Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Second Day of Christmas

All blessings during these Twelve Days of Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation of God in human form and substance!

Today is the Second Day, and according to Fr. Alexander Schmemann of Blessed Memory, the earliest observance on this day was not that of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, but a celebration of the life of the Mother of Our Lord. This was, as I read him, the first Marian feast (the Synaxis of the Most-Holy Theotokos), apparently long before other Marian feasts appeared on the calendar. But I'm going to have look more deeply into this, because my recollection is that, for example, her "birthday" was celebrated very early in the Church's history. (That seems to be reflected in the Protevangelion of St. James. But I know next to nothing about that, too.)

In any event, light an extra candle before your icon/s of the Theotokos. From Western usage: Hail, Mary, full of grace: The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.

The Synaxis of the Most-holy Theotokos

At the border between night and sunny day,
The dawn is rosy, pink and dewy.
The crimson dawn thou art, O Virgin given by God,
Precursor of the day, rosy and glorious.
Thou didst correct Eve and restore her to Paradise.
Do not withhold thy help from us sinners.
Israel crossed dry-shod over the Red Sea;
A cool spring flowed from the rock in the wilderness;
The bush burned but was not consumed-
As the dawn resembles the crimson eve,
So thou, O Virgin, dost resemble those foreshadowings.
O thou whom the Church calls the Mother of God,
Unknown to sin, not given to sin,
O Most-pure Mother of our Savior,
Because of thy purity thou wast chosen by God,
To bring down the Eternal Creator to earth.
That is why thou hast authority to pray for us,
And we have the joy of hymning and glorifying thee

I have written before about my sort-of-not-very-"Lutheran" view of the Theotokos, so I won't go over it again.

I will, however, note that the coincidence of two observances of martyrdom is not insignificant to the Christian proclamation: Mary was wounded by the suffering of her son and, undoubtedly, mourns the sacrifice of every one of her son's followings, beginning with Stephen. It is, I think, during Christmastide that the theology of the cross becomes easiest to explicate (especially when coupled with the Slaughter of the Innocents), and yet in my experience, it is during this season that such a theology is last in evidence. (I don't mean to invoke the memory of the "Sad Danes," but the shadow of the cross lies darkly across the manger -- if manger there was. And we ought not to forget it.)

It is our sublime joy (we are makarios) that the Word became flesh -- the divine became human in order that the human might become divine. But that happy exchange came and comes at a cost. Have we abandoned counting that cost, to the detriment of our ultimate well-being?

A most blessed Christmastide to you!

Friday, December 21, 2007

On the Subject of Movies

Since I have entered into the real of movie criticism, let me scream one thing. Soundtracks are important to me. I am easily manipulated by the movie score, background music, and the like. I am also easily put off (see my comments in the last post about the annoying typewriter thing). One thing that really gets my goat is the failure to be cautious in the use of music not composed for the current movie.

In "The Year of Living Dangerously," for example, (one of my favorite movies in the '80s) took place around the year of 1965 (or is it 1967?), when Suharto seized power from Sukarno in Indonesia. In the movie, there's a great scene in which Billy/Linda Hunt (the only performer to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite gender, which portrayal was not of a cross-dressing sort) is bandaging a wound Mel Gibson has sustained during a riot. S/He puts on a well-used vinyl disk and asks Gibson to listen to the power. (It's mystical and haunting scene that is the center of the movie for me.) And the recording is one of R. Strauss' "Four Last Songs" (the best music ever written for voice -- specifically, soprano -- and orchestra) sung by (to me, the then-unknown) Kiri te Kanawa. I fell in love with the voice and music and rushed out to find the recording. (Years later I met and was hugged by Dame Kiri, something that may never have happened but for hearing her in "Year." We remain good friends to this day -- oh, wait; the hug happened, but the friendship is "in my dreams." Alas!)

Well, lo and behold!, the te Kanawa/Andrew Davis recording had not yet been made in the year of the Suharto coup. I think it came out the next year (1968). Well, now that sticks in my craw every time I see the movie.

Unfortunately, the same thing happened in "Atonement." In one mooning-love-sick scene, Robbie/McAvoy re-plays a famous duet from "La Boheme." Per the credits, the singers are Jussi Bjoerling and Victoria de los Angeles, both sublime singers (on what is arguably the best recording of the opera). Well, that recording was not made until years later than the period portrayed, either. So here's another anachronism that will jump up to bite me whenever I see this movie again. It's great that they didn't use a contemporary divo and diva, but come on, there are older recordings they could have glommed on to.

