Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guns Blazing and the Left Hand of God

Uwe Siemon-Netto directs something called the “Concordia Seminary Institute on Lay Vocation at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod seminary in St. Louis. He is trained as a journalist (he was once the religion editor for UPI), but he is also listed as a “lay theologian” (he holds a Ph.D. from Boston) at the foot of an article he wrote for Christianity Today, “Work Is Our Mission” (which you can read here). In the article, he sets down a lucid and very brief outline and analysis of the esteemed, objectionable, misunderstood, wrongly interpreted, necessary, wrong-headed, ever-current, and/or outdated Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. He does some nice summarizing, but his analysis highlights, in one wrenching phrase, the problems many of us (even devout Lutherans) have with the doctrine. (In what follows, all the words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in quote marks are the original author’s.)

Siemon-Netto points out that, on the Lutheran understanding of life, Christians are dual citizens. They live – and will dwell forever – in the “kingdom of the right” hand of God. This is the realm of salvation – of “the spiritual” – and it is the “redeemed realm of Christ, the gospel, and the church. Here we remain inactive, resting and feasting with God and freely receiving his grace because here he has revealed himself to us in Jesus.” (My question: Is this a “real” realm? How can one, e.g., point to the liturgy and claim that living in the realm of the church is inactivity or resting?)

But the other citizenship we live out is the “secular reality” – the “left-hand kingdom.” (As a self-defined leftist Christian, I find that this is both confusing and disparaging of lefthandedness, by giving the favored position to the right, but that may be reading it through too idiosyncratic a lens, I suppose.) This, “too is God’s realm, and must therefore never be disparaged.” (For a journalist, even one who may have come later to English, he plays fast and loose with sentence structure and punctuation, I think.) But in this realm, God works from behind a mask and governs “through earthly rulers who are his ‘masks.’” Key to operations in this realm is not revelation, but “natural reason – a gift from God enabling us to find our way around this place.” (I know nothing about the place of natural law in Lutheran theology, so I’m giving this claim pretty wide berth until a later time.)

In the so-called secular realm (the left-hand one), all God’s people are priests – “equal to the minister serving at the altar.” And it is the duty of people to live out their jobs, vocations, and professions with as much competence (and, I expect, care) as possible. Believers engage in priestly work when we employ natural reason and all the skill we can master to keep the world and its structures operating. Thus, “[a]s masks of the hidden God, we perform our priestly duties by going to the polls and running for election, by cooking for our families and doing the bookkeeping, by cutting someone’s hair and issuing speeding tickets, and by storming with guns blazing an enemy position in Iraq.”

Now hold on!

I was with him up to his last phrase. I do indeed believe that one need not become a monk or pastor to do God’s work. (I wish more monks and pastors realized that and didn’t feel the need to be ordained in order to be holy administrators, financial planners, politicians, counselors and therapists, and the like. Since many pastors seem more comfortable in those realms than in presiding at liturgies and at parsing the canons of the Council of Chalcedon, they ought to have been theologically trained to pursue those other vocations with as much sense of the holy as the ministry, as it is often called. But I digress.)

As a lay person, I understand my daily work to be priestly. I try to act in Christly ways – which is what I understand to be a priest’s duty – when I examine real estate titles, when I teach a class, when I try to help my daughter master graphing “slope” in her math homework. Of course, I believe that pastors are most necessary to the life of the Church, but I claim equal dignity and importance for lay people who bring their life in Christ into interface with the rough and tumble world. Furthermore, there is as much dignity in barbering or being a janitor as in running a corporation or teaching from an endowed chair in a university or running a theological think-tank. In all these areas and others, we, most of us, may legitimately hear the call (i.e., the vocation) of God to be his servants, his priests, his manifestation in the world.

But I must seriously wonder whether anyone is priestly if she or he storms anything with “guns blazing.” And therein lies the fundamental issue I have with the two-kingdoms doctrine. Are priests truly called and encouraged to act, and justified (in the non-technical sense) in acting, in un-Christly ways as an aspect of their lives on earth – even though they have been baptized into the Body of Christ? Are we blessed to be killers or cheaters or insulters or liars, so long as we limit that to the left-hand kingdom? For Christians, who by virtue of their baptism are integrated and transformed into the Body of Christ, why do not the counsels of Christ (by which I mean his teaching of what it means to be his disciple – as, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount) override the counsels of the world and “natural reason”?

