Thursday, December 26, 2013
Naturally there is dissent over the the "best" version. The more eccentric versions I have never seen, or seen but once. And really, the thing should be seen purely before one sees the take-offs, so I'm not going to address Mr. Magoo or the muppets, or any of the several musical versions. And especially I will not speak of Jim Carrey.
This leaves us with four principal versions which tell the story straight and (mostly) entire, and of them, I must confess to never having seen the Reginald Owen version from the late 1930s, so I cannot offer an opinion on it. The next version is the purist's favorite, the Alistair Sim version of 1951. It has much to commend it, starting with Sims's bitter and defining performance. But it has one drawback which for me puts it out of the running, and it is a technical issue: it looks absolutely dreadful. Every copy of it I've ever seen has looked to have been printed on old cigarette wrappers found in the ditches and gutters of postwar London. It is terribly murky and the night scenes (which are many) are often all but indecipherable. And I must also say that acting has come a long way: Sims may be truest to Dickens's rather flat characterizations, but the relentlessly nasty Scrooge of this version comes across these days as something of a caricature.
Skipping to the last of the four, there is the 1999 Patrick Stewart version, expanded from his one-man show stage version. Now, this has a lot going for it in places. Joel Grey is cast to perfection as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ian McNeice's Fezziwig is delightful, and the brilliantly telescoped scene wherein Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a whirlwind tour of celebrators is not marred by the knowledge that the singing of "Silent Night" in English is an anachronism (Young's translation was fifteen years in the future). But there are some terrible flaws, and unfortunately one of of them is Stewart himself. He is not even slightly convincing as a Victorian; the least he could have done was put on a period wig for a hirsute age. Worse, though, is the dreadful Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who looks like a Star Wars Jawa with severe Marfan's Syndrome. This is the emotional crux of the story, and it is, for me, fatally marred by bad effects and lighting. So much of the rest is good that it is a shame when this scene comes along and spoils it.
Which brings me to the 1984 Scott version. This may not be the best version at every single point, but it is never bad. And when it is good, it is wonderful. Scott makes no attempt at a fake British accent and is utterly convincing nonetheless; he looks and feels the part from end to end. He is Scrooge as the consummate and ruthless businessman, worshipping the "golden idol" so thoroughly that he isn't in the slightest aware of his adoration. And yet one sees from early on that there is a human soul locked away inside. What really makes this version shine, however, is the superb supporting cast, not neglecting Shrewsbury, which puts on a very convincing simulacrum of 19th century London. David Warner, cast wildly against his later type of overbearing villainy, is a delightful Bob Cratchit. George Woodward's Christmas Present is by turns jovial and bitterly pointed. Roger Rees as the nephew Fred is perfectly cast in the sort of role he was born to play. One sees considerable care in costuming and makeup, so that one can date each scene from the changes in hats and hair (with some slight anachronisms in a brace of musical instruments). The effects, are, I must admit, a bit dated, but effective. And finally, of course, there is Christmas Yet to Come, a huge, howling, menacing man/puppet, never fully seen and moving like no human. It is easy to see why Scott's Scrooge is terrified of it.
Dickens's Carol is rather the yang to Charlie Brown's yin when it comes to talking about Christmas outside the nativity narrative itself. Linus puts the narrative in front of all else; Dickens's tale fails to mention Jesus by name at all, nor is anyone seen in church in all the celebrations. The only real reference to the gospel narrative is an odd remark of Tiny Tim's, about Jesus' healing miracles. In this modernist age one must take care to recall that Christmas isn't just about the Spirit of Giving, but is first and foremost (as Linus says) a recollection, an anamnesis of the incarnation as real, earthly, historical fact. But A Christmas Carol's realization of the parable of the sheep and goats has its place in the season too; and if you care to see it told, it seems to me that you would do well to seek out Scott's embodiment of the storied miser.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
This being Year A in the lectionary, Joseph, the father of Our Lord, makes some of his rare appearances in the readings. Joseph is one of the more fugitive figures in scripture, making his first appearance in the first verse of Matthew (as part of the genealogy) and his last at Jesus' visit to the temple at age twelve (which we shall also be privileged to hear this year), where he is not named but may be assumed to be one of the plural parents mentioned. Then he disappears; Mary is seen in several episodes and is present at the crucifixion, but Joseph is never heard from again, and the last references to him are oblique, when Jesus is called "the carpenter's son."
It is thus presumed in the legenda that Joseph died before Jesus' ministry began, and he is typically depicted as an older man. Some tales claim that he was a widower and that therefore James and the other brothers and sisters were from this first marriage, thus making possible the perpetual virginity of Mary. In truth, we do not know: even the Catholic Encyclopedia deems these stories "unreliable". Nor does Joseph feature prominently in the history of saintly devotion, or for that matter much at all. Mary's cult traces back as far as we can trace anything; a true cultus of Joseph is not found until the 1300s, and took another century to really catch on; the day of his observance only dates back to the 10th century.
Traditionally, in the nativity story, we are associated with the shepherds, taken by surprise in the fields. But I have come to think that Jesus' earthly father is a better image for most of us church goers. The nativity is not, after all, a surprise to us; but we are both participants and bystanders. Here is Joseph, who finds out about the blissful event first through rumor and then through a dream; and now here he is towing his far-too-wife down to Bethlehem, and arranging lodging in what space is to be had. And now the holy night arrives, and it is all too likely that he is, at first, reduced to standing in the street (or nursing an anxious beer in the tap room) while a midwife handles the sacred birth. (Saint Bridget's account may be safely set aside as devotional.) Attending the mother and newborn, he must also deal with the surprise visitors from the fields, a duty repeated when the magi make their visit. And then must take the family to Egypt, and thence, finally, back to Nazareth. Presumably also accompanies the mother and child and the various ritual visits to the temple.
And that is all. Simeon receives the promised vision, but Joseph leaves the story when it is quite incomplete. And is it not so with us? Our own stories are writ and each such book closed, but though we pray "maranatha, come Lord," it has become clear over the years that the divine "soon" is in a great fullness of time, which none of those living is perhaps destined to see, for glory or grief, until the day comes when all graves yield and holy judgement, dread in mercy, is worked to its conclusion. We are as often the bystanders, witnesses to grace, as we are the grace-bearers (the charitokos, as it were) or even midwives; and often enough we do not see the end of grace as it is worked out. And yet these are honorable and saintly roles. The cultus of the Holy Family is deserving of our consideration, for Jesus was as much in need of a father as of a mother.
Therefore let us wait with Joseph for the sacred birth, and worship with him the holy child. And let us receive with him the visit of the shepherds, and marvel at the wonder of the incarnation, even if we, like him, sleep before the last glorious morn, laid to rest in the promise and hope of that day's fulfillment.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
But let me be blunter about it. "Checking your mind at the door" is a code phrase signifying on the one hand the anti-intellectual climate ascribed to the Southern Baptists, and on the other the rigid dogmatism ascribed to the Roman Catholics. Now, there's no doubt that we do serve as a refuge from some people who find either extreme impossible to live in as a churchman. But that isn't our mission; it's merely a beneficial side effect of the way Anglicans are supposed to do theology. We are supposed to have a theological tradition which ranges over the entirety of Christian thought, but which lacks a magisterial commitment to a single program dictated by the hierarchy.
But what it means in practice is that we have made our church, in far too many places, the chaplaincy of a particular and narrow segment of the upper middle class: college-educated and in a perpetual state of rebellion against a perceived (and generally assumed to be politically conservative) establishment. Therefore "not checking one's mind at the door" means that we have priests and even bishops telling people that they ought not to believe in core tenets which they then recite as part of the Creed. It means, in practice, that the concrete notions of the Anglican tradition are deprecated in favor of the alien notions of Tillich and his fellow modernist travellers. It comes to mean, in practice, "we don't believe any of that primitive stuff." As Hendrick observes, "much of our culture already thinks that we have checked our brain at the door simply for believing at all," so we've positioned ourselves perfectly for those who want church for the aesthetic or "spiritual" experience, without those nasty religious commitments.