Internet Movie DataBase lists "goofs" apparent in movies. I wonder whether I ought to suggest this on both. (As it is, they highlight that the credits misattribute which Song te Kanawa actually sings. Maybe I should add to that.) A little research won't cost a studio/filmaker that much in the scale of things. (Can you imagine showing a car that hadn't been produced until years after the action-period? No one would let that pass. So why the music problems?)

For curiosity's sake: Anyone know of similar problems with other movies? I tend to stick to the opera-like repertoire, of course, so I'd be pretty much deaf to other anachronisms.


I don't write many movie reviews. (As I've indicated before, I see quite a few movies these days -- new releases in theaters and not-so-new at home, through the satisfying service of NetFlix.) I'm not equipped to analyze movies, nor do I see theological themes under every credit. (Yes: I know that all of the cosmos is theological. I would have to push, however, to draw out the theology or the theological problematic in "Michael Clayton" -- no matter how ethereal I think Tilda Swinton is!) But once in a while, a movie requires attention from a theological perspective -- usually when it doesn't want to be analyzed that way.

Such is the new movie, "Atonement," which friend Brad and I saw on the "big screen" last night. And I recommend it. (I have some personal reservations, I guess, but they relate more to how I match up a movie with the book on which it's based. In this case, I think I'd have enjoyed the movie more had I not already read the book.) It's a troubling movie. But it is troubling in a very good, Christian sense (even though neither the book nor the movie, so far as I can discern, makes any religious claim or pretense.)

The movie is a study in perplexity or ambiguity: Is perception reality? Is there a "reality" that exists behind what we see and convince ourselves we see, whether we understand it or not? What is real? Can mistakes -- willful or accidental -- be "atoned" for or the consequences undone? Who dies and who doesn't die? What is autobiograpical fiction (which only comes as a question at the end of the movie)? Can James McAvoy shed his identification as Tumnus, the Faun in the first Narnia movie (something which was a little problematic for me, even though I've seen him in other things since then, but it's apparently not a problem for many people, since he's getting pretty solid reviews).

To be honest, Mr. McAvoy's performance is really moving and believable (at times, annoyingly so). Kiera Knightley is gorgeous and probably right for the part (though I'm not a great fan of hers, this was a pretty good performance). Saoirse Ronan is spookily effective as the little b... -- er, -- brat who precipitates so much pain for so many. (The somewhat-older Nurse Briony is less appealing, even though the characterization seemed pretty consistent.) And the ever-phenomenal Vanessa Redgrave is a most convincing old-age Saoirse/Briony -- in looks and manner. So casting works very well. (There is a most annoying musical theme that features an ancient typewriter -- which made me think of the more entertaining LeRoy Anderson band piece,
The Typewriter -- which was only hamfisted and not effective. Thankfully, it is gone by the end.)

The movie has to contend with point of view issues, crucial to the novel, and it does so by re-play -- not flashback: It sets out a scene involving Briony's seeing and interpreting something, and then it goes back in time to play the scene out in a supposedly objective, third-person view (what "really happened"). For some reason I found that irritating; I kept thinking, "I wish they'd get on with it." But, of course, that is what is to be gotten on with. And while I knew that intellectually, I couldn't relax and get into the early part of the movie.

Still, I encourage people to see the movie and to reflect on the Christian themes that resonate through it. I'm not sure about the religious orientation or conviction of the author of the book, Ian McEwen, and I really don't care. But the movie (for me, more so than the book did) concentrates questions about "atonement" that are worth considering.

I think the movie sets up these questions, inter alia, which may be good for Christians to ponder especially during this season of Advent, that mixture of looking back to the Great Atonement and looking forward (not to "Christmas" -- which is in the past -- but) to the final Denouement: What is atonement? Is it restitution (as it portrayed in some Christian theology)? If restitution, can it ever happen -- except in some kind of abstract and forensic way? Is forgiveness (from the one wronged or from ouselves for the "evil we have done") the same as atonement? Can the "sinner" atone for her sin and to the ones sinned against? (The movie answers this in a most scintillating yes-no way, and in the process doesn't answer the question -- which is the major interest I find in the movie.) If we parse the word as AT-ONE-ment, mustn't we acknowledge that atonement can come (or at least must initiate) from the side of the one/s wronged? Doesn't it require the desire/intent of both "sides" to achieve at-one-ment?