With respect to the Sermon on the Mount, I know that there are commentators (many of them in the Lutheran lists of genealogies) who claim that Jesus never intended people to try to live the life he outlined in his discourse. They claim that Jesus was merely setting forth an impossible ideal that would require faithful people to recognize the futility of trying to live a holy life so that they give themselves over and just “rest and feast with God and receive his forgiveness” in the right-hand kingdom – while they go on acting like Satan in the left-hand kingdom.

For all my hearing this, I can’t buy that there is this ontological division between the life we are called to live within the bounds of church and the life we are required to live on the basis of natural reason in the world outside the church. If something violates the intention of God for life, is that not to be avoided in both kingdoms? Can I really go about murdering, if such is mandated by natural reason, and then take solace in the general absolution occasionally uttered prior to the Eucharist? How do we square that with what Jesus said about serving two masters?

For all its grounding in Lutheran teaching and its congruence with even some of what I hear from theologians I deeply respect, I think Siemon-Netto’s secular-culture-baptizing interpretation of Luther’s doctrine (whether it accurately reflects the teaching of the Reformer or not) is fundamentally a cop-out that has the effect of keeping Jesus in his place and letting us have our own way in the world. It is a kind of culture-pietism that divvies up life into God’s sphere and not-quite-God’s sphere. It fails to take the transforming power of the Gospel – most especially as that Gospel is worked out in the sacraments – with radical seriousness, restricting it to only some of life. And as such, it is a fundamental denial of the truth of the Gospel. For if “one does not live by bread alone,” but we are encouraged (as in the realm of capitalism) to act as though one does, are we not denying the truth of Jesus’ teaching? And if we deny his teaching, do we not deny him?

Might it not be more in keeping with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to see the right-hand kingdom as the seed of what the left-hand kingdom must – and will, by God – become (I say must, because God’s going to make it that way)? Hauerwas and Willimon, for example, describe the church as God’s outpost in the world, serving to incarnate life lived as God intends and to illustrate on the frontier of the wilderness where God’s will is not heeded – i.e., in the world – what will be. Should not we understand that these two realms (right and left) are not essentially unrelated, which I think they must be by Siemon-Netto’s analysis, but rather paradoxically related in the most pressing and troubling way? And are they not related in such a way that the right-hand kingdom is the school where we learn how to work in and transform the left-hand kingdom?

If I am a priest in my day-to-day life, then I am so as a priest of the One True God. And to organize my so-called weekday life around the cares, the values, the structures, and the means of a so-called unredeemed world, even if governed by a so-called natural reason (which seems to be the servant of the unredeemed world and so is itself unredeemed) is to sin most egregiously by backsliding right into pre-baptismal paganism.

So to address the lay-theologian’s points: I am called to be the best baker I can be – BUT as a Christian baker, I must do so without cutting corners on the quality of the flour or the sanitation of my bakery, even if the market dictates that I lower my price by doing so, because to do so is to sin against the health and well-being of those who will ingest my bread. I may be called to issue speeding tickets if I am state or local cop, but as a Christian I may not participate in profiling, in racial discrimination, or in any of the multitude of ways of treating some differently from others, even if that is the naturally reasonable thing to do. For such activity violates the principle of the Gospel that such divisions as race and class are overcome in the lives of Christians. (Such an erasing of boundaries cannot be restricted to my involvement in Christian liturgies, because if I share the peace with a black person on Sunday and then watch for young black men to pull over for supposed driving infractions based on racial profiling, then I am the most miserable of hypocrites.) I may be called to do bookkeeping, but I am under the Gospel’s power and mandate to be honest and above-board. So I may have to quit and even risk violating client confidentiality if I am an Enron attorney or accountant and know of the efforts to mislead and defraud hundreds of thousands of investors and employees.

And I most certainly may not manifest the love of God – even from behind a mask – by rushing in anywhere with guns blazing. For the status of “enemy” has been eliminated by the cross, where even willing, state-employed murderers were no loner counted enemy, let alone killed as enemies. To say that we fulfill the law of Christ by killing someone is an example of the kind of faulty logic (I might say, world-infected logic) that brings scandal because of its perversion of the Gospel. There is in that nothing of the skandalon that the preaching and living of the Gospel in its purity may engender in others.

Lutherans have to come to grips with the requirements – yes, requirements – of the Gospel for those who claim the name of Christ. And a good place to start would be with a hard-headed and repentant-hearted examination of the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. If that doctrine is anything as suggested by Siemon-Netto, I don’t know how we can have anything more to do with it.


