Friday, April 30, 2010

Who Saved Those Jews?

A few weeks ago, we ranted about preachers who use historical anecdotes without fact-checking them. It is a problem, we suggested, for several reasons, not least because listeners who know the facts, hearing them misstated, will be inclined to wonder what else the preacher may not be speaking accurately about. (Hint, hint: Jesus.)

Here's a new example, which we cite both because the story is so powerful, and therefore tempting, and because its misuse emerges from our own house, to the extent that "Luther" Seminary can be so called.

The seminary operates a website called "Working Preacher," which contains lectionary analysis by a variety of scholars. It is often interesting, and we read it with some pleasure. One of the contributors whose work we enjoy is Frank Crouch, of the Moravian Seminary in Pennsylvania. In his comments on John 13:31-13, this Sunday's Gospel, Crouch uses this story to illustrate the phrase "he loved them to the end":

The Reverend Joachim Alexandropoulos was an Orthodox priest on a Greek isle in World War II, now memorialized at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. The Nazis came one day, demanding that he provide them, the next day, with a list naming every Jew on the island. The next day he handed them a list containing only one name, his own. He loved them to the end, indeed.

Good stuff, huh? So good that we wanted to know what happened next. Was the priest executed, like St. Lawrence when he turned over the "treasures of the Church"? Were the Jews rounded up? What?

We still aren't sure. Here's what we do know, thanks to our friends with the powerful algorithm. Fr. Alexandropulos apparently served St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, in Washington DC, prior to the war. According to the cathedral's website:

In 1930, Father Alexopoulos [Blogger's note: they seem to call him by both names on the site] returned to Volos, Greece where he served as Metropolitan of Demetrias. His courage and faith during World War II were little known until his posthumous recognition in 1998 by the State of Israel, for saving the lives of 700 people who were hidden by the residents of the villages of Mount Pelion. When asked by the Nazis to hand over the list of Jewish residents, he refused, answering, "I am a Jew." Identified as "Righteous among the Nations," Father Alexopoulos' name is inscribed today in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, as well as entered on the Righteous Honor Wall at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Great. The same story, with a bit more detail. And from a reliable-sounding source, too. We were a little concerned that the action had shifted from an island to the mainland. But still, we were were very happy. Until, courtesy of those same friends and their obsessive need to set information free, and thus destroy copyright protection, by digitizing every book ever published, we came across Mordechai Paldiel's Churches and the Holocaust (Jersey City: Ktav, 2006). Paldiel actually works (or did) for Yad Vashem, as the director of the "Righteous Among the Nations" Project, so he has put some real energy into the identification of Gentiles helping Jews during the Holocaust.

And in his chapter on Greece, around page 315, Paldiel tells the story of Father Alex[andr]opolus. It is an heroic story, still: the guy urged the Jews in his village to evacuate, and provided their rabbi with a letter of introduction to other Orthodox priests, asking for assistance. He saved many lives. But that's it.

However, on page 316, Paldiel tells the story of Metropolitan Demetriou Chrysostomos, on the island of Zakynthos. Or rather the stories, plural, because there are several versions. All involve the metropolitan (and the mayor) saving the island's Jews from the Nazis, but in different ways: a large bribe, an evacuation to the countryside, and -- yes -- a list containing only his own name. (And, apparently, that is the story told on the island today.) Paldiel doesn't choose one story over another, but does note that Zakynthos was "the only Jewish community in Greece where no deportation took place."

Now, we don't think it matters too much, in the long run, which heroic priest saved whom, or how he did it. We're glad that both these guys were on the side of the angels, and grateful for their witness. Their stories are inspiring. And we suppose that a preacher can be forgiven some eagerness to tell the story, and in its most dramatic form, even with a few factual inaccuracies thrown in.

But when does it end? If we don't mind getting the name and place wrong, and don't even mind telling a story of questionable truth, why don't we make up some dialogue, too? Add an SS officer with a cruel glint in his eye, and a saber scar from his university days? Throw in an American archaeologist with a fedora, in Greece looking for religious relics. And maybe a raven-haired beauty with a heaving bosom, because why not?

You see the point. Stories, if they are represented as true, ought to be demonstrably true. If they are not true, they should be identified as fables, legends, parables -- whatever fits. Preachers have a duty to get this right, lest they discredit their greater message. And those whose work is going to appear in print, where it may be borrowed by an even greater number of preachers, have an even greater duty.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sapristi! Will Belgium Ban Tintin?

Probably not.

But a man from the Congo, who now lives in Belgium, has asked the courts of his adoptive home to ban one of the early adventures of its national hero. Tintin in the Congo, as many readers may be aware, is contains the racist stereotypes that gives words like "imperialism" and indeed "Belgian Congo" such unhappy resonance in the modern world.

In Britain, the book is now sold with a warning label, as if it were a packet of cigarettes. The plaintiff has indicated that he would accept a resolution of this sort. We suppose it's not a bad idea; today's bien-pensant parents ought to know whether we are buying a jolly children;s tale about walking on the moon, or an historical artifact that serves to remind us all of how far European societies have come in a very short time -- but which we might not want tour children to read right away.

That said, however, we would also like to say something that bears repeating as often as possible, no matter how obvious it may seem: Banning books is a bad idea.

It is a bad idea for many reasons, not least of which is that it will likely fail. Books that have been banned often emerge, later, with an heroic glow about them, at least in the minds of their enthusiasts. Which is why you don't ban Mein Kampf, at least if you are smart. You turn it into a textbook, or better yet a cliche. Make it so well-known, so tiresomely pedestrian, that people groan at the sight of its cover, and mock its readers on late-night television.

Far more important, though, is the fact that banning books is an imposition upon the rights of free expression. Books that deliberately and deceptively defame an individual, especially a living one, may deserve an exception. May, we say, because even Britain's overly-strict libel laws strike us as tyrannical.

