Saturday, July 31, 2010

"International Burn a Quran Day"

As you may imagine, it's not really all that international. Only in America, beloved. And principally in the crazy parts of America. Like CaliforniaMontanaDCAlbanyTexas. And Florida.

A Gainesville church called the Dove World Outreach Center (and, pardon us, but that's the name of your church? It sounds like the fellowship hall) has announced plans to observe the anniversary of 9/11 by displaying a little religious intolerance of their own. The headline says it all.

Nor is this their first brush with raw hatred. They've a got a "No Homo Mayor" protest scheduled for this Tuesday, just in case their town ever elects one. And then there's this:
Last year, [Dove] put up a sign on its property that read “Islam is of the Devil.” Not surprisingly, the sign triggered an uproar in the neighborhood, with residents calling the sign hateful. ...
But here's the part we love:
When asked if he has ever participated in interfaith dialogues, [pastor Terry] Jones said “of course” and said he has talked to the [Committee on America-Islamic Relations] director in Tampa, Fla. He also said he has invited Muslims to come to the 9/11 Quran burning event and is willing to dialogue with them during the activity.
Talk about your good neighbor policy. Because who doesn't love to watch their religion's scriptures burned? Or to use dialogue as a verb?

It all sounds a bit fishy, though. Yes, this is America, the land where churches raffle off automatic rifles. But still, this sort of over-the-top display seems awfully ... retro. As in Deus lo vult and all that. So who, we asked ourselvees, are these people? And whaddaya know, they're friends with Westboro Baptist.

Ahhh. Now we get it. Westboro Baptist, the freakish hate cult that shows up waving ugly signs at the funerals of dead soldiers. The same one that picketed Comic-Con and got its tail kicked by a bunch of pimply-faced nerds.

"Reader, Suppose I Were a Congressman ..."

So there's Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Cal.), just driving along, minding his own business, when he has what all drivers dread, a sudden encounter with Smokey the Bear.

Look, we all get pulled over once in a while, right? Well, not Father A., because he prefers mass transit, but most other people do. No big deal, and in this case the kindly officer of the law let the Congressman go with a warning.

The funny part is that Lungren wasn't just speeding. he was speeding while talking on his cell phone. In fact, he was taking part in a live radio interview on his cell phone. While speeding.

Actually, it's not that funny. Whether or not people choose to believe it, talking on the phone impairs your driving just as badly as drinking. (Somebody please explain this to our wife's entire family. They are teetotallers who constantly call us from the highway, and we can often hear the delighted squeals of children and grandchildren in the back. Our blood runs cold.)

By the way, Lungren is a former California Attorney General, whose website makes a big deal about his tough-on-crime credentials. So we think that whole getting off with a warning is sort of ironic.

For the record, you shouldn't let the name fool you. Dan Lungren is not a Lutheran. He's the other kind of Catholic.

Oops. Our Bad.

Sorry, people. it turns out were were mistaken about Martin Luther, and indeed about many other things. Such as Jesus. An anonymous reader sets us straight, with the following cheery note:
Hi, I am from Australia.

Luther was not a genius. He was essentially an emotionally constipated sexual neurotic -- as indeed were and are most Christians.
Our first response was delight at the conventional spelling and punctuation. So few authors of crazy letters take the time, and that just makes us wonder how much they care. Bad writing is not a sign of sincerity, people!

And honestly, calling Luther "constipated" and "neurotic" isn't especially crazy. (Or novel. Paging Erik Erikson!) We briefly considered the possibility that this was going to be a note from a reasonable person possessed of dubious social skills. A Christopher Hitchens without the wit, let's say. We were rather pleased by the thought of our humble little Egg becoming a place for reasonable people to discuss the foundations of religious conviction.

But then, alas, our anonymous correspondent added some links. We followed them, but don't intend to share. They lead to some classic 70s-era faux Hindu claptrap. Here's a sample:
Sexual communion is the technical term used by Bubba Free John to describe the process whereby the emotional-sexual functions of the psycho-physical being are first yielded into Communion with the Current of All-Pervading Life and then sacrificed or transcended in perfect God-Commnion [sic].
Claptrap, to be sure. But "Bubba Free John"? You don't come across names like that every day, so our curiosity was piqued. Turns out that Bubba Free John, who went by about a dozen other made-up names, was a 1970s cult leader. It's the usual story: a lonely kid on a spiritual quest hooks up with a bogus "yogi" in Greenwich Village; moves to San Francisco (during the Jim Jones years, mind you); builds a commune; does a lot of drugs; has a lot of sex with a lot of people who think he may be God; makes a few porno movies; and lives out his days on Raymond Burr's private island near Tahiti. You've heard it all before, right?

But here's the part that stuck with us. Bubba Free (or Mr. John? One never knows) started life as Franklin Albert Jones, a nice Lutheran boy from Queens. Altar boy at his home parish. He even studied at the Philadelphia seminary for a little while, as well as at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary.

Dodged a bullet on that one, didn't we? Can you imagine if a whack job like that had been ordained?

Well, actually, yes. We can imagine it all too easily.

For some years, we served on Long Island, very near the birthing-grounds of something called Shoresh Yishai. To make a long and painful story short, a couple of bright young ALC boys made a big splash there in the 1970s. People always describe them the same way: Charismatic. (Side note: When we at the Egg hear the word "charismatic," we reach for our pistol, or at any rate our aspergillum loaded with holy water.) Pretty soon, one of the pastors, Jack Hickman, revealed that he was the scion of a secret line of rabbis, or maybe the Messiah, and things went downhill from there. The damage that Hickman did to the spiritual and emotional lives of his congregation is almost incalculable, and we say this after spending several years helping to mend the wounds.

So, pardon us, anonymous reader from Australia, if we don't jump on the bandwagon. Luther may indeed have been "an emotionally constipated sexual neurotic," and so may we and those who share our Christian faith. We don't think so, but we'll admit the possibility. Still, at the end of the day, we can live with our neurosis. We aren't sure that you can live long or happily with the teachings of Bubba Free John, and we hope that you will shake free of them. When you do, call us. We'll be there to help pick up the pieces.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Okay, Maybe the Future IS Here

You know, we hate to admit that we were wrong. But apparently, a mere decade after the start of the new century, the mass-production flying car is a reality.

Terrafugia makes one. Costs under $200,000, which is lotsa dough, but less than a Maybach or a Maserati. A reviewer (click up top) says that the production model will be "less dorky" than the proof-of-concept vehicle posted here.

All righty, then. We assume that silver jumpsuits, Soylent Green, and weekends relaxing by the Sea of Serenity are all just around the corner.

We still think a neo-twelfth-century future would have been cooler, but we'll take what we can get.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Luther's S#!t

Theology is a rough game. Perhaps we are mistaken, but it has always seemed to us that Lutheran theology is played with particularly sharp elbows.

We aren't alone in thinking this. Melancthon's acid prayer (to be "delivered from the rabies theologorum") speaks to a lifetime spent seeking to build bridges between people who preferred to stand on opposite banks of a river and throw stones. Of these, arguably the most committed to stone-throwing were the Gnesio-Lutherans, the self-appointed defenders of doctrinal purity within the Evangelical movement. To this day, it astonishes us that they succeeded in affixing labels like "pussyfooter" and even "traitor" to Melanchthon himself -- the guy who wrote the freaking Augustana.

