Friday, January 27, 2006

What is "Man"?

I didn’t intend to write this post, but a confluence of events prompts me to lay out some thoughts, with hopes that I get some clarification from some generous reader.

Here’s my question: Can we do away with the word “man” as a generic, short-hand term for the human person (not necessarily male) without doing violence to the English language? I confess that, despite my desire to think otherwise, I don’t know how we might do so. The word “man” is glorious in its multifacetedness; it collects into one word a variety of meanings.

“Man” indicates the individual person in his or her capacity as representative of the breed: “What is man that thou are mindful of him?” for example, manages to carry the sense of the individual who is speaking, while at the same time making the speaker an instantiation of the whole of humanity. Thus, one could accurately translate that verse as “What is man that Thou are mindful of us (or them)?” (Notice, please, how I do not believe that one must necessarily use “he” or “his” or “him” as personal pronouns for the referent “man.”) And in reverse order, it carries the overtone of personality and individuality in the reference to the genus and species homo sapiens.

At the same time, there is a warmth and sense of personhood to the word. It is not abstract or bloodless or markedly generic – by which I mean that it allows one to imagine an individual or individuals of various colors, genders, and sizes, while not losing the sense of the “gestalt” or wholeness of the referent.

Other words do not serve in the same way – at least to my eye and ear. Each seems to take a “side” – to designate either the individual or the group. “Person,” for example, seems to denote the individual over against the corporate. It makes no sense to say “What is (a) person that you are mindful of us?” without way too much relaxation of the rules of English grammar. “Person” serves admirably in a variety of senses (especially those that carry the psychological and sociological, I think). But it does not carry the sense of interconnectedness or the commonality of the human race. On the other hand, “humanity” loses the sense of the individual person within it. In contrast to “person,” one might actually say “What is humanity that you are mindful of it/us/them?” But the query loses the crier’s sense of “What am I that you are mindful of me?” And “human being” seems lifeless and scientific: “What is a human being that you are mindful of it?” The “it” seems the natural pronoun to follow, and that is distinctly not what the Psalmist wants to say!

This issue was clarified for me as I read Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est. (It was released two days ago, and I’m eager to read it. I will blog some reactions when I have finished reading and taken some time to digest it. I expect to be very impressed – but more later.) At paragraph 5, the Pontiff writes, “[I]t is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature.”

Now, to be honest, I had just jotted a nasty note about the Pope’s English editor: “Why raise the issue of sexism by using this dark-age term for humanity?” But when I got to the revelatory sentence, it came clear: While at other points, “man” could have been replaced with another term, here no other term would quite convey what the Pope means to say. It is not just the person, the individual, the personality of one person that reaches its created nature in love; it is the human race, once “capitulated” in Adam and Eve and later “recapitulated” in Jesus Christ and now manifested in each individual lover, which realizes the meaning of creation, imago dei.

The one who loves and is loved achieves something larger than himself or herself. The one who loves becomes “truly human.” But “human” functions in my sentence more as an adjective than as a personal noun. What the encyclical says is that in love, a person becomes “man” – that nexus of the personal and unique with the generic and universal. In a versatile, suggestive little three-letter word, the Pontiff was able to say both “the individual” and “the human race.” And as Strunk and White taught us, brevity is preferable to verbosity (not, lamentably, the standard for this blogger!).

To be sure, the Pope did not write the encyclical in English, and the word-choice is likely not his. (He has remarkable facility in several languages, but I’m positive that the Vatican would assign a translator.) But that doesn’t alter anything that I have said. I don’t know whether the Latin original (at least, I suspect the original was in Latin, not German) displays a similar light touch. And I’m not fluent in German, so I don’t know whether “mann” or some other word might carry the evangelical ambiguity of “man” in English. I hope so, however, because I think the point is important.

I am no troglodyte when it comes to usage (although I am no fan of neologisms and I despair of the loss of many good rules of grammar). I recognize and applaud the need for language to evolve to reflect changes in culture. And I have embraced and tried to reform in light of the claims of sisters that they have been systematically excluded or denigrated by the use of “masculine” pronouns and metaphors in all segments of society. Consequently, I bridle when preachers are always talking about “this guy” or “he” this and that. And I acknowledge the contributions to the faith of those (primarily women) who have opened the scriptures to the ways in which the diversity of experience and gender and race is a facet of the Gospel itself.