Greece's Archbishop Christodoulos has died. I don't know whether there is a special commendation for an Orthodox episcopos, but here we treat them all alike (believing that so does God):

Eternal rest grant him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine on him.

What an awesome name: Archbishop the Servant of Christ. May we all aspire to that name.

Monday, January 28, 2008

A Couple of Red Flags

A friend led (as organist/choirmaster) vespers last evening at St. Olaf College. (It was in partial fulfillment of the requirements for M.S.M. degree through SO and Luther Sem.) The order was pretty much Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which once again showed that its collectors (or whatever they thought of themselves) deem familiarity with a rite something to be despised and made just enough changes to the vespers rite to make me constantly not sure what was happening next or what the musical tone might be. (Way to go, ELCA boys and girls! The changes were clearly not really necessary, since a lot of the music came directly into ELW. But at least a few “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” references were avoided – especially “Father.”) But aside from that an one or two other oddities, my friend designed a really nice office, with a cute children’s choir (not especially effective – if only because of the acoustics in the chapel) and a terrific, small adult choir (formed by invitation of people whose voices blended beautifully).

But what really got me was the recently remodeled Boe Chapel in which the office was prayed. There were two big errors, to my eye, that distracted me throughout the office. First (and probably less serious compared to the second), the organ console has been moved from the balcony/loft to right down front and center behind the free-standing table/altar, placed so that the organist faces the choir which sits between the console and the back wall, with his back to us. The result is that we are given more insight into the busyness of an organist during a worship service than I care to have: When prayers were going on, when we ordered into silence, and the like, the organist had to prepare the next piece of music, so there was rustling of pages and moving of books and checking of bulletin. In a school with a strong music program for church musicians and for an event of the Master of Sacred Music degree, this showed all the wrong touches.

Now I know that organists must be busy; that goes with the territory. But when the organ console is behind the worshippers (or as was the case at Gettysburg Seminary, where the console was integrated into the split choir, perpendicular to the worshipping community and more or less blocked by half the of the choir), he or she is able to do the busy work without distracting the pray-ers. To the contrary, when the console is front and center (and especially when it is oriented in the same direction as the worshippers), all that busy work is magnified and made to compete with the rest of the “business” of worship.

Lord, help congregations, design teams, and architects understand that.

The second thing was the magnificent display of the flags of many nations, which display hangs from the top of the walls at either side of the nave. Now I imagine (I didn’t even bother to ask) that the flags are meant to represent the nations from which Oles come to study at “Princeton of the Prairie” (my disdainful moniker for this Lutheran school). And, God knows, Lutheran colleges are all about affirming diversity and people’s good feelings about themselves and their preconceptions of how the world is structured. Campus pastors can claim lots of support for being “sensitive” to the needs of the students – which needs probably include being affirmed as SOUTH Koreans or “Americans” (by which is meant USAmericans, since Mexicans and Canadians have not claimed the entire continent for themselves) or Norwegians (as though the Dale sweaters – on sale for several hundred dollars each in the college Bookstore – were not evidence enough of that).

But that doesn’t change the fact that it is wrong to display national flags – or any other flag, for that matter – within the nave. While it is common practice, and especially among Anglicans and “conservative” evangelicals, I guess, it is still theologically and ritually and liturgically wrong.

Flags represent divisions in the world – and in most cases, artificial divisions, at that. (What, for example, calls for dividing North Dakota from Manitoba, when the landscape is the same, Icelanders live on both sides and commune and commute back and forth regularly? Or what is the logical reason – really – for the boundaries of “Iran” or “Iraq”? You know the answer to that – Western hegemony and arrogance.) The divisions are human-inspired and human-configured. And they give the lie to Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel that in Christ, there is no East or West, Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.

As Bill Cavanaugh so convincingly explains in “World in a Wafer,” (which you can read here), the liturgies of the Church – the Eucharist preeminent among them – are the enactment of the God-driven end to such earthly divisions. As God is One, so is the Body of Christ one – no longer defined by national identity, gender or sexual identifiers, economic status, or anything else. So when churches mount nationalistic banners in the worship space, one of two things happen: Either they disregard the importance of images and artifacts in the forming of people’s culture or they sanction (in the sense of validate) the very supposed reality reflected in the images and artifacts.

