Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Plague Year

"... [T]he plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again."

This is from the beginning of Defoe's classic account of an early-modern epidemic.  Does it sound familiar?  He opens with the sort of conversation people always seem to have in the face of a new and frightening disease:  Where did it come from?

In the 1980s, when AIDS was new, fingers pointed first at Haiti, then at Africa.  With Mad-Cow, they were pointed at Britain and the US.  A few years ago, the media made it seem as though the bird flu sweeping west from China would mark the end of civilization.   Today, as both Americans and Europeans begin their swine-flu panic, the fingers point at Mexico.

The finger-pointing is not entirely without purpose.  Scientists who study the origins of a disease may be better able to cure it.  Certainly, there are countries whose agricultural practices seem likely to create sanitary disasters, and they (okay, we, since the US is a primary offender) deserve public censure.  But little of this has much to do with the average non-lab-coated citizen.  For most of us, identifying a putative national origin for every disease serves principally as a way of distancing our own nation from it, and attaching blame to some other. It is a way of saying, in only slightly veiled language, "We aren't dirty -- they are dirty."  It is a reaction steeped in the water of racism and nationalism.

So we'll call A (H1N1) swine flu, rather than Mexican flu, thanks very much.

But that's not what's really on our mind this evening.  Rather, this, as summarized by the WaPo religion blog:

The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention ... has reissued Pandemic Flu Preparedness Guidelines, including the possibility of limiting mass gatherings: "This may include canceling Sunday services, weekday events at the church, weddings, and funerals."

"Limiting Mass -- sorry, we meant mass -- gatherings?"  Brrr.  This is especially shocking when we consider how Christians responded to Defoe's plague.  At least among "the serious people," he says that:

The Government encouraged their devotion, and appointed public prayers and days of fasting and humiliation, to make public confession of sin and implore the mercy of God to avert the dreadful judgement which hung over their heads ...

Okay; that probably won't fly in a secular nation, at least during a Democratic administration.  But we might still hope for this:

[the] alacrity [with which] the people of all persuasions embraced the occasion; how they flocked to the churches and meetings, and they were all so thronged that there was often no coming near, no, not to the very doors of the largest churches. Also there were daily prayers appointed morning and evening at several churches, and days of private praying at other places; at all which the people attended, I say, with an uncommon devotion. 

Instead, people seem to be making plans to cut back on church attendance, or to bowdlerize their rites:

Methodist churches in Texas are changing the way they do communion, ordering shipments of individually wrapped communion wafers and juice packets to be used instead of passing the same loaf of bread of a common cup.

And okay, we all know the Methodists were just waiting for an excuse.  But Roman Catholic bishops in several dioceses have asked priests to stop distributing wine to the laity at Communion.   (Actually, they may have been waiting for an excuse as well).  The North American Old Catholic Church has prohibited its parishes and ministers from "physically exchanging the sign of peace by shaking hands, hugging, or other bodily contact," as well as from allowing laypeople to hold the chalice or to receive by intinction.

Let it be said that none of these reactions (except for the Baptists') is entirely unreasonable.  The flu is serious business, especially a new strain for which the health establishment is unprepared.  It's not hard to catch, and it can be devastating.  So keeping your hands off each other, and skipping the chalice for a few weeks, may be the better part of parochial valor.

On the other hand, ideas that are sound in a crisis may become absurd when they become institutionalized afterward.  Germ theory developed quickly during the second half of the nineteenth century, and with it came the ruinous idea that churches ought to begin distributing communion in shot glasses instead of a shared chalice.  after all, science said the common cup could make you sick.  (Better science might have observed that, over the previous eighteen centuries, mortality rates among regular communicants had never been noticeably higher than those among pagans or Deists).

But those stupid little glasses began to catch on, albeit slowly.  There were alternatives, to be sure.  Catering to those who wanted the chalice but not the risk, an Episcopalian came up with a swank little eucharistic straw, made of silver by Tiffany, with a one-way valve.  The idea was to bring your own to church, in its velvet bag -- we're not making this up; it was in the Times -- and sip from the cup.   The Orthodox spoon made a comeback, and the pouring chalice was developed. 