But in this case, it is appalling to suggest that the best response to a display of ignorance is a corresponding display of intolerance.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

You See the Problem, Don't You?

With our last post, that is.

Two commenters with delightful names, Mark Christianson and PSanafterthought, have both nailed us dead to rights. Here, to summarize a bit, is their objection: Our different thoughts about "God" don't affect the reality of God in the slightest.

They are absolutely right. Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit, as the PBS t-shirts say. To be fair, we thought about this while writing, and -- perhaps foolishly -- decided that trying to say it all would lead to an overlong post. The result, unfortunately, is one which makes Father Anonymous look like a bit of an atheist. It all sounds as though God were nothing more than what we say about God, when in fact the reverse is more likely to be true.

So let's try to clarify a bit.

We can take for granted that all religions attempt to model the transcendent reality, and claim that their model is the most accurate one. (Pardon the silly circumlocution for "worship God," in which we indulge briefly only as a reminder that some religions don't use "God" as part of their theological jargon.) It will be a while before we know who was right and who was wrong.

From this fact arises the cant expression that "we all worship the same God," a statement which is true only with regard to intent. We mean to worship the same God, in the sense that we mean to acknowledge the actual facts of the universe -- the ground of being, if you will. The problem is that the models are so different as to be irreconcilable.

To use Mark's appealing but misleading metaphor, if you and I both discover that we know a fellow named Sam, but I say he is an old man with an eyepatch and a cane, while you say he is a spectral reflection of Medusa's left nostril (whatever that even means), then it is safe to say that we don't actually know the same person. Or that if we do, we still have nothing about which to speak. It is not even likely that we know different aspects of the same person; and, frankly, I don't think you've ever met Sam, you big faker.

Prothero's point is that rooting a general theory of religion in a doctrine of God has proven to be an academic dead-end, with which the popular imagination has not yet caught up. Our own point, which may be an exaggeration for effect but by which we will nonetheless stand, is that even the seemingly small differences in doctrine are profoundly important.

To be sure, as we have already said and as Mark is determined to say more forcefully, there are families, and family resemblances. One can see at a glance that Lutherans and Presbyterians share an enormous amount, at least when compared to, say, animists and Zoroastrians. The mistake, in our opinion, is to minimize the significance of the differences. To do so leads not just to an over-easy ecumenism, but (much worse) to the reduction of "God" from a semantic model for transcendent reality to a slogan which can be used and abused in the public realm.

It may be helpful to explain that our thinking here is shaped, at least a little bit, by Karl Barth's famous aphorism that "all religion is unbelief." (Having attended a school where Barth was frequently mistaken for God, we generally avoid the guy, but in this one case he is inevitable). Here's a quick synopsis of the case, by George Wolfgang Forrell:

In [KD I:2, "The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion"], Barth refers to religion as unbelief and writes: "Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practiced. It contradicts it."

By the way, it is in the light of this point of view that we must understand the sympathy for atheism as practiced by Marxist communism on the part of Barth and his followers. To Barth the denial of "religion in general" or the God of the philosophers was not only excusable but actually praiseworthy. This explains among other things ... [Barth's] relative tolerance of Stalinist Communism. The Communists were atheists, i.e. they objected to "religion." ....

Readers of Barth, and at least arguably the man himself, have sometimes treated this insight as an attack on non-Christian religions. But all that fails to follow the genius of the argument, which is that God is, in essence, hidden; the various revelations claimed by the religious are equally incapable of proof. In that sense, although Barth would have raised an imperious finger here, all the different forms of Christianity are "unbelief," insofar as they fall short of the truth. (And insofar as they disagree, they must fall short of the truth.) Meanwhile, beyond the documents and traditions which contain the "official" versions of the world's religions, there is the image of God treasured in the heart of the individual believer, which is beyond doubt the idiosyncratic product of communal tradition, individual psychology, and so forth. It is also the most elementary form of the "unbelief" Barth is talking about.

Does that help? "Religion in general" is the mistake. And there's a lot of that going around, as Christian ministers are reminded every time some public official invites them to offer a prayer at the town council meeting, and then mutters, "But try not not to mention Jesus."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Your "God" or Mine?

Some years ago, Father Anonymous sat at the family table and listened to a young relative, then just finishing college, discourse on the essential unity of all religions. It is, as Boston University prof Stephen Prothero writes in the Boston Globe, a theme dear to middlebrow popularizers (Huston Smith, Karen Armstrong, Oprah). To all of whom Father A. responds, as he did a bit too loudly to his young relation, "Oh, horse$#!*."

Prothero, in a piece excerpted from a forthcoming book, offers a somewhat kinder, not to say more sophisticated, analysis:

This naive theological groupthink ... is motivated in part by a laudable rejection of the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise. ...

I understand what these people are doing. They are not describing the world but reimagining it. They are hoping that their hope will call up in us feelings of brotherhood and sisterhood. In the face of religious bigotry and bloodshed, past and present, we cannot help but be drawn to such hope, and such vision. Yet we must not mistake either for clear-eyed analysis.

On the contrary, Prothero says. This fallacy is "a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous."

The disrespectful part is the implicit assumption people don't really know who they worship or what they believe. The dangerous part, obviously, is that by failing to take religious difference seriously, we allow ourselves to be blindsided by its effects on our life and world.

There's much more, and it's all worth reading. What Prothero does not say, and we wish he had, is this: that the essential differences among religions are often disguised by the similarity of their language and imagery. This is true of, for example, Hinduism and Buddhism. It is most especially true among the three principal monotheistic religions of the Middle East (as well as of the non-principal ones, like Zoroastrianism).

How many times have you heard somebody say, "Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God"? On the surface, it sounds straightforward enough. Christians have adopted the Hebrew scriptures essentially whole, and the Qu'ran has adapted much of their content, as well as a few choice bits of the New Testament. "To be sure," goes the popular argument, "there are differences in what we believe about God -- but at least we all believe in the same God."