Some of the blame -- okay, much of the blame -- rests properly with Luther himself. He was a towering genius, but he was also prone to writing nasty, vulgar, personal attacks. Consider his exchange with Erasmus, a misstep which may have cost the Reformation cause its brainiest ally. Luther knew this about himself, and admits it in many places.

Philip Schaff, the Swiss historian who served memorably as one half of the German Reformed seminary at Mercersburg, knew it as well. In his rambling history of the German Reformation, he puts it this way:
Luther’s polemics had a bad effect on the Lutheran Church. He set in motion that theological fury which raged for several generations after his death, and persecuted some of the best men in it, from Melanchthon down to Spener.
His blind followers, in their controversies among themselves and with the Reformed, imitated his faults, without his genius and originality; and in their zeal for what they regarded the pure doctrine, they forgot the common duties of courtesy and kindness which we owe even to an enemy.
He then adds in a footnote:
These champions of Lutheran orthodoxy were not simply Lutherisch, but verluthert, durchluthert, and ├╝berluthert. ...

They believed that Luther’s example gave them license to exhaust the vocabulary of abuse, and to violate every rule of courtesy and good taste. They called the Reformed Christians "dogs," and Calvin’s God "a roaring bull (
Br├╝llochse), a blood-thirsty Moloch, and a hellish Behemoth." They charged them with teaching and worshiping the very Devil (den leibhaftigen Teufel), instead of the living God. One of them proved that "the damned Calvinistic heretics hold six hundred and sixty-six tenets [the apocalyptic number!] in common with the Turks." Another wrote a book to show that Zwinglians and Calvinists are no Christians at all, but baptized Jews and Mohammedans.
The best line is from the ellipsis, but deserves to be savored in isolation:
They fulfilled the prediction of the Reformer: "Adorabunt stercora mea." ...
That is, They will worship my shit. Or dung, if you must. Either way, there's a fair description of the Gnesio-Lutheran impulse. Nor is the impulse restricted to one group; how many times have you heard "Well, Luther says ..." used to end a debate, as though there were no higher or more reliable authority?

Did he really say it? We hope so, but in all fairness, one never knows with Luther. The famous remark about planting a tree appears to be spurious. So far as we can tell from our friends at Google, Schaff's line is adapted from the Table Talk, and is otherwise reported as Adorabunt stercora nostra, et pro balsamo habebunt. That is, they will worship our, um whatever, and they will mistake it for perfume. Which just makes it better.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We Want Our Future Back

Dude, where's my jetpack?

Father Anonymous is among the many Americans of his generation to express frequent consternation that the 21st century is underway, and yet the promises made in the 20th remain unfulfilled. And no, this has nothing to do with peace, equality or the four-day workweek. We're talking technology here: the silver jumpsuits, the tourist jaunts to Moonbase Alpha, the damn flying car.

The disappointments of yesterday's futurism have spawned a number of books, websites and museum shows. But the truth is that most of them focus on a single roughly coherent vision, one circumscribed chronologically by Hugo Gernsback's pulp magazine at one end, and 2001: A Space Odyssey at the other, with ten thousand issues of Popular Mechanics in between. (To be fair, a rival vision, called steampunk, has gained much traction recently. For the uninitiated, steampunk envisions a present designed by Jules Verne -- brass and velvet iPhones, and everybody wearing goggles).

But what about our medieval future, huh? What about that?

In separate and outstanding blog pieces, Hugh of Cluny and Matthew Alderman describe Ralph Adams Cram, the architect of St. John the Divine and St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue -- two of the finest church buildings in New York City -- as a social visionary, whose enthusiasm for the Middle Ages led him to imagine a 21st century filled with Gothic buildings, graduate schools organized like monasteries, and so forth. Such were Cram's mainstream credentials (and such was the prewar culture) that this actually seemed like a feasible alternative not just to Gernsbackian pulp but even Bauhausian Modernism.

As Alderman says,
While [Cram] was defiantly counter-cultural, the fact the culture at large was willing to give him a listen, suggests that the cultural dominance of modernistic thought, art and architecture, was hardly as assured or as easy a progress as we have been led to believe. We often read in books of the Liturgical Movement era of the coming golden age of Gregorian chant and popular participation, with the same inevitable assurance one heard in subsequent decades of Jetsons-style flying cars, neither one of which has come to pass.
But what an age it would have been.

We're So Proud

Our Beloved Godson is setting out on a cross-country road trip, and photoblogging it. Links are above and to the side.

Now, technically speaking, this blog has nothing to do with the Egg's three declared topics of interest -- that is, sex, religion and politics. (Depending, we suppose, on how the trip goes.) But we commend it to you for any of several reasons.
  • First, because America is a nice country, and pictures of it are always worth a gander;
  • Second, because the kid is a talented church musician, so you never know when religion might sneak in;
  • And third, because regular Egg readers may enjoy the family resemblance.
We're not kidding about that resemblance, either. In his second post, the OBG comes right out and calls himself "an English major with overwrought prose." And to prove it, he capitalizes the initial in "Gargantuan," turning complaints about laundry into a quick allusion to medieval French literature. What more do you need?

And, yes, we like the Blogger template, too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dept. of Strange Bedfelows

The Egg's editorial staff has spent the last week so exercised about shoddy prose that we have barely thought about politics. But that doesn't mean that the leaders and wannabees have stopped shaming themselves or the beloved Homeland. Not for a moment!

Here are some of the most egregious cases:
  • Congressman Charlie Rangel isn't a crook. Just ask him. And he won't say he is, even if it helps him to avoid a trial. Dude is going down.
  • "Dumbasses": Tea Party favorite Ken Buck got caught on tape wishing that the Party faithful, and particularly its Birther wing, weren't ... well, you get it. Also that crowd favorite Tom Tancredo wouldn't "open his mouth" so much. Honesty is refreshing, especially when inopportune.
  • Islam is Not a Religion! Just ask Ron Ramsey, Tennessee gubernatorial hopeful. Apparently, it's a cult, and cults don't have free speech.
  • "Don't Vote For My Dad": In what is easily the best campaign slamvertisement since "Ma, Ma Where's My Paw," the daughter of Oklahoma attorney and wannabee judge John Mantooth has taken out ads declaring that he "is not a good father ... is not a good grandfather ... [and] he would not be a good judge." But read Gawker for the bit about maggot-ridden chocolates!
Somewhere, George Washington is weeping.

Speak of the Devil. Inclusively.

The National Council of Churches proposes that the use of gender inclusive language in church is on the decline in member churches, and that [m]ale pronouns, particularly in reference to God, are becoming all-too common again ....

The NCC's solution is a symposium in Chicago. We're sure that will fix everything.

Coincidentally enough, this press release, via Pretty Good Lutherans, comes hard on the heels of our reflection yesterday on the questionable literary style employed the the most-inclusive-yet ELCA, service book, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. We did our best to separate what we perceive to be two distinct issues, prosody and inclusivity.