Another idea, even more profoundly stupid, also began to take hold:  auto-intinction.  In intinction properly so-called, as readers are surely aware, the celebrant dips the host and places it into the communicant's mouth.  Assuming a scrupulously well-washed celebrant, this is a  pretty sanitary way of doing things, at least for a few minutes.  eventually, you will get some saliva on your hand.   Nine people in a row will present their tongues extended, but the tenth will lick you like a puppy. (Trust us; we do it a lot).  But auto-intinction is worse:  people take the bread into their own hands, and dip it into the chalice.  And sooner or later, some of those hands -- comparatively few of them washed, some of them cracked and flaking skin -- will graze the wine, or the rim, or both.  Or maybe not so much "graze" and plunge into, up to the knuckles, fishing around for a dropped wafer or a chunk of bread that fell apart.  Trust us, it isn't pretty.  Auto-intinction, although often favored by the germ-o-phobes, is widely reported to be the least sanitary way ever devised to share a meal.

Lutherans (along with Papists and Episcopalians) resisted these innovations.  The faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia issued a strongly-worded statement on the theological weaknesses of individual cups.  But they lost, and although it may not have been decisive, we expect the 1918 "Spanish" flu helped sway the debate.  (St. Bartholomew's, a prominent PECUSA parish in Manhattan, proudly withdrew the cup from the laity during the pandemic, and later proposed that their practice be made general.)

For some pastors now in their 50s and 60s, it has been a life's work simply to make communion, externally, what it had been through most of Christian history: a weekly celebration, in which a cup of wine and pieces of some bread-like substance are distributed to the faithful.  One wouldn't want to see that work undone by this year's flu, or by any other transitory scare.

And people are scared, which leads them to say and do stupid things.  Consider the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which (per the Houston Chronicle)

... issued an advisory earlier this week suggesting clergy explain to parishioners how to decline the communion cup. The letter also said parishioners can intinct, dipping bread in the wine and then eating it.

That's right.  As a possible pandemic ramps up, these dimwits advised people to take the least sanitary option known.

So.  We're not telling anyone what to do.  These are difficult decisions, and there are legitimate arguments on most sides (not auto-intinction.  No legitimate argument there.)  But we are begging our friends and colleagues not to do anything in a panic that they or their posterity will have decades to regret.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Absolutely No God

A.N. Wilson converted to atheism, and it was exhilarating, like joining the top fraternity:

If I bumped into Richard Dawkins (an old colleague from Oxford days) or had dinner in Washington with Christopher Hitchens (as I did either on that trip to interview Billy Graham or another), I did not have to feel out on a limb. Hitchens was excited to greet a new convert to his non-creed and put me through a catechism before uncorking some stupendous claret.

“So – absolutely no God?”

“Nope,” I was able to say with Moonie-zeal.

“No future life, nothing ‘out there’?”

“No,” I obediently replied. At last! I could join in the creed shared by so many (most?) of my intelligent contemporaries in the western world – that men and women are purely material beings (whatever that is supposed to mean), that “this is all there is” (ditto), that God, Jesus and religion are a load of baloney: and worse than that, the cause of much (no, come on, let yourself go), most (why stint yourself – go for it, man), all the trouble in the world, from Jerusalem to Belfast, from Washington to Islamabad.

Frankly, we know what he's saying. We've been there, and it was great. Not only do you get to feel intellectually superior, but you can do anything you want, and you save a fortune on tithes.

And yet, as Wilson tells his own story in an excellent New Statesman article, "my doubting temperament ... made me a very unconvincing atheist." He had to keep reading David Hume "to pull myself together, rather as a Catholic having doubts might return to the shrine of a particular saint to sustain them while the springs of faith ran dry."

Ultimately, he came so see that religion "was not a matter of argument alone. It involves the whole person. Therefore I was drawn, over and over again, to the disconcerting recognition that so very many of the people I had most admired and loved, either in life or in books, had been believers. ... Attractive and amusing as David Hume was, did he confront the complexities of human existence as deeply as his contemporary Samuel Johnson, and did I really find him as interesting?"

There's much more to this brief but excellent essay, but this particular idea strikes home for us. In Wilson's case, it was Gandhi and Johnson and Coleridge; in ours, George Herbert and John Donne. And of course a few people we actually met in the flesh over the years. But the idea is the same, and important: that the testimony of the saints is a precious treasure, because -- in a way that polemics and apologetics cannot -- it shows forth the beauty of holiness.

Sitting It Out

Faithful readers may have noticed that the Egg has little to say about the ELCA's proposed social  statement on human sexuality, nor about the recommendations regarding rules for rostering gay priests. (Click above for the official docs). 

