Friday, July 22, 2016

Our Big Day

Jules Joseph Lebebvre
It comes but once a year, and we so often forget to mark it.  But today, 22 July, is the feast day of our patroness, St. Mary Magdalene.  (Technically, it is a Lesser Festival for us Lutherans, which places it below a Principal Festival and above a Commemoration.  But we digress.)
After Pompeo Batoni

As we have often said, and you have often heard, she was not a prostitute, nor was she Mary of Bethany, nor was she even a "sinner" except insofar as we are all sinners.  At least Scripture does not tell us so.  Nor, by the same standard, do we have reason to believe that she retired to a cave to live out a life of penitence, whether in Britain or France or anywhere else.  Even the story of the reddening egg (alas!) is pure myth.  (Much less the Da Vinci Code balderdash.)
Robert Lenz

A pity, really.  The legends of Mary Magdalene, in their full medieval glory, compose a treasury of beautiful and exotic speculation, adorned by a vast gallery of painting and sculpture.  They are adventurous, sexy, pious and at the same time just a little subversive.  For many people, it is these legends -- these exotic speculations -- that are the Magdalene's chief attraction.  (Here's an introduction).
Gregor Erhart

Mind you, the little that we actually learn from Scripture is interesting enough.  Jesus cast "seven devils" from her, she was part of the group of women who provided for the disciples out of their own living, and of the smaller group who had been "healed of evil spirits and infirmities."  Above all, she is the one figure placed by all of the four Evangelists at the empty Easter tomb.

The significance of this is hard to overstate.  Few figures are mentioned by name in all four gospels; not the Blessed Virgin, nor her husband, nor some of the Twelve.  It leads some scholars to speculate that the Magdalene, as perhaps also John the Baptist, may have been a spiritual leader of some independent authority, whose followers (and whose story) were gradually integrated into the master-narrative of the Jesus movement.  This may well be a feminist fantasy -- but it is no less plausible than her retirement to a Provencal cavern.
AA Ivanov

What we can rely on, however, is this:  that she was a central figure in the story of the Resurrection -- the first witness, and the first to carry the story.  The Orthodox are right to identify her as one of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, but this does not go nearly far enough.  She is rightly called Apostle to the Apostles, and -- although this is rarely mentioned -- a model for preachers, for all those who share the good news of the Resurrection, for all those who proclaim a Christianity with new life at its center.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SIlence of the Lambs

Regular readers of the Egg -- to the extent that there ever were any -- have perhaps noticed that we post a great deal less often these days.  There are many reasons, a new and rather busy parish chief among them.  But one reason in particular stands out for its sheer darkness.

America has gone mad.

Writing with a jaundiced eye about our nation has never been difficult; HL Mencken and Sinclair Lewis made their bones by picking low-hanging fruit.  Teasing booboisie and boosterism is easy, so long as you have even the least bit of critical distance from them.  For our own part, lobbing softballs at our favorite targets -- the Bush Administration, drunken bishops, Protestant groupthink and Catholic revanchism -- has always been a pretty straightforward business as well.

Here's the thing:  the sort of armchair criticism in which we have indulged depends upon a fairly thick portfolio of shared convictions, both with our readers and with our targets.  At some level, even Dick Cheney knew that torture was wrong.  Likewise, Bruce Burnside knew that drunk driving (and texting) was stupid, the UCC knows that both tradition and Scripture actually do matter, the SSPX knows that at a certain point the Pope is the Pope and they are not.  All we have had to do is remind them of these shared convictions, and invite them to behave accordingly.

But the times they are, as always, a-changin'.

Over the past year or two, it has become evident that America's police departments are terrified of the people they nominally exist to serve and protect.  So, with government collusion, they have armed themselves like military units, and declared war on ... well, anybody who looks at them funny, especially while black.  Meanwhile, America's well-armed civilians -- the Constitutional "militia" which has so powerfully resisted all efforts to regulate it -- have risen to the challenge, procuring and using their own weapons, both against the police and against their unarmed compatriots.