To be honest, we assume that many parishes prefer not to use the sort of language the NCC envisions for either of two reasons: (1) the more traditional language for God and human beings is familiar and therefore comes naturally to the tongue, where the alternative sounds forced; or (2) the older, and at least arguably less accurate, language genuinely reflects their shared theological perspective.

But after our own reflection yesterday, we want to consider a third possibility, and one which we hope the coming symposium will discuss. It is possible that parishes have resisted service books and hymnals using inclusive language not because of any doubt about the underlying principles, but rather because most of the books presented to them are so clumsily written. Not the inclusive bits, but the whole books. Badly, badly written.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Andy Marshall is Amazing

Andy Marshall is one heck of a photographer. If you need proof, check out his pictures of some Gothic architecture, linked above. They are astonishing.

We tried to post a copy of one shot, but it seemed to cause display trouble -- not to mention raising copyright issues. So you'll just have to trust old Father A., and click.

If the link doesn't work, try cutting and pasting this into your browser window:

Scary Creepy Fake Nun

Ick and double-ick. Seems there's this fake nun who has spent decades hustling New Yorkers for donations, which go to support some sort of criminal cult. She tells people she's a missionary of "the Episcopalian [sic] church," caring for poor widdle orphan girls, but our friends at the Post have the real scoop:

"Sister Milindia" is not a sister. The Episcopal Church has never heard of her; she's been busted at least once, in 1997, for misrepresenting herself as a nun in The Bronx; and the orphanage for which she claims to raise money doesn't exist.

Her real name is Mindy LeGrand, 54, and she's connected to a "church" in Crown Heights founded in the 1970s by a killer rapist with a harem of a dozen phony nuns. The church is now led by the founder's son, who is also a convicted rapist.

The outfit has no Episcopal or other church affiliation, is not a registered charity and has no foster- or day-care license of any kind.

Just ... ick

Sunday, July 25, 2010

It's Not the Feminism, It's the Strunk & White

Yes, yes: ELW stinks. But not for the reasons that so many of its detractors imagine. It's not Gracia Grindal's humbug notion of a changed focus, from us to God. Nor is it the trusted conservative bogey-woman, Radical Damned Feminism. On the contrary, the central problem with ELW, at least so far as the rendering of liturgical texts goes, is that the translators were not encouraged to re-read The Elements of Style before they sat down to work.

Here's a typical complaint, from the blog of one Jack Whritenour, who claims to speak for something called "The Society for the Preservation of Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy." Whether such a society exists we do not know; if so, nobody has ever invited us to join, and we're miffed.

Father W. has compared the forthcoming ICEL translations to those from 1970, and greatly prefers the new ones for graceful phrasing and fidelity to the Latin. But his principal concern in the post is to take a swipe at ELW's liturgical language. He points to the creeds and, especially, the Psalms -- a subject about which we are pretty unhappy ourselves.
It would have been wonderful if the committee that produced Evangelical Lutheran Worship had waited until these new ICEL translations had come out. Actually, however, it wouldn't have mattered since the ELW people were not interested in fidelity in translating ancient liturgical texts but in promoting their own narrow ultra-feminist sectarian agenda....
But, for the record, if he really thinks that this hamhanded PC paraphrasing constitutes an "ultra-feminist agenda," he needs to get out more. This is ultra-feminism. Or this. or even (barely) this. (And by the way -- don't you love the way some people turn "agenda" into a dirty word? Try leading a vestry meeting without one.) After the swipe, though, he makes a point worth hearing:
The irony is, in some cases, the Latin texts are much more inclusive than ELW's. For example, the response that has been rendered "It is right to give our thanks and praise" is "Dignum et justum est" in Latin. This should be translated simply as "It is right and just." In the LBW it was rendered "It is right to give him thanks and praise." This was borrowed from the ICEL text of the 1970 Missal. Then the ELW people tinkered with an already poorly rendered text, changing "him" to "our" in order to avoid 'offensive masculine language for God. ... All this could have been avoided, of course, if the Latin had been translated properly in the first place.

Okay, cards on the table. We like feminism in theology, at least in many cases, and we tire of those who want to blame its insights for everything they dislike. The problems with ELW's language for prayer, and they are many, flow from several sources, of which an excessive concern about gendered language is only one.

Still, with all these demurrals properly made, here is our main point: Whritenour is correct about translation. Because of the way gender works in the original languages, a translation is often most faithful when it avoids gendered nouns in English. The reason is that our language connects grammatical to biological gender in a way that many others do not, whence Mark Twain's quip that "in German, a young lady has no sex while a turnip has." Hence, the long tradition of adding he, him, and (more debatably) man to sentences whose original lacked them is one categorical error, and the shorter one of replacing them with she-and-a-snicker, they and humankind is another. (Readers found using Godself in our presence will be sent a copy of Fowler by express post). Of course, there are cases in which biological identity is spelled out in ways that modern people find unnecessary; both the LBW and ELW shied away from Ps. 1's blessed is the man, which is perfectly clear in Hebrew.

Although Whritenour doesn't mention the collects, they are the best example (far better than the notoriously obtuse Sursum corda, etc.). Rarely addressing God as "Lord" and still more rarely as "Father," they are feminist-friendly as written. Much is made of their typical three-part structure, but for us the defining characteristic is their brevity. Compared to the usual windy prayer, including many from centuries before "I just wanna" became a characteristic bit of filler, they are masterpieces of both depth and concision. This is achieved largely through the use of Latin grammar, and cannot easily be translated into English. Still, Cranmer did a damned fine job, and it ticks us off when less adept translators feel a need to add, apparently for "clarification," concepts which are either absent from the originals, or implicit in them.

We're looking at you, ELW. In our post about last Sunday's collect, we pointed out that the LBW (based, we presume, on the 1970 ICEL translation) added several ideas to the Latin original -- that God's ears are always open, that the gifts for which we pray come from the Spirit, and that beyond asking for things that God wants us to have, we should live in harmony with God's will -- a much more daunting task. That was the LBW, but ELW goes much further in the same direction, and it is the wrong one.

While we at the Egg may adopt a faux-Edwardian pomposity for comic effect, let us be clear: in real writing, the kind that matters, we flex a knee at the altar of Strunk and White. We admire in particular section 13: Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. That is where the ELW collects fail.

And this complaint isn't primarily about gendered language. It isn't even primarily about faithful translation. It is about literary style, a subject closer to the heart of traditional worship than many people understand. What, after all, separates our churches most from the "I just wanna crowd," if not the deliberate choice of carefully-prepared liturgical texts, which speak to and about God with the precision, clarity and economy of good writing?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Blogs, They Are A-Changin'

Hey, check it out -- the Egg looks all funny today.

For the last four and a half years, we've been using the same amateurish-looking template, clumsily modified by a crusty old cleric with no discernible HTML skills. Meanwhile, our kindly hosts at Blogger have been steadily upping their game, providing ever-better tools for making sites look ... well, less bad.

We didn't care. Or at least we pretended not to, affecting a monkish disdain for the things of this world. All the while, of course, we were grinding our teeth at the cool gadgets appearing on Pastor Joelle's site -- "She has a sidebar full of other people's recent posts! Why I oughtta ...!" And, truth be told, there is a guy in our synod who uses the same damn template, and fills it full of long-winded Pietistic rambling. That alone was enough to give us acid reflux.