But I am a conservative, too. For example, I take great umbrage at those “language arts” people who claim that grammar, spelling, and punctuation don’t matter – so long as the writer/speaker gets the point across. (And, by the way, when will the rule of serial commas be enforced?) To be in a culture is to bend oneself to the aspects of culture that make that culture distinct. Thus, in the culture of the Church, there is no way for a Christian to do away with or even to modify the confession and name of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And I think that at this point in our development, some women and men may have to bear the cross of accepting the use of “man” as what I have above called the “nexus” of the unique and the generic. I am unable to come up with any other way.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Catholics and Evangelicals

The thinking nets are all aquiver over the firing by Wheaton College of a professor of medieval theology (especially Thomas Aquinas) because he converted from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism. That that was the actual reason Joshua Hochschild was fired seems not to be in doubt, by all accounts. The president of Wheaton confirmed that the firing was justified, because no Roman Catholic could possible sign the faith statement required to be signed every year by every Wheaton prof upholding the Bible as the "supreme and ultimate authority" for faith. For Roman Catholics, according to President Duane Liftin, the Bible and the pope are equal authorities -- and thus, by implication, no Roman Catholic could be qualified to teach at Wheaton.

There are a couple of ironies at play here, and one of them is tragic. The first irony is a sad one: Prof. Hochschild was a sincere Christian who apparently got too close to and took seriously his field of study. As a student especially of Aquinas, he was won over to Roman Catholicism. (For some, the swim from Episcopalianism to Roman Catholicism may seem less than olympian, but for Wheaton it's a leap of fate!) That's not exactly unknown to Lutherans: We have lost several notable scholars to other faith traditions, traditions in which they were steeped by virtual of their academic involvement. My friend Robert Wilken swam the Tiber after decades of teaching the history and theology of the early Church, and my hero Jaroslav Pelikan went East after a similar amount of time teaching the Fathers. (Curiously, a life of teaching about Luther and the Reformation never made a Lutheran out of Roland Bainton: He remained a Quaker to his death, as I understand it. Might that say something about the relative charisma of Luther over against Augustine or Origen? Never mind ... .)

The tragic irony lies here, however: Wheaton is a fine college; I like Wheaton and have considered encouraging my daughter to go there when the time is fulfilled that she leaves the nest for college. I think the academic and social life there are pretty laudable. Or maybe I thought that. In such a context it seems unfortunate (to put it mildly) that religious bigotry seems still to hold sway. Here's what I mean.

Wheaton offers courses in the history and theology of the medieval Christian Church -- which means most the Roman Catholic Church. But it doesn't want a Roman Catholic to teach it! Now, Wheaton is a strong and committed "evangelical" college, requiring that all its faculty annually sign the faith statement I referenced earlier. But professor Hochschild was fired even though he was willing to sign that statement honestly, without a second thought, and in good conscience. For him, there is nothing incompatible between Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism on the authority of Holy Scripture. But Wheaton doesn't believe him. It prefers to judge him based on a stereotype of Catholic theology -- and a pretty crass one, too, for an academic institution to proffer. As my old Catholic aunt might say, "How dare they tell him what he believes -- and what we Catholics believe?"

Of course, the issue of authority is a big on in the Church: It is a major (if not THE) issue through the Church's history, and it remains a big issue within each Christian tradition. Wheaton is justified, if only by virtue of his history, in insisting on the Christian commitment of its faculty (although there are problems with that, I think: I'm sceptical, for example, of Christians' trying to teach the Koran -- or maybe even the Torah!) And if the authority of Scripture is at the base of the definition of "Christian," there are not many who would dispute that. But to invoke the invective -- most of it intellectually dubious and offered in a situation far different from the contemporary one -- of the Reformation about the claims of the papacy to equal -- or even superior -- status with the Bible seems to be itself intellectually dubious in the current age.

I've made no great study of the papacy and "infallibility." In fact, I share with much of Christendom disdain for the arrogance of the unilateral declaration of the doctrine of papal infallibility (even though I don't think that the doctrine itself is as far-reaching or offensive as many claim). But I've read some pretty hardcore pro-papalists. And I've never seen a reasonable claim that the Pope and Scripture can claim equal authority. Oh, sure the Pope in a sense guarantees the proper interpretation of the Scripture -- but the focus is still on making clear the witness of Scripture. The Pope can't just up and declare Scripture irrelevant -- regardless of how one reads some of the papal encyclicals through history! (That's mostly, but not entirely, a joke, by the way.)

I guess that I'm saying that I'm disappointed in Wheaton College (won't they be hurt to learn that?). Their motto seems to be "Intellectual freedon, si -- though within limits; religious liberty, no." I'm disappointed that Wheaton officially manifests such a dark-ages kind of insensitivity to the advances that have been made in mutual understanding between Roman Catholics and (evangelical) Protestants. Wheaton made an official statement of intolerance that is bound to be felt in the school life, too. And I question whether that is an appropriate atmosphere at an institution of higher education.

I affirm religious colleges. Heck, I went to a couple myself, and my wife is currently a grad student at Bethel (a Baptist school with a very definite evangelical identity). I think it's great to come to new intellectual maturity within a context that values a peculiar religious heritage. (Please don't ask me about Liberty University, however.) And I appreciate an administration and structure that is not wishy-washy or namby-pamby or "liberal" or "post-modern" or even (in some senses) "irenic."