When I think about it, this wasn't a bad way to spend the last Thursday in Advent.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Baptism by Torture: Variation on a Theme

Sightings is an e-mail subscription newsletter from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It explores the intersection of faith and public life in its many guises. (Half the articles are written by Martin Marty himself and the other half by a host of other contributors.) In the November 29 issue, William Schweiker, who is the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School and director of the Martin Marty Center, published an interesting and important column, "Baptism by Torture." In it he observes "that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation." He goes on to suggest that those very roots provide a basis for Christians to stand up against any effort to justify waterboarding -- or torture in general. Because Sightings permits columns to be republished in full, I am pasting it here, with my expressed gratitude to the Center for its work and for its generosity in sharing its works.

Baptism by Torture
-- William Schweiker

Religious practices have often been tied to violence and torture, but this connection is often hidden within public discourse. That is the situation now in the United States with the debate about waterboarding, the religious meanings of which have yet to be articulated and explored.

The candidates in the current presidential campaign have taken starkly different stances on the practice of waterboarding. Some condemn the practice as outright torture; others have refused to condemn the practice if in an extreme case it could save millions of American lives. The topic has been divided into two separate but related questions: is waterboarding a form of torture, and, however torture is defined, are there situations in which waterboarding and other practices are justified?

The argument for possible justification turns on several assumptions: that we could infallibly know that someone had vital information that would in fact save millions; that torture would extract this information without distortion; and, finally, that if the information was secured truthfully and infallibly, it could be put to use in good time. None of these assumptions is warranted. Expert opinion and empirical evidence concur that torture is an ineffective means to gain reliable information. The scenario of the lone knower of the facts whose torture would save millions of lives is the stuff of bad spy movies and bad exam questions in ethics courses. In terms of the question of definition, matters are both legal and visceral. International conventions provide ample guidelines, and, as more than one commentator has noted, if waterboarding is not torture it is not clear what else to call it, the Bush Administration's penchant to alter definitions notwithstanding.

Less often observed is that the practice of waterboarding has roots in the Spanish Inquisition and parallels the persecution of Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. Why did practices similar to waterboarding develop as a way to torture heretics—whether the heretics were Anabaptists or, in the Inquisition, Protestants of any stripe as well as Jews and witches and others?

Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists or "re-baptizers" since these people denied infant baptism in favor of adult baptism. The use of torture and physical abuse was meant to stem the movement and also to bring salvation to heretics. It had been held—at least since St. Augustine—that punishment, even lethal in form, could be an act of mercy meant to keep a sinner from continuing in sin, either by repentance of heresy or by death. King Ferdinand declared that drowning—called the third baptism—was a suitable response to Anabaptists. Water as a form of torture was an inversion of the waters of baptism under the (grotesque) belief that it could deliver the heretic from his or her sins.

In the Inquisition, the practice was not drowning as such, but the threat of drowning, and the symbolic threat of baptism. The tortura del agua or toca entailed forcing the victim to ingest water poured into a cloth stuffed into the mouth in order to give the impression of drowning. Because of the wide symbolic meaning of "water" in the Christian and Jewish traditions (creation, the great flood, the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus and drowning of the Egyptians (!), Christ's walking on the water, and, centrally for Christians, baptism as a symbolic death that gives life), the practice takes on profound religious significance. Torture has many forms, but torture by water as it arose in the Roman Catholic and Protestant reformations seemingly drew some of its power and inspiration from theological convictions about repentance and salvation. It was, we must now surely say, a horrific inversion of the best spirit of Christian faith and symbolism. Is it the purpose of the United State nowadays to seek the conversion, repentance, and purity of supposed terrorists and thus to take on the trappings of a religious rite? The question is so buried behind public discourse that its full import is hardly recognized.

In the light of these religious meanings and background to waterboarding, US citizens can decide to reject any claim by the government to have the right to use this or other forms of torture, especially given connections to the most woeful expressions of Christianity; conversely, they can fall prey to fear and questionable reasoning and thus continue to support an unjust and vile practice that demeans the nation's highest political and moral ideals even as it desecrates one of the most important practices and symbols of Christian faith.