At the same time, our Congressional gridlock has become so exacerbated that it has spread to the Supreme Court.  The justices, divided 4-4 on a handful of major decisions, have even begun declining to hear cases they know they cannot decide.  Two branches of the federal government are now unable to function properly.

As for the Executive Branch -- well, goodness!  As the November elections approach, the two principal political parties have both nominated candidates who are strikingly, intensely, passionately unlikeable.  This is a bold move, but also a stupid one. While Richard Nixon proved that it is possible for a person with poor social skills and a paranoid (or grandiose) personality disorder to win the nation's highest office, this remains an exception.  The rule favors candidates whom people actually like.  However much we may disagree on matters of policy with a Reagan, a G.W. Bush, or a Bill Clinton, they were all the sort of person you might enjoy eating lunch with, or taking in a ball game, or sharing a few beers at the office picnic.  They could kiss a baby without frightening the parents.

The presidential campaign, which would be comical if the apparent madness of Donald Trump did not raise the stakes quite so high, is frankly terrifying.  But it is just one symptom of our society's seeming rush to the bottom.  Racial and ethnic hatred, explosive violence, an unreliable justice system, and a national government that is unable to govern (and don't let's get started on the states):  these are just a few of the profound challenges facing America at this moment.

Worst of all, we are plagued by the sense that we no longer share a set of common values, not only with the people running for president but with many of the people preparing to vote for them.  What kind of country could create, not to say tolerate and even in some corners celebrate, Cliven Bundy and his family?  In what world is the answer to gun violence a wider dissemination of guns?  When did Joel Osteen become a public representative of the Christian tradition?  It is madness; and indeed, our Facebook news feed offers a daily glimpse into the Abyss.

It is hard to write about current events.  To make jokes seems callow, while to say what one really thinks sounds alarmist or even unhinged.  So we at the Egg have found ourselves paralyzed, unable to say what we think -- and often unwilling even to think it.  More and more we take refuge in a careful exploration of antique rubrics, or considering the best punctuation of seventeenth-century sermons (literally; these have been our chief leisure pursuits lately).  We are, in short, hiding from the world, because the world is a frightening place.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

John Donne: Can the Heathen Be Saved?

One of the questions that pesters Christian consciences every now and then is whether or not God has made any arrangements for the salvation of those who live and die outside the communion of the Church.

On one hand, it seems reasonable that a just and loving God would make such arrangements.  Why should a virtuous pagan be excluded from Heaven, when so many miserable wretches are allowed in simply by virtue of a little water splashed on their head?  On the other hand, what are we to do with Acts 4:12, and the proposition that "there is no other name by which we must be saved"?

The disagreement is by no means a creation of our globally-connected generation.  St. Cyprian laid down the glove by declaring that extra eccesiam nulla salus, a remark which remains a rallying cry for some and a target of attack for others.  But many of the Church Fathers admired the spiritual wisdom of this or that pagan philosopher, and argued for the salvation of a Plato or a Socrates, claiming that they grasped by reason those truths which most of us can only apprehend by revelation.  This latter argument was restated in modern times by a variety of missionary-minded Jesuits, notably Karl Rahner, who rather than "righteous pagans" spoke of "anonymous Christians."

John Donne, characteristically, offers a thoughtful and broad-minded answer to the question.