Thus there is now a constant struggle between those who still have a commitment to the religion of our forefathers, and those whose evangelistic targets are those intellectual progressives who find the Unitarians lacking in poetry, the Ethical Culture Society lacking in God, and the atheists lacking in couth. Increasingly those of a more conservative cultural bent have thrown in the towel because they are held in such contempt and treated as heretics in this supposedly tolerant church. The church has become more narrow-minded and expresses, all too often, the very mental closure that is supposed to be a selling point. And I, too, have experienced the ignorance, the lack of theological curiosity, and the theological rigidity which Hendrick observes among our clergy. Ignorance is not of itself a fault, if acknowledged and if one be open to education, and likewise a lack of curiosity; but to brag about our intellectual tradition while mired in either is hypocrisy, as is the spurious claim to open-mindedness. It all amounts in the end to a class appeal to the kind of person who doesn't notice, because they share the prejudices of the clerisy.
And it is the class signal which is the most bitter. Back in England the Anglican church and its worship were part and parcel of the culture, and both the day laborer and the lord of the manor were expected to worship in the same place under the same rite, if not in the same pew. In the USA we have gradually abandoned this, so that while there are a few of the old colonial gentry who continue to attend out of a sense of noblesse oblige or because they feel it would be too lowering to go elsewhere, our emphasis on being the intellectual church leaves no room for those in the lower classes for whom education is a stigma rather than a mark of social standing. Even our potential college-educated recruits are turned away by our commitment to the intellectual and social program of liberal academia, because they did not frequent that side of campus.
Above all, the self-congratulation in this catchphrase is deeply corrosive to the soul. It stinks of "We thank thee, Lord, that we are not like other Christians." Well, except that we probably wouldn't say "thee", nor "Lord" for that matter, since That Word has fallen out of favor among our class; We are, after all, not only better than those of other churches, but also our forefathers in our own church. This needs to end. It's about time we instead said, "OK, Lord God, have mercy on us for our pride and arrogance."
Saturday, October 19, 2013
And I suppose I shouldn't be the last surprised that the writer so soft-pedals Spong's legacy: a greatly diminished diocese, a record of heretical theologizing, and a tradition of divisive controversialism. The 2011 statistics are out, and it should surprise nobody that with the exception of Average Sunday Attendance the statistical trends of the last four years show no overall change from the consistent decline seen from the turn of this century, so that I am pretty safe in predicting that the 2012 numbers will leave membership below a hundred ninety thousand and ASA below six hundred twenty thousand, and this year's numbers will show declines from that. And as Spong continues to be invited into churches to push his idiosyncratic heresies, we continue to find bishops who cannot commit to the most basic tenets of the faith. Preaching has been so captured by the socio-political inclinations of the liberal upper middle class that I should to have been surprised to told that the gospel story of the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19 for those who check up on that sort of thing) is somehow about the social action we should do, rather than being a type of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews.
But the point, after all, is not serious engagement with Spong's datedly-wrong theology (Tillich is, after all, so late-1950s), nor a balanced historical recollection (which would lay bare the breadth of disagreement with Spong's later ideas), but rather to present him as a noble, heroic dissident in order to make his books more salable to the godless ex-Catholic intelligentsia whom the booksellers see as the surviving market for this kind of work. As for myself, I have no interest at all in what Spong has to say at this late date; I only wish that the people at the Religious News Service (not to mention the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia), who are supposed to know better, would cease this hagiography.
Monday, October 14, 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013
The first of all questions asked of anyone about Jesus, by Jesus, is of course "who do you say that I am?" So when we get a column in the Washington Post claiming to explain Five myths about Jesus, when one reads the byline and finds that the author is Reza Aslan of Zealot fame, one can already presume to guess that the "myth" in question is that any part of the gospels can be taken seriously, and that one can expect a rationalization typical of Bultmann's followers.
And that, indeed, is exactly what we get. It's not necessary to go through all five claims, as most of the faults of the argument are manifested in the first claim: that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Well, one can go through all sorts of attacks upon the gospel narrative, but when all is said and done, it comes down to a 21st century apostate (not to mince words about it) arguing about whether the narrative is reasonable, not whether or not it is true. History, however, is frequently unreasonable: what is reasonable about the king of Greece dying of an infected bite from a monkey and then being succeeded by his own father, who was in turn succeeded by his eldest son? It is a preposterous tale, and of course everyone knows that the second son isn't king first, but nonetheless this is the true tale of the Greek monarchy, whose improbable course was not ended until the 1970s.
There comes a point when arguing that the narrative is unreasonable reduces to nothing more than a preference for a different narrative. The possibility that Luke didn't have all his details quite right doesn't prove that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem. There's no positive evidence that Pilate didn't do more or less what the gospels maintain, and it should be pointed out that the gospels are basically in agreement through this passage: it's the most strongly conserved part of the narrative. There's no proof that Jesus wasn't properly buried, just that this is the currently fashionable idea.
And then we get to the sixth, missing myth, because Aslan apparently didn't have the nerve to step up to the myth of the resurrection. Or perhaps the Post editors didn't have the nerve to allow it to remain in the article, but in any case that's the only one that really matters. Since Jesus is risen, there's not a lot of point in quibbling over how much the Church got the rest of the story right. If one wants to argue over whether Jesus had siblings, well, that's a doctrinal point which doesn't affect the core; if one wants to quibble about the number of disciples, I think that's fixing a problem which isn't a real problem. But as far as trusting the gospel story: well, if you're a Christian, why not believe it? And why should you worry about what some apostate modernist feels is improbable?
And beyond this, I don't buy the implication from the Post that Aslan is someone worth heeding. I've long ago rejected the modernist program of scriptural criticism, but even then I don't see a source for his implied authority as a teacher. As I see it, he's just another rationalist repeating the same old tired arguments. If you're a believer, the first thing you should do before reading anything like this in the paper or in a general news magazine is to find the next article and skip to it. Very occasionally such article prove to be educational, but the odds are against it.
UPDATE: Rick Allen has pointed out this review of Aslan's book from the Jewish Review of Books. It's an intelligent examination of the books many problems which more or less cements my resolve not to subject myself to his arguments, from a perspective which could hardly be called apologetic.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I have a confession, I like Facebook. It allows me to peek into people’s joys and struggles, rejoice and grieve with friends, and spurs me to pray more. I keep in touch with people I would never see.He talks about Todd, a not-really-friend from school who remembered him, because he treated Todd decently when, I gather, others didn't. I would have liked to think of myself in the same terms, but really, I wasn't so much a jerk in those days as I was held captive by my own considerable problems. I cannot imagine that I was ever numbered among the "cool kids"; it was hard enough not to be a pariah, but I think that by graduation I had the respect of most of my classmates, purchased to some degree at the cost of a lot of people not coming back after my first or second year there. At least one of them I surely treated poorly, perhaps for his more exaggerated version of my social drawbacks.
My Facebook friends list is a strange intersection of family (not many of those), school friends (high school and college), church people, and the larger Anglican world who I am privileged to know mostly through this blogging. I don't get a lot of friends requests, but if I ask for a list of suggestions, there are always plenty whom I know in some sense. And then I think, "do I know them well enough to presume upon their acquaintance? Are they someone who will bury me in trivialities and forwarded messages? Am I going to come in conflict with them if I say the sort of things I might say here?" And so I am quite the coward, and I keep my friends list pretty short; and there is much I do not talk about on Facebook.