So finally came a day, with the Sunday sermon finished and Baby Anonymous out with mommy, when we could wait no longer. We pushed the scary "upgrade" button, and this was what we got. Hope you like it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

About Sunday's Collect

If you're preaching come Sunday, you might consider the collect, in its various forms.

The lessons from Genesis (praying for Sodom) and Luke ("teach us to pray) suggest a sermon dealing with prayer, and the collect of the day makes some useful suggestions.

Here is the original, from the Leonine and Gelasian sacramentaries*:

Pateant aures misericordiae tuae, Domine, precibus supplicantium: et ut petentibus desiderata concedes, fac eos quae tibi placita sunt postulare. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum.

Here is the 1549 Book of Common Prayer rendering, adopted by the Lutheran Common Service in various books:
LET thy merciful eares, O Lord, be open to the praiers of thy humble servauntes; and that they may obteine their peticions, make them to aske suche thinges as shal please thee; Through Jesus Christe our Lorde
Here is the LBW:

O God, your ears are open always to the prayers of your servants. Open our hearts and minds to you, that we may live in harmony with your will and receive the gifts of your Spirit; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The salutation, as rendered in the BCP, varies slightly from the customary collect form, by making a request rather than naming an attribute of God. The LBW amends this. Whether rightly or wrongly is a matter of judgment.

Pateant (from pateo, to stand or lie ope, to be accessible) is third person plural -- that is, it agrees with the plural aures, or ears. It is also subjunctive. Subjunctive verbs describe an unreal condition, meaning a thing that may not be or is not yet true. Hence they are often translated as imperatives -- "Let there be light," or, here, "Let them be opened."

We are more interested in the implication of precibus supplicatio. The BCP renders it as "the prayers of thy humble servants," the LBW as "your servants." But its true meaning is not about service at all. Precibus is a dative. Supplicantium is, we believe, a participle, from supplico, "to bend," whence "to beseech, beg, etc." The phrase doesn't make good English, but it means literally something like "Open the ears of your mercy to the beseeching prayer".

The most important element, for us, is the liberty taken by LBW in the next clause. The original is about opening God's ears; here it is turned into something about opening our own hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit is introduced, quite possibly because the Spirit's gifts are assumed to be immaterial, and therefore difficult to identify. (At least compared to crass things so many people actually ask for, like a Mustang convertible or world peace.) In other words, this translation chickens out.

While it is indeed desirable that we should live (and pray) in harmony with God's will, and receive the gifts of the Spirit, we at the Egg prefer the simpler original idea: so that we can get what we ask for, make us ask for what we should get. For example, in the language of Sunday's Gospel, keep us from asking for scorpions, when what we need are eggs.

It sounds to us as though the translator got nervous about the whole idea of petitioning God, and about the possibility that those petitions might be answered. People who feel that way probably shouldn't be asked to re-write classic prayers.

For those who use ELW, a different collect is prescribed, which we give here in its BCP and ELW forms:

ALMIGHTIE and everlastyng God, which art alwayes more ready to heare then we to praye, and art wont to geve more than eyther we desyre or deserve; Powre downe upon us the aboundance of thy mercy; forgeving us those thynges wherof our conscience is afrayde, and gevyng unto us that that our prayer dare not presume to aske, through Jesus Christe our Lorde.

Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Since we won't be praying this one ourselves on Sunday, we have less to say about it. It's a fine old prayer (Gregorian sacramentary, customarily used a couple of weeks after our first example), but we don't think it works quite as well with the lessons. Abraham and the disciples are all quite ready to pray. They may need help, or even some reality therapy regarding the inhabitants of Sodom, but they are standing by and ready. Still, it does describe the guy who translated the LBW prayer above, doesn't it? And many of the rest of us, from time to time -- your humble blogger included.

This is where supplicantium precibus comes in, we suppose. Sometimes, we undertake our prayers in a routine fashion, almost as practice, the way an athlete wakes up every morning to run a few miles. And like an early-morning runner, we aren't always eager to do it, even though we probably need to. But sometimes, our prayers are urgent, like those of a man running from a bear. Both kinds of running are important -- the trained athlete is a lot more likely to escape the bear. But one kind comes naturally, and the other does not.
*There is a small variation between the two sacramentaries. Do you really care?

Nerds Who Care

The Westboro "Baptist" people, a freakish cult committed to picking on people in public, recently paid a visit to Comic-Con, the world's largest gathering of people who were picked on in junior high.

The result was a duel of placards, in which the Comic-Con protesters won a decisive victory. To WBC's monotonous "God hates fags," the counterprotesters came up with a series of brilliant ripostes, in their own peculiar jargon:
  • All Glory to the Hypnotoad
  • Odin Is God; Read The Mighty Thor #5
  • Magnets: How the *?#*! Do They Work?
  • Kill All Humans (displayed by a cartoon robot)
  • The Cylons Destroyed the 12 Colonies for Your Sins
We realize that most Egg readers won't get the jokes, but trust us -- they're funny. And more than funny, they are sharp.

We've rarely been prouder of our coke-bottle lenses and pocket protector.

Crowdsourcing FAIL

This is a genuine exchange, taken from, a general information wiki which calls itself "the world's leading Q&A site":
Q: Is First Apostolic Lutheran a religion?

A: No, apostlic is pentecostal which belives in the trinity however Lutheran is the bible and christianity based on Martin Luther King jr.
Ahem. What? Seriously: what?

Anyway, tip o' the biretta to Our Beloved Godfather for this gnomic wonder.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Worth Quoting

From Pastor Joelle:
We need to hear more about God’s grace, not less. If I never get anything else right in my life, if I mess up everything else, I stand convinced to my soul that Grace is everything.
Got it, people? Everything.

Really, Really Mad Max

As we consider the wreckage that was once Mel Gibson's career, it occurs to us that we never really liked the guy's movies.

That's not quite fair. Tequila Sunrise is one of our favorite noir pictures, combining all the elements -- tough guys with questionable morals, betrayal by a friend and a girl worth the risk. But apart from that, we've never seen many of his movies. Skimming over the IMDB filmography, we were surprised to discover that we've barely seen any of them: Mad Max, a few Lethal Weapons, What Women Want. Oh, and one of those Twilight Zone knockoffs that helped put the coffin-nail in M. Night Shyamalan's career. It was a lousy movie, although it would have been better if he'd worn his clerical collar all the way through, instead of just at the end. We automatically give a thumbs-up to pictures about guys in clerical collars fighting extraterrestrial invaders.

Which reminds us that religion and politics, not to mention sex, have often played a significant role in Gibson's image. We avoided The Passion of the Christ, not because of the various controversies that accompanied its release, but we'd already read the book. In the background for many years has been Gibson's close association with an obscure schismatic church body, which the press insists on identifying as "Catholic." As we've said before, these sedvacantist crazies are about as Catholic as Pat Robertson. He thought Bill Clinton was taking orders from a secret paymaster. And then there's the drunken anti-semitic rant.