I judge that it is time for repentance, the affirmation of new life, and the humane expression of religious convictions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Best Books of the Year

Because it's close to the end of the calendar year and because we have already entered the new liturgical year, it seems appropriate to reflect on reading this last year. The book reviews are all naming the "Ten Best" in various categories. So I've been thinking a little about my own critical responses. I can't get up to ten, yet. But here are four titles (to which I will add more) and a more general entry that I have especially appreciated:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (named by the New York Times as one of the five best novels of the year, too!)

Matthew: A Theological Commentary by Stanley Hauerwas (big surprise there!)

Christ Present in Faith by Tuomo Mannermaa (the "Adam" of the Finnish school of Luther interpretation)

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies (probably not fair, because it's about my fifth reading of the book, but I do love Robertson Davies)

several by Wendell Berry (and while I will claim that Jayber Crow remains my favorite, I feel that to highlight one as better than others is a little like preferring one child over others).

As usual, the Saturday Book Group required me to read books I probably would otherwise not even heard of, and also as usual, even if I didn't especially enjoy the book when I read it, I came away from the discussion feeling much more impressed with the work. It just goes to show you that the Great Books program has it right: It takes a village to explore a novel! (The danger, of course, is that enjoyment leads to the temptation to buy more books: Frankenstein drove me out to buy Paradise Lost, which I'm now reading and loving, but can't list because I'm not finished with it yet.)

I'll list more as my mind clears and I have a chance to review the bookshelves.

But for now, how about everyone who reads this lists five worthwhile of your reads during 2007.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Health Issues and the Faith

Two sort of unrelated ("random," in my daughter's parlance) ideas that grew out of conversations this week:


News in today's paper got a rise out of two of us in my home (blessed spouse, remember, works with an organization that manages health and other services for people with physical disabilities, most of whom are on public assistance): The former CEO of UnitedHealtcare (the country's largest HMO, as I understand it) has entered into an agreement with the SEC to give back something totally over 600 million dollars in stock options and compensation in exchange for closing the investigation into illegal stock-option back-dating. The guy's compensation one year topped a billion dollars, so this won't send him to the County Home. Other officers of the company (including the company's chief lawyer) have made deals to return unseemly or illegal compensation under similar terms. (I can't tell from the news coverage whether this removes the threat of federal criminal charges against them.)

My question is a simple one: If a company which manages healthcare is profiting so much that it can pay billions a year to its chief employees, why is no one blaming that as a contributing factor to the crisis in healthcare in this country? Could not those billions go to making premiums more affordable? By what possible stretch of the imagination is anyone's work in one year worth a billion dollars?

If Clarence Jordon, of the Cotton Patch Version paraphrases/translations of the New Testament were still kicking around, I can see him doing something like this: "Blessed are you. For I was ill and you provided healthcare insurance for me." You can do the "depart from me" passage on your own.


I have climbed the soapbox to decry the non-pension system and healthcare system of the ELCA (my home denomination). I am especially concerned for those pastors and their spouses who labor in rural areas where their salaries are very low, where parsonages are provided, where healthcare is difficult to procure, and the like. (I'm thinking of rural North Dakota, but there are lots of other places.) I have made the claim that under the current system, those people are disadvantaged in the extreme in their retirement years, because many of them have not been able to set aside enough to afford to move to more cosmopolitan areas, where healthcare and assistance with aged living (et. al.) are more readily available.

Well the answer came up in conversations with some spouses of retired pastors: The ELCA needs to build some retirement complexes for pastors. Cost of living there should be based on an ability to pay. Services should include assisted living aides, meal services, and all the other amenities that a good retirement setting includes. These should be located in major cities in Luther-ville so that people need not abandon the areas where they are comfortable in order to avail themselves of the plan. Thus, for example, Fargo, Minneapolis, Gettysburg, Columbia, Austin, et. al. could afford locations. Costs of the project would be borne in part by the residents, part by insurance plans, part by donations.

It's time we do more for the economically disadvantaged pastors who have served faithfully. So perhaps I need to write a letter to my friend, Em Cole, the new chair of the Board of Pensions.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Matthew Update

From time to time, I'll post updates on the Matthew discussion, often posting my "introductions" to a class session. In those introductions, I try for two things: First, I try to summarize what we've discussed, so that people who have participated in the past couple of weeks or so of discussions know what we've covered and thereby to set some context for the current discussion. I also try to influence the spiritual formation of the call members by attending to the homiletical (Bible study leaders can't and shouldn't help preaching, it seems to me) and theological dimensions of what we discuss. (As an aside: I'm excited by the Brazos Press enterprise of getting theologians to write commentaries on the books of the Bible. I think such a project is long overdue and desperately needed. And I'm having a wonderful time reading Stanley Hauerwas' on Matthew.)