And yet, in the epistemological sense, "God" -- or one's god -- cannot be separated from what one believes about God. "God" is, after all, just an arbitrary semantic catchall. One assigns to this word the characteristics of one's own deity, but cannot assume that one's neighbors assign the same characteristics. They generally do not.

So for example, when Christians use the word, we refer specifically to the Father, Son and Spirit, a hidden God who, among other things, became incarnate in Jesus Christ for the purpose of delivering human beings from the alien power of sin. Jews and Muslims can recognize no part of that statement as true about God. They may tell similar stories about their gods, but let us be clear that they, and we, believe in radically different gods.

Now, there is a corollary to this argument, which will probably offend many readers. It is the observation that we Christians disagree amongst ourselves about who God is. At an epistemological level, the God who is physically present in the Eucharist (for example) differs from the God who is not. The Christ whose continuing body is a single universal church under a single universal pastor differs, perhaps irreconcilably, from the Christ who is wholly present where any group gathers in his name.

Which means, bluntly put, that Lutherans and Presbyterians worship different Gods. So do Roman Catholics and Baptists. And on and on, through the dreary list of divided churches. At a still more excruciating level of definition, we could argue (in fact, we are forced to argue) that nearly every single Christian, individually, worships a different God. Likewise every Jew, Muslim, or what-have-you. This isn't by choice, of course; it is true only because each of us constructs the semantic category of "God" a bit differently. Creeds, scriptures and liturgies all serve to limit the category, but none can ever quite succeed. Ask around at coffee hour, some time, what people mean by words like "god" and "salvation." The distinctions are often extremely small, but pay close attention, and you will find them.

To most readers, this looks like a reductio ad absurdum, the point in a debate at which one side's argument has been pushed so far that its underlying fallacy is revealed. But we think not. On the contrary, we think that this is a useful reminder, especially to people who are called to speak about religion in the public arena, that the differences among faiths are so varied as to defy an accurate assessment. So that if one begins a sentence, "As people of faith, we can agree ...", one has almost surely made a mistake.

When Prothero talks about the "family resemblance" among different religions, he is moving in the right direction. Despite our creeds and scriptures and liturgies, we none of confess quite the same thing. But our confessions of faith, or if you prefer our philosophical investigations or quests for truth, can be divided into families. The division can be misleading. Just as flesh-and-blood families sometimes interbreed, so do religious traditions. Within every family, there is a black sheep, and often more than one, who does not quite fit in. But if we are going to have a serious discussion about the things people believe, and the people who believe those things, we need to begin it by acknowledging the nearly infinite variety of beliefs, rather than pretending to perceive a non-existent unity.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Messin' With Texas

We took a long and beautiful car trip through the Transylvanian countryside today. The occasion was a visiting in-law from Texas, and our guide was a Canadian expat. It was all rather jolly.

But when the Texan discovered that the Canadian had never been to Texas, she gave him quite a hard time about it. (Now, Father Anonymous should say that he is not an objective bystander in the matter of Texas. He has, in the course of his life, spent quite a fair amount of time in the Lone Star State, and has enjoyed comparatively little of it. His principal complaints are the weather, the Bushes and Houston. Many, many Texans in his experience are smart, kind, cultured people. They should move.)

Anyway, after ten or fifteen minutes of intermittent insistence that "You really should come to Texas. We have bluebonnets," and so forth, the Canadian gently murmured, "What's the death penalty situation down there?"

The Texan stammered, "Why, um, I don't know," which may actually have been true at the time. It certainly isn't any longer, because your humble correspondent piped up from the rumble seat, in his customary soft sweet tone, shouting, "The highest rate in the country! By far! They kill you for jaywalking."

The Texan kept stammering, to the effect of "Really? Now, I didn't know that." Father A., the very soul of discretion, may have added something to the effect that "When W. was governor, they made a specialty of killing women and the mentally defective." This, gentle readers, is the sort of thing that is guaranteed to smooth those difficult visits from in-laws.

But, for the record, Texas killed 6 people last year, which is just under half of the 14 Americans executed by the government. Of the 1202 US executions since 1975, 453 (almost 38%) were in Texas. For details, click the link up top. In the modern death-penalty era, Texas is by far and away the bloodthirstiest of the United States.

Now, opinions on the morality of the death penalty cover the spectrum from Roy to Biv, and we are well aware that the Catholic ethical tradition has a long and closely-reasoned series of arguments in favor of its use. Despite the current withdrawal of the Roman church from some of those historic positions -- the "seamless garment" about which Cardinal Bernardin liked to speak -- it should be worth noting that Lutheran theology retains a clear understanding that the state may rightfully exercise "the power of the sword," which is usually taken as a reference to both war and executions. We at the Egg admit to a certain internal struggle over the matter. Neither our church nor we ourselves are prone to absolutism on the subject.

Still, bloodthirstiness is not an endearing quality in a government. In a democracy, the creation by ballot of successive bloodthirsty governments is not an endearing quality in a people.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Turning Christianese Now

Where were these videos when poor Father A. was in seminary, a New York lamb among Bible-Belt wolves, scarcely able to understand a word his classmates uttered?  Behold, the one language (beside Romanian) that Rosettta Stone most needs to add to its curriculum:

Tip o the biretta to Our Beloved Godfather for this valuable educational tool.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

News From Home, Now With Extra Crazy

It's not that the news in Europe is better than in the United States. It's just harder for us to read.

Oh, apparently there's a resurgence of right-wing craziness sweeping across the Continent, not to mention a vast cloud of volcanic ash. But when the only newspapers available to you are in Romanian and Hungarian, you tend to miss these things. For that matter, you also miss the news from back home. And -- truth be told -- that by itself is often good news.

Because our wonderful nation is as weird a place as has ever existed on God's green earth.

As proof, we submit this little tidbit, surely familiar to many Egg readers, but new to us this very evening: Confederate Heritage Month.

