fridays. One example: In recognition of this fact, the Council of Nicea -- original source of the so-called "Nicene" Creed -- decreed that, in honor of the festive nature of Sundays as "Little Easters," none of the faithful is to kneel for prayer, for kneeling implies something less than joy. (Oh, calm down, you radical theologians of the cross: This is not a theology of glory!)
(FYI: The third strain is much more wrapped up in Platonic-style philosphical concerns with "matter" and "souls" and "immortality." It's stuff we've all heard and even practiced, but it is not of much relevance to this post. I also judge it not a particularly healthy or valid theological perspective -- even if its roots run deep in the Christian tradition.)

So lately, I have been gearing up to filter the Good Friday (actually all of Holy Week) liturgies through my "Christus Victor" filter. But I was stunned today, all over again, to open Fleming Rutledge's book of sermons preached at an old-fashioned three-hour service, The Seven Last Words from the Cross, to read "For Christians, Good Friday is the crucial day, not only of the year but of world history." (p. 3)

And I'm set back in my once-happy confidence that I have it together.

I have never denied the significance of Good Friday, of course, but is Mother Rutledge (is that what one calls a female Episcopalian priest? Mother?) correct? Is it the crucial day? Is Easter effectively an add-on, resulting in the vindication of Good Friday?

If so, then, I read theology badly. (Yes, I know that I've opened myself on that one.) I cannot "read" Good Friday except through the lens of Easter. I categorically deny that one can look at Good Friday from the other side of Easter and see anything salvific there. Of course, I also think that the only way to read Easter is through the lens of the life, suffering, and death of Jesus. So the cross is vitally important, but I'm not sure that I elevate Golgotha above Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Galilea, to cite a few sites of significant acts of salvation in the life of Jesus.

I question that many Lutherans will add an "Amen" to these musings. But that's the chance I take, I suppose.

Now that I have that out of my system, I have one question: Whatever became of the "tre ore" (three-hour -- or "seven last word") preaching and singing services to mark the hours of Jesus on the cross. If Calvary is so central, why have the liturgical churches allowed this interesting (and usually ecumenical) event to fade into memory (for the most part)? Oh, we have stational liturgies -- with a variety of number of stations. And we have services to venerate the cross. But the three-hour services had a place and made an impact. I personally miss them (especially if there is a variety of preachers who can stick to time limits).

Over all, I do not think that our observance of Good Friday -- whatever it might be -- does enough to tie it to Easter. The transition from Friday to the Vigil of Easter and Easter is not well developed in most of the liturgical (or theological) traditions that I have experienced. There is something missing.

And don't get me going about the footwashing on Maundy Thursday!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Sister's Lenten Reflection

Sister Camassia may be about to make an honest woman of herself (or to allow the Church to make an honest woman of her). She seems on the cusp of setting the date for her baptism. This is overdue, if I may judge the faith of a friend: In my conversations with her and in reading her blog for the last couple of years, I have been impressed that she is a woman of faith -- of such scrupulous faith that she wants to be able to affirm the Creed almost without any doubt (which sort of stretches one definition of "faith," it seems to me). Hers is a faith of deep intellectual probing and sincere existential import, and I can't wait to welcome her formally as a sister in Christ. (I know that that's a kind of exclusive view of Christian fellowship, but it's the one I'm stuck with.)

Now to the point of this post: Camassia reflects on her concerns about the "Church" she will be inducted into with her baptism. What about the confession of the "one true Church"? Where is it? Which is it? When is it? She raises good questions -- as she always does. She thinks deeply about things that many of us take for granted (unless we are similarly granted a strange sense of curiosity about matters theological).

I commend her reflection to you for several reasons: You might want to tie in to the discussion with your own counsel. You will find there the kind of thinking that some of us urge on the Church as a part of a renewed "ecumenical movement." (Her friend Telford Work, a brilliant theologian of the Pentecostal tradition, contributed to the scholarly dialogue which issued in the book In One Body Through the Cross: The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity, published by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.) You will be challenged to think about your own relationship to the Church.

I think that last point is vitally important. I have been trying to formulate a statement that you can't be Christian without the Church, even though most theology seems to represent the Church as a pleasant adjunct to faith, something one may or may decide to participate in. She states the matter succinctly and exactly right, I think.