But I wish such schools could and will maintain such an identity while at the same time remaining true to the charter of liberal-arts education and to catholicity of interest.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A Baptismal Poem

I am an equal-opportunity sacramentalist. I am not focussed exclusively on the Eucharist -- although I do consider it the central and most important (and ordinary) of all the sacraments claimed or identified by the Christian tradition. And to demonstrate that point, I post a poem by Vassar Miller. I have never studied Ms. Miller in any literature or literature-and-faith class, and most of what I know about her is contained in this encomium. (I shall not address her Texan-ness.)

This is a poem I found during my college years, in a volume entitled My Bones Being Wiser, and I have treasured it since my callow youth (if it is not redundant so to speak of one's youth -- though I'm not sure that I have grown beyond callow, either). It has come to mean much more since the birth and baptism of my own daughter -- and becomes more eminently and obviously true with each year into adolescence! -- and with the baptism of each of my godchildren. While I could write a long meditation on this poem, I'll let it speak for itself -- with hopes that it speaks as deeply to you as it does to me.

At a Child’s Baptism
by Vassar Miller

For Sarah Elizabeth

Hold her softly, not for long
Love lies sleeping on your arm,
Shyer than a bird in song,
Quick to fly off in alarm.

It is well that you are wise,
Knowing she for whom you care
Is not yours as prey or prize,
No more to be owned than air.

To your wisdom you add grace
Which will give your child release
From the ark of your embrace
That she may return with peace

Till she joins the elemental.
God Himself now holds your daughter
Softly, too, by this most gentle
Rein of all, this drop of water.

From: My Bones Being Wiser © 1960-63

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Book of Daniel: Update

I do not intend to keep a running diary-entry thing on NBC's The Book of Daniel. But since I have begun, I should make this new note: Episode Three casts even more doubt on the reliability and quality of this series. I considered Friday's episode a lost hour, and it won't take much to lure me back to reading my novel or watching Numb3rs.

Any comments?

The World in a Wafer

I have commended William Cavanaugh to you before. He teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, MN, and he is simply one of the most thoughtful, heart-y, challenging theologians on the modern scene. He has published his doctoral dissertation (written under Stanley Hauerwas, so you know I love it!) as Torture and Eucharist. It's a phenomenal and fascinating book -- destined to become a classic in liturgical studies, if you ask me.

He has written, too, "The World in a Wafer: A Geography of the Eucharist as Resistance to Globalization." It is another remarkable reflection which I offer as another in the series of reflections on the wide meaning of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian Church. I can only retrieve the article in .pdf, so I'm providing only the link, and I resist commenting on the piece. I await your comments.

Of course, if some0ne wants to draw the connections between this exercise in eucharistic theology and some of the writings of Wendell Berry, I won't complain at all.

The Eucharist, Sacrament of Nonviolence

My brother in Christ, James, is leading his congregation in reflections on the Eucharist and on being a Eucharistic community. In his preaching and teaching, in their reflection and education, in prayer and meditation, the congregation will ponder the mystery of the Word made bread and wine and will seek to grow into the grace offered therein. I look forward to hearing how that goes for them and him. (Perhaps I can convince him to add a couple of guest blogs, since he has not been very good about keeping his own blog up! Hint, Jim.)

Because I am inspired by that effort and because I consider growth into the mystery of the Eucharist to be at the heart of the "meaning" of the life of faith, I hope, from time to time, to post significant pieces about the Eucharist -- relatively brief articles or meditations that will help us all to think about and reflect on the deep structure and meaning of the Holy Meal.

I begin by inserting here an address, forwarded to me by another brother in Christ, Al, given by Abp. Cyril S. Bustros to the Synod of Bishops, convened in Rome in October of last year. Read the little blurb about ++Cyril at the end of the address. (He's a cleric, a scholar, a teacher. Most bishops named to the Synod are nominated by fellow bishops. ++Cyril was named by His Holiness Benedict XVI, himself. He's not pushing the envelope, apparently, by this current pope's lights.)

Al has taught me the centrality of nonviolence in the way of faith. By his witness, his gentleness but persistence, his refusal to be deterred, Al sets a model for following Jesus that centers on the celebration of the Eucharist with the people of God. That makes what follows so meaningful for me. And I commend it to you.

The Eucharist, Sacrament of Nonviolence

Archbishop Cyril S. Bustros
XI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops Rome 2 – 23 October 2005 :
"The Eucharist: Source and Summit of the Life and Mission of the Church "

The Reality of Violence in the World

Violence is a reality spread all over history since Cain until now. In the last century violence made more victims in one hundred years than in all the centuries since the beginning of humankind. And today we are living in an atmosphere of violence, terrorism, and fear of the complete destruction of humanity by the nuclear weapons stored in the civilized and so-called Christian countries, and that can destroy for all time all life on earth: human, animal and vegetal.