When churches hang or otherwise display national flags, they baptize an us-versus-them worldview that is incompatible with the Gospel. That is blasphemy, in short – the same as mounting statues of Shiva or the Buddha in chapels around the nave represents a return to the worship of Baals. (I can imagine that there are places that do that, but I pray that my imagination is overactive.) No god is more demanding of sacrifice and subservience than is the god of the nation (see another Cavanaugh article: “Killing for the Telephone Company,” here), and consequently no service must be more strenuously and tirelessly resisted than that directed to the god of the national culture.

Civil religion is a religion in competition with worship of the One True God, in other words. And for a congregation to give in to symbols of that civil religion is false worship, regardless of the touchy-feeling reasons given for excusing or justifying it.

Campus ministry is fraught with difficulties. But one can reasonably expect that colleges of the Lutheran church will think seriously about the implications of their curricula, their academic and student-life practices and policies, their sanctioned activities, and the designs of their spaces – most especially their worship spaces. On this, I think St. Olaf has failed the test.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Death Penalty?

It seems that Muslims are not the only religious tradition in which one can find unsavory references to the justifiability, if not the necessity, for killing someone who causes religious offense. (We Christians have made a fine art of parsing the more troubling death sentences out of the Old Testament, in order to avoid the taint of seeming foolishness, and we would never call for killing someone for religious bad acting. But at the same time we encourage a penal system that often uses death to extract revenge for heinous crimes, whether the accused is the perpetrator or not.) Well now, courtesy of Forward, the long-long-time reporter on things Jewish in America, comes this report that a Jew in Los Angeles has plea-bargained to a reduced sentence for himself by, at least in part, turning in some other Jews who were defrauding the US Treasury of lots of tax revenues.

The story would be unremarkable but for the invocation of the Jewish doctrine of "mesira" -- i.e., the unacceptability of turning a fellow Jew over to the government. It seems that under certain circumstances doing so can result in a death edict against the informer. That, too, would be of only academic interest but for the article's report that some Jews apparently will not concede that such a doctrine and punishment should not apply to Jews in the American situation, where to cooperate with the government is not tantamount to bringing one's fellows to death (as was and is the case in many countries where Jews are oppressed -- either officially or not so formally).

I guess the lesson is an odd one: Sharia law is inhuman when and if it allows for death edicts against heretics, but mesira is not when it is applied to people who turn in other bad actors. Will this result in the kind of generalized gabble about Jews the way that some talk of Sharia does about Muslims?

Surprising: No religious tradition has a corner on blindness! We're all denouncing slivers in each
other's eye, but ignore the railroad tie sticking out of our own!

So read the article ... . And while you're there, check out this one.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Love Never Ends

Of no particular theological significance, but touching and of interest is this item from Al Jazeera (yes, I do read Al Jazeera regularly; it's informative and professional -- what more need I say?

If it's exciting for an archaeologist to find, it's exciting also for us romantics!

Monday, January 14, 2008

The "Fullness" of the "one, true Church"?

[Note: A friend informed me that my link to Fr. Stephen's blog misdirected the reader to a porn site. I don't know how that link got changed (I checked it after I posted), but I've corrected it (with hopes it will stay corrected) -- and I apologize to anyone who got caught by that. I'm checking into whether I was hacked or what might have gone wrong. But for now I can only be chagrined.]

Caveat: As has been all-too-apparent from my previous postings, I am pretty unsophisticated in ecclesiology. I know that it’s important, and I’m trying to get my mind around the issues. But I have a long way to go: I am a Lutheran, after all, as we Lutherans are not notable for our contributions to a theology of the Church. Nevertheless, with an attitude of “fools rush in,” I offer these remarks.

In a touching and thought-provoking essay (here), Fr. Stephen, at “Glory to God for All Things,” has written about his preference for calling the Orthodox Church the “fullness “ of the Christian faith over asserting that it is “the one, true Church.” Of course, it’s not that he doesn’t believe that his Church is “the one, true.” But, as he says:

I believe it is the one, true Church, but how I understand that as an Orthodox Christian is quite different from how such a statement might be understood by a non-Orthodox Christian. Thus, I prefer the term “fullness.” It says the same thing (in a way) but also says it in a way that allows someone to ask questions and not just have an argument. The Scriptures (Eph. 1:23) describe the Church as “the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Thus it is a Scriptural description of the Church.