This may seem like an odd oversight.  After all, the masthead does say "sex, religion and politics."  Surely the proposed statement qualifies on all counts?  And indeed it does.  And yet we have written little, and do not imagine ourselves writing much.

Our reasons are various. We are pressed for time -- there are sick people and newborns and people struggling with their faith, all of whom need our attention; the gorgeous pile of neo-Gothic stone at which we serve is waiting for its Abbe Suger, and until he arrives we are on the spot for some restoration work.  Oh, and we're relocating the pressroom to Romania, so we spend part of every day tramping the docks, asking the steamship lines what they will charge to ship our collection of incunabula.

Another is that, although we are not displeased by the general direction that the church seems to be heading, we have grave doubts about the means by which it is heading there.  As we have said before, neither the ELCA task force nor, so far as we can see, any of its naysayers are prepared to articulate what we consider a truly traditional theology of sex.  

There is a long Protestant tradition which, to oversimplify a bit, gives marriage a uniquely privileged place among human relationships, making it -- in the most extreme readings -- the most perfect expression of the divine will revealed in the Creation.  (Such, in fact, is the clear understanding of a colleague whose memoir, entitled "Why I Complain About the ELCA But Look Forward to Collecting My Pension," is currently circulating in manuscript.)  It seems to us that much of the hoo-hah regarding marriage is carried on between two parties which are equally sold on this idea, and whose argument is simply on whether the "marriage" in question is necessarily between people of opposite sexes.

But it has long seemed to us that Protestantism missed the bus on this one.  In its mad scramble to break up the monasteries, it failed to take seriously the theological insights which had created them.  Specifically, it failed to deal with the Biblical texts which in fact do raise up celibacy as the most desirable use of human sexuality. (Saying casually, "Well, that was because of an over-optimistic eschatology" doesn't really deal with the canon, so much as dismiss it).  And, perhaps more important, it failed to deal with Augustine's existential insight that sexual desire exercises an unique power over the human will, and is unparalleled in its capacity to distract the will from God -- thus making it an icon less of the Creation than of the Fall.

Parenthetically, we find Camille Paglia shrill and tiresome, not to mention dated, but we nonetheless recognize that is onto something important when she talks about sex as inherently dangerous, an Apollonian force which will inevitably disrupt any Dionysian utopia.  We only wish that more readers understood (as she surely does) that she cribs this stuff from the Church Fathers.

So we haven't said much about the proposed statement because we aren't wild about some of its premises, and yet we are reluctant top criticize for fear of comforting the Protestant (or, worse yet, soi-disant-Catholic) ideologues who argue from premises no less flawed. 

And, of course, we haven't read the final draft.  Oops.  But if readers have, and want to tell us why we're full of copros hippou, the "comments" are open.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Those Were The Days

Gary Trudeau dug this one up:

"Torture anywhere is an affront to human dignity everywhere... I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture."

-- George W. Bush, June 2003

Buy One For That "Special" Colleague

After all, synod assemblies are coming up.

(Weirdly enough, we found this on a self-proclaimed Gnostic website.  On the subject of theologies lacking a little in the depth department ....)

It's a Bit Awkward

... but somebody needs to say this.

We at the Egg have recently read about the arrest of a colleague, and incidentally a friend.  (We won't link to any articles or give any names, although intrepid Googlers will no doubt learn the details quickly enough.)  Our friend has been accused of getting drunk at a party, dancing suggestively with a woman who was not his wife -- even when she asked him to stop -- and later of touching her inappropriately.

It isn't exactly rent boys and crystal meth, a la Ted Haggard, but it is a scandal.  The congregation is divided between those who see an innocent, if humiliating, mistake, and those who see a serious violation of the man's pastoral duties.  The court has not yet decided what exactly it sees.  As we understand it, absent a court decision, the synod has limited authority to intervene.

For the record, our friend is a pleasant, thoughtful man of middle years, who has long supplemented his parish work by serving a chaplain in the military reserve.  Like many reservists in recent years, this has involved a surprisingly long overseas deployment, which can be draining on both family and parish life.  We honor him for his willingness to answer the call.

Now, scandals involving the 250 or so Lutheran pastors in these minor outlying islands are not rare, but neither are they common.  Generally speaking, we live pretty respectable lives, marred now and then by the same things that mar everybody else's -- booze, adultery, bizarre lapses in judgment.  (Occasionally, we do fall into a second category of misdeed, defined by ludicrous assertions of incompetent theology, but these rarely seem to attract any interest outside our own small number.)  Scandals that actually make the newspapers, as our poor drunken friend's did, are quite rare.  

