Thursday, February 09, 2017

Keep Christianity Weird

Of late, Father Anonymous has been assembling covers for the worship bulletins at his Saturday night vigil Mass, which the congregation insists upon referring to as its "Contemporary Service." (Let's not open that can of semantic worms.)  To be brutally honest, he doesn't create the images; he steals them, and makes a collage. The arrangement is his own work, but nothing else.

Upon reviewing a few of the said covers, the rotund cleric has has noted that they share a distinctive character. The images and layout may vary a bit, but the aesthetic is consistent from week to week, and it is one that merits consideration.

In a word, our bulletin covers are weird.  Here are a few samples.

We've got a skeleton swinging an axe (an image of autumn, and reminder of John the Baptist); a giant disembodied eye (did it offend somebody and get plucked out?); random dead people on a church sign; a newspaper announcing the Apocalypse; and a virgin learning that she is pregnant with God's baby.

That last one does not seem so weird until you think about it.

In fact, Christianity as a whole doesn't seem so weird ... until you think about it.  But the moment you start thinking about it, our faith starts to sound like a bad acid trip, or a disjointed Italian horror movie.

A baby is born who turns out to be God; he dies and then comes back to life; people are plunged into the water and told they have died and been reborn; then they eat a meal that is supposed to be the flesh and blood of the man-God. Everybody who has ever done this, living or dead, is connected and will get together again when the man-God returns as a judge and, not coincidentally, the world ends.

Yeah, it's weird.  And that's without the medieval "extras" -- relics, purgatory, monasticism, and the whole "is-it-an-apple-or-is-it-a-codeword-for-sex" thing.

This is no new observation. In Irenaeus' Lyons, the early Christians were accused of Thyestean banquets and Oedipean marriages -- cannibal meals and "brothers" marrying "sisters. " Julian the Apostate dismissed churches built over the remains of a saint as "charnel houses."

Nor is it at all novel to represent in art the disorienting strangeness of Christianity. From the Alexamenos graffito to Serrano's "Piss Christ," our imagery has been used with Brechtian power by critics of the faith.  But it has been used to no less disorienting an effect by ardent supporters. Think of Christ as Noah on the catacomb walls, or the profusion of ever-gorier Crucifixes in the later Middle Ages or the entire oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch. Not to mention reliquaries, ossuaries, or church walls painted with dancing skeletons and tortured souls.

We Christians are the inheritors of a vast treasury of grotesque, macabre, disturbing imagery. Much is symbolic, some is didactic, more than a little is violent, sexual, or frightening.

But come to church most weekends, and what's on the cover of the bulletin?  A butterfly.

Or a flower, or a field of waving grass with a rising sun.  Or a statue of Martin Luther (or your own tradition's favorite saint). Stop by the local Bible Bookstore, and you can find more of the same:  ichthys-fish with clever responses to Darwin, Jesus-bobbleheads, Thomas Kinkade calendars. A shopper drowns in saccharine, suffocates in the atmosphere of phoney comfort.

A large portion of the world, both Christian and otherwise, recognizes the Christian faith not in the blackness of Hell or the red of Christ's blood, but in the cool pastels of a dentist's office. Much of the world, Christian and otherwise, identifies Christianity with images that are tame, domestic, even schmaltzy.

This really has to end. The Goth movement has long since poached passionate, violent, imagery of the Church for its own purposes, which are not infrequently at odds with those of the Church.  Perhaps we should reclaim it for ourselves.  But, for all the Romanticism which inspires the Egg itself, the situation calls for more than medievalist nostalgia -- we tried that in the nineteenth century, and it was good, but not good enough.  No; the present degraded, sentimental, therapeutic representations of Christianity really must be replaced in the popular imagination by something more aesthetically demanding.

How else to put this?  Perhaps with a motto:  If it looks familiar, it isn't the Trinity; if it looks safe, it isn't the Cross; if it looks easy, it isn't really the Church.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Graceless Collect

Many friends of the Egg will have offered the following Prayer of the Day in worship two weeks ago:
Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
This is the collect prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany in lectionary Year A.  It is adapted from the Gelasian Sacramentary, where is reads:
Tua nos Domine quaesumus gratia semper et praeveniat et sequator, ac bonus operibus iugiter prestet esse intentos; per Iesum Christum ....
Even a quick glance shows that there are a few notable differences between the original and our rendering.  Here's a somewhat more literal version, from the post-2011 English version of the Roman rite, where it occurs on the 28th Week of Ordinary Time:

May your grace, O Lord, we pray, at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The Roman Catholic version suffers from awkward syntax, the natural result of its officially-mandated effort to capture the feel of those opening Latin words.  We would not have done it that way.

But the Lutheran version is strange in its own way.  As is ELW's custom, it adds ideas to the original: (1) "directing our steps," while common enough in old collects (usually phrased dirige nos), is not in this one; and (2) the typical closure (through Jesus Christ ...) is replaced with the idea that goodness comes through the Cross. These modest changes make the prayer a little less sober and sensible than some of us might like, but are not deeply remarkable.