In the Reformation tradition, I think there is a weak ecclesiology: It developed after Luther and Melancthon and Calvin left the scene. They all, I think, had deep, almost instinctual senses that we can no more be born Christian without the Church than we can be born human without a mother.

The problem, for Lutherans, is that Luther didn't talk much about the Church except to castigate the institutional structure of his day, the admittedly corrupt-beyond-reason Roman Catholic Church and papacy. But he didn't say much more about the Church because he took it for granted -- just as was the case with the mass. Luther knew his Patristics (earliest post-biblical Christian preaching and teaching), and one thing the Fathers make clear is that the Church is critical to God's working. He didn't need to reform that, so he didn't talk about it. (Calvin apparently did somewhat better, but I don't know much about his ecclesiology.) In the absense, though, of Luther's word (which came to be held as sacred as scripture and more sacred than earlier Christian writings) about the church, the Lutheran teachers went their own fantasizing ways and developed all kinds of misunderstandings of the Church -- misunderstandings that at times leave us, contrary to John Donne, as islands onto ourselves when it comes to faith.

For Lutherans, a healthy attention to ecclesiology is in the wind (again?) -- if only because of the problems in ELCA. So Lutherans may be able, at some point, to answer Camassia's questions with a clear teaching. (For now, Carl Braaten's Mother Church may be a good place to start. What a daring title for a Lutheran discussion of the Church, eh?)

In any event, check out Camassia's musings. She promises more in this vein to come.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Lenten discipline

I have been promoting a new Lenten discipline to those who will listen (and their numbers are few, I must say). The gist of the suggestion is that instead of "giving something up for Lent," we take something on. I'm not sure that this a ground-breaking idea -- or even all that great a one, according to one friend. But it is my take on Lent.

We begin Lent by reflecting on Jesus' instruction to keep our piety off display. Of course, we follow that us with having ash crosses drafted onto our foreheads.

But Jesus' teaching is to engage in prayer and fasting in a way that does not draw attention to itself. (Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – Luke 18.) This is not a call to abandon liturgical displays (yes, I held that position even before I was "high church") or public displays of devotion. Rather, it is a call to integrate the life of faith so that it becomes a reflection of who one is and who one is reflects the faith she professes. To that extent, it doesn't become something unnatural to be flaunted, but something that comes naturally -- like grammar.

Certainly foregoing some of life's joys can be a good thing, a measure of spiritual discipline. To pare down one's pleasure for a while can be a good complement to the reflection and renewal that lie at the heart of Lent.

My problem with giving things up for Lent is that that particular spiritual practice seems determined to draw attention to itself. If one gives up a food, e.g., it becomes a strain on partygoing at the same time as it justifies that on religious grounds: "Oh, I'm sorry; I've given coffee up for Lent." or "I can't eat that dessert; I've given up chocolate for Lent." As a host (yes, I do, on occasion, host small gatherings during Lent -- or friends drop in and the host in me offers wine and nibbles: I don't see anything wrong with that.), I have been rather put off when people say such things to me. (It sounds so sanctimonious, even from the truly pious.)

In addition, giving something up for Lent often involves doing something that we ought to do anyway and or/doing it only for a limited time. If we give up something harmful (like, ahem, alcohol -- which I would never do), there's little justification: behaviorsot engage in behaviours (including eating and drinking) that harm the body that is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. If it's something we should give up, it's no "sacrifice."

On another line, a friend says that it's good to relinquish something in honor or reflection of what Our Lord gave up for us. But I don't find that so very convincing, either. The Son gave up everything -- not just for a few days, but to the end of his life. His suffering was not an inconvenience. He did not choose what to give up; he accepted the cup that was offered (though not before asking that it be withdrawn). It seems a kind of "cheap discipleship" (to paraphrase Bonhoeffer) to connect our limited disciplining of desire with the kenosis of the Son. Better we should prepare ourselves to accept real suffering in his name when it is offered to us.

Third, that we give up the giving up when Easter turns sends a false message, too. The way we operate, we tend to separate Lent from Easter -- the Passion of Christ from the Resurrection. And I think that's bad theology. Because of the way the life, death, and resurrection of Our Lord all must be kept in constant conversation, to suggest that his suffering is cut off by the resurrection, or that it was a way stop on the route to resurrection, is not helpful. To act out such a sure caesura is bad liturgy and theology.