The Way of Jesus to Conquer Violence

In this context of universal violence, the Gospel has Good News, which states, to say it in the words of Pope John Paul II in Ireland: "Violence is not the Christian way; violence is not the Catholic way; violence is not the way of Jesus." In his teaching Jesus commanded us "not to resist evil," but "to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us" (Cf. Mt 5:38-47). And when he was arrested, Peter wanted to defend Him by his sword, but Jesus said to him: "Put your sword back, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father who would promptly send more than twelve legions of angels to my defense? But how then should the scripture be fulfilled, that say this is the way it must be so" (Mt 26:52-54). This is the way of Jesus: "Never repay evil with evil" (Rom 12:17); but conquer the evil by love and forgiveness. And when he was crucified the first sentence he said, according to the Gospel of St. Luke, was: "Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34).

The way of Jesus to conquer evil and violence must be the Christian way: the way of nonviolence, of love and forgiveness. This is the way of Jesus, and since Jesus is the Logos of God and the Wisdom of God, this nonviolent way is the way of God. This is the way all humanity is called to follow in its process of divinization. We, Christians, believe that Jesus is "the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through Him" (Jn 14:6). In order to help us to remember this Divine way, Jesus instituted the sacrament of Eucharist in which he anticipated His death and gave it its full significance: His body broken and His "blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt 26:28).

The Nonviolent Way of Jesus Must be Remembered in the Eucharist

The nonviolent way of Jesus is historically at the heart of his teaching, and at the same time at the heart of his passion and death. And since the Eucharist is the summary of all the teaching, passion and death of Jesus, his nonviolent way must be at the heart of the Eucharist. It is the nonviolent Lamb of God, whom the Eucharist empowers us, individually and as a Church, to imitate, to become and to proclaim. The passion narrative is about the Lamb, who goes to His death rejecting violence, loving enemies, returning good for evil, pray for His persecutors--yet conquers and reigns eternal.

Atonement, and redemption, sanctification and salvation are the fruits of nonviolent, unconditional love made visible at a terrible cost to Jesus from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Therefore, what is made visible in the Gospels at the spiritual and revelatory apex of the life of Jesus should be made luminously visible in the re-presentation of the passion and death of Jesus in the Eucharistic Prayer.

Eucharistic Prayer that Embodies Nonviolent Love

However, until this very day, in the Eucharistic Liturgies of all the Churches, a solitary word, "suffered" or "death," has normally been quite enough memory, commemoration, remembrance, or anamnesis for fulfilling the Lord's Command, "Do this in memory (anamnesis) of me." Of course, technically the words "suffered" and "death" are theologically correct, but are they pastorally sufficient for the sanctification of the Christian, the Church, and the world? In the context of what has just been said and to underline what has been previously stated, a historically, theologically, liturgically and pastorally accurate addition could be made to the institution narrative-anamnesis of the Eucharistic Canons which could read as follows:

...On the night before He went forth to His eternally memorable and life-giving death, like a Lamb led to slaughter, rejecting violence, loving His enemies, and praying for His persecutors, He bestowed upon His disciples the gift of a New Commandment:

"Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another."

Then He took bread into His holy hands, and looking up to You, almighty God, He gave thanks, blessed it, broke it, gave it to His disciples and said:

"Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you."

Likewise, when the Supper was ended, He took the cup. Again He gave You thanks and praise, gave the cup to His disciples and said:

"Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven."

"Do this in memory of me."

Obedient, therefore, to this precept of salvation, we call to mind and reverence His passion where He lived to the fullest the precepts which He taught for our sanctification. We remember His suffering at the hands of a fallen humanity filled with the spirit of violence and enmity. But, we remember also that He endured this humiliation with a love free of retaliation, revenge, and retribution. We recall His execution on the cross. But, we recall also that He died loving enemies, praying for persecutors, forgiving, and being superabundantly merciful to those for whom justice would have demanded justice.


The Eucharist is the mind-changing, converting, healing, empowering, life-saving Divine gift given to a humanity being shredded by evil presenting itself as inevitable and inescapable violence and enmity. However, the Eucharist can only be this transforming Presence if it is made fully visible and available to Christians and through Christians to the world. Made available, that is in a ritual atmosphere that permeates the senses and the consciousness, the will and the heart, the soul and the conscience of Christian after Christian, person after person, generation after generation, with the specific details of the nonviolent love and the Nonviolent Lover, Our Savior and the Savior of all humanity, Our Lord Jesus Christ.