Anyway, it's over now. The series of phone calls leaked to the press (click here for a rundown) has pretty much doomed Gibson as a public figure. Using the most vulgar language imaginable, he abuses his girlfriend verbally -- and also, it appears, physically. Oh, and endangers their child. People don't like that. When Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives, he was utterly and completely mistaken. America, the land of self-reinvention, is all about second and third acts. Any person, having achieved even a modest level of fame -- or infamy -- has almost unlimited access to further fame in the future. Almost unlimited, because beyond a certain point, the public simply decides to hate you. And, like Fatty Arbuckle before him, Gibson has hit that point.

Now, let's take a grain of salt. Remember that these tapes were leaked in the middle of (redundancy alert!) an ugly custody battle. And remember that there is some speculation that they have been altered. We do not doubt that there is skullduggery going on here, and that somebody desires to make Gibson look especially terrible and the girlfriend look unrealistically good. But the thing is that they've succeeded. Even if the tapes have been altered, he said some baaaadd things. We don't know what will happen in court, but we are pretty certain that, in the court of public opinion, Gibson has been tried and found icky. He may make a few more movies, but they will fail. He may even find a niche, marketing some product to religious extremists who don't consider anti-semitism or spousal abuse to be necessarily contrary to their faith. But so far as the big spotlight goes, he is toast.

And yet, here's the real joke, on all of us: He's still mind-numbingly rich. Even if his separated wife and vengeful girlfriend wind up with most of the bank account, the guy will still die with more money than we can imagine. Nice guys may or may not finish last, but sons-of-bitches often do seem to finish first.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Naked Girls Reading

Where, oh where, was the burlesque revival when Father Anonymous was a callow youth? And where above all things was Naked Girls Reading?

The concept is pretty nearly self-explanatory, but you can read more about it by clicking the link above, or going straight to the creators' site. Basically, pretty women who normally strip to their pasties and juggle flaming batons turn over a new page (pun borrowed from the Globe and Mail) to get naked and read books out loud. Any books at all.

Sexist? Sure. Pretentious? You betcha. And creepy, too. Consider this:

The women describe the NGR salon as magical, entrancing and enchanting. “It has a courtesan feel about it,” [Tanya] Cheex says. “It’s seductive, because we’re naked, and, at the same time, comforting, like listening to your mother reading to you when you were little.”

[Sauci Calla] Horra adds: “In burlesque, we unveil our bodies. In Naked Girls Reading, we unveil our souls.”

Shudder. And yet creepy sexist pretension had a place in our hearts, back in the 80s, and we'd be lying if we said it was entirely homeless even today.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

We Told You It Would Happen

We said that you would soon see press reports identifying LCMS President-elect Matthew Harrison as the "conservative" contender in his race with Gerard Kieschnick. And here you are.

We are disappointed, of course, for all the reasons we spelled out the other day. And we are even more disappointed to see this in BeliefNet, which is devoted to writing on religion, and ought therefore to be more sensitive to the genuine complexity of affairs like this, which rarely boil down to left vs. right.

But we are more than disappointed, and a little amused, by Nicole Neroulias' almost self-mocking disclaimer:
I haven't reported on the LCMS before, but this sounds like another case of intrafaith conflict between conservatives and liberals ....
Well, no, it doesn't. And if you think it does, shouldn't you check with people who might know better?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Seriously Old Books

Garima Gospels before restoration
According to the legend, Byzantine prince with healing powers was called from Constantinople to the northern part of what is today Ethiopia. There, this Abba Garima founded a monastery, and for twenty years performed miracles of healing.

The legend describes some other miracles as well, of a fairly conventional sort. Some of his spittle gave life to a bit of clay. He wrote out the four Gospels in a single day, aided by the fact that God lengthened the day. That sort of stuff.

Here's the cool part, though: the monastery really does own some beautiful illuminated Gospel manuscripts. They are in the Byzantine style, with text in Ge'ez. Scholars have only looked at them a few times over the past 60 years, and the consensus had been that they dated to roughly 1100. Even this would make them remarkably old, particularly since many Ethiopian manuscripts have been destroyed in war.

But it gets better, because a French scholar named Jacques Mercier, presumably with the permission of the monks, removed a few parchment fragments that had broken off, and took them home to be carbon-dated. And guess what? One of the manuscripts may date somewhere between AD 330-540, and the other between AD 430-650.

This makes them among the very oldest illuminated Christian manuscripts in existence. And by the way, Abba Garima is said to have come to Ethiopia in 494, which makes it possible that he really did have a hand in creating these.

Score one for tradition.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

He's "The Pope's Favorite Rabbi" ... for a Reason

We have long believed that many of Benedict XVI's missteps as Pope, typified by Regensburg, have been the result of a long academic career. In the classroom, a professor can tease, provoke and sometimes bully, all within the true spirit of his profession. Even the best of them play to a comparatively small audience.

In a HuffPo piece, the comically prolific Jacob Neusner offers a scholar's take on the Ratzinger papacy. Bottom line: he agrees with us. So much so, indeed, that he doesn't see the missteps as missteps; he sees them as guarantors of integrity:

The first five years of the papacy of Cardinal Ratzinger have revealed these traits along with abundant humility and kindness and love. But the world will take some time to get used to its scholar-pope, who speaks forthrightly about fundamental issues and lets the chips fall where they may.

The Muslims learned that fact in Regensburg, when the Pope in a profound lecture called into question the contribution of Islam to civilization.

The Anglicans learned that fact when the Pope in a gesture of honesty invited the Anglican priesthood to join the Church.

The Jews learned that fact when the Pope reverted to a liturgy that called into question the faith of Judaism.

In all three cases ... the scholar-pope had told the truth as Catholic Christianity at heart sees it: Islam cannot compete with Christianity for moral insight, the Anglicans will be welcome home, and the Jews would be better off in the Church. Pope Benedict spoke like a scholar and pronounced Christian truth as the infallible Bishop of Rome pronounced it. A scholar could do no less.

The pressing issue, of late, is sexual molestation. The debate over the pre-pope's handling of one case may well color the remainder of his papacy. We continue to believe that the Church of Rome has been institutionally crippled by both bad customs (sacerdotal clubbiness and fear of cleansing sunlight), bad psychology (the myth that child molesters can be "cured") and bad theology (the mistaken focus upon individual acts of sin, rather than upon the alien power of same). Neusner, however, gives a sensitive description of the matter as many Roman Catholics surely perceive it:

The current issue that troubles the peace is Cardinal Ratzinger's prior disposition of the case of a priest guilty of sexually abusing children. Christian charity called for forgiveness of the priest, a broken dying penitent. Justice demanded excommunication. Cardinal Ratzinger withheld the rites of humiliation that formed the just penalty. The man died in the bosom of the Church. Benedict VI showed the meaning of repentance and Christian love.

Read for yourself, and decide.

The Hebrew Universe

As described in the Old Testament and rendered by artist Michael Paukner. Click the link above to learn more, at i09.
A scientific diagram of the ancient Hebrew cosmos

Surprise! Missouri Chose the Conservative

Yesterday, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod gave its president, Gerald Kieschnick, the boot after three consecutive three-year terms. His replacement is Matthew Harrison, whom in the next few days we expect some press coverage will identify as a "conservative" choice of the LCMS. Shocking, we realize.

