Saturday, June 18, 2016

But Who Listens?

Tony Clavier commended the Word to the Church promulgated by the House of Bishops from their March meeting, but remarks on the likely futility of such pronouncements:
We tend to function as if we still had a ready hearing. But who listens? As we have shrunk, we have become the more partisan. The conservative party at prayer has become the progressive movement in church. Our General Convention adopts a huge number of resolutions on political and social matters unheard or read by the powers that be. Our largely right of center laity either bristles at or ignores these resolutions. Thus when our General Convention or in this case our House of Bishops has a non-partisan, objective “word” for our church and hopefully through Episcopalians to the nation, who listens, who hears? In large part we have squandered the utility of our national pulpit because we haven’t the discipline to give objective moral guidance to the church and nation, or we simply assume that our political opinions are gospel.

And this is but the tip of the iceberg of our irrelevance. As a few of you may be aware, there's this fellow named Donald Trump who will almost certainly become the Republican presidential candidate. I would describe him as a buffoon, a political incompetent, and a businessman whose wealth is made possible by the fact of starting out with so much, ameliorating his many failures and manifest mismanagement. He has no positive qualifications to speak of, and many negatives. And yet, he has consistently prevailed in the Republican primaries, to the dismay of a wide swath of commentators and analysts. Why are people voting for him?

Well, there is yet one more thing I see about him: he is a man who does not so much lie as he cares neither one way nor the other about truth. Over at the Atlantic they have begun to consider whether Trump's message is anything more than an outpouring of emotion signals to a people for whom rational consideration of issues is foreign. And in that is enmeshed Trump's blatant disregard for any sort of social norm. I shall reduce it to one single aspect of his business dealings: the art of the Trump deal, it appears, is to simply to refuse to pay up, and then through threat of legal action, to force his creditors to take cents on the dollar. It would have been a terrible temptation, preaching on last Sunday's lesson from First Kings, to begin by saying,

The widow Vera Coking had a house in Atlantic City, beside the property of Donald Trump. And Trump said to her, "Give me your house, so that I may have it for a parking garage, because it is near the hotel I am building; I will give you its value in money." But she said to Trump, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance."
And, well, at least Trump was not successful in getting her land. But in gauging his appeal, I have to consider that some large portion of his base shares his amorality. As a claimant to moral authority, we have no voice which they will heed. Indeed, we are held in contempt for stepping across the visceral taboos which are all that are left of their morality. Can we even preach salvation to them? Well, we are not interested, and the social justice we do preach has no traction, for they reject the bonds of community upon which such justice must depend.

But if even if we remember the command to convert the world, will it hear the call? That, increasingly, is the question we must confront. We can no longer be a church for seekers (and at this lesser task we fail, because we have so much trouble repeating the most basic words of our faith), because increasingly the people about us have either despaired or lack (they think) for nothing, and so they do not seek. This is our challenge.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Jesus' Marriage Annulled

Ariel Sabar has an article in the just-published Atlantic detailing his investigations into the provenance of the Jesus's Wife Fragment. His research points to one Walter Fritz, one-time business partner to Hans-Ulrich Laukamp (the supposed owner of the fragment) but more intriguingly, also former masters student at the Berlin Free University, studying Egyptology before abruptly disappearing from the program. Karen King (the Harvard scholar behind the revelations) responded with the admission that the investigation "tips the balance towards forgery."

So now that the affair is all but over, let us review the matter. Still the most telling comment on the whole affair was made at the beginning by Jim Davila: "[T]his fragment is exactly, exactly, what the Zeitgeist of 2012 would want us to find in an ancient gospel. To my mind that weighs heavily against its authenticity. [....] My working hypothesis at the moment is that someone who knew what they were doing went to a lot of effort using a piece of ancient papyrus to create a remarkable forgery." And he is quite justified in stating, in his response to the new story, "I called it correctly as soon as the existence of the papyrus was announced and I maintained that position throughout all the twists and turns of the story over the last three and a half years." With less knowledge of the field, I personally said that "[i]f I were a betting man, I could put my money on this coming to nothing."

So, here's the score: on the one side we have the mainstream media, who seem to largely be staffed by people who are ignorant about this stuff, don't want to learn, and have an antipathy toward anything orthodox. This particularly is manifested in their views towards sexuality, which tend to run towards "even if it does frighten the horses; especially if it does." Gnosticism, as they see it, is this Crowleian-Gardnerian-Learian thelemo-wicco-countercultural palimpsest, scraped clean of the original hatred of the material body in preparation for forgery of modern sexual (im)mores as ancient. Surely, if they had spent much time asking the many people who are familiar with the material and who don't participate in the academic Gnostic Sales Company, they would have found out that (a) from the beginning these others were extremely cautious if not outright doubting of this text, that (b) if it had been genuine, it almost certainly wouldn't have intended to say that Jesus had an actual in-the-flesh wife, and most of all (c) that it didn't matter to orthodox Christianity anyway. Sure, simple sensationalism goes far in explaining their credulity, but it's hard to imagine that, for example, the revelation of a ca-AD 90 text of John would get the same hype. Well, except maybe on Fox News.