He goes on to describe what “fullness” means to him. And I find that I resonate to his preference for usage and to his description of “fullness.” I think he’s correct that, e.g., we Lutherans experience an urgent desire to post some theses when we hear the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church assert that the RCC is “the one, true Church” and when he, even in the most ecumenical of statements, points out the ecclesial deficiencies of other bodies which claim the name “Church.” So, to my eye, “fullness” avoids much of the surface reason to raise hackles. Openness to questions, rather than a fighting stance, is a churchly posture (despite the Lutheran willingness to “take arms against a sea of [theological] troubles and by opposing, end them” – with apologies to The Bard).

But it is precisely because the term “fullness” biblically expresses “all we are meant to be” that I take issue with his or any Christian’s ascription of the term “fullness” to his or her Christian tradition, denomination, or congregation. I suppose part of my objection roots in my Lutheranism – and here, I hope, Brother Paul takes heart (for he fears, at times, that I strain against the boundaries of Lutheran understandings). We confess that all that is necessary to know to identify the Church is that the Gospel is preached there (“in its purity”) and the sacraments are ministered in a way congruent with the gospel. My reading of Lutheran theology suggests that we’ve been a lot better is saying what that does not mean than unpacking what it does. But I digress.

Part of my objection, however, also roots in a hard-headed ecumenical stance that I commend to every Christian: Because the oneness of the Church (which we Christians confess in the Creed is a reality) is too close to a gnostic dream (i.e., true in some deep spiritual reality, but far from true as far as “facts on the ground” are concerned), I deny that Orthodoxy or any Lutheran tradition or the Roman Catholic communion or any other can rightly claim “fullness.” We may claim that adjective or noun only were we to be working our uttermost to reconcile in deep, committed, formal, and Eucharistic fellowship with all other Christians – and (here I’m tentative) maybe not even then, until we have reached a state of such fellowship). The moment any tradition claims that “we are the one, true and you are welcome to join us on our terms,” we have lost fullness and substituted something else, something less.

Now, know that I confess the oneness of the Church as it is mandated by the Creed, and I do not do so in some kind of precatory or hope-filled or Gnostic way only. But that confession is also judgment on the ways the Churches have of denying their oneness on grounds of theological terminology, ethnic or national genetics, structural arrangements, or what have you.

And by these comments, I do not mean to buy into the whole “throw open the doors” approach to Eucharistic fellowship (which, lamentably, seems to be the ELCA’s posture). There are some things worth Eucharistic fasting over. (“Eucharistic fasting” is one of my polite terms for “close” or “closed” communion.) But so long as there are such issues (and I admit the dilemma inherent to my arguments here), the fullness of the Church rests in none of its incarnations.

The Church is the Body of Christ – literally, metaphorically, spiritually, economically, and all the rest. But it is a bruised and battered body – no more the “fullness” of God’s intentions for her than was the dead body of Jesus the fullness of God's intentions for him: Jesus' body -- even dead -- was most assuredly the divine-and-human Christ as confessed in Article II, but that body was not all that Jesus Christ was or was meant to be. Not until God worked the Resurrection and Ascension can we speak of the “fullness” of the Christ in the sense that Fr. Stephen wants to speak of the “fullness” of the Church, even in these "in-between times" – or so, at least it seems to me. (See: My Christology is as weak as my ecclesiology.)

I don’t have alternative terminology to suggest: What I ask, however, is terminology that preserves the dialectical tension, the eschatological sense that inheres in such pairs as “already/not yet” and “simul justus et peccator.” The mixedness of the Church's reality requires that at this time.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Theologian in the Race?

I really don't have a dog in the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency: Frankly, I can't see that much good will come from the election of any of the people now running. But I have my questions about anyone the Democrats can nominate, too. In short: I have no partisan interest, and in support, I also point to the fact that I am a member of no political party.

But the fact that one of the candidates seems to claim that his surge in the polls is directly attributed to divine intervention (film clip here) and that he is better qualified than others because he holds a theology degree gives me reason to enter the fray.

Now I don't claim to be an expert in seeing miracles, so I'll let that one rest.

But M.Div.-student (at Fuller, hardly a bastion of liberal worldliness) and blogger Patrick McCullough (here) has checked the facts and raises some question about the directness (if not the honesty) of this most-religious-of-all candidates.

I'm sure the facts can be ascertained, but I'm not going to bother. I already know all I need to: He has not stated his case with an "aye" or a "nay," but instead has danced around and given the lie to his original claim. That doesn't look like honesty to me, and it is simply unacceptable that one who touts his Christian credentials should so blazenly not tell the truth. I know that that is a nasty thing to say about a fellow member of the Body of Christ, but I think he asked for it. So there.