The grace I give is thus stunted. I can argue with strangers at length, but to do so with friends consumes my spirit. I am a poor comforter, for I do not know what to say. And yet I do hope for the small grace that I do give. I hope that all the many words that I write here given people hope for their faith and their church, even among all my cries against the wrongs that I see there.
And so must we all hope, and work for a presence here which uplifts those who fall.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
Sunday, August 04, 2013
Most people know of the the book of Ecclesiastes through the song made popular by the Byrds: To every thing, turn, turn, turn, There is a season, turn, turn, turn... That lesson doesn't come up in the Revised Common Lectionary, though churches which neglect to observe the Feast of the Holy Name may choose to use it on New Years Day. But we do not observe January 1 for its own sake, and today is this book's only appearance in the readings, placing it with such lectionary losers as Haggai and Habbakuk.
And, well, the biblical scholars aren't too thrilled with this text either. Now Job—there's a worthy book, commented upon by all and sundry. But Ecclesiastes: well, it's so whiny. King Solomon, the supposed author, sounds like a pompous teenager, rambling on about how hopeless it all is and how we're all going to die and how fickle fate is, as if nobody else in the history of creation had ever noticed any of these things. He's only outdone by the prodigal son's older brother, the one who whines to Dad, “how come you never gave me a party?” Thus the preacher tediously belabors this transitory life, and the lectionary grants it this one hearing and turns away, preferring the patriarchs, the Law, and the prophets, in which the divine message is more patently heard.
This preacher is said in the text to be Solomon, the biblical epitome of wisdom, just as his father David signifies poetry and music. And yet, for all his wisdom, his kingdom hardly survives his passing: his son Rehoboam rashly answered those who questioned how he would rule, and Israel was divided from Judah; the kingdom would never again be united. If you are a wise biblical scholar, you are supposed to stroke you chin and say, “well of course this book was not authored by the real Solomon,” and if one looks at the text it seems rather choppy at points, with interjections that seem as if another may have written them long after; there's even a two verse postscript. But this is all quite irrelevant: the point is not history, nor personal testimony, but wise counsel.
So, what of this wisdom? From one angle (the long-suffering parent of teenager angle) it seems trivial, trite, and obvious. Worldly things—position, power, wealth, even life itself are transitory. A man may build, and those that follow sweep it away; a woman creates a thing of beauty, and it is forgotten and lost. People talk of having a meaningful life, as though we lived to compose episodes in some great saga; but the pages of our lives are written, often in the ink of deepest suffering, and they are blown in the wind, burnt or crumbled to dust. Often our stories teach nothing beyond futility, or at best serve as cautionary tales (largely forgotten or ignored) to those who might emulate our sins and foolishness.
We few who are well-off may, for a time, escape acknowledgment of these “truths”; if our projects do not fall quickly to ruination, at least we are fed, and housed, and have some respite from personal disaster. We therefore, paradoxically, have the leisure to contemplate the transitory nature of our fortunes, while those who live in peril of starvation, homelessness, destitution and injury have to not the luxury to take up the quest for meaning. To live on is meaning and story enough, perhaps.
So here we have this wisdom, stupidly obvious yet deeply and troublingly undeniable. Pleasure passes; wealth comes and goes; death erases all, sooner or later. Even to the well-off, the hand of disaster touches us here and there, and people seek meaning and purpose even in such injury. But God does not promise any such thing. Job's suffering has no more meaning than to test his endurance and to prod his friends into fatuous assurances; Solomon has not even that. All his wealth, his power, the glory of his rule: they are vanity. The kingdom is undone within a year of his death, and soon enough Israel is conquered and dispersed, with the Samaritans the sole surviving trace thereof. Judah is captured and taken away, and Solomon's temple is razed and looted; the people, the Jews, weep in Babylon.
And yet, hope is given through grace. God's wrath against his faithless people is not limitless; He remembered his promise to Abraham, and after a time Judaea was restored, and a new temple raised upon the ruins of the old. This too came to an end, and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the Jewish people, and though a third Israel was established, its survival is precarious. But in the fullness of time, the promises revealed through the prophets were made manifest through the birth of the Incarnate Christ, Jesus son of Mary. He lived as one of us, and was put to death as the final sacrifice for all people, and rose again in triumph over death, breaking that meaningless which has beset us since Adam and Eve were first led astray by the serpent. And thus God Himself, through his own incarnation, gave in Jesus' life a new meaning, a story we read in scripture, which means our salvation if we bury ourselves in it through baptism and feed upon it at the altar.
We thus have salvation given to us, yet, worldly vanity nonetheless continues. A man builds storehouses on earth, and death comes and takes it from him, and him from his wealth; and will the ledgers of his banks and estates tell out his value? No! The sheep and goats will not be divided on such a basis, but on what treasure is laid up in heaven, through our faithfulness to what we have been taught; not only in our lips, but in our lives. As Paul says, we must cast off sin, and live in Godly charity; and if we be wealthy, Jesus is rash enough to suggest purchasing a ticket to the new Jerusalem by crassly buying friends through charitable works! And while I suspect that he was being more than a little sarcastic, it is clear that, as he says today, wealth stored up here will avail us not if not brought to bear for God's work, rather than just our own ephemeral ends.
Our God is a mighty fortress, sang Martin Luther, and he prevails amid the flood of mortal ills. But goods and kindred do go, and this mortal life also; except perhaps for those doomed to live in the last days, when the wrath of God is finally spent on the old earth, the body will be killed, by age, disease, or disaster. All that is earthly shall pass away, and all earthly works shall eventually prove vain, unless they lift up the new Kingdom, which is founded in Jesus and which he alone rules. Creation is good; God saw this in the beginning when he made it. But it shall pass away, and though we do not revile it, and we care for it, as God commanded, it is not in things material that we have hope, but in things spiritual: the grace of God, revealed in Christ, in which is the new life of eternal meaning.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
Wednesday, July 03, 2013
Third, I used to be in a parish that omitted the recitation of the Nicene Creed contrary to the American rubrics. One motivation might have been the publicly expressed doubts of some of the clergy and staff in what was proclaimed there. At some point, they also started to celebrate the Eucharist with prayers of their own creation that better expressed their faith in Christ. These prayers certainly had new energy, but they were a way of working out clerical doubts, not a way of better edifying the gathered community.I notice, for instance, that Fr. Peters's "liturgical affirmation" edits away one of the points which most commonly gives rise to reservations: the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Presumably other parishes would dispense with God the Father or with anything suggesting the physical actuality of Jesus' resurrection. The situation is worse than just "there are an awful lot of Christians [...] who do not grasp the basics of the Faith;" there are a lot of clerics who lack that grasp, or who have turned away from the catholic doctrines.
For the creed is the central symbol of our catholicity; it represents what binds into the faithful across the ages who were and are and will be linked into common worship within the Christian faith. It is the answer to the question, "why do we come here?" The anaphora answers a different question: "what worship did Jesus command?" It tells what to do, of a Sunday, but it is the Creed that explains why we bother to do what Jesus commands. Therefore one is not redundant to the other; I think it is also of some importance that the anaphora is prayed on our behalf, but the Creed is recited by all. It is a spiritual comfort to me, and a powerful affirmation of faithful unity, to think that all over the world, worshippers turn to the altar and repeat the basic principles of the faith, what we all believe.
I am glad to hear that Fr. Peters preaches on the creed; so do I, and so have most priests I have had as rectors; and all priests should do likewise. But I do not see this teaching as a substitute for saying it; it is necessary insurance that those who say it understand what they say. (An earlier version of this could be read as implying that Fr. Peters's own beliefs might be unorthodox. I regret this implication and have tried to remove it.)