We generally consider scare quotes appropriate in a situation like this: the "conservative." Because that word really doesn't have much use in religious circles. Viewed historically, for example, the Baptist movement is intensely radical, dedicated to the complete overthrow of everything that preceded it; and yet most Baptists in the US are called "conservative Christians," and embrace the title. Lutheranism, by its nature, is among the most conservative of the Reformation traditions; and yet that is rarely reflected in the press or even the pews. The word is often mere shorthand, used by lazy thinkers and writers who are conditioned by political, rather than ecclesiastical, discourse. (Consider, for example, the Christianity Today headline that tries desperately to link a church convention to the Tea Party movement -- soiling an otherwise quite good article.)

So, that said, what does Harrison's election mean for the LCMS? What was at stake, and what may be expected to change when he takes office in September? We don't have answers, but we mave hints.

First, let's be clear that this election was a sweep of massive proportions. Earlier this month, candidates were nominated, and Harrison's nominations were nearly double Kieschnick's, 1332 to 755. At the actual assembly, Harrison won 54% of the vote, and more than that, he won on the first ballot. This signals a decisive rejection of Kieschnick.

Second, there is a generational difference between the two men. Kieschnick is 67, Harrison is 48. This means that they were born at either end of the Baby Boom. Kieschnick is a Texan, Harrison is from Iowa, and this may be just as important. The accusations within the LCMS have been that Kieschnick has pursued a "mega-church," "church growth movement" style at the expense of traditional Lutheran worship and churchmanship, as well as unity with other Christians at the expense of doctrinal purity. The latter charge seems to be rooted in his support for Atlantic District president David Benke, who once prayed in the presence of unbelievers.

The result is that challenges to Kieschnick, during the past nine years, have come from the wing of the LCMS that sometimes calls itself "Confessional." This is an unfortunate choice of words, since Lutheranism is a confessional movement, and those who do not share its confession of faith fall naturally outside the movement. It would make things easier if they called themselves the "no praise bands" wing or the "no praying in ballparks" wing. But whatever.

Harrison has served most recently as the director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and also has an academic interest in Herman Sasse, an important midcentury theologian especially beloved of Missouri. A quick Google search turns up several websites promoting Harrison's candidacy, in a way that reminds us of somebody running for Congress, although with considerably more dignity.

A better sense, not necessarily of who the guy is but of who supports him most vigorously, can be found on the website of a group called "The Brothers of John the Steadfast," after the second Elector of Saxony to support Luther. The site's logo includes this unintentionally droll tag: "Defending and Promoting Confessional Lutheranism and its Media." A quick skim of the site reveals the usual stuff: news posts, some articles on how the liturgy has gone to heck, and so forth. A lot of it, like the bookstore, is "coming soon," meaning that they don't actually have anything. By far the best part of the site is a tab called "No Pietists Allowed." We heartily encourage readers to click and enjoy.

But we confess to a certain concern about, well, the treatment of the fairer sex. The site offers it mission:

[To bring] together Lutheran laymen to defend and promote the orthodox Christian faith which is taught in the Lutheran Confessions, provide financial support for Christian new media ..., and to support other endeavors selected by its membership that defend and promote the cause of confessional Lutheranism.

Nothing wrong here; this is also a pretty good description of ALPB's mission, which makes us wonder why the world needs two of them. And we wonder why, if the mission is to bring together laymen, the main force behind it seems to be a pastor, one Tim Rossow. Most of the contributors seem to be ordained, the notable exception being GetReligion's Mollie Hemingway.

We do note the exclusive-sounding use of "laymen." Perhaps the word is meant, as it often is, to include women. Like Mollie. The usage is old-fashioned, but we at the Egg like old-fashioned usages. Still, we note it because the after the mission statement comes a list of four "challenges":

  1. Raise funds for confessional Lutheran new-media like Issues, Etc.
  2. Help men support their local pastor in the cause of defending confessional Lutheranism.
  3. Support the historic liturgy as a means of conserving the truth of God's word.
  4. Encourage and equip husbands to be the spiritual head of their household and a strong voice of leadership in their local congregation.

Help men support their pastor? Um, do women get to help? We hope so, because try running a parish -- any parish -- without 'em. But by the time we get to number 4, about husbands being "a strong voice of leadership in their local congregation," it looks as though Steadfast Lutherans seeks to be a strong voice for what many in the LCMS consider a Biblically-mandated hierarchy, and which to the rest of us looks like an over-the-top level of misogyny. At their worst, these guys make Rome look like a Reimagining Conference.

By the way, the organization's website claims to have a women's auxiliary, named (predictably) for Katie Luther. But when you click the link -- "coming soon."

So, none of this tells us what's really going on in the LCMS, but it does help give a sense of what Harrison's supporters are hoping for. Some of the agenda we support wholeheartedly -- praise bands are the new folk masses, and never forget it. But other points -- screw Benke, keep the ladies in the kitchen -- seem problematic to us.

Having once in our life seen the hand-picked candidate of a protest group elected over a weak and embattled predecessor, we are apprehensive about all this. Harrison will need to show remarkable strength of character if he is to help reverse the decline of his synod, beginning with the ability to heal the wounds his election has caused. He will need to show immense creativity, and he will require the charismata not of personality but of the Holy Spirit. We wish him well.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Delicta Graviora"

In Roman Catholic canon law, "delicta graviora" are the most serious offenses, and incur the harshest penalties. They are crimes.

The sexual abuse of children is already on this list, as one might expect. New norms from the Vatican, rumored for some weeks and announced recently, double the statute of limitations for reporting such crimes, from 10 to 20 years after the victim's 18th birthday. They also broaden the statute a bit, extending protection not only to children but to the developmentally disabled.

There's nothing wrong with this, and much right with it. A person nearing 40 may be far better prepared emotionally to revisit the initial trauma, in the interests of justice, than one nearing 30. Years of therapy can do that for you.

So why are many Roman Catholics hissing and spitting about the new norms? Glad you asked.

The new norms add to the list of delicta graviora the ordination, or attempted ordination, of a woman. (Both fall under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, if you were wondering.)

Ooops. See, now it looks to many observers as though the Vatican is somehow equating the ordination of women with the sexual molestation of children. Any number of headlines today say more or less precisely that. You can imagine the howls of outrage.

Let's try to be fair, shall we? The list of graviora delicta has long included a variety of liturgical abuses, including the "attempted celebration of the [Mass]" by a person not ordained to do so -- a layman, a deacon, etc. Obviously, in Papist eyes, any woman is part of that "etc." In a sense, this is just an extension of the first rule, since "attempted ordination" leads, naturally, to "attempted Eucharistic celebration." (Oh, and by the way: another offense of this stature is the celebration of the Eucharist "with ministers of ecclesial communities ... not in full communion with the Catholic Church." Which is why even your nicest neighbors always turn down those invitations.)

Linked above is a pretty good piece from US Catholic. Brian Cones writes:

Quite frankly, it is an outrage ... to connect the aspirations of some women among the baptized to ordained ministry with what are some of the worst crimes that can be committed against the least of Christ's members.