I will also so say that, while many candidates seem to feel the need to give voice to their religious bona fides, Huckabee has made it central to his campaign (witness the Christmas ad). The others may not be any more straightforward about themselves, but Huckabee has set himself into a special category. And I think it's fair game now to judge him on the basis of his own-claimed credentials.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Death Penalty goes before the Supreme Court

This tidbit from National Public Radio this morning:

The State of Kentucky is going before the US Supreme Court to argue, contrary to claims to the contrary, that its use of the "three-drug cocktail" for lethal injections in administering the death penalty is just fine, that there is nothing wrong with either the mixture or the administration. (As a Christian and lawyer, I'm interested that this case is "pure" in what it's facing: Here there is no question of the defendant's guilt or innocence; he has confessed. And while I can't imagine that he's going softly into the good night, the only point of contention in the suit before the Supremes is how he should die. We should all be aware of the distressingly high number of cases where the death penalty is imposed on innocent defendants -- or at least on those who are not legitimately found guilty.)

The State's legal (and moral) arguments must be read in the context of findings and decision by the veterinary profession in this country: Veterinarians have abandoned the very same cocktail, which was once standard for for euthanizing animals, because it caused excessive and inhumane pain to the subject animals. They use a different mixture that avoids the pain.

So, the way I read it, the State of Kentucky (I suppose along with the 35 other states that use the same cocktail -- which by the way, has not changed in formulation since it replaced such other forms of killing as hanging and the electric chair) is in the position of arguing that what is cruel and unusually painful practice for killing animals is fully justified in killing human beings. We can only wonder about the physicians who are complicit in the use of the cocktail and the medical personnel who administer the drugs (always from a different room than the death chamber)!

And some pooh-poohed Pope John Paul II's chagrin at the twentieth (and twenty-first) century's culture of death?

Kyrie eleison!

What follows is far from a new thought, but it nevertheless bemuses me, I guess, that many of the same people who argue so strenuously for the "right to life" for fetuses completely abandon the argument when it comes to the death penalty. There are, of course, often differences of "fault" in the two situations. But I regularly hear that, even when the fetus poses a threat to the mother's life, there is no justification for abortion. (See, for example, the number of proposed statutes that make no provision for safeguarding the mother's life.) It is a consistent, no-just-war posture toward fetuses. But once the child is born, all bets are apparently off. At that point, state-sponsored terrorism against living people is fine. (And you will note that this line of logic operates in reverse among so-called liberals: Forget the fetus, but defend the convicted murderer.)

Once again, we are brought face-to-face with the failure of the Church, with the exception of the late and latest Popes, to be the Church in the face of the world's policies: The Church is called to an life of nonviolence; for Christians killing is not an option. We Christians need to speak more clearly about this -- and more importantly, we need to refuse to participate in state-sanctioned murder. I think that means, in addition to filing for conscientious-objector status with respect to statist warmaking, that Christians do not perform or assist in abortions, do not prescribe or administer lethal cocktails (I haven't decided whether this sanction extends to veterinary practice, where I think there are differences from human medicine -- not the least of which is that animals are not and/or cannot be considered candidates for being baptized. Animals are, thus, not fellow or potential fellow members of the Body of Christ), do not participate in police work that involves shooting others, participate in research in to any means of making death.

That's a hard line to hold: "What will happen to society?" I am asked. "God only knows," I answer, implying thereby that that's not so bad. If we are a people who fulfill our identity as the Body of Christ, will we not hunger and thirst for righteousness -- i.e., as one friend puts it, for life congruent with that of God's life and intentions for our lives? Can we hunger and thirst for righteousness if we place whole chunks of our lives outside his reign?

"Roman" Catholic?

That Lutheran spitfire, Martin Marty, takes on his (I think) friend, Andrew Greeley, in his Sightings column this morning. (Sightings is a twice-weekly e-mail-by-subscription offered by the Marty Center at the U of Chicago Divinity School. Once a week Brother Martin contributes a column, and once a week someone else offers thoughts. They deal, in the broad sense, on the issues of Church life and life in the world.) I think his response to Father Andrew is manifestly correct. See what you think (I think this constitutes fair use, but if I violate any copyright provision, I will remove the reprint immediately upon my being notified):

Sightings 1/7/08

The "Roman" in Roman Catholic

-- Martin E. Marty

Friend and neighbor Father Andrew Greeley, sociologist, novelist, and columnist, reminded me in a recent e-mail that he liked to be called a "Catholic," not a "Roman Catholic." In his January 2nd Chicago Sun-Times column, he elaborates: "My crowd has been calling themselves 'Catholic' for 17 centuries. The adjective "Roman" added in the American context is a slur, sometimes unintentionally conveyed in the tone of the one using it. It hints that we are somehow foreign and perhaps subversive. It came into use when the 'publics' started to recite the Nicene Creed and their leaders had to explain that the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church' of the creed wasn't us." He then goes on to comment on how the media have allowed some "Evangelicals" to preempt the space once labeled "Christian."