Wednesday, June 26, 2013
I personally do not go to church for a "fun, relevant, genuine experience with God" (which is what you get in the multiplex sanctuary, apparently), but then what appears to be the difference between this and what happens in the "old" building is that the latter lacks "fun" and is "acoustic" (which does not apparently mean that the bigger space is an advance in sacred telepathy, but rather that the guitars are not amplified). Either way "relevance" appears to call for a large video display behind where the altar is/was. Where this leaves Anglicanism, I don't know. It was probably possible to have a decently Anglican service in the ex-cathedral in its former state, but everything about its new occupants screams to me that I will feel profoundly unwelcome and alienated there. On the other hand, I cannot honestly say that the multiplex church is ugly; it is merely a profoundly banal caricature of evangelical (as opposed to mainline) modernism. I think I would feel more prayerful in a corner of the parking lot, looking at whatever weed might have escaped the maw of the tractors it must take to mow the lawn there.
Wednesday, June 05, 2013
Now consider how many useless metrics we use to chart our nation’s course. Politicians fixate on the federal deficit, for example, because it’s an easy number to fling at opponents, even though it doesn’t truly measure the nation’s economic well-being. Same with the official unemployment rate — which measures one small flow in a deepening pool of economic despair. Same with the “approval ratings” that give shallow insight into popularity, but say nothing about quality of leadership. Many investors cling to the Dow Jones industrial average, even though averaging prices on 30 blue chip stocks says little about stock market trends. Business leaders look at earnings per share, while ignoring the research-and-development pipeline, innovation, customer service, employee turnover and capital spending. Politicians and edu-crats force public schools to measure performance through standardized tests that yield simple PowerPoints and talking points, while they ignore actual learning, as well as readiness for adulthood, teacher morale and return on investment. A one-day test, the SAT, is misused as the key to college admission.Well, this is platitudinous rubbish. And while I can rail against the misuse of statistics and numbers better than he can, because I actually have a mathematical background, he protests way too much.
Few statistics are perfect, of course; there are inaccuracies in collecting them, and there are issues in interpreting them. But really, far-less-than-perfect data is almost always better than nothing at all, and Ehrich's airy-fairy alternatives are essentially that nothing. ASA is, in actuality, a pretty good measurement. It is objective, well-defined, and easy to collect: give the ushers a counter, and have them submit a slip in the offering plate. Its one weakness is the well-known "Christmas effect" wherein the movement of the Nativity through the week causes a certain cyclical variation in the numbers. But that effect is small and well-understood.
And as a measure of church activity, it's a reasonable indicator. If people will not come to church to participate in weekly worship, how strong is their attachment to the Church? When Ehrich says that "A much better quantitative measure would get at “touches,” that is, how many lives are being touched by contact with the faith community in its various Sunday, weekday, off-site and online ministries —and then, for a qualitative measure, asking how those lives are being transformed": this is so much twaddle. How can anyone measure this? They can't; they have to use a surrogate number. And getting people to come to church is precisely that surrogate. We count baptisms, confirmations, receptions, and so forth; if we need a record of "transformation" as it is recorded in the sacramental life of the church, well, we have that record already.
No, the real problem, as with every other statistic he denounces, is that the message the number gives is unfavorable. SAT scores and standardized testing show that we as a nation are not making headway against the failure to educate the disadvantaged; the federal deficit is part of a larger picture of political and economic dysfunction. None of these numbers is useless, and though they all may be abused, the information they provide is essential for understanding the social ills in which we are mired. And it is likewise with ASA: its steady decline shows a church that is slowly collapsing in on itself, a church in which, each year, 3% of the membership chooses to find something else to do on Sunday morning. It's bloody obvious that the reason for counting these "transformations" instead is that, since they cannot be counted, one can make up any positive story one wants instead of confronting the fact of relentless decline.
It would be something else if one could write cautionary notes about how an increase in ASA doesn't necessarily mean an increase in the Kingdom. But really, the facts are plain: as Kirk Hadaway has been wont to say, we have no positive statistic. The Episcopal Church is slowly withering, and he only possible positive in this is that large-scale departures are such a large part of the losses, so that there might be some hope for stagnation once the troglodytes are all driven off. But as it stands, our future is not to be recovered by counting vague "touches"; it can only be recovered by getting people to commit to Christ, become members of his Church, and participate in regular worship. ASA is a measurement of this last, and be it imperfect, its relentlessly negative message needs to be heeded and addressed, not brushed off with platitudes about the fallibility of statistics.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
I'm going to cut right to what seems to me a rather larger and more fundamental issue, which is the duty of all Christians, but particularly those in ordained leadership, to operate from within the tradition, as an insider looking out, and not from a critical distance, as an outsider looking in. [....] As an insider looking out, as an apologist and cheerleader for the establishment, a bishop sits under the authority of the tradition, particularly the authority of sacred scripture. There are interpretive roads that are open to others--outsiders looking in--that are properly closed to bishops (and, by extension, to priests and others who preach and teach).This is exactly right, and precisely delineates one of the two great besetting problems of the Episcopal hierarchy today. There are too many Anglican bishops out there who see their episcopal seat as a "bully throne", which they can use in the interest of whatever their theological or moral position may be, without regard to what the Church teaches. It is not entirely dishonest for them to say,"this is what the Church teaches, and this is what I teach," though it is the rankest hypocrisy to sponge off the diocesan dollar when doing so. But often enough even this nicety is given the go-by. The presiding bishop makes an exegetical howler which everyone from John the Divine to John Paul II would denounce in a heartbeat, and which indeed much of the present-day church was quick to disavow; and yet her sermon put it in the mouth of every Episcopalian.
As Bishop Martins says, bishops take vows to defend the teaching of the church. It is perhaps true that the presiding bishop didn't attack that teaching, though I find that reading of her words strained. And prophecy being what it is, and blowing where the Spirit pleases, the only spirit I heard was that of the Age. Her shaky bridge was constructed entirely out of the common tropes of modernist, semi-secularized textual skepticism of the sort where doubt of the text is supposed to increase faith. It was typical of the strain of modernist solipsism which brought forth all those bad sermons back around Easter and which felt that Jack Spong's nonsense was something that needed to be taught to laymen in Holy Week. There is none of the dialogue and caution which characterized the true Anglican line of theological inquiry.
Thus was the pastoral office abused. Look, whatever the virtue of inclusivity, we don't have anything to say to the much larger majority who are straight and whose vocation is to bear children and raise them. Our bishops and clergy have naught to say to the multitudes who without finger-crossing can say the creed (which I must point out is ritually led by the candidate at an episcopal consecration) except to tell them that there is something wrong with believing what their own church teaches in the liturgy. This is patently destructive. And if a prophet risks all for the truth, it is impossible for me not to see Lewis's "Episcopal ghost" in this, and to ask of these latter-day "prophetic voices", "What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came-popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?"
Friday, May 24, 2013
There are some remarkable examples of that kind of blindness in the readings we heard this morning, and slavery is wrapped up in a lot of it. Paul is annoyed at the slave girl who keeps pursuing him, telling the world that he and his companions are slaves of God. She is quite right. She’s telling the same truth Paul and others claim for themselves. But Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so! The amazing thing is that during that long night in jail he remembers that he might find God there – so he and his cellmates spend the night praying and singing hymns.So she's so intent on going down on Paul, archenemy of Integrity, that she doesn't notice that he, through the power of the Saving Name, has freed the poor woman from bondage to this spirit. She would much rather insinuate some sort of self-righteousness to the apostle, rather than admitting that having someone bellowing along behind them, even if they do bellow truth, is not necessarily conducive to transmission of the gospel.
