Monday, June 29, 2009

Gerson Gets it Right

I don't happen to agree with Michael Gerson in The Washington Post very often. But last week he got it quite right.

We have a white Havanese ourselves, and I can testify that everything he says about his Latte is true of our Krissie (we didn't name here: She had been given that name by the rescue society from whom we adopted her). I have long called her my anti-depressant (the same designation Gerson gives Latte) and Kathy, my wife, claims that she sees my blood pressure visibly go down when I get on the floor to play with the white fluff ball.

Havanese (or Bichon havanais: see here) owners are notoriously chauvinistic -- there is really no other breed for us. And we will talk your ear off about how precious our little beasts are. Gerson is relatively succinct in his praise of the breed. But he does highlight some of the breed's remarkable history.

I've been reading N.T. Wright on resurrection (Surprised by Hope) and he draws a picture of a post-resurrection New Heaven and New Earth that is very earthy. Included, it seems, is a future that will include all that has been precious to us humans -- which would include our pets. Frankly, it's hard to imagine a New Earth that does not include those animals that have provided so much love, joy, challenge to my life. And I take heart in Wright's assertion that I do not need to worry about that.

Even the precious Havanese, which have been bred for no earthly purpose than to provide companionship to their pets (read: owners) will be there. There is likely a sermon in that.

Monday, June 22, 2009


I thank God regularly for the number of good conversation partners with whom He has seen fit to graced me. (I saw recently and somewhere that a Spanish-speaker had translated his own reply to someone, "Muchas gracias!" as "many graces." It's a literal translation I suppose, but just look at how much more charming and eucharistic that translation is than the "thank you" he could have used.) And you see evidence of that here all the time. (If I've ever had an original thought -- for good or ill -- it likely has grown out of the convergence of talks I've had with others, in which I paste or mutilate thoughts onto one another for my own purposes.)

Well, one of those partners is Cha, whose blog, Transposzing, I link to. The other day in a wide-ranging coffee break chat, we were lamenting the absence of a good sense of The Great Tradition from much of Christianity: There is a rude arrogance in Christianity that encourages "me" to be the judge of all that is. (Leithart, in Solomon among the Postmoderns, helps to explain how this has come to be as a kind of natural response to the Enlightenment, with its consequent Modernist hard-headedness and suspicion of authority, in Postmodernism's value of plurality and suspicion of metanarrative [which is really, I think, what the Enlightenment was: an effort to write a metanarrative in which God was not a character].) And I was talking about my Matthew group and how we have had to learn how to read the Gospel properly -- about how wrong is the supposed Reformation ideal that every Christian can just pick up a Bible and read it on his/her own and achieve full revelation of God. We need guides -- and not just the historical critics, either. (Carl Braaten and I recently discussed his view that all the on-going "historical Jesus" investigation -- whether it's Jesus Seminar or N.T. Wright -- is wrong-headed because it posits that there's something behind the Bible which we have to somehow discern in order for the Bible to be true. I'm not sure I agree with him yet, but I am still mulling over his insistence that even to undertake to "prove" this or that of the Bible is to grant legitimacy to a hermeneutic of suspicion -- my term, not his -- that is at the heart of the decline of the Faith.)

I said that it reminds me of the bumper sticker (which I'd put on my car, if I had such a bumper sticker), "If you can read this/thank a teacher." In the faith, before we can read the Scriptures, we, too, need teachers. We need someone -- actually several -- to lead us in the art of Scripture reading that will allow the "meaning" to come forth. The creeds and councils, the Fathers, the great preachers through the ages, our own mentors in the faith -- these all are Spirit-placed teachers who instruct us in how to read the Bible faithfully.

Frankly, this is not limited to the life of faith: We must be taught to read in whatever discipline we probe. I had to be taught to read poetry with the help of John Ciardi's surprisingly titled "How Does a Poem Mean." (How, not "What" does a poem mean? Talk about a perspective changer.) Later I had to be taught how appropriately to read social science reports (actually, I'm not sure that most of that stuff is written in any human language, but that's for another time). Then, I had to learn how properly to read legal precedents and statutes. It is probably impossible to pick up the laws of Minnesota or a volume of Supreme Court decisions and read it without training in how to read that kind of material. (I admit that it's not rocket science; but it is different from reading the newspaper or James Joyce.)