The last one we can recall, several years ago now, involved another friend, who in addition to serving a parish was also a school teacher and -- come to think of it -- a chaplain in the military reserve.  In fact, the scandal involved submitting false military orders to the school district so that he could get some extra continuing-education time.  (Because of our great love and respect for this fellow, we were terribly disappointed at the time, but we do recall thinking "At least it wasn't about sex.")

So.  Why are we airing all this dirty laundry?  Because we want to make an observation, in support of a pet thesis, a thesis of which our many indulgent friends are no doubt already tired.  We apologize for the redundancy.

Observation:  Both pastors -- the most recent newspaper-worthy scandals in our synod -- are men of middle age.  (Women are rarely the subject -- although often the object -- of an ecclesiastical scandal).  Both are military chaplains. (Our late grandfather once observed that the skills required by the military don't match well with those required by parish ministry, and we believe this to be the case).  And -- here's our main point -- both were raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, educated at Seminex, and ordained in the AELC.  It was by far the smallest of the ELCA's predecessor bodies, but, as James Nestingen has observed, seems to account for a disproportionate number of its misconduct cases

Thesis:  There was something in the Missouri water, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Something dangerous, of which the rest of us might do well to beware.  Not that we don't love our ex-AELC colleagues.  But we're just saying.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

While We're Away

The Egg will be offline for a week for so, while Father, Mother and Baby Anonymous are in Romania, hunting the vampires who have supposedly been driven from the halls of Boston Latin.  We are taking pectoral crosses aplenty.

Meanwhile, here are some things we might be reading, were we in town to do so, and which Egg readers may enjoy:

Good News, Bad News

The good news (lower case, here people; nothing theological intended):  Christian Moerlein still exists.

For those who've never had the pleasure, Moerlein is a Cincinnati-brewed beer.  Something a of a local legend.  Time was, Father A. drank a fair amount of it.  Just typing the name still brings back some happy memories, many of them actually beer-related.  We remember it being rich and creamy, but without the heaviness (or bitterness) of a dark beer or porter.  (And for the record, we mostly drank dark German beers in those days, and porter or black-and-tans in these).

But the poor little cleric tries not to travel west of Newark, and hadn't heard a whisper about Moerlein in decades.  In time, he assumed it had closed up shop, a victim of the wretched Buds and Coorses of the world.  So a great huzzah to know the company is going strong.

Now here's the (potentially) bad news:  

The German-American Citizens League of Greater Cincinnati will host a ceremonial keg tapping of a reformulated Moerlein Lager House beer on May 15 at Germania Park. All proceeds benefit the German-American Citizens League and Germania Society.

Reformulated?  Wtf, people?  You don't reformulate a classic.  Just ask Coca-Cola.  And yes, Lager House is their flagship, advertised as "the first American beer to pass the Reinhetisgebot Purity Law."  (They mean "comply with," but give them a break.  It was late, and they had probably already started sampling the wares).

Hmm.  We are gravely concerned, but will await the verdict from some kindly Ohio reader.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lawrence Summers Beats Children

How's that for sensationalism?

We just wanted to get your attention, because we have learned something pretty disturbing.  Child abuse cases are spiking as the recession worsens.

Per Reuters:

"In the last three months we have twice as many severe inflicted injury cases as we did in the three months the previous year," said Allison Scobie, program director of the Child Protection Team at Boston's Children's Hospital.

Typically, her hospital handles about 1,500 such cases a year. That rose to 1,800 last year.

"We're finding that it is directly attributable to what is happening economically," she said. "Many of the hospitals around here report an increase of 20 to 30 percent of requests for consultation regarding suspected child maltreatment."

The article tries, but doesn't quite manage, to establish a direct link between economic hardship and actual assault.  

For instance:  A poor mother had to leave her diabetic child alone during the day, and couldn't afford the co-payments for his treatment.  Okay, this is bad for the child, and the state probably has a duty to intervene.  But this certainly isn't one of those cases where a parent brutalizes the kid out of meanness, drunkenness or impatience.  Poverty didn't make her a bad mother, but it did reduce her options pretty severely.