But it is the following paragraph that really set orthodox believers on edge:
This time [after the earthquake in the prison], Paul remembers who he is and that all his neighbors are reflections of God, and he reaches out to his frightened captor. This time Paul acts with compassion rather than annoyance, and as a result the company of Jesus’ friends expands to include a whole new household. It makes me wonder what would have happened to that slave girl if Paul had seen the spirit of God in her.It is hardly surprising that people took umbrage at the final sentence, with the implication that the divinatory spirit is also to be see as a divine spirit. To be fair, it doesn't precisely say such a thing, but then, that's really part of the problem too. Every time I read one of her sermons, I find myself having to choose between believing that her views are heterodox, or concluding that, if they are orthodox, she cannot express them so. Frank Griswold could be excessively veiled in his theological expressions; she more commonly comes out, at best, garbled. And so it is in this case. The actual sermon point comes before this, with the expression of her standard upper-middle-left-liberal views on economics and sexuality; but the problem, as far as I can tell, is that the actual text of the Acts is really quite uninterested in these notions. But that's what she feels she needs to preach on, and thus she needs a way to get to that point. So instead of the time-honored method of simply leaping across a non sequitur of sufficient span, she mangles the text.
Several people have defended her sermon to me in typical "big tent" language and have assailed her detractors as narrow-minded. If that's the general state of lay thinking in this church, we're in trouble. Look, the "big tent" language I don't take seriously: given how she keeps keeps coming up with these theological howlers, one could just as well conclude that she wouldn't mind getting rid of anyone with a commitment to orthodoxy, since that would make it easier to prevail in rendering church property safe for homosexuals. But more to the point, her primary job is religion, not social justice preaching. She can preach the latter, but she really needs to get the theology right as well.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Monday, May 13, 2013
Once one gets past the incontrovertible statistics of dropping membership, dropping attendance, closing churches and departing parishes and dioceses, there's not much left to say about the facts. There is no great statistical fallacy to invoke: the numbers correctly record literal decline. And given the continuing issues with clerics who cannot even get the creed right, it's hard to see how smaller numbers add up to more intense faith. So I must conclude that either the dean's thinking is hopelessly muddled, or that this is an act of the most dishonest rationalization. I am inclined to go with the former, but between the two interpretations I am left with the conclusion that he is likely either intellectually or morally unqualified to direct one of the church's largest education institutions.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
I would conclude that someone like Spong or Crossan does in fact damage the faith of a lot of people, not just in getting them to invest in the heresies these modernists espouse, but also in convincing many to abandon the Christian religion entirely. The contradiction of trying to hold these anti-creedal tenets while reciting the creed each Sunday is too much for many, well, more rational people to maintain. So in that wise I do not think that their presentation under the aegis of church sponsorship is without negative consequence. And it's pretty clear that some people of firm trinitarian conviction decide to go elsewhere and cease expending their energy on a futile resistance to such heresy (since after all they have no hope of correcting the faults of the clerisy). So what do the people doing the inviting think of this? Well, if it is not obvious, then a couple of guesses may be hazarded. The first is that the inviting clerics are also heretics, but lack the nerve or privileged position to be up front about it. So they get other people who aren't risking anything to do their preaching for them.
A less plainly egregious rationale would involve a cleric whose own theological thinking is so muddled that he doesn't really understand how wrong these guys are, because he cannot or will not work through the implications. But I think perhaps a third principle is dominating this, and it is the manifestation of a lack of confidence in the faith of his actual and potential charges. Too much Tillich and his ilk has got our hypothetical rector part if not all the way to believing that modern people (by which he means intelligent, clear-thinking, reasonable people like himself, not the sort of riff-raff who go to Southern Baptist or fundangelical churches) cannot take the scriptural stories seriously. But he needs these people to keep the pledges coming, so he's will be be compromised in order not to scare them off. At the same time, though (and this cannot be said out loud) he's relying on the stalwarts to remain stalwart. In other words, he takes his orthodox parishioners for granted. Or to put it in other, more damning terms, he subconsciously thinks in terms of they being those who are and who remain faithful, dismissing the possibility that the speakers he brings in may be working to undermine that faith. At the same time he is subconsciously working on the premise that the potential unorthodox modernists among his flock are they whose "faith" must be coddled and nurtured. And beyond that, our putative rector essentially holds that genuine creedal orthodox faith and instruction is a threat to these waiverers, while he acts as if the converse were not true.
This would add up to a tacit admission that it is orthodox faith which is strong and lasting and which gives hope for the future. But that contradiction, I suspect, isn't going to be worked through.
Sunday, April 14, 2013
And upon confronting this Jesus, Thomas then makes a striking confession, for it is he who first names Jesus as Lord and God. Jesus names himself the Son of Man, and is confessed as the Son of God by Peter; but it is Thomas who first addresses him as God, thus fulfilling the first verses of the John's Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.” Here we are at the core of the faith which we shall ourselves confess in a short while: Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, fully God and fully Man, born of Mary, put to death, and resurrected— not as a metaphor, but as a literal, living union of humanity and the divine. It is the promise of this new life which we are reborn into through baptism— not some vague promise that we will be remembered, or that we will live on in others, but that at the last day we will be brought, living, into that eternal kingdom of which Jesus Christ is ruler.
Which brings us to the more familiar second aspect of the story. Thomas, as we have heard, refused to believe the testimony of the others, and demanded hard, physical proof, even as modern man holds is right and proper. Jesus offered him the proof he required, but then Jesus was carried back into Heaven, so that we, who might want to touch His wounds and grasp His feet, must be satisfied with the small taste of the holy Body and sacred Blood which we receive from the altar. Some among us may be touched by the Spirit in other ways, and thus be confirmed in faith, but many are they whose grace is to come here, week in and week out, and hear the preaching, sing the hymns, repeat the prayers, and otherwise worship without tactile or mental confirmation of the reality of their savior. Indeed, spiritual manuals warn that God is wont to withhold the signs of His presence, thus testing us; for as Paul says, “faith is the evidence of things unseen.” So we pray, and it seems that we are not heard; we come to church for spiritual sustenance, and we leave seemingly unfilled.
By faith we know this to be the illusion of the world, for Christ is with us always, even to the end of days. But the voice of the world is strong, appealing to our feeling that we deserve to be humored in the tests we set before God: not that we consciously set out to test Him, but that we take a prayer and hold Him to it as it were a contract for service and not a cry for deliverance. Some look at the sorry state of the world and refuse to allow that God could let it continue. Some look at his wretched church and deny that he would ever commission so hapless and fallen an organization to represent Him in this world. If Jesus still walked among us, if each man and woman who cared to do so could see Him for themselves and touch His risen flesh for themselves, surely faith would come easily to all. Yet Jesus was taken again from us, with only the apostles left behind to testify to the reality of His reappearance among the living.
We are thus dependent upon the church to recall for us what the apostles heard and saw. Jesus relies upon the body of which he is the head and of which we are the hands and feet. And we know it to be His will that it be thus. It is our voices, our repetition of the sacred texts, which must relate the fact of the resurrected Lord to each new generation. Many such generations have passed since Thomas saw the wounds, and believed, and yet the church, as it was charged to do, continues to carry the message through the ages, not only through her teaching, but through the sacraments which she is ordained to deliver to her people.
Therefore we who believe must count ourselves blessed, who cannot see, and yet still have faith, even as Jesus said. For we are thus the sign of the everliving Christ, we Christians who have trusted in the Lord. In the midst of a selfish and cynical world, it is we who remember salvation, and we who minister it to those to come. It is a holy task, and it is our task. God could make Christians out of the stones in the ground, but he does not. God could dazzle the world with supernatural spectacle, but he does not (and indeed, the faithlessness of the Israelites in Sinai bears witness to how ephemeral the effect of such a demonstration might well be). Instead, the Father has put the future of the faith in our hands. Therefore we must consider that we also point to the faith as the apostles did, in words of course where we may, but also in our acts. We must live as though we believed, as though the commandments of the LORD apply to us. And we may then have courage to face the doubt of the world, and to repeat the faith that we learned of old from those who recount the testimony of those who saw and touched the flesh of the risen Lord, Jesus the Christ.