Archbishop Cyril S. Bustros
The enclosed text is a translation from French by Archbishop Cyril Bustros of the presentation he made at the World Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist (Oct 2-23, 2005). Archbishop Bustros was a delegate to the Synod by Papal designation. Each Episcopal delegate was allotted six minutes in which to make his presentation to the Synod.
Archbishop Cyril is the Eparch for the Melkite Byzantine Catholics of the United States. He was ordained a priest in 1962. Prior to this appointment (2004) he had been the Archbishop of Baalbeck, Lebanon, since 1988. Before being ordained to the Episcopate he received his Doctorate in Theology in 1976 from The Catholic
University of Louvain in Belgium. He has been a Professor of Classical Greek and was for eleven years Director of St. Paul's Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Harissa, Lebanon.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Scopes, Microscopes, and Trials

I'm plugging in a comment from John Witte who is a lawyer who teaches law and religion stuff and writes really excellent theological histories. He muses on the litigation around creationism, evolution, and intelligent design. It's a short piece, but I think it makes valid points. (I've met John Witte, and I have found him to be very smart, friendly, gregarious, and deeply committed to good law and good policy.)

I don't know how to link you directly to this posting from the Marty Center at the U of Chicago, whence I received it. There is, however, a Marty Center link at the end. You subscribe for a one-page editorial (sort of), Sightings, once a week from Martin Marty and once a week from someone else in the field of faith and world affairs. There are also some really nifty seminar-like papers you might want to look at.

Here's John Witte:


Beyond Scopes-- John Witte, Jr.

Eighty years ago, the nation stood transfixed by the spectacle of two giants, William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow, fighting valiantly over the place of creation and evolution in public schools. Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, defended creationism as "inerrant fact" and denounced evolution as "atheistic fiction." Darrow, representing the new ACLU, insisted that evolution was "scientific fact" and creationism "obsolete myth." Bryan won the argument. But the 1925 Scopes Trial was a signal for many battles to come.

This fall, the nation stood transfixed again by the same battle rejoined in Dover, Pennsylvania -- now pitting proponents of intelligent design (ID) against the ACLU. This time the ACLU won handily. Their main argument: ID is simply biblical creationism by another name, and to teach it in public schools violates the First Amendment prohibition on government establishments of religion.

The ACLU had strong precedent on its side. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that states may not ban the teaching of evolution in public schools. In 1987, the Court ruled that states may not require that creationism be given equal time with evolution in the science curriculum. Creationism is religion, not science, and has no place in public school science classes -- whether directly or indirectly.

Given these precedents, the result in Dover was almost inevitable. The public school board had required teachers to tell their students that evolution is "not a fact" but "a theory" fraught with "gaps" in the "evidence." Students were thus encouraged to consider the "explanations of intelligent design" as well.

Judge John Jones, a recent Bush appointee and professed Christian, found the school's policy patently unconstitutional and described its litigation strategy as "breath-taking inanity." Intelligent design is not science but creationism in a new guise, he concluded, and the school board's attempts to deny its religious inspiration and implications depended on "subterfuge." The Judge was particularly incensed that the defenders of the policy "who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public" were repeatedly caught "lying" and engaging in "sham arguments" to disguise their religious convictions.

For all its purplish prose, and for all the national celebration and lamentation it has occasioned, the Dover decision is legally very narrow. It applies only to a single district in Pennsylvania, not to the whole nation. The decision precludes ID only from public school science classes. It does not preclude it from public school classes in philosophy, cosmology, literature, and others. The decision applies only to actual instructional time in the classroom. It does not preclude voluntary
student groups from teaching and celebrating creation after school hours. And the decision applies only to public schools, not to private schools.This last point bears emphasis.

The Dover case reflects only one side of the two-sided compact that the Supreme Court has constructed over the past half century to govern religion and education questions. Yes, the First Amendment establishment clause prohibits much religion in public schools. But the First Amendment free exercise clause protects all religion in private schools. While confessional creationism is barred from public schools, it is welcome in private schools, including their science classes.

This two-sided compact of religion and education, while by no means perfect, strikes me as a prudent way to negotiate the nation's growing pluralism. Both the right and the left should stop trying to renegotiate the basic terms of the compact, and work instead to maximize liberty for all within these terms. The right has spent untold millions the past two decades trying to introduce bland prayers, banal morals, and now bleached theology into public schools. That money should have funded a national scholarship and voucher program that gives real educational choice to the poor. The left has spent untold millions more trying to cut religious schools and their students from equal access to funds, facilities, and forums available to all others. That money could have shored up many public schools that are disastrously failing.

We have the luxury of litigating about issues of religious symbolism in public life, but we might do better if we tended to the weightier matters of the law.

