Monday, July 31, 2006

Mel's Mouth a Lethal Weapon

At least to his own career.

Mel Gibson gets picked up for drunk driving the other night. Oops, we thought; another public defender of virtue hoist by his own petard. Paging Bill Bennett .... The next morning, Gibson gives forth a remarkably contrite public confession of guilt, which includes an admission of alcoholism and apologies for verbally harrassing the guys who arrested him. Wow, we thought; old Mel really is a stand-up guy.

Then we found out that the verbal harrassment wasn't so much "you blankety-blank coppers" as it was "are you Jewish, officer? And does that make you responsible for all the wars in the world?" Stand-up guy turns into can't-keep-denying it anti-semite. (He also, apparently, threatened to pee in his jail cell. Boy, there's a first.)

And that's about where things stand for most of the country, including
Arianna Huffington, who falls a bit below her usual prose standard in an effort to demonstrate that drunken anti-semites ought not produce TV miniseries on the Holocaust. (Although they probably ought not).

But there is another wrinkle: per Australia's Herald Sun, Mel was photographed cavorting with a bunch of women to whom he was not married. "Cavorting," mind you, not having sex. But still, it makes the picture that much worse. Not a big deal in Hollywood, to be sure. But for a guy whose fan base now includes a lot of very conservative Christians, this may prove to be the biggest problem of all ....

A Reason to Read Wikipedia

Finally! Wikipedia finally has an article on Charles Porterfield Krauth, a key figure in the Evangelical Catholic branch of US Lutheranism. By rights, he should rank with John Williamson Nevin and Edward Bouverie Pusey on the list of 19th-century church reformers -- but weirdly, he is often overlooked, even by his intellectual descendants.

And by the way, he was a thoroughly Anglicized American of German extraction. His name is correctly pronounced "Krawth," not "Kraut."

America Not a Christian Nation

One would have thought that was obvious -- just take a look around. But it's big news to some "evangelicals," including those at Woodland Hills Church, in Maplewood, Minnestota.

According to the Times article linked above, both members and visitors to this midwestern megachurch used to routinely ask the pastor, Gregory Boyd, to blur the church-state line:

Would he please announce a rally against gay marriage during services? Would he introduce a politician from the pulpit? Could members set up a table in the lobby promoting their anti-
abortion work? Would the church distribute “voters’ guides” that all but endorsed Republican candidates? And with the country at war, please couldn’t the church hang an American flag in the sanctuary?

To his credit, Boyd turned them down; and in the course of turning them down, preached some sermons on the subject, which are now a book.

Also in the course of turning them down, Boyd managed to lose a thousand members. A thousand. For us pastors of decidedly non-mega churches, that's darned near unimaginable. But the truth is, Woodland Hills has plenty of members, and -- what with all the publicity -- will doubtless soon recoup its losses. More important, they have a pastor who showed some real theological chops, along with solid leadership ability, by taking the hard route and saying things like this:

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses .... When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

And don't get this wrong. It's not like the guy has done a David Brock, and turned from a right-wing loudmouth to a left-wing loudmouth. On the contrary; Boyd remains solidly conservative in his social and political views. He just doesn't think it's his job, or his congregation's, to turn the church into a partisan political engine. And apparently, this idea is massively threatening to the thousand or so members who quit, including the ones the Times quotes.

(Think what that means: these are people who believe that their church should be a partisan political engine. They think it should tell people how to vote. They think it should work toward a civil society governed by Christian doctrinal conclusions. They think it should endorse candidates, or come as close as the law allows. These people may not know what Erastianism is, but they sure do like it.)

Now, here's the irony: we in the mainline denominations have spent a generation dealing with mirror image of Boyd's plight. Ever since Viet Nam, there has been a well-documented breach between mostly-liberal pastors and their mostly-conservative congregations. Plenty of pastors get warned in no uncertain terms against "preaching politics from the pulpit," or variations on that idea. More than a few have been run out of town on the proverbial rod because they ignored the warning. And by gum, a lot of us had to admit over the year, those laypeople had a point.