Thursday, April 11, 2013
My Thomas sermon, which will likely put up tonight (see here), didn't follow either of the dean's problem lines, mostly because it wasn't really about Thomas. But then, neither is the dean's thesis: it's another entry in the weird catalogue of church officials pushing the line that, well, Church Officials as a class are tyrants intent on imposing their dictatorial rule over the masses. My immediate reaction to that is "what then are you doing as a priest in a hierarchical church, you tool of the establishment?" but my guess is that I'm supposed to take on faith (as it were) that our new spiritual overlords are benevolent, or at least not so despotic.
But then, one comes across various cranks who complain about the enforcement of single, "despotic" picture of the field by a scientific establishment which refuses to accept their eccentric theories. Theology, at least among Anglicans, may never have insisted on such unanimity of viewpoint, but anyone who has studied the history of theological development can see (if they were not taught outright) that progress has consisted largely of identifying errors. It's obvious in the most blatant and stupid fashion that the New Testament texts intend to teach something, a specific thing, and it's really quite obvious that this particular story intends to teach us something about both the reality of the resurrection and function of faith in connecting us, who cannot be witnesses by sight. The only possible reason for dissent is that one does not believe, but then, of what use are the faithless as the church's ministers?
The dean thus simply erases everyone but Thomas from the tale, and most especially we blessed who have not seen, and yet believe. He even erases Jesus. But what's important isn't how Thomas or the others believe, but what they believe, and that we believe it. And we only know that through the church and her teachings.
Monday, April 08, 2013
Some priest, in a "sherry and knives in the vicarage" moment, once told me that what the bishops were doing when laying on hands during a consecration was removing the candidate's spine. These days it seems more likely that they are removing any kind of commitment to orthodoxy. And for all the wimpiness of the 1979 ordinal, we find on the very first page of the consecration rite the candidate is given the charge to "guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church". The first part of that charge is given ritual embodiment two pages later, when the candidate is made to lead those assembled in the recitation of the Creed. So there is no way in heaven or on earth or in hell below that I can find it acceptable that a bishop issue statements that they do not really believe what they say every Sunday. Pike at least had the decency to quit, not that he hadn't effectively trashed the office by that point.
And I do not see the point in founding my life in an untruth. It is a popular defense of such views to claim that the scriptural tales somehow express Truths, but when I at least press against them, seeking meaning, the only substantial truth that I get is that these people don't want to be caught sharing the same theological space as fundamentalists and other political reprehensibles. An apophasis swallows the rest: they can never get to the point of saying that they actually believe anything real about the world. It recalls the "bizarre form of heresy" Florence King attributed to her grandmother: Christianity apparently reminds them of classless places like Lynchburg, Jerry Falwell's one time base of operations. The only solid truth I find is a kind of snobbery, one which has no appeal to me if only because I was raised by mainline Presbyterians instead of foot-washing Baptists or pre-Vat.-II nuns. It's one thing to admit the plainly obvious, that the scriptural accounts are not, whatever their testimony, perfect historical records. But I see no intellectual warrant for the presumption that we can go back and do a better job of presenting what happened to them than they did. The alternative to rejecting the roughly literal version of their accounts isn't some other scriptural truth: it's simply making up one's own religion and imputing it to them. And I find that absolutely uncompelling. The church's teaching may be faulty, but the historical connection backward renders it intrinsically more reliable than modernist restorationism.
I had hopes that Budde would represent some sort of relief from the confrontational tone of the past. But what good does it do when she reneges on her promise to defend the faith? It's impossible to mount a theological apologia of my church under these conditions; every snide remark from my conservative Catholic acquaintances about the vacuity of Anglican theology is vindicated every time one of our bishops publishes remarks such as these. We don't deserve to have a future if we keep going on like this.
Wednesday, April 03, 2013
There is no way in hell that a man who denounces the Nicene Creed has any business doing anything that bears the slightest resemblance to teaching in this church. Those of us with a little theological sophistication can tell that Crossan and Spong and their ilk are shovelling theological crap of their own excretion, but the average parishioner (and for that matter cleric) shouldn't be made to sort through this dung heap. The failure to defrock Spong needs to be rethought; unfortunately Crossan isn't one of ours that we can discipline him, but the failure of the lofty persons at 815 to denounce these presentations leads one to suspect that either they share the same inability to repeat the Creed and mean it, or that they are so absorbed in keeping their grip on church buildings that they've lost interest in what is said inside them, other than when it comes to a-heterosexual approval. It's hardly out of the question that both are true.
This is where the deeper rot in the church lies. I can see how we can disagree on sexual morality and on the ministerial authority on women, even to the extent of disagreeing with Paul's teaching. When we cannot step up to a commitment to the most basic statements of theological principle, to which we all state allegiance every Sunday, it sends the message that we are intellectual frauds. In a Catholic or Orthodox church, the priest who allowed this nonsense would be called on the carpet by the bishop and would stand a real risk of being inhibited and deprived of office. And they would be entirely right to do so. Our bishops should be doing likewise, lest we be reduced to The Dilettante Episcopal Church.
Monday, April 01, 2013
But the NYT point here isn't advice, but snobbery. It's deliciously ironic to see the Times's reviewer bring up Jackson Pollock, because the first picture I inevitably think of when it comes to this phase of the culture wars is Norman Rockwell's witty spoof. The mandarins at the NYT need High Art to lead inevitably to abstract expressionism and thence to the current po-mo cesspool of gallery and public place stunt art. But the truth is that it didn't go that way, as the review kind of admits. Our reviewer sneers at Thomas Kinkade, but his blurry hyper-"realism" owes little or nothing to the Pre-Raphaelites or their principles, and indeed could just as well be laid on Impressionist shoulders.
I haven't been to the exhibit yet, but I find it striking that of the nine works the Times shows in its slide show, four are by Holman Hunt. Also, the only late works shown are one of the Hunts and a Burne-Jones tapestry. Perhaps the show includes some of Rosetti's "stunners" (e.g. Proserpine, seen at right) but Fanny Cornforth as Lady Lilith is the closest we come to that. The busy symbolism of the early paintings had largely been abandoned by everyone but Hunt by the time he painted his version of The Lady of Shalott (and anyway, a turbulent busy-ness is kind of the point in that canvas). But somehow, I don't get the message that the aesthetics are where things go wrong here.
It is extremely telling that their slideshow includes two of the most religiously controversial paintings by the P-Rs. Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents was wildly condemned in its day (remembering that this was one of the first paintings the group exhibited) for its depiction of the Holy Family as people rather than as icons. It is sentimental, in a way, but that wasn't what set people on edge. Another painting, The Light of the World by Holman Hunt, was on the contrary wildly acclaimed in its day, becoming one of the most widely reproduced paintings of the time; but these days its elaborate and earnest symbolism is disdained, loudly. And of course, both are religious subjects, as was very often the case. The Victorian Age, at least in Britain and the USA, was an intensely religious period; the Pre-Raphaelites were tightly coupled to the Gothic revival and the Oxford Movement. All of this backward-looking reformation counts as sin, in the reviewer's eye.