I want people to get excited about reading the Bible, and I want to aid them in developing a more "catholic" exegesis. I'm influenced, of course, by my progressive roots to an almost knee-jerk reaction against "conservative" and fundamentalist misreading or distorting Scripture. That's not to say that I want to substitute a progressive hermeneutic (well, of course I do, but I work very hard to be honest about things and to let the Scriptures speak on their own terms). It's clear from the turn-out for this class that people really understand the importance of Scripture and want to read it in company with other Christians. And so I'm still excited about what's happening.

Here is a rough transcript of my introduction to the All Saints Sunday session. It makes reference to a sermon preached by our pastor the previous week, and you can check that sermon out here.

(In what follows, I've left out housekeeping details that prefaced the introduction.)

Last Sunday, in his sermon for the Feast of the Reformation, Pastor Heisley raised the question, most appropriate both to the Gospel text for the day and to the Reformation itself, of how shall we continue in the Word of the Lord. I must say that I was disappointed with his answer in one respect (and keep in mind that I always want to re-write preachers’ sermons for them): It seems to me that there is one obvious, but majorly neglected, counsel on how to continue in the Word of the Lord. And that is to continue in, to live in, to steep ourselves in the words of the Lord. God has seen fit to incarnate his Word, present with him at the creation, in flesh and blood at one point in history and in vowels and consonants throughout history.

And that’s part of what Matthew is about: He put into words and paragraphs and chapters (well, actually, those came later) a vehicle by which the Incarnated God continues his saving work, long after the Son of David and the Son of Abraham ascended to his Father. By means of Matthew’s words, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, we continue to enjoy the company of the one who was born of the Virgin Mary, sojourned in Egypt (and maybe Ethiopia) to avoid murder, and was raised by his mother and earthly guardian in Galilee.

And we are called to continue that company though Holy Writ – not by listening or reading once or twice and then discarding in favor of some other, “deeper” spiritual/theological works. Rather – and here, for the sake of quotation, I’ll change the reference, you are called, in the words of the Great Reformer himself, to meditate on scripture “not only in your heart but also outwardly,” word by work, “as oral speech and literal words.” Scripture is to be worked at and rubbed like an herb, read and re-read, and what the Holy Spirit is saying here is to be deeply pondered.

And that’s what we are doing here – working at this Gospel and rubbing it like an herb to release its fullest aroma, its tangiest bite, its most satisfying enhancement of this spiritual food. We have been guided by Matthew from his opening flourished, in which, by means of his “begats,’ he outlines his story – the life of the one who will (in one of his favorite words) “fulfill” the royal line of David and the covenantal line of Abraham.

We read and pondered the unusual conception and birth of this one – a virgin for a mother, the Holy Spirit for the generative moment. And we looked with respect and even awe (if we read properly) on Jospeh, who repeatedly was called to defy culture, history, geography, and politics to serve as guardian of this one, this “Jesus” – as he named him in obedience to the dream-messenger. We have had the first hints that “he who saves” raises alarms first with political authorities, who rule by the fear that their strength is necessary to fight off chaos.

And we accompanied our Lord to Egypt where were given the next hints of the meaning of the name “Jesus” – God saves:

After Egypt’s ancient, grave sin, after many blows had been divinely inflicted upon it, God the omnipotent Father, moved by devotion, sent his Son into Egypt. He did so that Egypt, which had long ago paid back the penalty of wickedness owed under Moses might now receive Christ, the hope of salvation. How great was God’s compassion as shown in the advent of Son! Egypt, which of old under Pharoah stood stubborn against God, now became a witness to and home for Christ. (Chromatius)

And Egypt was blessed just as will be “all nations” – according to the last verses of this Gospel.

Then we saw Jesus home to Galilee – a rough, diverse homeland, where crossed the crowded ways of life: home to Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans (which may have been worse than Gentiles for many pious Jews), Romans, Greeks; along the great trade route between Persia (home to the first seers to recognize the cosmic implications of Jesus’ birth) and Egypt.

And today we turn the clock forward some – what? – thirty years, perhaps. “In those days” – a biblical formula for two things: a transition from one part of the story to another; a sign that something significant is on the horizon. And that’s where we pick up today: Read Matthew 3:1-12.

(And we began the discussion after reading the pericope out loud.)