Not that churches should remain silent on political questions -- despite our many failures, we have a pretty good handle on this whole morality business. Nor even that preachers have to studiously avoid current events -- if you are talking about adultery and everybody knows the President is an adulterer, you might point to him as a Terrible Example. Likewise with alcoholism, close-mindedness or warmongering. All I'm saying is that sometimes -- and especially in times like these, with the nation divided into parties as defined by mutual hatred as the rowdiest and most gap-toothed football hooligans in Manchester -- the Church may best be served by preaching the Gospel and letting people make up their own minds about how law, forgiveness and love ought best to be expressed at the polls.

Big words, a reader might object, from a priest whose own blog is all about the intersection of politics, sex and religion. But the truth is that I keep this blog, in large part, as a place to say things that I am exceedingly careful not to say in the pulpit. The congregation I presently serve, St. Gothicus-by-the-Laundromat, was deeply injured by a previous pastor who simply couldn't keep his mouth shut on political matters. Week after week, sermon after sermon, he railed against the critics of an Administration he particularly admired, accusing them of treason, blasphemy and other forms of badness. And week after week, his words fell like a bludgeon on the ears of anybody who did not agree with him.

People are sick of being bludgeoned, at least from the pulpit. Let's save the bludgeoning for vestry meetings and private confession, shall we? In our most public moments, when the Church doors are open and people are coming and going, let's try to stick to the main point: Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the friend of sinners and the hope of a weary world.

Now -- isn't that evangelical?

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Irish Psalter

Thank heaven for curious bulldozer operators. One of them stopped working to dig a book out of the Irish mud, and discovered at 20-page psalter dating to the Middle Ages.

It was first reported to have been open to Ps. 83, which includes a verse about the destruction of Israel. In view of the raging war between Israel and Lebanon, commentators inevitably found the coincidence spooky.

Turns out that, owing to the vagaries of psalm numbering, it was really open to Ps. 84 -- a much cheerier piece of work. Nonetheless, at least one creative exegete has found a way to relate it to Iraqi WMDs.

Sheer bollywocks, of course. The Egg knows what's going on here. In a year or two, when archaeologists have cleaned the booklet and turned its few pages, they'll discover its true and awesome secret: the hidden location of Dan Brown's credibility.

Beyond Ralph Reed

Good column by Margaret Carlson on evangelicals and politics. She starts with the obvious question -- did Ralph Reed get beat because of Abramaoff, or "was the vote a sign that evangelicals have caught on to the hustle by latter-day Elmer Gantrys who've taken their money and votes and only occasionally their beliefs to Washington"?

But then she makes a good connection, and one that may not be obvious to many secular-press observers. She points out that the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention is Frank Page, an "apolitical pastor" who is

... the opposite of the fiery political preacher, calling himself a ``normal'' pastor in search of ``sweet spirits'' and dedicated to missionary work and help for struggling churches. Not a word about impeaching judges or boycotting Disney for offering benefits to partners of gay employees. ``I believe in the word of God,'' Page said, ``I'm just not mad about it.''

(Okay, kids, Father A. hears the howls: of course we're all mad about the Word, in the way Paul was mad about Jamie. Let's assume Page means he isn't angry about it, okay?)

Her main point is that the SBC elected Page over two far more politically engaged pastors, including the host of 2005's Justice Sunday II, a big Frist-DeLay rantfest. Carlson suggests that all this indicates a mellowing of the Christian Right.

Maybe so. Here's our take: For generations, evangelicals were counseled to remain aloof from politics; for a generation or so now, they have been counseled to involve themselves up to the neck. And at last, to their credit, they are learning what the mainline denominations learned only too late: that too much politicking is a serious danger to churches, because by its nature it will divide them along the lines drawn by secular parties.