John Witte, Jr., is Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Epiphany Greetings

The longer I reflect on The Epiphany of Our Lord (or The Theophany, as it is called by our Orthodox brothers and sisters, or the “manifestation,” as some translate “epiphany”) the more confused I get about how Christianity has degenerated for many into the private (as opposed to personal), me-and-God, quietistic concern for individual salvation that it has become for arguably most Christians. The events of the Epiphany make it abundantly clear, it seems to me, that the Advent of Our God (as it is called in LBW hymn 22) is an undeniably political, cultural, and economic thing. And to argue otherwise (as we tend to do with our standard Christmas devotion) is both to undervalue what God has done and completely to misunderstand what He has done.

Ethicist Larry Rassmussen has a helpful little article in the January issue of The Lutheran, the ELCA’s in-house magazine. In part, he indicts Christians for redacting the Christmas and Epiphany stories to exclude the uncomfortable elements of the slaughter of the holy innocents. And he’s right to do so.

In the liturgical churches, we mark certain events in the life of Our Lord as special revelations into the nature and significance of the birth of Jesus. (In contrast to the Western Church, the Eastern Church downplays the Nativity in favor of a full-blown celebration of the Theophany – literally, “god appearance.” The West prefers the more romantic focus on Bethlehem.) Included in the liturgical readings of the Nativity-Epiphany structure are the visit of the magi (or wise men), the Baptism of Jesus, the wedding at Cana. Often overlooked (because they don’t often fall on Sundays when the community gathers) are such events as the reaction of Herod to being outwitted by the magi, the slaughter of the under-2-year-old boys, the fleeing of the Holy Family, and the martyrdom of Stephen (curiously placed within the Christmas-Epiphany cycle, this non-Jesus story is clearly intended to say something important).

Now, as much as I may suggest that I am a liturgical expert, I claim no special expertise – only passion – on the subject. So I can’t say how this liturgical pattern developed. But certain features seem unmistakable – except to the vast majority of preachers, I guess. (I’ll only deal with some of the events I’ve highlighted. I acknowledge the rhetorical weakness of raising issues that I don’t deal with, but I want to leave you some room to fill in some blanks in your own way.)

Of foremost significance, it seems to me, is the political significance of the arrival of God in human flesh. Jesus’ birth attracts, not just Jews who were looking for their Messiah (in fact, not many of them showed much interest at first, according to the Bible), but Herod, the king of the region. For Herod, Jesus’ birth represented a challenge to his rule, the potential for insurrection. And so to eliminate that threat, when he couldn’t find the individual traitor because the magi broke their assurance to return, he exercised the “nuclear option” and ordered the murder of the entire population of “innocents,” expecting to wipe out Jesus in the total destruction, causing wailing to rival that in Egypt at the time of the Passover.

Now, I know that Herod is often understood to misunderstand what Jesus was all about. After all, didn’t Jesus later tell Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world.” But that seems to deny the evidence. For one thing, Jesus only says that in John’s Gospel, which is not known for its historical interest. And for another, despite his not intending to set himself up as king as the world understands kings, he never denies that his appearance sets in play a whole new politics, what John Howard Yoder has called “The Politics of Jesus.” Jesus did in fact come to overthrow the powers of the globe, and because of him, those powers would no longer be able claim either allegiance from or control over the followers of Jesus. No longer would people be subject to the dictates or constraints of artificially drawn “national” boundaries, of rulers within and over those “nations,” of threats of imprisonment or death.

It’s ironic, but Herod was right: Jesus’ claims would ultimately topple him. And he was justified in fearing the loss of his power and prestige. The terror he inflicted in order to preserve his slipping grasp on power is typical of failing despots in every age, who perpetrate terror in order to maintain power in the face of challenge from a greater Power.

That the Holy Family was forced to retreat – and to retreat to Egypt, of all places! – fits this theme. When centuries before, the people of God went into exile in Egypt, it was for their protection. When they were eventually called out of Egypt, it was to be established as the people of The Lord. They were a religious and political entity established, not to overthrow the rest of world (its kingdoms, satrapies, and dominions), but with providing witness, by their very existence and the way they lived out that existence, to the new reality in the world which was The Lord’s rule. (That they misunderstood their “place” and function and importance explains all their various turmoil and exiles. But that’s for another discussion.) By their witness, example, and presence, the structures of the world would be transformed in fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham – viz., that by his descendants all the nations of the world would “bless themselves.”

When Jesus’ parents brought him back from Egypt, they recapitulated the Exodus: Jesus came out of exile in order to establish a people who would, by their presence in the world, transform the worldly powers and principalities. As his Father taught his new People at Sinai, the Son would eventually teach his People on the mount (or the plain). Instilling in them, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, their new identity as the People of God, he fashioned for himself a people to be the presence of God in the world. And the powers continue to quake – and rightly so.

But “rightly so” only if the people of God hew to their identity and mission.