That's why I prefer to undertake something during Lent. In the first place, by undertaking a new discipline, I fully intend that the practice NOT end with Easter. (I am no superhero, though, so it often falls to the wayside.) I hope by my Lenten discipline to reform my body and spirit to a newer, healthier openness to the life of faith which will continue in Easter and beyond.

This year, I have undertaken to read the Bible more sincerely, more scrupulously, more attentively (this is the big hurdle), more regularly. I am aided in this endeavor by Robert Alter's The Five Books of Moses, his newly published, insightful, very careful, and instructional translation of the Torah. I derive great joy from my new practice -- and with his excellent explanatory notes and his sometimes piquant translation, I am awakened from a dulling familiarity to a new engagement with the texts that are so familiar. (Next year, I intend to undertake a more physical regime -- something like exercise. But I wouldn't want to get too radical right off the bat!)

I'm finding this to be a very helpful discipline -- an obvious one, one that ought not have to be "planned" or approached with such intention, I suppose, too. But it gets me back to the main track. Ordinarily, I read voraciously in theology. But that's not the same thing as "searching the Scriptures." I'm a little like the liturgy specialist who reads everything that comes out on liturgy, but never goes to Church. It's a second-hand experience, not the direct engagement that we are intended to have. For my part, I'm out of touch with any part of the Bible I don't have at my memory's fingertips. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor.) This will restore me to engagement with the basic document of the faith (what some Roman Catholic scholars call "ressourcement" -- return to the sources). So, in addition to being important (and perhaps not coincidentally, enjoyable), this is something that reaches forward in my life, to form and inform my life of faith.

On the basis of my experience, I'll continue to encourage people to "take something on" for Lent. But by all means, also give something up if that's your inclination -- but not as a substitute, but as an adjunct to taking something on.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Movie Musings

OK, I've been busy, so I haven't had much time to think. But I have to raise a couple of movie questions -- sparked most recently by my seeing Walk the Line last night.

First a little background: I may already have said that I have a discipline of seeing a movie every Tuesday night (except when one of us can't go!) with a friend. I won't say much about why I call it a "discipline": Suffice it to say that I can be fickle in commitment. But it has been a treat to be drawn into the practice. We've seen some really great stuff -- mixed in with real dogs.

Well, last night we saw the Johnny Cash encomium. We'd not been too inclined to see it -- my friend wasn't too "into" JC's life and misery, and I was suspicious of a bio pic about singers. For my part, I'm slightly acquainted with Johnny Cash's life and career, and I rather enjoy his and June's singing. (Most people know of my love for opera and other things esoteric. Not many know of my closeted love for things blue grass and country of a certain sort -- especially Dolly Parton, whom I consider an adorable genius). But I like Johnny's -- oops, June's -- "Ring of Fire" and other hits. (I don't know the Folsom Prison recording, but now I'm interested.)

I was concerned about a couple things: First, the hoopla was too adoring. The ga-ga-ness of "they sing their own songs" scared me, because I figured I'd be distracted by the difference between the "real" Cash voices and the "acted." I also thought it would be pretty difficult to inhabit Johnny Cash -- something that Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely nailed in Capote.

Well, I was proven correct -- in my own eyes and ears, if not those of critics. I was annoyed by Phoenix's mannerisms; I was put off by his singing much more out-of tune (flat) than Johnny did. I sympathized with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter Cash -- and I kind of liked her voice (but she sang with a failure to respect vowels and consonants that I don't think the Carter Family would have allowed her to develop).

What devastates me -- well, that's a little drama-queenish, isn't it? -- is that Reese took home the Oscar for this performance. Oh, I recognize that it was a different part for her. But it was not a gargantuan effort, I think. In constrast to Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, it was paltry.

I thought Huffman's performance was incredible. She irritated me throughout the entire movie -- but irritated in a way that rooted in her utterly taking on the role of a man-almost-to-woman. Her walk was terrific -- she actually managed to look like she was struggling much more than the performers in the cross-dressing shows in Chicago. The way she lowered her voice to an eerie sexlessness was brilliant. And through it all, I could feel her pain. Why the Academy was scared off from her, I'll never understand.