Gay Soldiers Can't Speak Arabic

That must be how the US military sees it, because they keep firing their otherwise-qualified Arab linguists for professing (or even possessing quietly) the Love Which [Still] Can't Speak Its Name.

Andrew Sullivan counts 55 of them so far, most recently a closeted sergeant in the 85th Airborne, who was dismissed after being outed by an anonymous email campaign. Add to this the reports of other American citizens, such as missionary kids, raised in the field and so effectively native speakers, who fail the Foreign Service background check because . . . wait for it . . . they used to live abroad. (Or, in other cases and very arguably, because they're Jewish.)

Sullivan is right when he asks, "We aren't really serious about winning this war, are we?"

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Cindy Sheehan Moves to Crawford

Actually, she just bought some property there, apparently to help with her ongoing protest against the Iraq morass.

But, y'know, Father Anonymous was in Crawford, Tex., a summer or two back. Went to Mrs A's high-school reunion, which was held in a converted barn next to the Masons. And honestly, as they say in the local dialect, it waren't half bad.

Crawford itself isn't much -- a gas station with a carboard cutout of its most famous citizen, and a gift shop that advertised "rattlesnake eggs and [other] Bush novelties." But the drive is was glorious, through miles of rich, green farmland. Remember that rich green farmland is hard to find in Texas in the summer. A few miles north of town, the two-lane road crossed a little creek that practically begged for some lazy fishing.

If you were going to live in Texas -- a big "if," to be sure -- Crawford strikes me as just the sort of place you might want to consider. (Actually, long story, I did consider it once, courtesy of a call from the local bishop's assistant). Too bad about the neighbors.

"Bill Clinton is Gay"

At least according to Ann Coulter. Who, needless to say, gets crazier and more desperate with every passing day.

Saturday Night Live's fake Chris Matthews once said to its fake Ann Coulter, "Hey, Lockjaw! Zip it! I can smell your soul rotting from here!" (Sometimes life really should imitate art.)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Still More Excellent Way

Father A. wrote a snippy little piece the other day on government sponsorship of social ministries. This is a knotty problem. Some people think it's a great idea, others are suspicious -- and we opined that maybe taking money from Uncle Sam inclined churches to focus on the government's priorities, rather than their own.

But good news, people -- there's a better way. Now you can have your church's activities underwritten by Coca-Cola.

Or Kraft Foods, General Mills, the Bank of America, or Clorox.

All of the above are currently putting up cash for T.D. Jakes' Megafest, starting Wednesday in Atlanta. Some have also thrown a few dollars toward Luis Palau. The Billy Graham and Harvest Ministries people haven't taken any corporate support . . . yet.

We have three thoughts on this. First, does it mean interrupting the Sunday sermon for a word from our sponsor? Or just hanging a tasteful banner over the pulpit?

Second, corporate money certainly isn't any more Satanic than government money. I mean, the government brought us nuclear bombs, pre-emptive war and secret prisons; Kraft just makes macaroni and cheese.

Third, though, is this: When Jesus walked the earth, he had no problem spending time with prostitutes and thieves. And apparently, he still doesn't.

More on JDDJ

Cardinal Kasper and LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko are reported to be "all smiles" regarding Methodist participation in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

Oddly, the Christian Post article treats the whole thing in terms of "reconciliation," "diversity," and "dialogue." All good things, to be sure -- but shouldn't this one really be a straight-up doctrinal matter? The document is written and signed; one now either accepts it or does not. (And the Egg fervently hopes that more Christians will). What is this, the twentieth century?

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Methodists Justified?

(And here we thought they were sanctified. Our mistake.)

Amid the Anglican sturm und drang of recent weeks, a major piece of ecumenical news may have gone unnoticed. The World Methodist Council has entered into serious discussions regarding the possibility of signing onto the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, ratified by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.

The JDDJ is one of the most potentially important agreements in the history of modern church relations. It articulates a shared set of convictions regarding one of the core doctrines of the Reformation -- thus showing light at the end of the schismatic tunnel. While it doesn't end the separation of the churches, not by a long shot, it helps us to believe that unity is possible.

