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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Biting Our Tongue. Until It Bleeds.

As Egg readers know, Get Religion is a website we enjoy very much, even when we disagree with some of its perspectives. The one thing that consistently irks us is the tendency of commenters to focus upon the theological or political issues raised by a story, rather than the journalistic ones to which the site is dedicated.

That's why we didn't leave a comment today.

Terry posted an interesting story, based on a WSJ op-ed, proposing that the press has missed a big Obama-related story. The president has asked religious leaders to "spread the word" and become "validators" of health-care reform, which -- while natural enough at first glance -- certainly does raise some church-state issues. Father Anonymous lives in a region where that line is blurry on a good day, and sees firsthand the difficulties that come when the government gives it marching orders to the church, and/or vice-versa.

So good catch on that. And yet our hearts are troubled.

The op-ed in question, quoted on GR, is by Jim Towey, who writes:

I was George W. Bush’s director of faith-based initiatives. Imagine what would have happened had I proposed that he use that office to urge thousands of religious leaders to become “validators” of the Iraq War?

I can tell you two things that would have happened immediately. First, President Bush would have fired me — and rightly so — for trying to politicize his faith-based office. Second, the American media would have chased me into the foxhole Saddam Hussein had vacated.

Really, Jim? Are you sure of that? Because President Bush certainly didn't object to the wholesale politicization of the Justice Department. Or have you forgotten his frequent and spirited defenses of Alberto Gonzales?

And even allowing for good intentions (which were many and genuine) the faith-based intiatives office was political from its conception, and couldn't have been otherwise. It emerged from the [political] conviction that churches can provide social services more efficiently and more ... properly, for lack of a better word, itself an ideological judgment ... than the government. From that came the proposition that government is therefore wise to outsource to religious organizations its social services, just as it outsources to Blackwater the protection of State Department officials visiting war zones. This may be true, although if so the office itself never made a compelling case.

So, sure, the press ought to be up in Obama's face for trying to enlist religious leaders in support of his plan to get poor people to the doctor. But not because of laughable claims by a flunky in the kind of administration that, given half a chance, would have politicized Wednesday.

UPDATE: As we expected, the GR comments aren't excessively concerned with journalism. But a reader named Jerry writes that 30 seconds on Google found him a comparable story about Bush recruiting religious leaders in support of his policies:
President George W. Bush met privately with Focus on the Family Founder and Chairman James Dobson and approximately a dozen Christian right leaders last week to rally support for his policies on Iraq, Iran and the so-called "war on terror."
Did the media chase anybody into a foxhole over this at the time? We don't recall.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Separation of Church and Sunday School"

St. Paul's Lutheran Church, in Springfield Ohio, has recently closed its doors, another victim of declining attendance. This makes us very sad, of course. What pleases us very much, however, is that a newspaper reporter has taken time to spin a tale, not of St. Paul's death but of its birth. It is an interesting story, and a reminder of the gulf which separates many American churches today from the circumstances of even a few decades ago.

You can read the story here, and you should. Basically, St. Paul's was created by a 1919 split in an older congregation, Rockway Lutheran. The split was occasioned by tension between two models of church polity. Rockway's Sunday School director felt that the Sunday School ought to be not merely lay-led, but wholly independent of the pastor's authority. The pastor felt otherwise.

Yes, we all know that Sunday School was originally a lay movement, which sometimes took on an anticlerical tone. But in the story by Tom Stafford, which is drawn principally from a 1989 historical paper by a former pastor, we see the movement in a transitional phase. The Rockway Sunday School was, at least officially, an organ of its congregation. And yet since 1890 -- that is, for thirty years -- it had insisted upon administration independent of pastor and vestry. It was, in other words, an independent entity, sharing facilities and members with the congregation.

Clearly, this was not the position that would eventually prevail. Within a few decades, "Sunday School" had come to be thought of as one of the most basic ministries of a parish, but clearly one belonging to the parish, and for which the parish's usual leaders had ultimate responsibility. Although we have seen several power-struggles waged between congregation councils and their parochial or preschools, often where substantial sums of money were involved, we have a hard time even placing Sunday School into the same category. It has long since become something quite different than it was.

Parenthetically, we note this slightly-funny bit: as late as World War I, these German-Americans could still publicize their church organizations as, for example, "the Rockway S.S." You wouldn't see that a few years later.

And this one: The split may have been an accident. After an especially difficult congregational meeting, one participant got up to go to work. His departure was apparently misinterpreted as a "walk-out." (Would history be different if everybody had realized that a bunch of professor at Concordia, St. Louis, were just late for class?)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pure Evil

Two weeks ago, an ELCA pastor in Michigan was arrested for attempting to "sexually train" an 11-year-old girl. He believed himself to be in contact with her mother, but -- thank God -- the girl did not exist, and her "mother" was an FBI agent.