What strikes us most, however, is one pregnant lexical decision: ELW replaces "grace" in the opening clause with "lovingkindness."

This choice of words is not unreasonable.  "Lovingkindness" is an English word invented by Miles Coverdale to translate the Hebrew ch-s-d, chesed.  This rather tricky word, which describes God's disposition toward humanity, has historically been translated into Greek as eleos and into Latin as misericordia.  That is to say, it describes divine mercy.

Luther, however, chose to link chesed with the Greek word charis, and to translate both as Gnade.  Or, as we say in English, grace.  Following that train of thought, "grace" is a word very nicely replaced with "lovingkindness."

But is it really?  The Septuagint uses charis to translate not chesed but chen, a different Hebrew word with a meaning closer to assistance or help. We're certainly in the same semantic area here, but it is by no means certain that the word Coverdale invented specifically to translate chesed should also be used for chen, much less for charis and still less for gratia.

The stakes on this particular question are higher than on most matters of translation, because the words charis and gratia are absolutely central to Christian, and especially Lutheran, theology.  The first is Paul's description of the mechanism of salvation: a gift by which God has reckoned human beings as just.  The second is the Latin word pressed to translate the Greek, and the direct source of our English word "grace."  Both have a root sense having to do  -- like chesed -- with friendship and affection, and a later, more developed sense of free action -- a gift given without obligation is "gratuitous," a dancer's motion is "graceful, and so forth.

Gratia has enough senses and derivatives, in both Latin and English, that it can cause translation problems all by itself.  Just for fun, look at its two uses in Augustana IV.  We are gratis justificentur, which can mean "freely justified" or "justified by grace."  And that becomes true for us when we believe we are in gratiam recipi, "received into grace" or "received into favor."  So, in the fundamental Lutheran confession of faith, grace is both the thing that saves us and the condition of being saved.

Because "grace" is such an essential word, it is used frequently in churches.  You could argue that it is a technical theological term, and therefore might be confusing to outsiders -- and we suspect that the ELW translators did believe something like this.  The problem with this argument is that "lovingkindness," despite its admirable lack of Latin or Greek roots, is an even more technical term. The word was concocted to answer a Bible translator's conundrum, and has no secular currency at all. And the conundrum for which it was concocted is not the one posed by this collect.

Moreover, we dread the thought of a church in which "grace" becomes an exotic word.

So: Is "lovingkindness" a good translation of gratia in the collect?  We answer that it it isn't bad -- but wouldn't "grace" be better?

Friday, January 20, 2017

A River of Joy and Peace

In one of his letters (Epist. 2:1-2,4-5,7: PL edit. [845,] 879, 881), St. Ambrose of Milan writes:
There is a stream which flows down on God's saints like a torrent. There is a rushing river giving joy to the heart that is at peace and makes for peace. Whoever has received from the fullness of this river, like John the Evangelist, like Peter and Paul, lifts up his voice. Just as the apostles lifted up their voices and preached the Gospel throughout the world, so those who drink these waters begin to preach the good news of the Lord Jesus.
May this dreary winter day (at least here in northern Virginia) be one in which you drink from the river and lift up your own voice to preach.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Intelligence" Briefings

Our president-elect does not fail to disappoint.  The weeks preceding his inauguration have been, thus far, a multi-media sideshow worthy of the best reality TV.

And "sideshow" is the word.  Despite seeming like the random thoughts of a man with ADD and a Twitter account, the truth seems to be that Trump's strategy is to keep up a maddening stream of inane remarks designed to distract people from his team's more serious mischief.

Exhibit A is Trump's seeming war with the intelligence community.  He sits in his gaudy tower, tossing insults at the people he may most need to rely upon when he is called to make actual executive decisions, and makes a great show of ignoring the information they offer him already.  It is no surprise, then, that they have taken a swipe at the guy, releasing some information which suggests (surprise!) that the Russians have been manipulating him all along.  The problem seems to be that this information has long been in the hands of the press, which found it unverifiable and therefore useless.

But who cares, really?  Once Trump is in office, they will work for him. His chosen deputies will be in charge, and they will bring him the information he feels he can use. The relationship is off to a bad start, but it will work itself out.

Meanwhile, however, the guy is wreaking havoc with the traditions of American government. He has already taken steps to alienate China, which is -- lest we forget -- the world's other economic superpower, and with which the performance of our own economy is unalterably entwined. His proposed Cabinet is strangely heavy with generals and billionaires.  The nominees have an almost universal lack of experience with the mechanics of government, and a general contempt for the particular departments thy have been asked to administer.  Among the few people with actual governing experience is Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, a man who apparently does not believe secular thinkers have access to the truth.

His team has stage-managed confirmation process for Cabinet members intended to be so fast that no serious vetting can take place. Part of this has been allowing nominees to omit large portions of the usual vetting process, notably including ethical review.

And "ethical review" is a phrase we will hear a lot more in the days, months and years to come.  From the very beginning, Trump has made it clear that he intends to continue running his private businesses while also running the country.  On the campaign trail, he talked about a "blind trust" so glibly that reporters came to doubt that he understood the meaning of the words.  Already, foreign diplomats have been encouraged to book rooms at a Trump-owned property when they are in DC.