Apparently, Virginia governor Robert McDonnell declared this curiosity, and in the course of his declaration set tongues a-wagging because he neglected to mention slavery. (And Mississippi governor Haley Barbour has since agreed that this oversight was basically okay, even after McDonnell amended his original declaration.) Not mentioning slavery, hmm? You do remember, surely, the Peculiar Institution which was, when you cut through everything else, the reason that the war was fought?

As Robert Mackey, a retired Army colonel, observes, the near-nonsense of "states' rights" often invoked by apologists for the Confederacy is just a smokescreen. The "right" in question was, bottom line, the right to hold human beings in perpetual bondage, thus depriving them of their fundamental rights as human beings. That's what the Confederacy was about: an enormous conspiracy of the governing and landed classes to oppress their fellow-beings. This fundamental evil led to all sorts of contingent ones, such as -- let's just say it -- treason against the United States.

So try to imagine what it would look like to outsiders if Russia declared an "Evil Empire Heritage Month." Or if Germany -- well, you get the idea.

All of which two questions. First, what politician, in his or her right mind, would introduce such a thing? What is to be gained here? The answer, sadly, is votes -- not by any means all from avowed neo-Confederate freakjobs like Baylor professor Bill Murchison. The truth is that generations of purposeful deceit have successfully confused decent people about the reasons their ancestors fought a war, and created a bogus "Southern identity" which they believe was at stake. And of which they would have every right to be proud, if it had been at issue in the war.

The second question, no doubt, is as painful to answer as it is easy to phrase. Why don't right thinking Americans -- the ones who think the Civil War ought never to have been necessary, but once necessary ended just as it should have -- rise up in their hundreds of thousands to crush the careers of politicians who imply otherwise?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

News From Lake Condescension

Oh, Garrison Keillor. Must you?

Old Pastor Ingvist has been sent off to a new parish, and the kindly folks of Lake Wobegon are being tended by a new interim pastor, the Rev. Barbara Ham. We didn't hear the program, but we did read catch the Cliff's Notes version courtesy of the Indispensable Ms. Hogan, who writes that
... any joy about about Ham’s arrival was lost for many in Keillor’s a demeaning portrayal of her as a fat pig who eats three caramel rolls in one sitting.

“She fills out that whole pulpit,” he added.

Ouch. That hurts! You see, Father Anonymous has spent about half of his own ministry serving as an interim pastor. That means he's heard all the things that people whisper in church basements, when they think nobody is listening. "Watch out for those interims! They eat too many caramel rolls. They read too much Edwin Friedman! They probably like cats."

Now, like many stereotypes, there is a grain of truth to this. We at the Egg know that many of our colleagues in interim ministry do indeed fill out a pulpit quite thoroughly. More than a few, when pushed, will begin to mutter darkly about self-differentiation. We ourselves are still trying to lift the cat-hair from our funeral coat.

But still. For every pulpit-filling, roll-eating, systems-spouting interim pastor we know, there are several who are gaunt, ascetic, and utterly indifferent to Bowen theory. And a few dog people, too.

So we respectfully ask Mr. Keillor to deepen his art a little, and try to expand the public perception of interim ministers, rather than playing to outdated and offensive caricatures.

And if, by some chance, he wasn't caricaturing interim ministers so much as some other caucus within the First Estate, well, all the same things apply. But even more so.

Friday, April 16, 2010

"The Carnal Body of Christ Manifested"

That's how Jennifer Knapp describes one of her record albums. She's apparently a "Christian musician" -- meaning that is (or was) her assigned genre as well as her religious commitment. We've never heard of her, but then we're old enough to talk about "record albums."

She's also gay, a matter that would not normally concern us very much. ("Really? A gay Christian musician? Have you ever been to a church organists' conference?") But after an eight-year hiatus, she is performing and recording again, and in connection with this return sat for an interview with Christianity Today.

It's not a great interview, but it has some interesting moments. One, however, hits us where we live, more or less literally. Knapp talks about her struggle -- not with herself, but with "the church," meaning the Christians she has known and worked with. She is pretty clearly afraid that much of her fan base will desert her, and we expect that she's right. But that's not the part that hit us.

At one point, the interviewer says, "You're living in Nashville. Are you in a church now?"

And Knapp's answer, in its entirety, is, "No."

Can you hear our heart breaking? Because for any Christian, anywhere, to be without a congregation -- a place to worship, and people with whom to worship --is a calamity. And it must be undone. Fortunately, that won't be especially hard. So here's our fraternal suggestion for our sister Jennifer:

First, try the Lutherans. (Six congregations in Nashville). We're nice people, and, in case you hadn't noticed, we've put ourselves pretty far out on a limb lately, specifically because we want gay people to know that they are welcome in every part of our life as a community. While there is no Reconciling in Christ congregation in the state of Tennessee, there are several in nearby Kentucky. The closest is Glasgow -- about 90 minutes up on I-65. But even without the RIC badge of approval, you may your average Lutheran parish a pretty welcoming place.

If that doesn't work out, try the Episcopalians. A bit less warm and fuzzy, in our experience, but waaay better dressed. And Presbyterians, too, if you can find the right bunch. And Methodist. Basically, the much-abused mainline churches, and especially those with a northern European bent, have a lot of congregations that don't care much about your sex life, as long as it doesn't break any laws. (And here's a newspaper article about some of the gay-friendly churches in your area.)

And if you still can't find a church, call us. Seriously. Drop a line, and we will make some calls. We're not joking. You are not alone -- and neither is anybody else in your position, even if they aren't famous.

Dept. of Through The Looking-Glass: Iran Edition

Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who -- in addition to being the nominally secular figurehead of the "Islamic" "Republic" run by out-of-touch, unpopular, and increasingly un-Islamic mullahs more concerned about beating the fight out of dissenters than increasing anybody's faith in God -- is also keen to serve as a life-coach for other world leaders.