Lamentably, the underlying issue is well-known to almost all Christians, but the greater issue is not: Christians seem to know that they need help in reading and understanding the Bible. But they look to the wrong teachers. The various "quests for the historical Jesus" (whose critics Carl is but the latest in a noble line); Bultmann, Vermes, Borg, Crossan (grr); social scientists (remember Karl Menninger's classic diatribe against preachers' recasting sin as disease, "Whatever Became of Sin?"?), critics and theorists of various sorts (ah, the glories of post-modern pluralism), The Fundamentals, and all the rest -- these become the teachers who displace those who are the Church's true teachers and in the process teach people to read improperly.

I confess, in my typical sky-is-falling over-reaction, that I am tempted to despair when I look at Seminary reading lists. Foucault, Derrida, and people whom I don't know appear, but there is no requirement that students of the Bible read Basil or Chrysostum or Augustine (well, you can go light on him, for my money) or Origen. I also confess that I am caught in the days of my youth: What I learned made sense, and I'd rather things not change. I got into battles with my daughter because she expected me to help her with her math, but I was taught to get an exact result from multiplication and she is taught to get an approximation! (OK, that's maybe simplistic, but I really didn't and don't get it!) But I think there are some things that are still true and haven't changed: There is a difference between who and whom; 4 + 3 does not equal "between 6 and 8; "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" is not adequately represented in or substituted by "Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer" any more than is "Holy Trinity." How do I know? Because I was taught to read and to read properly. (I make no claims that a teacher can teach you to be bright, but she can teach you to discern. Similarly, no teacher on her own can make one believe, but she can put on in a position to hear the true Gospel and be converted.)

Despite my despair, I continue in my hope and confidence that the Spirit will continue to whisper, shout, sing, and chant, as She did to Augustine, "Take up and read!" But her command, invitation, and enticement is now probably, "Take up and read correctly."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Saint Paul Cathedral is now a Shrine

The Vatican has approved the designation of the Cathedral of Saint Paul (located in Saint Paul, Minnesota -- and yes, the official name of the City spells out "Saint") as a national shrine: It will be the first national shrine to St. Paul in the country. The designation seems, to my wishful-thinking mind, to be most apt. For years, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis has enjoyed warm ecumenical relationships with Protestants (relations that seemed to have cooled from lack of attention under the current archbishop) -- especially the Lutherans. It seems more than appropriate to have a shrine to the mutually respected St. Paul set by Roman Catholics smack in the heart of Lutheran-land, with our almost hawkish (I want to say "marianist-like") devotion to the missionary-teacher-preacher (or at least to its interpretation of the guy).

The Cathedral is an impressive building and the history of its placement and construction is fascinating. For example, it sits high on a hill overlooking the City of Saint Paul (and naturally a rather ritzy neighborhood grew up around it); it sits higher than the nearby (and also beautiful) State Capitol building and boasts a dome larger than the Capitol's. Dating to 1917, I think, the Cathedral is on the National Register. It is also a popular place for concerts.

Apparently, the point of a shrine is to provide a destination for pilgrims on a journey with "a pious purpose." Perhaps such a purpose should be the reunification of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. In this Jubilee Year of Paul, I hope that this designation will encourage Lutherans (especially) and other separated brethren to make their pilgrimage to the shrine to pray for the fulfillment of Saint Paul's (the man's) urging that there is one Body of Christ and, if that body is fractured, sin is to blame and the members better attend to business, to listen to the Spirit's counsel for unity, and to get over their bitter differences f0r the sake of the Gospel.

Curiously or coincidentally (or perhaps so only in my mind), I have just returned from the annual conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology (which met just off the grounds of Catholic University in DC, home to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception), where we explored the continuing relevance and questions of Vatican II for the life of the churches and of the ecumenical movement. The keynote presenter, Dr. George Lindbeck (who may be the only living official observer of the entire Vatican II Council in the States), quoted from a colleague that "In a divided Church, the Eucharist tastes bitter." It's a phenomenally powerful statement of truth and mission.

Congratulations to the people of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul-Minneapolis (it may be "of Saint Paul and Minneapolis"). As a Lutheran (which I think by definition makes me an evangelical catholic Christian), I now claim an interest in the Archbishop's home church, if not in yet in his cathedra.