Furthermore, [t]he Vatican has in effect given legitimacy and momentum to what is still an incredibly tiny movement with this clumsy legal manuver, tantamount to the United States dropping a nuclear weapon on Luxembourg--only more ridiculous because this will do absolutely no damage to women's ordination movement. ...

The faithful have been justly demanding for nearly a decade clear guidelines for dealing with the sexual abuse of children, along with just punishments for both offenders and bishops who have abetted these crimes. What we have gotten is half of what we have been asking for (still no sanctions for bishops), along with a completely unconnected and unnecessary condemnation of the ordination of women. This is especially ironic given that many Catholics, and I include myself among them, see the absence of women in positions of power in the church as a contributor to the ongoing sex abuse crisis.

This move is a mistake, plain and simple, imprudent at best, at worst a serious further blow to Rome's already damaged credibility.

Now, that's his opinion. We're outsiders, and don't really think that the canon law of another church body is any of our business. The precise ranking of abuses -- gave, gravest, or other -- is an internal matter.

What bothers us, and what we do consider part of our shared business with all Christians, is the Vatican's persistent tone-deafness to matters of public perception. Once upon a time, Protestants could rejoice in Papist scandals -- and indeed, Protestants spent much of the Reformation publicizing and even inventing such scandals. But in the present environment, our destinies are linked. The credibility and appeal of all Christianity is in the dock, daily, in the court of public opinion -- and the jury is inclined toward hostility.

Which is why we appeal to Benedict XVI and the Curia, in all sincerity, to stop thinking like legalistic bureaucrats, who can toil away in obscurity, and start thinking like public figures, whose success or failure depends upon being honored and loved by the people.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Schuller's Daughter is a Dickensian Villain

She has sworn to make her poor old father work until he dies.

So, at least, we gather from the LA Times article linked above, in which Sheila Coleman, the daughter of televangelist Robert Schuller, expresses her "outrage" at the "irresponsible" press reports that her 83-year-old father would retire soon.

In fact, Coleman says, he will preach "till the day he dies." This strikes us as a little cruel on her part, since she is the newly-chosen (and newly-ordained) senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, and surely has it within her power to give her father a modest pension with which to live out his remaining years. (But perhaps the Reformed Church in America's pension plan has gone the way of Augsburg-Fortress's.)

Joking aside, the truth is that, as we have written before, we are surprised by our own affection for Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral. It isn't our kind of church, by any means, and we can't imagine what the rest of the RCA thinks of it. But a visit some years back helped to soften our cynical edge, by introducing us to real people for whom the "Cathedral" (of a church with no bishops, mind you) was simply their parish, where they gathered with old friends, were shaped by God's Word, buried their dead, and all the others things that people do in church.

Of course, we are not impressed by Schuller's clear desire to pass the church on to his children, as though it were family property. (The 2006 installation of Robert Jr. led to an ugly split). This sort of dynastic impulse, we suspect, represents the principal validation of a celibate ministry.

Still, we wish Coleman and her father well. We also pity her, more than a little, for inheriting a congregation with (a) a $55 million deficit; (b) contributions dropping 27% over two years, and (c) a powerful and overly-involved predecessor. It's a tough first call.

Mad Dog is the New Top Dog

The man now running our war in Afghanistan is USMC Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, described by a Marine magazine as a leader with almost mythical, rock-star status like Chesty Puller and Al Gray,” and by Danger Room as a "big brain."

He helped Petraeus write the counterinsurgency manual, which rocks; he believes in decentralizing battlefield decision-making, which is counterintuitive in a heavily wired age; and he believes that "the single primary deficiency among senior U.S. officers today is the lack of opportunity for reflective thought,"

All these things make us very happy, and fill us with as much hope as we can muster for Afghanistan. On the other hand, there are a few things worth remembering, including a nasty quotation that seems to reveal a lack of respect for his opponents, despite their considerable success against us. That's just foolish.

By the way, read the Danger Room post, linked above, and some of the comments. The first few say a lot, not only about Mattis but about the attitudes in play these days.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"A Protestant Atheist"

Philip Pullman writes a book; Christopher Hitchens reviews it. When Richard Dawkins reads the thing, we suppose, the circle is complete.

The book in question is called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and it proposes that Mary -- the one you and I may sometimes call a Blessed Virgin -- gave birth to twin sons. One of these is Jesus, a charismatic teacher given to making the occasional over-the-top statements about leaving one's home and family to follow him. The other is Mary's favorite, to whom she gives the private pet name Christ. This, um, Christ makes it his business to write down the things that his brother says and does. Encouraged by a nameless Greek fellow, Christ takes ever greater liberties with the truth, turning more-or-less ordinary events (people sharing food so that everybody eats) into supernatural ones (a miraculous feeding).

We have not read the book, and yet Hitch's description seemed instantly familiar. Of course it did -- we had learned it all in seminary. (Or rather, since our own seminary prided itself on a neo-orthodox disposition, we learned there to dislike it.) This is the Gospel according to the Jesus Seminar. It is little more than story told by two centuries, and more, of theological liberalism. Heck, PBS even made the same point, with a series called "From Jesus to Christ." Get it? Cuz they're different.

Once you hypothesize an "historical Jesus" who can be distinguished from the Jesus described by Scripture, and start making claims about him which are not supported by Scripture, you arrive pretty quickly at the place where Pullman seems to be: believing that "a good man" has been betrayed by a cabal of priests and schemers who, for their own purposes, turned him into the Son of God. Pullman even claims that his character's logia are "much closer to what Jesus would have said." Closer, apparently, than the Bible.

Hitchens gets this, and sums it up quite nicely:
This is ... to raise the possibility that Christianity can be salvaged from itself, or at any rate from its later accretions, by a sort of “back to basics” revisionism. The difficulty that Pullman never quite confronts is that this involves ... an unmediated contact with the original message. Atheist though he is, Pullman turns out to be a Protestant atheist.
This is a clever turn of phrase, even if owes a debt to Leslie Wetherhead's "Christian Agnostic." Indeed, it seems pretty clear the Pullman and Wetherhead do drink from the same fonts, the difference being only in how they respond to what we may call, for lack of a less ugly phrase, "the liberalist hypothesis" concerning Jesus. One, concluding that the stories don't fit with a credible reality, concludes that they matter for other reasons; the second concludes that the whole thing has been a vicious sham which he will now unveil. (Paging Bart Ehrmann, as well as every other disappointed fundamentalist.)

Anyway, the review is modestly interesting, if only as further testimony to something we have long believed, which s that much (but not all) of the "New Atheism" is really just the howling of disappointed Christians. It has less to do with truth and falsehood than with their own emotions and experiences.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Unicorns and Peace

We at the Egg may have a mean streak, but it's purely rhetorical. Truth is that we are a bunch of pussycats, who wish good things for everybody, and go to sleep dreaming of unicorns and world peace.

So we are not happy that a suicidal man named Derek Thomas was admitted to a hospital in Louisiana recently, and that when he refused to put on the standard-issue gown and tried to leave, he was tasered by the security guards. Nor are we happy that this brought on an epileptic seizure.