But the worse sin is this: that they are the forefathers of Norman Rockwell. There's a curious admission in the review that there's a lot more love (outside the High Art hothouse of the New York art world) for the successors of the Pre-Raphaelites than for those approved of by the art establishment. The great American illustrator school may not have been directly inspired by these Englishmen, but for instance N. C. Wyeth's mural at the National Cathedral could just have well been painted within the movement. But one can condemn the artistic enormities of Kinkade's saccharine landscapes without signing up for the immense fraud that is the mainstream of modernist high art. The terrible truth is that the heritage of the Armory Show is not only a lot of really dull and manifestly ugly art, but a tedious posturing pretension on the part of the kind of people who show up for openings at New York galleries and make cutting remarks about bourgeois taste. The fact that most 20th century art is with-malice-aforethought crap goes a lot farther in explaining why most people have no use for it than their blighted taste. Anyway, there's no real sentimental difference between Rockwell's domestic scenes and the flowery scenes which are at the heart of Impressionism, save that, perhaps, it's easier for people in a certain social class to see themselves in a garden party in Central Park than in a diner or a back alley or in any town smaller than Manhattan (which as everyone a couple of hundred miles from it realizes is a very small town indeed).
And by the way, if the reviewer would like to see the full flower of Victorian sentimentality, I would invite him to look at a late Millais such as Cherry Ripe. If the reviewer cannot see the difference between this and the beauty of the great P-R paintings, then I would suggest that she get out of the city for some serious taste-broadening.
Friday, March 15, 2013
Having then checked out St. Swithun's, she never came back when she found out they actually sing more that three verses of the hymns.
Sunday, March 03, 2013
Not that there weren't weaknesses. Parsifal, like the Ring operas, invites productions which step outside the original setting, and it is increasingly hard to get anyone to take seriously a production which respects Wagner's High-Victorian/Prince-Valiant middle ages directions. And indeed it is easy to see how the story can be abstracted.
But it defies deconstruction. You can find quite a few clips on YouTube, including a few from the 1980s-'90s in the days before irony and cynicism totally corrupted the art world, which range from the arch-traditional to symbolist productions like the current Met version, which largely respect the text, and there a few that try to go way beyond anything Wagner wrote and treat the opera as a vehicle for anything but the mystery play which it is. Last year's Bayreuth production, for example, set the story in political context something like Weimar Germany. To make this work, they had to do such violence to the story that the action on stage is as often as not completely at odds with the text.
That text, if you pay any attention to it at all, is relentlessly Christian. Jesus's name is never mentioned, but his passion and sacrifice are mentioned nearly every time Gurnemanz opens his mouth. François Girard's staging has some decided quirks (such as the pool of blood which the entire second act is sung in) but by and large his blocking of the action works extremely well and to the service of the story, especially the two great religious rites which end the first and third acts. But for whatever reason he feels it necessary to comment on the Buddhism in the work. This is complete and utter bullocks. The only traces of Buddhism in Wagner's stage action and text come out of the fact that sometimes Jesus and the Buddha drove in neighboring lanes on the theological highway, as it were. The first scene in Act III in particular is Christian from beginning to end, remembering that the end is Kundry's baptism, for crying out loud.
Wagner's story of redemption is in fact one of the most thoroughly Christian works in the repertoire, and it is striking how the various productions attempt to subvert that message. For example, the aforementioned Bayreuth travesty replaced the grail itself, in the final scene, with a boy of about ten, who was presented to the audience by Gurnemanz and Kendry as Parsifal disappeared below stage. Kendry herself I give even odds of surviving these days, and one looks in vain for dove at the end, descending or even shot from a cannon. Somehow Girand, for all his fashionable babble about other religions, managed in the end (or despite himself) to present the salvific message intact; indeed, during the first grail rite the fourth wall broke the other direction for me, as Pape and Mattei spoke the truths which are Most True, and the grail was revealed in full reverence, perhaps more so than anyone intended.
You have another chance to see this production, if you are hardy enough and live close enough to one of those theaters showing it, for it will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, March 20th. In the meantime, I leave you with this classic clip of the final scene, featuring Siegfried Jerusalem, Bernd Weikl, and Waltraud Meier.
Monday, February 18, 2013
As the practice has grown in popularity, it is inevitable, I suppose, that contrary voices have arisen. And they are voices I respect, so I feel they must at least be addressed. And mostly the criticisms are consonant with one another: Susan Snook writes, for instance, that "Ash Wednesday makes sense only at the beginning of a season that ends with Easter"; the rector of Christ Church Tulsa insists that the practice goes against the very gospel inevitably read on the day, warning against the practicing of one's piety in public. David Creech echoes these comments and talks about how the acts should be fitted within the larger service of contrition and recollection. Another cleric characterizes it as "cheap grace", surely the penultimate denunciation in this Boenhoffer-obsessed church. It is denounced as individualistic, consumerist, vacuous.
All these complaints, I think, are justified. And yet, I am not utterly persuaded. Surely a Christian should, in a Christian community, be joining others in a community act of repentance. But for many of us, this was not possible. I personally was unable to attend any of the services at my church due to the constraints of my schedule; I was fortunate in finding another parish within a short drive of my office that had a noon service, but not everyone has such an option. If hadn't been able to find such a service, I might have sought a priest on a street corner rather than let the day pass unobserved. In any case I must rely upon my own understanding of the spirituality of lenten practice to make it all "work"— and I ran my hand across my forehead before returning to the office.
But I think the more intense focus here, from both sides, is on the unchurched. And here I come upon a number of thoughts, which may or may not be woven into a coherent tapestry. First, on the matter of cheap grace: talk about it is also cheap. Eventually it comes across to me as a cry of despair from clerics frustrated at their unresponsive charges. And while one should not ridicule the professional hazards of another too easily, the fact remains that the seed of grace, at least, is as cheap as can be. One needs only to be baptized, and for many of us, there was no decision of our own needed to make that happen. Yes, the road to final grace leads to and through Calvary, but most of us Americans will never be stood up against a wall for our Lord; mostly we start our paths quietly and without drama, and many saints finish the trek in similar circumstances.
Second: if there is anything this word needs to be taught, it is ashes. The message of American secular culture is that you find a fulfilling job (and it can fulfill simply by getting you lots of money), find someone (anyone, maybe a whole series of someones) to to fulfill your sexual appetites, and throw together some "spiritual" practices to keep your ego properly inflated. People don't want Easter, or rather, they take Easter for granted. They don't think they need grace; some small number think that talk of grace is futile, but the vast majority take grace for granted, putting their faith in a Christo-Hindu-Theosophist-nature-worshipping-pantheist universalist spiritualism whose only expense, perhaps, is the book you have to buy to get your self-affirmations out of. There is no more important task for Judaeo-Christian religion than to teach the world that it is fallen. If the minister goes out to speak this prophecy, to say, "Remember O thou man" and tell them that no amount of self-affirmation will grant the salvation so desperately needed, then this can only be for the better.
Third, it seems to me that the choice here, for most, is not between ashes on the street and ashes in church; it's between ashes and no ashes. And I guess I'm less concerned about the spiritual dangers, in that regard, because I compare that with being left undisturbed in sin. Sure, some people at least will get a smear of char on their forehead which they can sport during the day in a state of spiritual smugness. They can do that in church, too, even if the gospel lesson instructs them otherwise. But perhaps one in twenty, even one in a hundred is disturbed enough to contemplate their mortality and depravity, and to start down the road of repentance to be embraced by the church which alone can heal the ancient wound.
Therefore I come down, tentatively, hopefully, on the side of taking ashes wherever they may be borne. We will not win the whole world this way, but perhaps, we may win one or two.