But anyway, on the other side we have Dr. King, and with her, Harvard. Given the immediate and strong negative reaction from the field, there is no question but that she must be faulted for her credulity. And I'm afraid I have to say that I have to think that this was predicated on her membership in the Gnostic Sales Company. She was a Jesus Seminar member, which I consider a public relations effort for pushing the merits of the Gnostic material in understanding apostolic Christianity, and she has published other books pushing the Gospel of Thomas forward. And while I suppose there's a degree to which nobody can be faulted for putting their own ideas to the fore, Harvard certainly should have known better.

Perhaps the best thing about the affair, besides the vindication of the doubters, is that the religion writers who abetted the fraud are having their faces rubbed in the matter. Laurie Goldstein at the NYT, the chief cheerleader, was made to back down back when the parallel Qau codex forgery was uncovered; now the others are being presented with the same fate, not to mention being roundly scooped by a competitor precisely because they didn't bother to do some pretty basic homework. I can only hope that in the future the next big "discovery" will be treated more circumspectly.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Shoot, If You Must, This Old Gray Head

Trigger warning: bad poetic allusions

Well, Dean Hall is gone from the national cathedral, and while he may not be moldering in the grave or anyplace else for that matter, some small bit of his soul is marching on in the announcement that the two representations of the confederate battle flag are to be removed from the Lee-Jackson windows and replaced with clear glass. It's oh so tempting to suggest that they should be replaced with white glass, but at least they aren't going to efface the whole thing, and for whatever reason they're leaving in the two representations of the confederate national flag. And, well, perhaps the Corps of Engineers flag should removed for offending the sensibilities of environmentalists everywhere.

OK, OK: sorry for all the cheap shots. But there's a certain irony in the whole project in that the whole controversy is over a very small fragment of a fabric deeply woven with a symbolism towards which the committed leftist progressive must have an uneasy relationship. Jesus to the north, sitting in royal judgement over the world; Jesus to the south, sitting in triumph; Jesus to the east for a majestic two-fer: it's all so royal. But at the same time, the towering presence on Mount St. Alban, the highest hill around, symbolizes the influence the cathedral establishment feels it deserves. In the '50s, it was still plausible; when the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1990, it perhaps was still plausible. But by then, already, the fragmentation of American society into warring political tribes had become a feature of public life, and the church, any church, could no longer present itself as the moral voice of the nation.

And by then there were no longer a series of signs along US 40, one each mile, telling the traveller the distance to the Barbara Fritchie House in Frederick. Whittier's poem, it is widely agreed, is something of a political pious fiction, assembled from a mixture of tales which more likely than not had their origin in the defiance of another woman, and which probably didn't involve Jackson. I have never visited the attraction, though I understand it is still in business. It was so blatantly a tourist trap as to be avoided by my parents. In the end a more scenery-conscious age swept the signs away, and a more cynical age swept away such pure sentimentality as Whittier wrote. There is something if the same naive secular hagiography in the window, which forgives the two of being on the wrong side of the conflict in favor of recalling their piety (which was quite real).

Such noble sentiments were once not ridiculed. As the First Things article from last year recounts, Dean "I marched with MLK even though my granddaddy was that great segregationist Woodrow Wilson" Sayre, under whose helm the window was commissioned and installed, wrote that "Cathedrals do not belong to a single generation. They are churches of history. They gather up the faith of a whole people and proclaim the goodly Providence which has welded that people together as they have hoped and suffered and believed across the centuries." Washington National Cathedral certainly was built under that vision, in the haphazard course of such projects; interrupted over and over, steered by benefactors and the whims of current taste, it is perhaps a miracle that it holds together as well as it does, and surely that can be ascribed to the long presence of Philip Frohman as architect. In it are recorded the concerns of a century of American life, through two world wars and into outer space. Perhaps one of my favorite memorials is the spot in a transept where it is carved that then Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher laid his hand in blessing; another remembers that Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon in its pulpit.

And now, apparently, two pieces of clear glass, each about the size of my hand, are going to testify through the ages to the contrived twitchiness of early 21st century progressives. I suppose I should be grateful that Dean Hall's original notion was not carried through; and yet the window, in the hands of the cathedral chapter, has been turned from its original purpose of reconciliation into a permanent sign of division. The day may yet come when the battle flag is just history, and perhaps then some crate in the cathedral archives may be opened, and two old pieces of red, white, and blue glass may be returned to their former places. But I do not hold out hope that I will live to see the day.