Even without a direct link, though, there certainly does seem to be a statistical correlation, and it is grim.  Whether because of the recession or not, more children are being brutalized:

"We saw a huge influx of shaken-baby cases," said Dr. Alice Newton, medical director at Massachusetts General Hospital's Child Protection Team, which treated 25 children for serious abuse this year. That compares with 16 for all of 2008.

We don't doubt that hard times do play a role here.  But so, of course, do a dozen other factors:  the decline of the extended family (which we sometimes consider even more important than the nuclear one, and which is far more endangered); the historic underfunding of child protection agencies; Satan.

Still.  Even if it is not a result of the investment banks and their mortgage-backed securities, and therefore traceable to the failed economic policies of both the Clinton and Bush administrations (pursued, in the latter case, by some of the same people now working for Obama, Summers notable among them), this surge in child abuse needs to be publicized and stopped, fast.  If drawing connections to other things -- politics, the economy -- helps make people talk about the subject, then so be it.

Department of No Surprise: Even Toothless Dogs Bite

Kirsten Gillibrand is the New York state senator chosen to replace Hillary Clinton in the US Senate.  Jim Murphy is the name of the fellow who was recently elected to replace her, over a Republican named Jim Tedisco.  

But the Albany Times-Union reports:

This just in from Columbia County: when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s absentee ballot came up in the queue, the poll watchers for Jim Tedisco objected to it, saying the senator was in the county on election day and should have voted in person.

Senator Gillibrand's response gives this claim the drubbing it deserves:  

"The Republican's challenge is frivolous and without merit. This is part of their larger attempt to disenfranchise legal Democratic voters and delay the inevitable Democratic victory in the 20th." ...

NYS election law says that an elector must intend to be out of the COUNTY on Election Day when the elector submits the absentee ballot or requests the application. Senator Gillibrand requested and completed an absentee ballot because she did not expect to be able to vote at her polling location since votes were scheduled in the Senate that day. Furthermore, Republican claims that she was in the county are false. She was not in Columbia County on Election Day.

Although we may (or may not) be experts on piracy, we at the egg are certainly not experts on Empire State election laws. But it sounds to us as though Tedisco's people are liars and imbeciles.

The Callous Sophisticates Laughed at Judy's Little Head

And at Susan Boyle, a 48-year-old Scottish spinster who had never sung before anything larger than a village church.  She appeared on "Britain's Got Talent," saying she wanted to be like professional singer we'd never heard of.  

They laughed.

Until the third or fourth note, when their faces broke into stunned smiles, and then simply smiles, and later a few tears.  Four days later, she is almost certainly more famous than that singer she wanted to be like.

Watch the clip.  And smile.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hot-Blooded Latins

Fernando Lugo is the president of Paraguay.  He was also, until recently, a Roman Catholic bishop.  He is also a liar and a fornicator.  The good news is that the Vatican has -- finally -- agreed to let him stop being a priest.

Per the Times, above, Lugo stopped working as a priest in 2006, when he began seeking elective office, and he petitioned for laicization.  This petition was rejected at first, and finally approved in July 2008 -- three months after Lugo was elected to the presidency.

Meanwhile, he is the father of a boy who turns two in May.  The child was conceived after the petition for laicization was submitted, but before it was approved.  This isn't quite as scandalous as it would have been had it all happened while Lugo was still serving, to be sure.  But it does raise some questions both about Lugo, 57, and his 26-year-old paramour.  How long had they been involved sexually before conceiving a child?  Will he marry her?  (We are tempted to ask why the bishop didn't use birth control, but perhaps he still wanted to follow some of the rules.)  

What concerns us most, however, is that the child's mother had to take Lugo to court, beginning proceedings which would have required him to submit to a DNA test, before he came clean.  To leave your ministry is one thing, and in this case arguably a good one for Lugo to have done.  But to abandon your child and his mother is another thing altogether.  It is, bluntly, a very serious moral failure, and raises questions about President Lugo's fitness for office..

Monday, April 13, 2009

40 Days Too Late

True story, per the AP:

PELHAM, N.H. — Police in southern New Hampshire are searching for a burglar who says he's sorry.

Pelham police say a resident who pulled into his driveway Friday afternoon caught a burglar coming out of the house with jewelry boxes and electronic items. The homeowner told police that when he approached the burglar, the man apologized, then put the stolen goods back.

Police say the homeowner tried to detain the burglar by engaging him in conversation, but the suspect fled by the time officers arrived.

Where was this guy when we were writing all those Lenten sermons?

America is a Superpower Again!