Thus, he has offered a few tips on international relations to Presidents George W. Bush and, just lately, Barack Obama. As one might imagine, these tips boil down to "let Iran develop all the nuclear weapons it wants," but phrased a bit more circumspectly. However, the Egg's pressroom had a weary chuckle over this bit of tyrannical bluster:

"Obama has only one way to remain in power and be successful. This way is Iran," Ahmadinejad said in a nationally televised speech Tuesday, according to the Iranian Republic News Agency (IRNA).

Really, Mahmoud? Really? Making nice with you is the only way for an American president to remain in power and be successful? Perhaps you have misread the situation a bit.

See, the thing is, an American president attains power by persuading other Americans to vote for him. He retains it, for a second term, by doing this again. We realize it is different in counties like yours and, say, Mr. Mugabe's, and we realize that after Bush v. Gore the distinction may be somewhat blurry in your mind. But an American president's power comes from his (or eventually her) ability to say and do things that most Americans will like.

And Mahmoud? Most Americans don't like you very much. If you don't know why, ask this girl. In fact, one could argue that the President's popularity -- and therefore his power, as measured by support within Congress and likelihood of reelection -- does not in any meaningful way depend upon making you happy. Quite the reverse.

If we were, let's say, Leo McGarrey, the fictional Chief of Staff to a US president, and you were Ali Nissir, a diplomatic representative of some fictional country -- call it Qumar -- with which the US was frequently at odds, we can easily imagine sitting you down for a conversation that went something like this:

NISSIR: Mr. McGarry, I think we are both men, and we both know there is a charade being enacted here. I understand Western politics, and I understand President Bartlet is unable to admit Israel's complicity in the death of the Sultan's brother during a close election. So perhaps we could...

Leo laughs.

NISSIR: Did I say something funny?

LEO: You think the President's afraid that if he admitted complicity in Shareef's death, he would lose votes in this country? To sweep all fifty states, the President would only need to do two things -- blow the Sultan's brains out in Times Square, then walk across the street to Nathan's and buy a hot dog. ...

Leo walks out of the room.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Why Faith Is Better Than "Jesus"

Via Sullivan: In Christianity Today (which, like most religious publications, has a natural interest in Christianity yesterday), New Testament scholar Scott Knight discusses the "historical Jesus" researches, of which we were tired five minutes after first hearing about them.

It's a nice essay, and says what canonical readers -- meaning virtually all Christians through virtually all of our history -- have taken for granted, which is that we can't know much about Jesus apart from the Bible, and that therefore what the Bible says about Jesus is what we know about him, more or less in its entirety.

Knight suggests that, as more and more people -- including scholars who, like himself, have been actively involved in the supposed "quest" -- recognize this, the field has gradually shrunk, and is now virtually moribund. This may be an overstatement, but we certainly hope not.

Here are the two points that we especially like:

[The "historical Jesus"] scholars by and large believe in the Jesus they reconstruct. During what's called the "first quest" for the historical Jesus, in the early 20th century, Albert Schweitzer understood Jesus as an apocalyptic Jesus. In the latest quest, Sanders's Jesus is an eschatological prophet; Crossan's Jesus is a Mediterranean peasant cynic full of wit and critical of the Establishment; Borg's Jesus is a mystical genius; Wright's Jesus is an end-of-the-exile messianic prophet who believed he was God returning to Zion. We could go on, but we have made our point: Historical Jesus scholars reconstruct what Jesus was really like and orient their faith around that reconstruction. [Emphasis original.]

This excellent point observation, unfortunately for Knight's case, into the usual taunt, that the theologians of whom one disapproves are not "orthodox," an extremely tricky word to use, especially if one is a Protestant. He then asks a question which, while impolitic, is one that many of us have probably asked at one time or another:

One has to wonder if the driving force behind much historical Jesus scholarship is more an a priori disbelief in orthodoxy than a historian's genuine (and disinterested) interest in what really happened. The theological conclusions of those who pursue the historical Jesus simply correlate too strongly with their own theological predilections to suggest otherwise.

For our money, though, the critical graph is the last one:

As a historian I think I can prove that Jesus died and that he thought his death was atoning. I think I can establish that the tomb was empty and that resurrection is the best explanation for the empty tomb. But one thing the historical method cannot prove is that Jesus died for our sins and was raised for our justification. At some point, historical methods run out of steam and energy. Historical Jesus studies cannot get us to the point where the Holy Spirit and the church can take us. I know that once I was blind and that I can now see. I know that historical methods did not give me sight. They can't. Faith cannot be completely based on what the historian can prove. The quest for the real Jesus, through long and painful paths, has proven that much.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mohandas Gandhi: Creepy Old Horndog

As it happens, Father Anonymous spent a considerable amount of time, long ago, developing an acquaintance with Hinduism, and especially some of its esoteric teachings regarding sex.

No, thank you very much, this emphatically does not mean he was one of those slightly dim Westerners who blather on about "tantric sex" because they saw something about it in a magazine and think it might make a good pick-up line. Far from it. Still, the fact is that when one spends enough time reading up on Hinduism, and especially on the Shakta school, one inevitably develops at least a nodding acquaintance with some of this stuff. As when reading church history, one inevitably learns something about celibacy.

We mention these bona fides only because we are about to suggest that Mohandas Gandhi, the brilliant exponent both of Indian independence and of Hinduism as a way of life, interpreted the religious practices of his people in a peculiar and unsavory fashion -- and that his interpretation was not customary among others of his faith and time.

Per biographer Jad Adams writing in The Independent, Gandhi enjoyed the full fruits of connubial bliss beginning at the not-unusual age of 13. Indeed, he enjoyed those fruits very much, even leaving the bedside of his dying father to indulge himself. Long afterward, in his 30s, he decided to embrace the spiritual life, taking vows of poverty and chastity. As Adams notes, though, "Gandhi found poverty easy to embrace. It was chastity that eluded him."