Nor, and this is the point, is our unhappiness in any way diminished by fact that this poor man is the nephew of our least-favorite Supreme Court justice. (Scalia is more evil, but kind of funny about it; Clarence "Bump on a Log" Thomas just ticks us off) The taser epidemic has spread rapidly; where once it was reserved for loutish frat boys at John Kerry speeches, voltage is now applied to pregnant drivers, emotionally overwrought grandmothers, and, well, members of the Thomas family.

No, this does not please us. But we do wonder whether this will make Justice Thomas reconsider his vote in a recent decision, regarding the vicious attack on a prison inmate who asked a guard for a grievance form. Thomas figured there was nothing much wrong with it, because the guy didn't suffer permanent injury.

We like to think that this will encourage Thomas to reconsider. But we also dream of unicorns and world peace.

Theology as Poetry, Part II

Having written the post below, which introduces a plea for theology considered not as if it were a precise science but as if it were a form of art, Father Anonymous slept quite poorly. This actually had more to do with a nauseated wife and a needy toddler than with either theology or blogging, but still it gave him time to think. And here is what he thought about:

Marcus Terentius Varro.

Varro, acclaimed as the most learned man in Rome during the collapse of the Republic, was a highly prolific author. Sadly, the vast bulk of his life's work is lost to us, including the Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum. (The fragments of this book have been collected, with German commentary, by Burkhardt Cardauns.) The best-known device from the Antiquitates, and the one that echoed in your poor sleepless blogger's head, is discussed by St Augustine in Civ. Dei 8:6, the "tripertite [sic] theology."

Varro divides pagan theology into three categories:
  • mythic (or "fabulous," or "poetic," depending upon your translation) -- the popular description of the deeds of the gods used by, for example, playwrights;
  • physical (or "natural," or "philosophical") -- philosophical meditation upon the gods and the universe, of a kind "which men's ears can more easily hear inside the walls of a school than outside in the Forum." (CD 8:6:6, quoting Varro);
  • civil (or "political") -- the rites prescribed by priests for public uses, such as watching birds in flight or studying a bull's entrails to determine the outcome of a day's battle (our example, not Varro's).
We cannot trust Augustine's witness completely, since his goal is to discredit pagan theology in any form. But Augustine says that Varro, as a man of cultivated intellect, finds the vulgar legends contemptible, and so criticizes the mythic theology freely, and would criticize the civil theology as freely if he were not constrained by fear of outraging the powerful. After all, those old stories full of animals and sex and sexy animals (Europa, Leda, etc.) are kind of creepy, and the civil rites are just as bad. Augustine has particular fun with the customs surrounding marriage, in which so many gods need to be appeased that the bridal chamber is full of them, even before the bride is expected to sit on the unnaturally large, um, member of Priapus.

The problem with mythic theology is that it betrays the work of natural theology, by reducing the gods to caricatures when it does not simply lie about them.

Being philosophical types, both Varro and Augustine seem inclined to respect "natural," or philosophical theology, in the latter case so long as it is subject to Christian revelation. And thereby hangs a tale, since Augustine is, by any reasonable account, the critical Christian thinker after the Biblical writers themselves. What our faith became, after the 5th century and especially after the 16th, it became in many ways because of Augustine. Even if his own theological method wasn't truly "natural" in the Varronian sense, it was shaped by the methods of academic philosophy -- close attention to rhetoric and etymology, for example; the constant drive toward abstraction, for another. This is the sort of abstruse, technical writing that most Christians mean when they talk about theology, especially of the sort called systematic or dogmatic.

It didn't have to be this way. The earliest Christian theological anthology, the New Testament, includes quite a variety of genres, and, although Varro's schema cannot easily be superimposed upon it, we can without too much stretching identify the narrative portions as mythic, and divide the epistles up between the three types, with an emphasis upon a philosophical exegesis of the myth. (This is not, we say again as clearly as possible, "natural theology" in the full sense the term has since acquired; but Paul and especially the author of Hebrews are "natural" in the original sense of philosophical reflection).

But setting Scripture aside as a unique case, it is easy to see Varro's theological modes at work in the next generations of Christian literature. The Shepherd of Hermas and Lactantius' Phoenix are clearly mythic, as (in another way) is the vast literature of dubious "history," from Lactantius's Deaths of the Persecutors to the ever-more-spurious "gospels," acta and passiones. The Didache and later church orders are civil, at least so far as there was a Christian "city" before Constantine. And academic philosophical reflection is everywhere, particularly in Alexandria. All of these methods of theological writing seem to have been given equal standing, up to the fourth century. After the Constantinian establishment, civil theology gained ground; and after an era dominated by Augustine and the Cappadocians, so too did the vision of theology as an intellectual enterprise, best suited to monks and scholars.

But mythic theology was left behind. Worse than that, it was discredited. And worse still, it was discredited because it became incredible. As Christian theology came to be identified more and more with systematic speculation on one hand and prescriptive ritualism on the other, the theology of narrative and metaphor became identifiably third-rate, the "popular religiosity" of the Middle Ages which reaches its nadir, we suppose, in the Legenda Aurea. Much of it was suitable for children and mental defectives. To the eyes of an Aquinas or Bernard, we can only imagine that these ludicrous legends looked as contemptible as the popular drama had to Varro. Both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation (think of the Bollandists) launched attacks upon the worst excesses, while creating new versions of their own.

We haven't got much further since. There is still a "mythic theology" among Christians, and it still isn't good for much, consisting as it does mostly of superstition compounded with bad theology and worse art, much of it directly at odds with the official teaching of any particular church. It overlaps with what sociologists call "civil religion," which -- whew -- shouldn't be confused with Varro's civil theology.

But consider this. The "mythic" theology derided by Varro and Augustine includes, along with the usual amounts of forgotten tripe, things like Homer, Ovid and Euripides -- household names even today, and writers cherished even by those who do not believe in their gods. They are no less central to our culture than Plato or Aristotle, and in some ways perhaps even a little more so.

The question, then, is whether modern Christianity has room for a kind of theological investigation largely abandoned sixteen centuries ago. Can serious theology any longer be done with tools other than those of logic and argument, and without using language so abstract it might as well be mathematics?

It is tempting to say, "Ah, but of course there has always been great Christian art. Wasn't Bach a theologian?" With all due respect to the dozens of people who have taught courses by that title, no, he was not. He was an artist, serving the Church and using his art to promulgate its teachings. This is quite an impressive thing by itself, made more so by the fact that he succeeded so brilliantly. We are talking about something else, something different from Christian art -- although in perfect honesty, we aren't quite sure what. We are talking about something as different from the Sistine Chapel as the Sistine Chapel is itself from a a traditional icon. That is to say, something that uses many of the same tools, and that may even treat some of the same subjects, but which lifts them to a new level.

Perhaps we mean something like this: Christian art, even at its best, serves either to support or (on some occasions) to rebut the doctrine agreed upon by "the theologians." When we try to imagine a mythic theology, we are seeking a kind of discourse which would create doctrine, just as systematic theology does -- not by itself, but in dialogue with the rest of the Church. It is a tall order, so tall that we can't quite see the top of it. But we think it is worth a look anyway.