You can tell, because we killed a couple of Somali teenagers on Easter Sunday.

Okay, look.  We at the Egg are as ticked off as anybody at this piracy business.  And we are as proud as any Americans at the sheer grit displayed by the crew of the Maersk Alabama, unarmed men who resisted an attack by AK-47 wielding thugs.  We are deeply moved by the heroism of Captain Richard Phillips, who traded himself for the safety of his crew.

And, yes, we are quite pleased with the outcome of the resulting standoff.  Navy SEAL snipers saw their shot and took it, killing three pirates and rescuing Phillips.  Had we been in command, we would have authorized them to do so in no uncertain terms. Had we been where the snipers were, we would not have hesitated.  They are heroes.

But with all that said, we can't resist a touch of bitterness.  The Times article describes this particular standoff as "tragicomic: the world’s most powerful navy vs. a lifeboat."  The WaPo says that the fourth pirate, who had gone aboard a US ship for medical treatment, was "18-20 years old."  Given the opposition, this sort of thing should be so easy for us that nobody ever tries it twice -- and yet you know that somebody will.  They may even be more eager to try, since the pirates who eventually succeed in publicly humiliating America will be overnight folk heroes.  

And we face the humiliation built into any asymmetrical warfare, which this most certainly is:  simply by defending itself against an obviously frail opponent, a massive military power looks like a bully.  It's the main reason that terrorism works.  They can't really intimidate us, but they can make us look really bad to the rest of the world.  (Come to think of it, that's probably what made Gandhi so effective, too.)

Our main concern, though, is about the big picture.  Military efforts, even if they were to be coordinated among nations with serious navies, won't solve the piracy problem, which is rooted in the political chaos and legal vacuum onshore.  And those are not the sort of problems our government has shown any expertise at resolving.

On the other hand, we have David Petraeus, and his very solid counterinsurgency tactics, which emphasize co-opting the locals whenever possible.  It seems to have worked -- somewhat -- in Iraq, and the principles are surely impressive.  

Having once vacationed in the Bahamas, we at the Egg are -- obviously -- experts on piracy.  And so our advice to the US military is to find a Henry Morgan.  (Not Harry Morgan, the guy who played Col. Potter on M*A*S*H; Henry Morgan.  He's more than just a spiced-rum salesman.)  You know, some pirate who can be bought off, and turned into a regional warlord, but whose power will come from the US, with the clear understanding that if he can't control the pirates, he loses everything.  

Alleluia! Surrexit Christus!

Surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia!.

We at the Egg are completely wiped out after the usual grueling Holy Week. But we are grateful to our worship leaders, choir, organist, and to all the faithful, who turned out to hear the great good news. Happy Easter, world.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Eighteen Percent Pension Contribution Wasn't Good Enough

... for Fr. William Blasingame, of Staten Island, who is accused of stealing something like $85k from his church, and blowing it on "fancy clothes, plastic surgery, Botox and booze," as well as more mundane stuff like car insurance.  He is also accused of pocketing money given him for an old woman's headstone.

A kick-boxing cleric who will not be nicknamed for fear of retribution pointed this out to us, and observed that Episcopalians even commit ludicrous crimes with a certain elan. She mentioned the orgies on Long Island some years back, although -- according to the settlement agreement with Penthouse -- those were fabricated stories. Nor do we know whether Blasingame is guilty, or the victim of some terrible misunderstanding.

But, seriously -- Botox?

Calvinism: Still Not Dead

This being Good Friday and all, the Egg pressroom is a spare and desolate place.  The staff is out, contemplating the death and sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Which reminds us of Calvinism.

The connection is indirect.  Many years ago, in a cheap hotel room in a developing country, Father Anonymous, then known as Seminarian Anonymous, found himself arguing with a Calvinist.  It was a wide-ranging argument, and dwelt mostly on the subject of whether children ought to worship with adults or in segregated ecclesiolae, little "children's churches."  (Our friend liked this idea, and insisted that letting kids worship with adults was "a ritual."  We agreed, and thought that rather proved our point, but he kept repeating himself.  It was a very confusing conversation, until an Episcopal interlocutor leaned over and whispered in our ear, "Remember, ritual is bad.")

Anyway, at some point in the conversation, our Calvinist friend mentioned the crucifix, and snarled, "Is Christ dead or is he risen?  Is he at the right hand of the Father, or is he still on the Cross?   Then why do you leave him hanging there?"  And we were reminded that, although Lutherans and Calvinists share a firm commitment both to the reality of Christ's Passion and the reality of Christ's Resurrection, the manner of our devotions is often very different.