There is no question that Protestant meanies in America once spit out variants such as "Roman" (without "Catholic") or "Romish" or "Romanist" or, worse, "Papist" or "Jesuitical," with purely pejorative intent. Turn over a plank and you may still find some creepy-crawly critters, anti-Catholic to the core, who speak or write that way. But I would argue that today, "Roman" is used neutrally or even positively. First, it is not an "American" usage; as shown in almost all ecumenical documents involving Roman—oops!—Catholics with the World Council of Churches. There, "Roman Catholic Church" is standard, as it is when there is dealing with the distinct Eastern Catholic Churches. (There are also "Anglo-Catholics," and others who have some sort of identifier.) "Roman" also appears in some papal and conciliar documents issued from Rome. And we "publics" did not "start" using the Nicene Creed in recent America. "My crowd," Evangelical Lutherans, have recited, professed, and I hope lived the Nicene Creed with the "catholic" phrase in it for centuries.

Names are important, as I had to remind a friend who thought discussion of names was insignificant compared to cosmic events like " Iowa" and "New Hampshire ." Wars start over pejorative and sometimes even innocently used labels. "Catholic" and "Roman Catholic" are not the only complexities these days. More urgent, most urgent, is the task of dealing in a fair way with the many, many brands of Christians who get lumped together as "Evangelicals," especially in political discourse, where they get miscast simply as "the Christian right." More examples: Luther and Lutherans did not choose their name. None of us liked being label "ecclesial communities" instead of "churches" by Pope Benedict XVI, but we'll live with it. "Mainline Protestants" didn't and don't like their name, which is usually used pejoratively by non-Protestants, most of whom never liked and few ever use the accidentally applied term "Protestant" itself. But hang around inter-faith and Christian ecumenical crowds and you will find that today "Roman" before the word "Catholic Church" is used mainly by its friends. You can tell by the tone, which is never condescending or motivated by suspicion of another crowd.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Film Reviews

Here is a wonderfully positive Books and Culture review of one of the best movies I saw in 2007, The Lives of Others. I concur in everything that Professor Cantor writes, and I encourage you to read the review and (either before or after reading it) to see the movie.

I haven't seen the special features on the DVD, but I was simply swept away by the movie, which I saw on the big screen. I did not know that Ulrick Muehe (the actor playing the Stasi "listener") had died, but that saddens me terrifically. His portrayal was note-perfect to convey his eventual "salvation" (as Cantor calls it).

Now, while I'm on it, I must commend two more recent movies. Once and Juno should both qualify for nominations for 2007 Oscars, and I trust both will garner several.

Once is a story of music-making. It involves a rather heart-broken singer-songwriter in Dublin (known throughout only as the "guy") who meets an emigre with musical talent (known only as the "girl"). Together they tentatively explore a friendship while working together on writing songs and working to get the guy into a recording studio so that he can record a demo CD to show around London to get himself placed as a songwriter. I'd like to spell out the details, but some of the charm of the movie is wondering what's going to happen. Suffice it to say that I found it the most charming movie of 2007. The actors playing guy and girl are, in fact, not actors and have never acted before. He used to front a band in Ireland and the two have known each other as friends for years. Perhaps as a result, the chemistry between them is stunning. They also wrote, individually or together, most of the music in the film. (The music is very exciting.) So in terms of "back story" and of film technique, the entire thing comes off feeling like a very well-made documentary (which it is not).

Juno is more well-known, I think, even though it is a kind of small-scale movie, too. It concerns a sixteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant after one half-planned sexual encounter with her sort of clueless nerdish boyfriend. When she decides to give the baby up for adoption, rather than "ending her pregnancy," she gets the support of her family, friends, and the audience. She finds a couple with whom she wishes to place the child (finding them in a shopper's flyer featuring personal ads -- one of innumerable wry and funny issues in the movie), and much of the tension in the movie grows out of her efforts to personally connect with them.