The result is that, through the rest of his long and very public life, Gandhi indulged in quite a bit of behavior that was highly sexual, without necessarily amounting to intercourse. His conversation and letters, including public statements, often dwelt on sex; he organized an ashram in which married couples were obliged to remain celibate, and even sleep separately; and -- coming to the heart of the matter -- he insisted that a series of comely young women, generally his own relations and some married to other men, share his bed and his bath.

The idea, at least supposedly, was to test his resolve. We think there may similar stories about Christian holy men from the patristic era, although none comes to mind offhand. But Gandhi was not some figure from dim antiquity, rather an almost exact contemporary of FDR, and to modern ears these hijinks sound like considerably more than personal spiritual challenges. They sound like intense narcissism, leading to the sexual harassment (if not outright molestation) of people who admired him. Frankly, it sounds less like a saint and more like a cult leader.

In his own time, all this was known, and considered scandalous, a potential threat not only to Gandhi's reputation, but to the movement he led. Adams says that in the years after independence, there was a concerted effort to whitewash the historical record, not for the sake of Gandhi but for the sake of India. Fair enough.

But an historical record exists for the sake of more than a single political cause. American liberty has not been jeopardized by the nearly certain (and, when you think about it, unsurprising) proof that Thomas Jefferson slept with Sally Hemmings. Nor will India be damaged by the reminder that its modern hero was not a demigod, but an ordinary human being. And a rather odd one.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

If We Could Delete One Word From the Language ...

... specifically, the language used among worship leaders, it would be ...

Wait. What's your choice?

Some readers will leap to defend their preferred practices, or to strike a blow against the practices they dislike. Delete the word "incense," and perhaps those wretched chancel-prancers will have nothing with which to annoy your nostrils. Or, working the other end of the liturgical spectrum, delete "cups," plural, and congregations would necessarily default to the use of only one. (Sadly, "grape" and "juice" are two words, and so extend beyond our present purview).

But what about words for perfectly, or at least reasonably, innocuous objects and customs? Surely there is a reader, somewhere, who cannot abide the word "cassock," and longs desperately for the day that all English-speakers borrow the French word "soutane." Or maybe somebody who considers the adjective "Laudian" a misleading, even unintentionally confrontational, word to describe an altar frontal. (If those are in fact your choices, we think you're a little weird, but de gustibus etc.)

Fine. Picked your favorite? Here's ours, as used in a sentence which one sees frequently in invitations to occasional ceremonies. See if you can find it: "Clergy are invited to vest and process."

Ahh, you think. Father Anonymous is worked up about the way people nowadays use "clergy" as a plural, and without the customary definite article. Nor are you entirely mistaken. An invitation reading "The clergy is ..." would certainly be likelier to bring us thither, and wearing our better-quality vestments at that. But that's a correction, not a deletion.

No, friends, the word we long to strike from the liturgical lexicon is "process," used as a verb, with an accent on the second syllable. People use it, and have used it for several generations, as a brief way of saying "walk in procession." The problem is, of course, that a brief way to say that already exists, and has for many generations longer: the verb "to procede."

Some years ago, feeling suspicious already, we looked the word up in the OED, which we will now cite from memory because no copy is at hand. The ultimate source, obviously, is the Latin verb procedere, which means just what you think it does. From this, the Romans formed processio, to mean either a military advance or a religious parade. But it was not until the 19th century that somebody thought to invent a new verb, a "back-formation" in the jargon of the language game. Thus was born "pro-CESS." As we recall, the OED then added, with a perceptible sniff, that its use was "chiefly jocular."

"Chiefly jocular!" And as it were scales fell from the little cleric's eyes. "Chiefly jocular," indeed. You see the point, surely? They were joking. The people who started saying "let us process down the aisle" did so on the understanding that any educated person would catch the neologism, and understand it to mean "proceed." We believe that this is what people politely call "donnish wit," the same mild verbal playfulness by which a scholar of Semitic philology, saying goodbye to his friend the professor of classics, might reach for his "titfer" -- not because it is the right word for people of their background, but precisely because it is the wrong one.

Incidentally, if we were to adopt all the mild jokes of the Victorian High Churchmen into "official" modern English, we would be required to speak of our low-church friends as "the Peculiars." Which we do, but not consistently. By the same token, we don't mind occasionally being asked to process down an aisle, provided only that under normal circumstances (and in such formal ones as a written invitation) we are asked to procede.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good News: New Churches! Bad News: Incomprehensible Press Release!

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for which we really need to come up with a lovey-dovey nickname some day soon, has put a curious little gift into our Easter basket. It is a press release, linked above, which describes with gushing enthusiasm the church's "affirmation" of 41 new mission congregations.

That sounds like great news. Although new mission starts are expensive and have a frighteningly high failure rate, they are also exciting, and generate enthusiasm not just among those who are directly involved, but throughout whole synods. Beyond that, they are straightforward obedience to the Great Commission, and therefore an essential reflection of the Church's true being.

But the press release leaves us uneasy, for two reasons. First, because it is one of the most poorly-written things we have ever read, so obtuse that its precise content is almost impossible to discern. And second, because -- so far as we can discern the meaning of the words on the page -- we aren't sure the ELCA's plans are very good.

First, the textual problems. The release gives out all sorts of numerical information, but only piecemeal. Of the 41 "new starts," we read that 29 are "congregations under development;" 23 are among immigrant populations; 12 are "synodically authorized worshipping communities," and that "lay African immigrants initiated" 6 of them.

But there is no indication of how these factoids should be related to one another. How many of the 41 are lay-Africa-initiated and synodically authorized? How many are authorized but not under development? What immigrant communities are we talking about? And so forth.

A few paragraphs are thrown in, almost randomly, to describe a couple of congregations leaving the ELCA (boo! hiss!), while a faithful remnant applies for recognition as a "worshipping community." This seems to raise more questions than it answers, since church constitutions usually favor even the smallest remnant that wants to remain with the denomination. Through what legal chicanery were these remnants cheated of their rightful property? Or were they? We can't tell from reading this.