All of which is meant to preface yet another report from the front lines of American Christianity.  According to the mainstream media, Calvinism isn't actually defunct.  It has (in the emerging, and unfathomable, media narrative) risen from the dead.

According to David van Biema in Time magazine (linked above), the "new Calvinism" (also "neo-Calvinism") is one of the "ten big ideas changing the world right now."   By this, they apparently mean "Calvinism as preached outside the traditionally Calvinist denominations.  

Here is the gist of van Biema's story:

Calvinism ... is a bit less dour than its critics claim: it offers a rock-steady deity who orchestrates absolutely everything, including illness (or home foreclosure!), by a logic we may not understand but don't have to second-guess. Our satisfaction — and our purpose — is fulfilled simply by "glorifying" him.  [In America, it was] overtaken in the U.S. by movements like Methodism that were more impressed with human will. Calvinist-descended liberal bodies like the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) discovered other emphases, while Evangelicalism's loss of appetite for rigid doctrine — and the triumph of that friendly, fuzzy Jesus — seemed to relegate hard-core Reformed preaching (Reformed operates as a loose synonym for Calvinist) to a few crotchety Southern churches.

There is some truth to all this:  the lure of semipelagianism is strong, and works-righteousness is everywhere in our culture.  The rise of the "Buddy Jesus" has been strange to see. But the main current is hogwash.  Van Biema may overstate the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which is principally about the fate of souls, not of mortgages.  And his distinction between "liberalism" and "hard-core Calvinism" is just irritating.  The two aren't mutually exclusive.  It's like saying "all the Eskimo-descended people have turned into lawyers, so they aren't Eskimos anymore."  It means nothing, and would mean nothing even if it happened to be true.

Attentive readers will recall our amusement some months back, at a Times profile of Mark Driscoll, which promoted the same idea -- that old-style Reformed Christianity has long been a thing of the past, and is only now making a comeback from the pulpit of a young punk evangelist spitting in the face of his Arminian elders.  The brief Time piece adds to Driscoll's name those of John Piper and, notably, Southern Baptist leader Alfred Mohler.  (Mohler tickled us pink by saying that "The moment someone begins to define God's [being or actions] biblically, that person is drawn to conclusions that are traditionally classified as Calvinist."  Really?  So can we assume that he will begin preaching infant baptism, as prescribed by Calvin's Institutes, 4:16:7ff?).

The press does love its metanarratives.  But this one is sort of lame, and we hope they'll let it drop.  Calvinism hasn't risen from the dead; it has been doing just fine for five centuries, thank you.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

No Vampires at Boston Latin

Despite what you may have heard.

Oh, we've all stumbled across the rumors: a clan of the evil undead, residing in the crypt of a presigious prep school, emerging at night to suck the blood of Brahmin and Back-bayer alike. But headmaster Lynne Moon Teta assures us that there are no vampires in her school.

We assume that she has driven stakes through their hearts and decapitated them. Or at least planted garlic on the commons.

"Conservatism" That Makes Your Head Spin

This sounds important, at first:

Pope Benedict XVI has ordered a probe into the ultra-conservative Legionaries of Christ after allegations that the order's late founder Marcial Maciel secretly fathered a child, the Zenit agency reported.

A team of bishops and priests will carry out the inquiry into the movement after reports that Maciel, who died in January 2008 aged 87, had fathered a daughter, the agency reported. ... At stake in the investigation is the significant estate that Maciel left behind, which his daughter could have a claim to.

Oooh. Bad priest! Then we remember that there have been reports for years that he sexually abused seminarians. And suddenly, the secret family seems almost innocent. We wonder if any of those guys will get a share of the estate?

Robots Are Stealing American Jobs

Build a wall on the border of MIT!

Police Fire Teargas at Squabbling Anglicans

It's about damn time, too.

Seven people were arrested and one injury was reported when the police used gas to end a number of different fights between Anglicans, all over the control of church properties.  Two rival provinces, one newly formed by a retired bishop, are at war with each other.  Homosexuality is the underlying casus belli.  And when we say "at war," it is scarcely a metaphor.  Teargas, people.

All this happened in Zimbabwe.  But just wait.