Methodist participation in JDDJ may pose an interesting challenge to Lutherans -- and perhaps to some highly-placed Romanists as well.

Unlike Lutherans and Roman Catholics, Methodists don't have a clearly-delineated set of doctrines. (After all, they are a breakaway Anglican sect, and clear doctrine really isn't the done thing in Canterbury.) Regarding justification, they generally seem to follow James Harmenzoon, or Arminius, the 17th-century Dutch theologian who created a scandal within European Calvinism by emphasizing the ability of human beings to respond to God's grace. To the arch-Augustinianism of the Reformed, this sounded like works righteousness. Arminianism was declared heretical by the Synod of Dort.

Among Anglicans, a form of Arminianism prospered -- with Laud and his collaborators -- which was sometimes regarded as crypto-Romanizing. That's not entirely accurate, but from the position of traditional Protestantism, it makes sense -- "Rome preaches works, so do the Arminians, they must agree with each other."

Lutherans had already experienced a number of similar controversies, mostly under the historical heading of "synergism," or "working together with God." And, like the Reformed, the Lutherans came down more-or-less solidly against the idea. In both cases, St. Augustine was the theological authority.

Anyhoo -- if JDDJ is broad enough to include an Arminian understanding of justification, some wind may be taken out of the Lutherans sails. We've been patting ourselves on the back for getting Rome to agree with us on the articula stantis et cadentis; now it will be obvious that they never did. Quelle surprise.

More interesting, however, will be the reaction within the Vatican itself. Highly placed theologians -- Cardinal Kasper and the Pope come to mind -- are Germans, with an Augustinian orientation. Will a Methodist understanding of JDDJ be entirely welcome to them? Or will it subtly undermine their own positions with regard to some of their compeers? Odds are, we'll never know -- that sort of gossip rarely gets far outside the sanctuary. But let's keep one ear sharp, just in case.

Can't Get No Relief

Seven religious leaders, including the prominent evangelist T.D. Jakes, are leaving the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund. The details are murky, but -- if you read to the closing grafs of the AP story linked above -- it looks as though the Fund is giving money out with a free hand, possibly to churches that don't even exist:

Initially, [said former UNCF president William H. Gray III], the committee assumed it would make around 500 awards, each for $35,000. But as the applications began trickling in, staff members in New Orleans realized there were far fewer applicants than they had initially assumed. That meant they could increase the award amount, and the board agreed in consultation with the co-chairs of the fund that the grant ceiling would be increased to $100,000, Gray said. They also agreed each of the churches or religious institutions receiving the charity’s money would first be inspected, he said.

Numerous disagreements ensued, but Jakes and Gray said the last straw was the fund’s decision to cut checks to 38 houses of worship, each for $35,000, without first conducting an audit to ensure the churches exist.

Imam Abdelhafiz Bensrieti, another committee member who resigned, said the Washington staff wanted the religious leaders to “rubber stamp” their decisions. “They had their agenda and that’s unacceptable,” he said.

More or less at the same time, the
Fund fired its director, Mary Ann Wyrsch. Can't imagine why.

Now, old Father Anonymous has two reactions. The first is sheer jealousy -- "damn, I woulda liked to get some of that free money." But once the old Adam in me is conquered, if only momentarily, the second reaction sets in: painful familiarity.

See, back in the 70s and 80s, there was a school of urban ministry that labored mightily to attract government money earmarked for inner-city neighborhood redevelopment. Since (in those pre-Bush days) the money couldn't go directly to a parish, churches set up non-profit shell corporations to do their social ministry. This was all quite legal, and in theory it was a pretty good way to stabilize declining neighborhoods. Sometimes, I'm sure, it did not lead to corruption.