On top of which, earlier in the month,, Team Trump sent a shock through the Department of Energy, by asking for the names of individual scientists working on climate change -- hinting at a purge.

A spat with some spooks is serious, in its own way.  From some other president-elect, it would be a strange move that raised serious questions.  For Trump, it is a just a bit of smoke and mirrors, some showbiz puffery meant to distract us from what is really going on.  Our soon-to-be-president is putting together an administration run by ethically-challenged amateurs. He is already creating legal and diplomatic problems that will no doubt dog him, and our nation, throughout his time in office.

Friday, December 09, 2016

Rejoice ... and Repent

 Although Father Anonymous does not say much about public affairs from the pulpit, he knows that some of you may, and it seems very much to us as though St. James is having words with our president-elect.  Consider, if you like, the Epistle for Advent 3 A (Gaudete).

First, let us observe that several of Sunday's lessons offer images of a dramatic (and beautiful) change in the world.  In Isaiah 35:1-10, as a result of God's "coming," the desert blossoms, the weak are strong, the blind can see, and the wilderness becomes a safe lion-free travel zone.  A similar note is struck by Psalm 146 and the Magnificat, both of which are offered by the RCL:  the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth.

Most of these images are what anthropologists classify as "the reversible world," a cross-cultural trope in which all our natural expectations are defied.  Think of the Roman Saturnalia, or those medieval celebrations of the Holy Innocents when a boy was chosen to serve as bishop-for-a-day.

But the particular changes envisioned by the Biblical texts are not played for comedy.  The weak, the damaged and the poor are made special objects of God's blessing.  These texts are more than a mere folkloric device; they are expressions of what liberal theology likes to call "social justice," or even "a preferential option for the poor."

Which brings us to James 5:7-10.  The passage at hand was no doubt chosen because it speaks twice of "the Coming of the Lord," parousia tou Kuriou or adventus Domini.  It also declares that the Judge is at the door.  The passage encourages Christians to wait with patience and good behavior until that Coming, a very useful message -- but also one which can be the cause of considerable mischief.  How many beaten wives have been told to stick with their abusers, to be humble and faithful and let Christ do the judging?  How many slaves have been given similar messages?  And how often have verses like these been recruited to that evil task?

The problem is that the lectionary gives us these verses in isolation. The passage just before them is quite different in tone:
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. [or "as in a day of feasting"] 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. [NIV]
It is, in rather bald terms, a prophetic oracle against the rich. In the face of the Lord's Advent, it is they who have not waited patiently and graciously, but who have hoarded their money and defrauded their workers.  (And lived luxurious lives, which -- by the way -- Jesus seems to suggest was what Herod did, in contrast to the faithful rigor of John the Baptist, in our Gospel for the week.)  James goes so far as to accuse the wealthy of murder -- quite possibly even the murder of Jesus, if we read v. 6 as "the Innocent One."

It is a striking passage, and deserves to be held up for our congregations to hear.  The Lord's Advent is not an excuse for tolerating injustice, but a call to lives of justice and charity.

A preacher seeking examples of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and powerless never has far to go. But we are struck by the image of "the wages you have failed to pay your workers," a phrase the NRSV, following the KJV, translates more accurately as "the wages ... which you kept back by fraud [apostereo]."  Because although cheating workers is an old custom ("I owe my soul to the company store"), there is one particular figure in our public consciousness who is notorious for this practice.

Years ago, when we consorted with artists rather more than we do now, a friend-of-a-friend was asked to apply a vast quantity of gold leaf to the entrance of a rich New Yorker's office.  This is a time-consuming and laborious process, which involves working with tremendous delicacy and uses terribly expensive materials.  Our friend himself used gold leaf often, and we watched him many nights, hunched over a small picture frame, using tweezers and feathers and whatever other exotic tools it required, to move shreds of precious metal far thinner than a piece of paper and stick them to a bit of wood.  We were both stunned by the cost and sheer labor required to gild an entire doorway.

The artist worked for months, going out of pocket for the materials.  And at the end, once the doorway was gilded, the wealthy New Yorker looked at it and said, in effect, "Nah.  Not what I wanted.  So I'm not going to pay you." The artist was not just upset; he was ruined.

Not having been there, we cannot vouch for the details of that particular story.  We do not even know the artist's name.  But the names of many other workers who have sued Donald Trump for breach of contract are matters of public record.  From drapiers and chandelier-makers to real-estate-consultant -and-reality-TV-personality Barbara Corcoran, Trump seems to have stiffed a vast range of artisans, employees, contractors and partners. Here is a Wall Street Journal article on it.  Here's one from Fox News.  And USA Today.

It seems to us that the message in our Epistle for the week only makes sense if it is read alongside the preceding verses -- and that those verses are in direct conversation with modern society, and Time's Man of the Year.  The Advent of the Lord means, specifically, that we cannot tolerate shady business dealings, especially those by which the wealthy defraud their workers.  If we are serious about Advent, we will call out this sort of behavior wherever we see it -- and if not, we should remember that the Judge is at the door.