We are lured away from that by our so-called “traditional” observances of Christmas. Forget the “commercialization” of Christmas; there are more subtle lures. We focus on the sweet baby Jesus, with adoring shepherds come in from the field. We forget that the presence of the shepherds was grossly offensive: Not only did they stink, but they were commonly perceived as unclean and blasphemers – traveling around, as they did, through often barren and religiously mixed hillsides, where they might have consorted with who knows how many different pagans (and maybe Samaritans). We idolize the animals in the barn with carols, forgetting that the Lord of Life was forced to begin his life as an outcast, whose only company was livestock. And again, the smell was as bad as some homeless people’s sleeping areas. We thrill to “We Three Kings,” and ignore the difficulties of crossing borders in our age (not to mention borders “to the East”). We celebrate the star “up yonder,” forgetting about the disruption that meant in the cosmos.

We forget the smell, the threat, the cosmic disturbance – and in the process we de-politicize the Epiphany: Jesus was a baby and babies don’t practice politics – even when they die from starvation, abuse, HIV, and bombings. Jesus can be a capitalist, even if that means turning more people out into barns, to beg and scrape just to survive. Jesus can be a nationalist, even if that means Rachel must continue to wail over the deaths of her Iraqi innocents. Jesus can be oblivious, as long as we can sing “Silent Night” (I would love a Christmas without singing that song!) with candles in the safety of our beautifully appointed and now darkened churches, from which we have swept every suggestion of mold, mildew, and the detritus of society.

And in our forgetting, we blind ourselves to the Epiphany. We hide what was shown. We deny what has been said. We miss what we are to learn. And we return to Herod to invite him to go to Jesus and offer his gift.

* * * * * * * *

One last personal note: I once – and only once – preached on the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. I wanted to highlight the personal costs of discipleship (if you will) to those who are affected by the birth of the Messiah – that it’s not all sweet carols and romantic feelings. So I began the sermon, “Christmas is not for children.” From out the congregation came the voice of one three-year-old, “It is, too.” (An astute little girl to be listening to sermons at that age, eh?)

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Book of Daniel

No, not that book of Daniel. And no, not you Brother Daniel (just your luck to move beyond the reaches of "civilization" the year they name one for you!). That new television show featuring a painkiller-addicted Episcopal priest who has face-to-face conversations with Jesus, who appears to him but to no one else), and who has a rich alcoholic wife who provides a grand mansion for the rectory (along with a weed-smoking black maid), and who is doing his best to care for his flock, his three kids (one sexually active high school son, a drug-dealing daughter, and a son who is or thinks he is gay). The show also features a Roman Catholic priest connected to the Mafia and a woman bishop (played by Ellen Burstyn), who is having an affair with another bishop (Daniel's father), whose wife is trapped in the deep recesses of Alzheimer's.

It's quite a kick.

If only because the religious right-wing has been so up-in-arms about the show, I wanted to blog about the show -- whose first episode I missed because I was in church celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany (where all liturgically minded folks -- including Episcopalians -- should have been). But I saw the second hour and think I got a fair sense of the show. And I had a long schtick going, when I accidentally tripped the power box connected to my computer and lost the entire thing to God-knows-where.

That's OK, though, because these people do a better job than I (though I thought I pulled off a couple bon mots.). Check out these, and then comment to me about your feelings on the show:

Bag Lady is here;
Real Live Preacher saves me a lot of typing here;
Canon Kendall Harmon raises some wonderful ecclesiastic points (can't they afford to get a churchly adviser?) here;
and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, has its own blog on the show -- talk about lending some credibility to an artifact of popular culture -- here;
and that leads to a cultural-criticism posting (Monday, 9 January, posting) here.

That's enough for now. But let me know if there's something I ought not to meet.

I, of course, was distressed by the worldly attitude toward sex throughout the show: I was deeply angered by the affair between the bishops -- I mean, come on! Father (not "Reverend") Daniel's easy acceptance of the fact that people coming to him for pre-marital counseling were living together -- and then joking about it as "living in sin" -- was not amusing. And his parental failure in not taking his one son's promiscuity more seriously was disappointing (he's a very loving father, but there's a difference between being a parent and being a pal).

I also didn't like Jesus: Oops, that might sound wrong. I thought that the portrayal of Jesus was way too beacher-type: Why not a good old (ok: young) Middle East type who isn't quite so androgynously hunky?

Still, I'm going to watch again. This show is so much better than other "pastor" series that it deserves more than one shot. When I compare it to Seventh Heaven, I am left with nothing to say. Can anyone tell me how that piece of mushy bread stays on the air? If that man and his daughter were my pastors, I'd turn Hindu for sure. And then there was that Dan Ackroyd silliness a few years ago. This looks pretty good, even beside the Vicar of Dibley!

Let me hear what you think.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Aslan or Hobbes?

Here's a link to a quite refreshing and inspiring article about Bill Waterson's cries of "Beware!" about marketing associated with the Narnia movie. (What would this blog do without Christianity Today's e-mail newsletters? I am grateful to them.)