Intentionally or not, the release makes it sound as if the ELCA has just decided to plant 41 new congregations, which in a single year would be remarkable. But that's certainly not true. So what readers really want to know is "How many of these 41 'starts' are actually starting this year?" And there's no way to tell.

In the same vein, insiders may realize that "congregation under development" and "worshiping community" are both institutional terms of art, but most readers will not. Even those of us who do may not be able to keep the differences straight in our heads, and forgive our cynicism but we fear that is the intention: to throw out some cheery and quotable numbers that will not be understood by their intended readership.

There's also the problem of nice-sounding quotations in urgent need of exegesis. We read that "each [start] ... represents renewed relationships at ground level," which on its face means absolutely nothing. (It might mean that a weekly Eucharistic sacrifice will be offered in each place, thus celebrating the restored relationship between human beings and the Ground of Being itself. That would be quite nice, but it sounds more like our own personal spin than like a press release).

This press release is as poorly structured as we can imagine, and succeeds in creating many impressions while providing very few useful facts.

Then comes the second problem, which is what little insight it does provide into the ELCA's strategy for creating new congregations. So 23 of these new churches (or, realistically, might-be-someday-churches) will be planted "among immigrant communities." Hmm.

On one hand, that was a highly effective mission strategy, especially for Lutherans, and especially in the years between 1845 and 1945. And especially among immigrant communities from northern and central Europe, among whom many Lutherans were already to be found. (Even then, it never worked especially well outside the core constituency. There were, for example, efforts to plant churches among Italian immigrants, but they largely failed. We can't imagine why.)

On the other hand, this strategy has not worked very well at all in the past 65 years. Oh, we have planted the congregations, and a few of them have survived their first few years. But how many recently-planted Lutheran congregations, purposefully catering to an ethnic enclave, have gone on to become large enough to support themselves? Not many in New York, anyway. Some people do this really well -- hello, Rome! -- but it doesn't seem to us at the Egg that Lutherans are still in that group.

One major caveat, of course, is African immigrants. The growth of African Christianity in all its forms, including Lutheranism, is a miracle of the modern age. Attention given to new African immigrants -- including not only religious services, but also the full battery of help in resettlement -- may very well lead to strong new congregations, and perhaps not in the distant future.

A related concern. How many of those 41 starts are in economically marginal communities, and how many are in growing middle-class neighborhoods? The press release doesn't say, but for our own reason, we suspect a fair portion. And that troubles us. We know it's cheap, and that it sounds romantic, but for a church with limited resources, we don't think church planting is the best service that can be provided to the destitute. Nor does it serve the church's own long-term need for stable congregations.

Don't get us wrong: the church has a mission to the poor. We've read Gutierrez, and even if we hadn't, we're big fans of Elizabeth of Hungary. But it is extraordinarily difficult to create a stable, self-sustaining worship community among people who struggle each day for the basics of survival. What you can do, with less difficulty, is organize more prosperous people around the idea of providing help, spiritual but primarily material, to those in dire need. "Communities of compassion," and so forth.

So -- thank you, ELCA, for trying so hard. thank you, Evangelical Outreach unit, for "affirming" these new mission starts, whatever that actually means. We ask only two things: hire a professional copywriter to put those press releases together; and try to be smart about all this.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Seattle Police Taser Pregnant Ladies; Court Says "Go For It"

Ugh. This just in:

A federal appeals court says three Seattle police officers did not employ excessive force when they repeatedly tasered a visibly pregnant woman for refusing to sign a speeding ticket.

You know why the court overturned a lower court's ruling that her rights had been violated? Because the taser was set on "stun" instead of "dart." It seems that "temporary, localized pain" is okay in this sort of situation, while to qualify as excessive it would have had to cause "neuro-muscular incapacitation." This reminds us a great deal of the arguments made by certain members of the Bush Administration, who proposed that it wasn't torture until the organs failed.

To answer the sort of suspicious questions that Egg readers naturally ask: No, refusing to sign your ticket isn't the sort of thing they arrest you for. Yes, the tasered woman was black. And by the way, she was taking her kid to school.

For those whose curiosity is runs deeper, here's the answer: 50,000 volts each to the thigh, shoulder and neck. No word on amperage.

We sincerely hope that Judge Cynthia Holcomb Hall and Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain are someday given the opportunity to judge firsthand whether "dart" is really that much worse than "stun."

Sigh. Another Outburst of Pure Meanness from a Crotchety Blogger

Since early in the history of the church, stories have been passed around by preachers, to make their sermons more engaging and easier for the faithful to understand. Whether it's a good idea or not, we don't know; but it is almost certainly a necessary one. A sermon so dull it cannot hold the assembly's attention does no service to the Gospel, and -- let's face it -- the number of preachers who can hold your attention without telling stories is necessarily finite.

The use of sermon illustrations has never been without controversy. Dante complained about the use of stories, especially invented ones, and especially about the use of humor:

Christ did not to his first disciples say,
'Go forth, and to the world preach idle tales,'
But unto them a true foundation gave ...

Now men go forth with jests and drolleries
To preach, and if but well the people laugh,
The hood [i.e., monk's cowl] puffs out, and nothing more is asked.

(Paradiso, 29, Longfellow trans.)

Now, we admit with some embarrassment that our own preaching is no stranger to the illustrative or even ice-breaking joke. And we just love stories. But still, we are growing cautious in our old age, and here's why.

At its worst, the medieval practice of illustrating sermons with pious stories led to the excesses of the Golden Legend and a related body of conventional stories about souls escaped from Purgatory -- essentially, moralizing fables and ghost stories, which the faithful were more-or-less expected to take as literal truth. Few modern preachers would be bold enough to foist such stuff on a post-Enlightenment congregation. The sparrow who drank Thomas a Becket's blood and learned to speak does not even work as a fable today, because it is simply too bizarre. (Although it is awfully memorable!)