Friday, February 08, 2013
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
My admiration is unbounded for clergy who persist in proclaiming the gospel in the face of the resistance that the world throws at them. But I found too many clergy who allowed congregational caregiving and maintenance to trump more important acts of ministry, like truth telling and mission leadership. These tired pastors dash about offering parishioners undisciplined compassion rather than sharp biblical truth. One pastor led a self-study of her congregation and found that 80 percent of them thought the minister’s primary job was to “care for me and my family.” Debilitation is predictable for a kleros with no higher purpose for ministry than servitude to the voracious personal needs of the laos.Well, bully for them. I watch preaching in the Episcopal Church, and too much of the time it sounds like the parody of this. We can buy whatever we need, not with our checkbooks (how backward!) but with our credit cards. Or most probably we already own it. There is nothing else that needs to be done about us, and spirituality is after all unencumbered by theology, for we buy whatever spirituality we need in the "Affirmations" section of the on-line bookstore. Or really, we buy our affirmation through politics, which the preacher encourages through his "truth-telling", the truth being told, of course, being about other people.
Most people in mainline churches meet biblically legitimate needs (food, clothing, housing) with their checkbooks. In the free time they have for religion, they seek a purpose-driven life, deeper spirituality, reason to get out of bed in the morning or inner well-being—matters of unconcern to Jesus. In this environment, the gospel is presented as a technique, a vaguely spiritual response to free-floating, ill-defined omnivorous human desire.
I have heard sermons where the teaching seemed to be that the mission of Jesus was all about social action. It is tempting to conclude that Willimon intends the same lesson. And for those upper class, credit- and vote-wielding Episcopalians, faithful to their sense of entitlement to rule the world, it is the most comforting preaching possible, at least of a Sunday. After all, they are confident of being able to afford a contribution to those causes espoused by the preacher, and gratified in their hatred of those who stand in the way of the divine progress of the kingdom. Grace is thus made cheap, payable in installments to the Democratic Party.
In all of this, Martha is satisfied, and Mary turned away. I do not think that Jesus ever said that all anyone needs is to be fed, to be clothed, and to be sheltered. Even the hungry, the ill-clothed, and the homeless need more than that. "Give us today our daily bread" is but one petition. People do mourn, not just for those who die, but for their kin and friends who turn to malice or self-destruction. Those who have credit today find it wiped out tomorrow. Willimon's mocking of this pain, unintentional though it may be, is contemptible.
And still there is another truth. I hear tales of priests who cannot be bothered to comfort those who mourn, and guide those who are troubled, and teach those who have gone astray. Willimon is not entirely wrong, and his vision of a ministry consumed by the therapeutic is not unseen in practice; but there is an equal and opposite peril for preachers: to fall too much in love with their own self-image as a prophetic voice. Away goes any part of the gospel which would tell them to descend from the pulpit and listen to those who prophesize against them, or who even want nothing more than to gather up the crumbs from beneath the table. Eventually it is they who consume the laos in the feeding of their egos, and the people wither, to be blown away in storms of life.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
As I've had call to mention from time to time, the one really rock-solid achievement of the 1979 BCP revision has been in establishing a new structure to the eucharistic liturgy which has thus far stood firm in spite of all other proposals for revision. Other than those problem people who omit the confession (I know who you are, you do know you'll have to get caught up on Judgement Day) I have never been anywhere nor read any proposed rite where the 1979 order is deviated from (I know those wacky liturgists at St. Gregory of Nyssa get pretty far from the 1979 text, but even their order is pretty close to it), except at a few missal parishes and a couple of special commemorative services using pre-1928 rites. And I think there is a good and obvious reason for that: 1979's rhythm just works, very well.
But when this rhythm is considered in the church building, it seems to me that it favors a particular space, and favors using it in a particular way. And that space is the classic tripartite Gothic hall-church, with the pulpit and lectern perched at either side of the steps up into the choir. Consider how the focus shifts around: when the readings start, the eye is upon the lectern, then shifts to the gospel reading (which is pulled forward, the one time the choir's focus is into the nave) and then to the pulpit for the sermon. And then everyone turns towards the altar in profession of the creed. The prayers and confession (both, in those early days, likely to be done kneeling) turn the focus inward, and then the everything turns toward the altar again as the communion proper begins.
In a more "modern" versus populum celebration these days, this rhythm is likely to be disturbed. Moving the choir eliminates the visual cue of having them turn to face the altar, though of course the back gallery form common to Georgian buildings never allowed this. (One imagines, though, that Georgian liturgical patterns were the farthest things from their Dix-influenced minds.) The tyranny of the microphone (and I have to say that few Episcopal churches are so large as to demand their use) has led to increasing use of the lectern as a place from which to lead parts of the service, turning them into lectures within the congregation.
And it is that inward focus which increasingly dominates our liturgy. I have heard it asserted that versus pop and centrally focused liturgy signify immanence, but personally I see this as a problem, and not a positive sign. Here I can do little better than repeat what I said last spring:
In the new plan, we do not look to God at all. We look to ourselves, and turn away from transcendence. Communion itself is the most immanent of all rites, for what could be more immanent than holding Jesus' flesh in one's hand, and drinking his blood from the common cup? Jesus looks down upon the performance, over the shoulders of the sopranos, hoc est corpus, hocus-pocus, see how the miracle is performed once again, pay no attention to that Son of God over there, reigning from the cross.We moderns don't like a transcendent God. We like our God to resemble the Force, flowing in and amongst us, but not possessed of an alien will beyond and outside our ken. The big problem with God the Father, and I think the real reason why he continues to disappear from our liturgies, is not His gender, but the fact that his elderly frowning countenance represents everything that reminds us of our failings, and that we are every bit the rebellious children taught in Genesis 3. We are caught between time in the church, saved and exalted, and yet still not free of the sinning which we recommence to committing each morning.
This is why the church needs to continue to pray outward. Christ is within us, yet we are still apart from God, and must petition him as his servants. We sing "Come down, O love divine;" we pray that the elements be the Body and Blood as though God must act anew at each liturgy. And this is right and proper and even necessary, not because God cannot be ever present, but because we are ever pulled from him by our sins, which we from week to week commit anew. We need to know not just that God is good, but that he is also great, far greater than can be enclosed in our little community. The eucharist testifies not only to God's presence among us in the person of the Son our Christ, but that God's presence is made manifest through the Spirit which blows where it pleases, according to the purposes of the Father whose reason is beyond our ken. In a world where all is very terribly still not made well, we need to be reminded that our salvation depends upon the grace carried down to us from heights we could otherwise never reach; the priest prays, and we pray with him, and not he to us or us to him.
As Fr. Haller says, it is possible to construct a round space in which the focus is central, but directed upward: I would mention St. Clement's, Alexandria, thought to be the first of its kind in modern times. But the symbolism there is of Tabor or Sinai, and the priest does not face the people, who are arrayed around him. I would also say, as a practical matter, that round spaces are acoustically very difficult unless they are very small; long vaulted spaces are much more congenial to congregational singing. But in any case these spaces, at their best, cry out for God to descend upon us; and they are very, very different from the sanctuary-as-stage/nave-as-audience arrangement which is the typical versus populum sanctuary. One can also see that at St. Clement's the Liturgy of the Word conducted from a different part of the church, away from the altar, leading to the same rhythm of attention that the tripartite church evokes. By contrast the increasing trend is to build what is frankly an auditorium, in which all seats face the sacred stage so as to have good sight lines for the performance of the rite. And it's terribly ironic that in the middle ages, it was considered so very important see the key moment of the liturgy, in buildings which were so very uncooperative about allowing that vision; but we moderns, who can read and hear and participate without seeing, have made this the sine qua non of liturgical design. But the liturgy is not a show to be seen, and indeed the watching is distracting. When the priest raises the elements in token of offering, it is He to whom they are lifted who should be the object of our attention, not the ministers, nor the ritual of that offering. God is and shall be among us, but we must also remember that he is without us and beyond us, and it is that remembrance, I think, which needs the more attention in this age.