However, Father A. experienced the after-effects of this strategy during his early South Bronx ministry, in the 1990s. Here's what he saw: churches crippled by financial dependence on a government dole; churches (and their shell organizations) cynically pursuing the newest trends in government handouts, rather than articulating a consistent vision for mission; and a Sierra-Madre level of brutal infighting between the greedy incompetents who were running both the congregations and their non-profit shells.

My guess? Jakes saw this too, in his 30 years of ministry. And so did Gray. And they warned Wyrsch about the danger, and she blew them off, because she was answering to the current Washington fashion, that overestimates the viability of using "faith-based non-profits" to replace government, and doing so with a minimum -- or less! -- of government supervision.

Jakes is no joker, and Gray is no thief; but I'll bet they were thinking of
Dylan's Watchtower when they turned to each other and said, in effect, "There must be some way out of here ... there's too much confusion, I can't get no relief."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Outing Cardinal Egan

File this under "ministry suicide": a priest in the New York archdiocese has filed suit, alleging that Cardinal Egan is soft on abusive priests, not because of a generalized "culture of secrecy," but because Cardinal Egan himself is gay, and doesn't want to break up the network.

To his credit, Father Bob Hoatson has apparently done some pretty solid work with abuse victims, as they have begun to come forward. And the Voice article linked above does make it sound as though he has been roughed up a little by the institution he has, inevitably, had to criticize.

But there are a few red flags here, too: Hoatson is, by his own description, a man on a mission -- and men on missions are frequently blinded by their enthusiasm. He also says he's an abuse victim himself, which raises issues about his ability to remain objective when evaluating the stories he must hear. And Hoatson's lawyer has already filed a suit with similar allegations against the Bishop of Albany, who authorized an outside investigation that cleared him. Finally, you have to wonder about people who file a case making dramatic allegations like this, when there is essentially no chance of proving their claims. Even an outsider can guarantee that no credible witnesses will trstify against Egan.

Still, let's assume the worst case: Hoatson is a fanatic, his lawyer is a publicity-hound, nobody testifies, the case falls apart before it ever gets to court. Even if all this is true, it doesn't -- necessarily -- mean that the claims are false. Sometimes you run out into the highway, screaming about the pod people, even though you know that they won't believe you. Not because you think you'll succeed, but because it's your duty as a human being.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Get Your Girl On

New Hummer H3 ad goes like this:

Soccer Mom and son waiting on line; second kid jumps line; Soccer Mom says, "Johnny was next," and line-jumper's mom responds, a la schoolyard bully, "Now my son is next."

So Soccer Mom goes out, buys a big-ass SUV, and drives around smiling and feeling powerful, with little Johnny strapped in beside her. The closing tagline is "Get Your Girl On."

What does this ad tell us? Hmm. That some kids are bullies, and so are their moms -- but we already knew that. That SUVs are bascially chickmobiles -- we knew that, too, ever since Marge Simpson got her Canonero. But mostly, it tells us that we can drop even the pretense that luxury trucks are a hairy-chested he-man thing. Hummer doesn't even bother with that, and why should they? Nobody believed it anyway.

Watching the ad, I wanted nothing more than to run out and buy the smallest, most sensible car I could find -- a Prius, a SmartCar, anything -- just to prove that I wasn't an insecure, bullying, Hummer-driving woman. (Okay, I did allow that a sporty little 60s roadster would do the job -- something in an MG-B or a Karmann Ghia.) I wanted to shout, "I'm a man, dammit -- and I'm secure enough in my mascilinity to drive a small car."

And as for Arnold "Hummer-Enthusiast" Schwarzenegger, we ask: Who's the girly-man now, Arnie?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Click This Link. Just Click It, Okay?

A reader (yay! We have one) sent a very thoughtful note, and a link to her own website. She sews custom-made vestments and paraments. And lemme tell ya, friends, that's a real blessing!

As some of you know, Father Anonymous represents the Lollipop Guild -- which is to say, he's something of a Munchkin. Even CM Almy's "small" chasuble drapes like a bedsheet. I have been known to trip over the ends of my stole now and then. Seriously.