But then, what's with Crash as the best movie? I mean, what is new there? What is profound? (Curiously, this was both Kathy and my reaction to Brokeback Mountain, which we found to be an oft-repeated tale of love denied by social opposition, only with two good-looking men filling in for Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.) What is the message -- that we all have the capacity to be racist, but that we can be complicated racists? Kathy and I watched it over the weekend (my second viewing -- Kathy is often subjected to "seconds" with me, although once in a while I "reserve" a movie for the two of us to see together). We agreed that it was an interesting movie, but that it had little to say. And the implausibilities: Does LA have only six police officers? One social services supervisor? And why has no one pointed out that all the different "races" had their good and bad points, except for the Iranian shopkeeper (who, I trust, is a stand-in for "Arab" -- even though Parsis loathe being represented as Arabs): He incarnates the "Arab" mania for violence and blaming all the wrong people.

When that movie is contrasted with Munich or Good Night, and Good Luck or Capote, I can't begin to understand Academy tastes. I think a local commentator was right: It was a timid, even running scared, response to the realities of the world. Steer clear of the gay cowboys -- nominating the movie was enough; let's not get tangled up with a gay writer; and don't get too political.

Spielberg's Munich surprised me: I didn't intend to see it -- but my friend chose it, so I went. I was converted. The movie was thoughtful, balanced (maybe that's why it lost) in its portrayal of the costs of fighting terrorism on its own terms. It was a fantastic movie (something I was not able to say about Spielberg's Schindler's List).

The Edward R. Murrow film, thank you George Clooney, was really good, too. It's great flaw is that it assumes that people remember Murrow and McCarthey and that whole mess. The movie was too short -- and it would have been better to have been longer, with more build up. But I have to say, as an old Murrow fan, I was not prepared to be so impressed with David Straithairn. I completely forgot what Murrow really looked and sounded like while I was watching this movie.

Overall, I was frustrated by the Oscar awards (I didn't watch the show, but I'd check in every so often with my child to find out who was winning). At least Hoffman's spine-tingling portrayal of Truman Capote was recognized. And I couldn't really argue with Rachel Weisz's win -- although I was impressed with Frances McDormand in North Country , which movie I was also surprised to love.

I know that the motives of the Academy members are mixed -- and since many of them are in the business of producing the dreck from which the "bests" stand out, maybe it's self-preservation at the fore. But this was a year when they had the chance to make some important statements -- not just political, but encouragement for bold, new thinking and for daring portrayals. They opted for safe and cuddly.

I guess we need more George Clooneys and Caroline Barons and the like.

What did I miss?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

One Recommendation and One Commendation


Internet friend and fellow-blogger, Pastor Chip Frontz, is integrating the Internet into his catechetical ministry: He has established a blog to accompany a Lenten series that he is teaching on the Ten Commandments. He will be posting here. Check it out; join in the fun; challenge him; give his effort a bicoastal effect.

Blessed Lent to you, Chip. And may Lent be a time of renewal and reconciliation for all who pass by this blog.


A -- perhaps, the -- baseball legend in Minnesota (and in the country, I suspect) and one of my personal heroes has died an untimely death. Kirby Puckett, who played his entire career of 12 years for the Minnesota Twins and established himself as a hero for millions of us of every age, died yesterday of a massive stroke. He was 45 (not as the Twins information throughout his playing career would have suggested, 44). If the governor doesn't send flags to half-mast, there is something wrong. He will be missed and is mourned by all.

He came to the Twins from a day job in Chicago, having grown up in the housing projects and been unable to secure a college scholarship. He immediately established himself as a top-tier player by his playing and his playing -- that is, by his skill and by the infectious joy he manifested in playing the game. His stubby little figure was easy to doubt: How could those short legs and that husky torso (not to mention his round butt -- his "Puckett Pack" as he called it) get the job done. But they did -- with hits, home runs (remember that 11th-inning, 6th game of the World Series homerun?), gravity-defying catches.

He played his entire career here. He was our favorite son, our golden boy (dangerous and ironic wordplay, there). I understand that he turned down offers to leave the Twins that would have netted him $26 million more than he made by staying put. But he stayed loyal to the Twins.

And always there was the sweet human being and humanitarian at work and play. He was "there" for people -- kids, old-timers, his teammates: a smile, encouraging and cautionary words, time.

Reports are that Kirby became something less than heroic in his last few years. I suspect that after glaucoma brought his career to a screeching and painful halt (but with what grace he handled his retirement!), that he couldn't quite find himself. And that manifested itself in less-than-attractive behavior (if reports are true).

But he will be remembered -- as is appropriate -- for the phenomenal and charmed place he established in the hearts of the people of this state. And here I mean in my heart.

Rest eternal, grant him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.