Watterson is the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, that wildly successful comic strip, which Watterson retired in 1996 (after ten years). The cartoonist explains why he did not grab up millions of dollars in marketing tie-ins to capitalize on the success of the strip. And in the short process, he says some wonderful things about maintaining fantasy and imagination , avoiding commercialism, and understanding "spirit." I commend it to you.

I hesitate on a couple of facts in the article. For example, I am certain that I have seen Calvin & Hobbes calendars, and the article suggests that Watterson even eschewed that avenue. And let's not forget the new 3-volume compilation of all the C&I strips, available for a mere $150 (list).

Still, I think the author of the article, who teaches at Wheaton College (home of the Marion E. Wade Center, housing collections from the Inklings and hangers-on -- including Dorothy Sayers; what an amazing place that is, too). makes some excellent points about "marketing God."

If I ever get my seminar on consumerism up and running, this will be one of the articles I'll throw in for consideration.

Who Am I? Just for fun

I got a link to a "Who Am I?" quiz from another blog, and I thought I'd let my friends and would-be friends test their knowledge of me (or the degree of my self-revelation on this blog). Here comes another stage in self-aggrandizement!

Take the quiz here. It won't specifically identify me (my goof in setting it up), but the link takes you right to ten questions about me.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Best films

I have previously noted that I am now a regular filmgoer, thanks to the influence of my friend Brad. We try to see a new film every Tuesday evening and then repair for coffee for conversation about the film (and anything else that floats across our consciousnesses). It's not especially a theological enterprise (although Brad is a professor of theology at a local college), but it is significant how theology and films intersect. (How many courses are there in universities and colleges on "faith and film" or the like?) In fact, we are often led to theological considerations by the films we see, and I think that is as it should be. Films are a wonderful preaching (and source for material for preaching). Apparently Mel Gibson sees it that way, anyway -- though I can't testify to his results, because I never saw the Passion.

Well, as a part of preparing for Tuesday nights, I regularly watch At the Movies, a review program with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper, both Chicago SunTimes film critics. I have been watching Ebert for decades (yes, literally), and although it took a while, I am warming to Richard Roeper (although when they disagree, I still tend to end up on Ebert's side). We're such fans of the program that we refer to the critics and the program as "the guys" -- as in, "the guys are on now" or "I wonder what the guys will say about that movie."

Well, this is the time when they name their choices for the ten best films of the previous year. And I list their choices here, hoping that I break no copyright laws by claiming this fair use. You can check out the actual reviews yourself -- here for Roger Ebert and here for Richard Roeper.

Ebert's picks (from #1 - #10, best first) are:

Brokeback Mountain
Me and You and Everyone We Know
9 Lives
King Kong

Roeper's are:

New World
9 Lives
Brokeback Mountain
History of Violence
Walk the Line
40-Year-Old Virgin

Go figure!

I have missed a lot of these films (it just goes to show that there are lots of good movies about), and I heartily disagree about several others. How can that be?

For example, how can Crash figure in the top three for both? It was an OK film, raising some interesting and unfortunately perennial issues. But I didn't really think that it did so in a way that was particularly new or gripping. (Matt Dillon was good, however, and I think maybe he deserves an Oscar nomination.) So, too, Brokeback Mountain.

Now I know that some may doubt this sentiment, but I wanted to like this movie. And from the hype I was expecting to be blown away. And then it shows up in both the guys' lists. But I found the thing frankly disappointing. I guess I found some of the Ang Lee landscape shots pretty cool (but then, I'm a Great Plains, flat-earth fellow, so mountains of any kind are impressive to me). I thought the premise was hackneyed and didn't really present anything new -- except maybe for the cowboy angle, but my friends tell me (of course, I wouldn't otherwise know) that that's a common theme in gay porn. The characters' falling into lust wasn't set up very well; the consummation of their physical affections didn't ring true. The theme of "we'd get no respect" is a given -- if a lamentable one -- for 1963 (when it begins).

What's going on? Are liberal-progressive types reminded by such films of their guilt at the ways of the world such that they let their emotions color their intellectual analysis? If all it takes for Heath Ledger to earn an Oscar for his performance is a deep-throated mumble, then I'm completely baffled -- and ready to begin to believe the right-wing cant about "leftist Hollywood."

Of the movies the guys name, I applaud Yes and Millions. Yes was written (and performed) in rhymed verse. And while there were some sort of rough edges to some of the narrative, I think the accomplishment of Sally Potter's script is wonderful. (Joan Allen is also one of the most beautiful women in films, and that didn't hurt, either!) Millions was just plain charming -- and the little rug rats who starred pulled off their parts with great elan.

So there it is: Correct my judgment; help me to understand. But for heaven's sake, Go to the movies!

A happy, healthy, spirited 1006.