(Which is why I gave up on those darn fringes. They just rip right off when you step on 'em).

So hats off to Lynn at
Ichthys Designs for her elegant -- and largely fringless -- modern liturgical stylings.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mag Dogs and Englishmen . . .

. . . are getting harder to tell apart.

The infighting of the Anglican Communion becomes more rabid every time we check our email. Egg readers (btw: are there any?) already know that the decade-long struggle over sexuality was not resolved by the Episcopal Church's recent General Convention. Episcopalians had been invited to express regret for elevating Gene Robinson to the episcopate; they declined to do so, and their election of a female presiding bishop was seen in some corners as further provocation of, or at least a snub to, conservatives worldwide.

After the convention, the Archbishop of Canterbury proposed that the Anglican Communion adopt a two-tier structure, in which one tier (read, full members) took the conservative view of homosexuality, and a second (read, Americans and Canadians) took the liberal view. The first tier would be the Communion properly so-called; the second tier would consist of churches with historical connections to Anglicanism, rather like the Methodists. [Which raises a side question: Would Methodists be invited into this club? For that matter, why aren't they already Communion members?]

We'll say it again: Alas, poor Rowan Williams . . . a fellow of infinite jest and most excellent fancy.

The problem, of course, is that it isn't a communion if the members aren't in, well, communion with each other. And at this point, the US/Canada and Global South provinces pretty definitively out of communion. The schism is here, people, in all but name.

The only real question is whether the Church of England can continue to moderate between them, creating the possibility that the schism may eventually be ended -- or whether, as some signs suggest, the C of E will itself be torn apart, into warring camps with overlapping episcopal jurisdictions.

Where's that Elizabeth and her settlement when they need her?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The Cult of Chairman W.

Harrowing Independence Day piece by Andrew Sullivan. Read it yourself -- here are some teaser quotes:

I do not believe that this president has ever acknowledged his own responsibility for the atrocities committed by Americans on his watch and under his command. He simply cannot process the fact that his own hand provided the signature that allowed torture to spread like a cancer through the military and CIA. ...

It is, I think, an integral part of his own world view, which is that of a former addict whose life was transformed by a rigid form of fundamentalist Christianity. “[My faith] frees me to enjoy life and not worry what comes next,” he told the reporter Fred Barnes. When you know you have been saved, when you know your motives are pure, when, as Bush so often puts it, your “heart” is a good one, then it follows that you cannot commit evil. Or if you do, it doesn’t attach to you. Somehow, it isn’t yours, even when it is.

In this sense fundamentalist Christianity can enable evil by promoting the lie that some humans have been saved from it. It misses the deeper Christian truth that even good people can do bad things. It forgets that what is noble about America is not that Americans are somehow morally better than anyone else. But that it is a country with a democratic system that helps expose the constancy of human evil, and minimise its power through the rule of law . . .

But here's the thing to which we would draw your attention: a sidebar provided by Religion News Blog, a cult-awareness website. RNB doesn't say who wrote this; it's not Sullivan's style. But it's worth quoting in its entirety:

While George Bush claims to be a Christian, his behavior is not unlike that of a cult leader. He apparently believes he is above the law, expects that people believe his lies (e.g. Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, or insisting the US does not use torture), and punishes those who express dissenting opinions. He preaches and promotes human rights violations (e.g. Guantanamo), all the while claiming that his actions are of great benefit to mankind. He is a warmonger abroad, and a power-grabber at home. No wonder many people currently view the US as a "bigger threat to world peace than Iran's nuclear program."

Least Probable Headline Ever

"Anglican Communion to Restore Nigeria's Glory."

Where to begin? Shall we begin with the concept of "Nigeria's lost glory?" Or go straight to Archbishop Akinola's contempt for both human rights and the position of his communion with regard to those rights? O shall we ... oh, never mind. You get the idea.