On Easter Day of 1622, he took to the pulpit of St. Paul's to deliver a variation on his customary Easter theme of the two resurrections, spiritual and bodily, to which a Christian might look forward. In the midst of that sermon, he laid out for his listeners the question of whether those who did not know Christ could still be saved, discussed the different theories floated by various theologians, and then offered his own position:
To me, to whom God hath revealed his Son in a Gospel by a Church, there can be no way of salvation but by applying that Son of God by that Gospel in that Church; nor is there any other foundation for any, nor other name by which any can be saved but the name of Jesus.   
But how this foundation is presented and how this name of Jesus is notified to them amongst whom there is no Gospel preached, no Church established, 1 am not curious in inquiring. I know God can be as merciful as those tender Fathers present him to be, and I would be as charitable as they are. And therefore humbly embracing that manifestation of his Son which he hath afforded me, I leave God to his unsearchable ways of working upon others without further inquisition.
This is an approach to warm a Lutheran's heart. It is personal and local -- pro me, pro nobis -- but also humble. It takes into account both Scripture and tradition. It refuses to claim knowledge it does not have about the inner workings of God's mind, and makes allowance for the possibility that God's mercy -- Donne speaks of "liberality" -- is greater than we know.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

I am a Papist, I Am a Puritan

It is tempting, in religious affairs as in any others, to treat minor disagreements as marks of absolute difference.  So just as Democrats and Republicans, in their squabbles, often lose sight of the fact that they are all equally Americans, so too Protestants and Roman Catholics have historically acted as though only one side or the other could be truly Christian.

John Donne was having none of it -- or at any rate, as little as he could get away with.  In an era when this absolute difference was actually enshrined in law, and yet more deeply in popular culture -- and when Anglicanism itself was torn sharply between its Puritan and Episcopalian sides -- he spent much of his ministry publicly walking a fine line.

On one hand, he was a Protestant's Protestant -- one of the Anglican representatives to the Synod of Dort, much travelled in Germany, disliked by Laud and given to taunting the Jesuits whenever he could.  On the other hand, Donne had been raised Catholic in a family of martyrs (including not one but two Jesuits); his brother had died a prisoner for the old faith, his unconverted mother lived in the Deanery of St Paul's.  Both Donne and his wife were relations of the celebrated martyr St Thomas More, and his movement to Anglicanism had been slow and painful.

It is not rare, in his preaching, for Donne to play with his auditors, coyly offering one side of himself, and depending upon them to remember the existence of the other. Our favorite example is this passage from a sermon on Acts 23:6-7, in which he expands upon Paul's exclamation to the Sanhedrin ("Men, brothers, I am a Pharisee!").  We have re-punctuated for clarity:

Beloved, there are some things in which all religions agree: the worship of God, the holinesse of life; and therefore, if when I study this holinesse of life, and fast and pray and submit my selfe to discreet and medicinall mortifications for the subduing of my body, any man will say “this is Papisticall, Papists doe this,” it is a blessed protestation, and no man is the lesse a Protestant nor the worse a Protestant for making it:  “Men and brethren, I am a Papist; that is I will fast and pray as much as any Papist and enable my selfe for the service of my God as seriously, as sedulously, as laboriously, as any Papist.” 
So if when I startle and am affected at a blasphemous oath as at a wound upon my Saviour, if when I avoyd the conversation of those men that prophane the Lord’s Day, any other will say to me “this is Puritanicall, all Puritans do this,” it is a blessed protestation and no man is the lesse a Protestant nor the worse a Protestant for making it: “Men and brethren, I am a Puritan; that is, I wil endeavour to be pure as my Father in heaven is pure, as far as any Puritan."

It is delightful to imagine the impact of such statements upon a congregation keenly sensitive to the language of theological partisanship. I am a Papist! I am a Puritan!  They are shocked, thrilled, and at the same time relieved by their knowledge that he is neither.

It is the Anglican "middle way," of course (although Donne himself offered Lutheranism as a middle path between Papism and Calvinism), and a call to such unity in faith as may have been possible at the time.  It is also the rhetorical device called coincidentia oppositorum, a cousin to the paradox by which some Lutherans call themselves "Evangelical Catholics."  

But Donne's trope, in its cultural context, is far stronger than merely saying "I am A Protestant Catholic" or whatever.  It is closer to a modern preacher saying "I am a Fundamentalist Liberal," but even that does not evoke the bare-knived enmity of the parties in question.  Perhaps we could get the same effect by saying, if there were occasion to do so, "I am a Terrorist for Peace."