But stories we will have, and so there are a great many which make the rounds, sometimes repeated verbatim and sometimes embellished according to the needs of the occasion. Setting aside the clearly jocular ("A priest was out golfing one day ..."), these stories are usually presented as historical fact, either from the preacher's own experience or of the "you can look it up" variety.

The problem is that they often are not true. More than one preacher has inserted himself (or herself) into a touching deathbed scene. Far more than one preacher has repeated as true an historical anecdote which cannot be verified. And many, many more preachers have been careless with the facts, adding to a skeleton of truth some clothes which do not really fit. A secondary problem is that the Internet makes it easy to fact-check and compare versions.

Here's a f'rinstance. Seeking inspiration the other day, we read a few Easter sermons online; if nothing else, we like to see what the competition is up to. Among others, we found this in a sermon published online by a well-known preacher whom we won't name:

In the early part of World War II, a Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbor in New York City. It seemed that all was lost. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. In one last attempt to rescue the sailors from the steel coffin, the U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot on the surface, directly above the wounded submarine. A Navy diver went over the side of the ship to the dangerous depths in one last rescue attempt. The trapped sailors heard the metal boots of the diver land on the exterior surface, and they moved to where they thought the rescuer would be. In the darkness they tapped in Morse code, "Is there any hope?" The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signaled by tapping on the exterior of the sub, "Yes, there is hope."

The story sounded familiar, but that didn't bother us. It also sounded dubious -- New York has an exceptional harbor, and it is hard to imagine a sub getting "stuck" there. But that didn't bother us. What bothered us was that it seemed unfinished. To make the Easter point, one needs to tell the assembly that these hopeful sailors were eventually saved. Doesn't one?

Looking for the happy ending, we googled a few keywords, and found a different version of the same story:

As dusk fell on the Saturday before Christmas of 1927, two Coast Guardsmen stationed at Wood End in Provincetown spotted the periscope of a Navy submarine breaking the surface of the water just in front of a Coast Guard cutter ship. Within minutes, the cutter had rammed the sub, sending it to the bottom of the bay. The entire crew was held captive in a sunken sub 100 feet below sea level. Rescue ships and divers were immediately dispatched in an attempt to save the crew. As the hours grew to days the weather worsened. After locating the submarine, a Navy deep-sea diver dove down to it and heard a noise coming from the inside. He placed his helmet up against the side of the vessel and realized that the crew was sending a Morse Code message. The diver spelled out the message in his mind being tapped on the hull. It was repeating the same question: “IS…THERE…ANY…HOPE?

The differences are both large and small. The time and place are different, and the sub is not grounded but rather rammed. Most important, homiletically, is that the diver doesn't offer a hopeful response; that is left to the preacher. But still -- we wanted to know the end.

And the second preacher, way down in his sermon, gave it to us. It ain't pretty, folks: Everybody on the submarine died, and the last message received from the six trapped sailors was a simple, heartbreaking, "We understand." (Here's a site devoted to military submarines, which includes the whole story of the S-4, as well as a memoir by one of the would-be rescuers.)

The bottom line, so far as veracity goes, is that neither version quite jibes with the memories of an actual participant -- but the second one is much closer. The first is so far off as to be a different story altogether (and one which is entirely untrue).

Even the second misreports the coded message -- actually, it was "Is there hope? Please hurry please." Pity, too, since this adds an eschatological element which any preacher should be ready to exploit. And this brings us to a second problem, which is connected to, but more important, than mere veracity: the way preachers use stories like this theologically.

The first preacher, it seems, pulled the story from some unreliable source which he doesn't name, and never bother to check its truth. Quite possibly, he added the affirmation that "there is hope," because it was a phrase he hoped would echo in the ears of the faithful. But by doing these things, he distorted the story quite seriously.

What if there had been somebody in church that day who knew the facts? Who had lost a grandfather on the S-4, or studied it for a doctoral dissertation on submarine warfare? In their eyes, the preacher would look foolish, if not deceitful. The informed listener would not hear anything he said about the subject he was really there to speak about in the first place.

The second preacher made an effort to check the details; his online manuscript even includes a footnote to the source he is quoting, which is devoted to Massachusetts history. In our opinion, this effort pays off; he is a lot less likely to be embarrassed. Unsurprisingly, his sermon is the much better of the two, in our personal estimation.

But even the better preacher has missed an opportunity here.

Because let's be clear: in reality, this submarine was lost with all hands. Everybody died. And the men who signaled to the divers knew that this was going to happen. They had been told, in effect, that there was no hope, and they signaled their understanding. The second preacher does get to this point, right near the end; but we think he has missed an opportunity. We suspect he was afraid to start with the admission of hopelessness.

If you are going to use a story like this, it seems to us that the right thing is to tell it straight: they asked if there was hope; they learned that there was no hope; they died. And then you say: That is the human condition, apart from God. We have no hope. Only then do you move on to your true subject, which is the one place from which hope can come.

We don't want to make too much of this one story, which is floating all over the Net, and has probably been a sermon staple for decades, nor of these two sermons. We would visit either man's church without hesitation. But it has got us thinking that the use of anecdotes, and especially recycled anecdotes of uncertain authenticity, has always been a serious danger in Christian preaching, and is made more serious by modern information technology.

Perhaps we all (and that means us at the Egg first, believe me) should limit ourselves stories that fall within our own experience -- or, better yet, to the real subject of all good preaching: Christ, and him crucified.

The Nerve of That Guy

So Jesus says, "Let the dead bury their dead," right? Big talk from a guy whose entire story hinges on the moment his friends go to the place where they buried him to finish up the funerary rituals.

Yes, friends, Father A. is plugging away at his Easter sermon, and getting maybe just a little giddy.