The movie is smart, wry, lol-funny at times; it is touching and nearly heart-breaking at others. The reserved support and affection that Juno gets from her parents is almost too touching for words. The ending is pretty much a happy ending -- tear-jerking and charming.

My wife wondered whether the film paints the troubles of teen pregnancies as too easy to bear -- i.e., that it is unrealistically romantic about Juno's situation. I don't think so: Judged on its own terms, which do not include sending "messages" to young people, it is a hope-filled story of how resourceful young people can wend their way through even extremely difficult times -- with the help of their friends and family (terrifically played by two actors I really like, J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney). (I didn't like Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, the would-be parents, but I'm not sure we're really supposed to -- until the end of the movie, kind of ... .)

Oh, did I mention that Juno was written by Diablo Cody, who wrote much of it while living in Minnesota and who based the movie here? (It was produced with aid from the Minnesota Film Commission, but it was filmed in Canada -- for heaven's sake.) She was named artist of the year by the Minneapolis StarTribune, another sign that we'll jump on any bandwagon that travels through the state.

I don't claim to be a movie critic: "I know what I like." But since I have the password to this blog, I get to put on it even the most mundane panting.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A New Year's Miscellany

Herewith a couple of things I'll put in print to get off my mind -- of no particular importance or interest, I acknowledge. Consider this your "Happy New Year" card.

First, politics:
I don't usually find myself quoting (or even reading, for that matter) Chuck Colson, lately of Prison Fellowship Ministry (but famous for less uplifting activities). But I ran across links to this short commentary, in which he judges character to be the most important quality to consider in choosing a president. I think, much to my surprise, that I agree with him. Of course, Brother Chuck doesn't explain how we evaluate the "content of their characters" in choosing among candidates, but I think it's worth considering for oneself.

Second, editing:
From this morning's newspaper's obituary section. "She was a faithful, loving wife and friend to many." OK, I know that many will say, "Of course she wasn't a wife to many," but that's the reasonable way to read that lamentably un-thought-through, and hence amusing, sentence.

Third, resolutions:
I know better than any how futile (as opposed to "feudal"*) it is for me to make lists of intentions. I simply do not have the focus, the self-discipline, or the external helps to stick to things like that. Nevertheless, I am beginning a new practice of list-making. (Friend Jeff says that he's an inveterate listmaker and commends the practice, so I'm going to check it out.) Lamentably for the budget, that will require a new notebook (moleskin cover would be nice), but I'll look to pay for one with the B&N gift card (in a generous amount) that I received from my in-laws for Christmas. (They regularly give me such, and it's utterly amazing how they're always the right color and the right size for me!) And among my lists will be "movies that I've seen," "books that I've read," and oodles of "intentions." That I might succeed in getting a little order in my life, Ora pro me!

Among my intentions:
On New Year's Day, public radio featured a language professor (and linguist) who spoke about various word-y things -- e.g., Merriam-Webster's choice of "w00t" as new word of the year (huh?), the inability of Midwestern USAmerican's to detect any difference in pronunciation among "Mary-marry-merry" (IS there a difference?), linguistic change, and the like. In short, it was the kind of program I couldn't tear myself away from. And it made me more committed than ever to try to speak correctly and to employ (as opposed to "utilize") vocabulary carefully and appropriately. (I suppose that that means that I'll have to try to drop "like" from my standard speech, but it's a long-overdue corrective.)

Finally, a great start to 2008:
Friends hosted a New Year's Day open-house party yesterday (afternoon into early evening). And it was a treat! Now Kathy and I don't ever (anymore) go out on New Year's Eve. It's way too much of a hassle to face crowds, to find a quiet restaurant, to drive safely for us to leave the warmth of home, with its champagne, movies, music, and early bedtime. (And that was this year's routine.) But the first day of the new year is, then, frequently anti-climactic, with nothing to do but straighten the house in anticipation of returning to work. But this year, D & D invited us for some wine, snacks, and conversation, and it was anything but anticlimactic. We met new people, got to know acquaintances better, re-met friends whom we haven't seen for a long time; we conversed about the economy, movies, books, music, theology and the Church, "fate," a bunch of other things. And by the time we got home (having stayed longer than we expected), 2008 had begun brilliantly!

I pray God's blessings, patience, humor, and aid throughout this new secular-calendar year for all of us -- you and your circle and my circle and me.