Just Say "No" to the Naysayers

Pastor Joelle writes:

I'm really tired of the ELCA bashing. Someone recently said on a public forum that he was embarrassed to be a member of the ELCA. That really pissed me off. I wanted to ask why he doesn't leave. Why doesn't he leave? Because there's no where else to go. He's not going to swim the Tiber. Missouri won't have him because he supports women in ministry and doesn't believe the world was created in seven 24 hour days. So he's stuck with us. And instead of being grateful there is a church that puts up with his constant public whining and put downs, he constantly bashes the ELCA in the name of wanting to reform it. ...

We're right there with you, sister. And then she makes an even more important point:

It's not that I'm uncritical of everything the ELCA does. I have some critiques. But I am reluctant nowadays to be open about them because they will be jumped on: "AH HA! See -- even you agree ...."

Click up top for her whole post, with which we concur wholeheartedly. And this raises a difficult question:  how to properly criticize your own church when you are surrounded by people whose criticisms are so fervently improper?

Most church bodies have to deal with a hypercritical fringe -- Presbyterian Layman, anybody? Virtue Online?  In the case of Lutheranism, bitter infighting has especially deep roots.  From Luther vs. the Zwickau Prophets and Melanchthon vs. the Gnesio-Lutherans, through the confessional argument that divided Schmucker Sr. from Schmucker Jr., Lutheran history is full of sharp elbows.  Herman Otten in his day and the WordAlone people in ours are simply more of the same.  (Click the links for our none-too-subtle editorial commentary upon each).

Once infighting reaches a certain point, it typically results in schism:  the General Synod begets the General Council; the NY Ministerium begets the Synod of New York.  Honestly, this may be an effective short-term pain reliever.  

A few years back, outraged that our synod assembly dared to question a ruling from the Conference of Bishops with which he happened to agree, Father Haddock  stood at a microphone and bellowed that "the Church has spoken, and if you don't like it, you can just leave."  And if the tide turns against him, we fully expect that Fr. H. will take his own advice.  It will make us sad, on the grounds of "if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less."  But -- let's be honest -- it will also make those assemblies less painful. 

And the good news is that, among Lutherans at least, these schisms are often temporary.  The Council and the Synod rejoined; the Ministerium and the Synod merged.  The now-somewhat-exhausted arc of history is long, but it tends toward unity.  (Missouri is the main exception.  It was born in schism, and often seems to exist principally for the purpose of decrying the rest of world Lutheranism, with which it will negotiate but never sign a treaty).

But if we do want to live together, how shall we talk to each other?  And how, especially, can those of us who are actually loyal to the church in which we were raised express our criticisms without seeming to join a chorus of those poised to make their escape?

We're open to suggestions.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Episcopal Church Shows Bare Minimum of Integrity

... by defrocking a priest who claims that she is both a Christian and a Muslim.

Why, oh why, do people do this sort of thing?  

We remember Benjamin Chavis, a UCC minister, who tried the same maneuver back in 1997 or thereabouts.  Like Ann Holmes Redding this week, he seemed shocked and surprised when the church told him that Christianity was not compatible with Islam.  (Chavis, by the way, went Redding one better -- he joined the Nation of Islam.  So he didn't just become a Muslim, but he became a racist heretical Muslim.)

The Seattle Times story above makes a passing reference to an Episcopal bishop who practices "Buddhist meditation."  While controversial if one happens to live in the 1950s, this is not the same thing at all.  Buddhism, in most of its forms, is less a religion than a philosophical tradition that prescribes various techniques for meditation.  To adopt a technique -- bompu, maybe, or Hindu yoga -- does not necessarily involve adoption of the philosophical underpinnings of the technique, any more than kneeling to pray makes you a Trinitarian.

But to declare yourself a Muslim most certainly does involve denying the most basic descriptors of Christianity -- the Incarnation and the Trinity.   This isn't an area where there is such a thing as dual citizenship.  Redding seems to think it's like being a Mets fan and a Yankees fan at the same time (hard enough, but "hey, we all love baseball").  In fact, it's more like joining the Flat Earth Club and the National Geographic Society.  Sooner or later, somebody will ask you to choose.

And to our only-modest surprise, somebody did.  Thank you, Bishop Geralyn Wolf of Rhode Island.  Now why did it take you almost two years?

Lutherans to Celebrate Same-Sex Unions.

In Sweden, where such unions -- marriages, under Swedish law -- will be recognized starting this May.  The Church of Sweden has said that while it will celebrate and recognize the unions, it will not call them marriages.