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Another Thing Luther Didn't Say

As we have often observed, many of the best things Martin Luther ever said were in fact said by somebody else.  Likewise Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill.

An ELCA synod celebrated Earth Day this year by posting a pretty little meme to Facebook:

The sentiment is lovely. After all, traditional Christianity has long spoken of reading the "Book of Nature," meaning that God is revealed in the Creation.  But did Luther ever say this?

Some Facebook discussion ensued, little of it supported by research.  "How beautiful," said one.  "Doesn't sound like Luther," said another.  "Natural theology be damned," snorted a third.  That sort of thing, which substitutes opinion for fact.

One participant suggested, perhaps a bit wistfully, that this was a paraphrase of a remark from Luther's 1527 essay That The Words "This is My Body" etc. Stand Fast Against the Fanatics.  The precise passage she cited goes like this:

The Scriptures teach us ... that the right hand of God is not a specific place on which a body must or may be, such as on a golden throne, but is is the almighty power of God, which at one and the same time can be nowhere and yet must be everywhere. [....] 
On the other hand, [the power of God] must be present in essence at all places, even in the tiniest tree leaf.  The reason is this:  it is God who creates, effects, and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses.  [LW 37:59, alt.]

This is Luther the ubiquitarian at work, and as such it represents a somewhat polemical position, over against the Swiss Reformers who argued that Christ, sitting at the right hand in celestial glory, could not reasonably be said to be present also in the terrestrial bread and wine.

But saying that Christ can be present in the whole Creation at once is not quite the same as saying that the message of salvation can be discovered in nature.  Not to mention that the words are entirely different.

So what is the actual source of "trees, flowers, clouds and stars"?

Funny story, with an emphasis upon "story.".

In the early 1860s, a popular novelist and poet named Elizabeth Rundle Charles was asked by an editor to write a book about Luther's life.  The result was The Chronicles of the Schoenberg-Cotta Family (1862), a curious novel that pretends to tell the story of Luther through the yes of his neighbors.  It is available on Project Gutenberg, if you are interested.

In the voice of a neighbor girl, Else, Charles tells a tale about sitting with Katie during the Doctor's absence at the Coburg in 1530. Luther using the family garden as a sort of living catechism:

It is delightful too, [Frau Luther] says, to listen to the heavenly theology [her husband] draws from birds and leaves and flowers, and the commonest gifts of God or events of life. At table, a plate of fruit will open to him a whole volume of God's bounty, on which he will discourse. Or, taking a rose in his hand, he will say, "A man who could make one rose like this would be accounted most wonderful; and God scatters countless such flowers around us! But the very infinity of his gifts makes us blind to them." 
And one evening, he said of a little bird, warbling its last little song before it went to roost, "Ah, dear little bird! he has chosen his shelter, and is quietly rocking himself to sleep, without a care for to-morrow's lodging; calmly holding by his little twig, and leaving God to think for him." 
In spring he loves to direct her attention to the little points and tufts of life peeping everywhere from the brown earth or the bare branches. "Who," he said, "that had never witnessed a spring-time would have guessed, two months since, that these lifeless branches had concealed within them all that hidden power of life? It will be thus with us at the resurrection. God writes his gospel, not in the Bible alone, but in trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars." 
And thus, to Mistress Luther, that little garden, with his presence and his discourse, has become like an illuminated Gospel and Psalter.

In context, this actually does sound more like Luther.  It is less about finding salvation in nature than about finding in nature images of the salvation we have encountered in the external Word.  Rundle, who had certainly read a great deal in preparation for her book, may very well have had a source in Luther's works.  or she may have invented this from whole cloth.

Until somebody comes up with something better, though, we are going to call this one a phony.  So far as the evidence goes, Luther neither said nor wrote the words to which people have been heedlessly appending his name for lo these 150 years.