This guy's name is William Bendert, and he is, technically, the pastor of King of Kings, in Lake Orion, Michigan. Please pray for his congregation, which is surely going through hell right now.

We are grateful beyond words for the existence of law-enforcement agents willing and able to carry out investigations like this one.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Famous Last Words

Our favorites: "What bus?"

Also, "Had I served God as diligently as I have served the king," et cetera.

Okay, seriously now. A common, but ill-advised, sermon illustration is to quote somebody's last words. Preferably, these should be the last words of a prominent atheist, and ideally somebody who locked horns with Christian orthodoxy often and in public: Voltaire, Tom Paine, or eventually poor Christopher Hitches. And, of course, the last words quoted should reveal that in the end, the dying person turned to God.

If you open up some old-timey preachers' cheat-books, or any number of modern web pages (like this one), you will find a gazillion of these stories. The problem is that many, if not most of them, are bogus.

Paine is an especially good example. He was a famous skeptic, of course. So as his end drew near, he was visited by a seemingly endless stream of clergymen, all fishing for a deathbed conversion. And sure enough, one is widely reported, albeit in different versions. He is said to have told a servant girl:
"I would give worlds if I had them, that The Age of Reason had never been published. O Lord, help me! Christ, help me! . . No, don't leave; stay with me! Send even a child to stay with me; for I am on the edge of Hell here alone. If ever the Devil had an agent, I have been that one."
Wow. Powerful story, huh? Except that it never happened. Here's a page on Paine's religious views, which excerpts the radical pamphleteer William Cobbett's effort to track down the source of the story. Bottom line: it was invented by a couple of Quakers, who when challenged to substantiate it, referred Cobbett to a mendacious opium addict. (And one who still wouldn't stand by the story.) Illustration -- FAIL.

Looking into similar stories today, we stumbled over an old thread on something called SciForums, which is apparently devoted principally to discussions of science. This brief 2007 thread includes many purported last words, in which both doubters and believers seem to reverse their positions. The anecdotes are either false or irrelevant. Gibbon saying "My prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful" certainly doesn't qualify as a deathbed conversion.

Here's what interests us: a quotation attributed to Martin Luther. It goes like this:
Ich hatte an Gott, ich hatte geglaubt an meinen Lord Jesus, jetzt ich glaube geglaubt, daß es ein vergeudetes Leben gewesen wird.
Translated as:
I had believed in God, I had believed in my Lord Jesus, now I believe it's been a wasted life.
Now, a remark like this can be interpreted variously. Does he mean that his life has been wasted because of his faith? Or because, despite his faith, he did so many stupid and arrogant things? Or for some other reason? Or does it have some other meaning, of which we are unaware because of our bad German and the lack of context?

Luther's last written words are pretty well known. He talks about understanding the works of Virgil and Cicero, as well as Scripture and concludes, famously, "We are beggars, this is true." As for his last spoken words, various accounts on the web suggest either Ps. 68:20 ("God is the Lord, by whom we escape death") or 31:5 ("into thy hands I commend my spirit"). Perfectly reasonable prayers under the circumstances. Lacking as we do a decent library, we can't track down actual sources for any of them.

But is there another account in circulation, of these other words? We'd appreciate any respectable references.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And Another Scandal

This time it's a Protestant. Or, really, what here in Central Europe people call a "Neo-Protestant," meaning somebody whose church life bears a family resemblance to those of the Reformation, but didn't take part in it. Useful phrase, about which we will write much, much more some other time.

But you didn't click for a discursus on ecclesiastical terminology, did you? So on to the scandal.

Bishop Eddie Long is the pastor of a big church in Georgia. And we mean big-big, as in 30,000 members. If he were a Lutheran, that wouldn't be a parish, it would be a denomination. (And Long himself says, "We're not just a church, we're an international corporation.")

He's been touched by controversy once or twice before. In 2005, a newspaper article accused him of mishandling charitable donations, basically by using them to pay for his salary, house and Bentley, rather than actually helping people who needed charity. (Mind you, Long preaches the so-called "prosperity gospel," so we're not sure that in his mind stealing money from poor people is even unethical. It may be a sign of divine favor.) In addition, there's the gay thing. As blogger Rod 2.0 puts it:
Long is among the most vocal critics of gay rights and same-sex marriage in the black church. In December 2004, a month after voters approved an amendment to the Georgia state Constitution that banned gay marriage, Long led a 25,000 person march against gay rights and marriage equality. [Note: He led the march after he'd won. Isn't that just poor sportsmanship?]
But then, yesterday, anti-gay crusader Eddie Long was accused of coercing sex from teen-aged "men" in his congregation. (Here's a CNN rundown.) Needless to say, his lawyers have already accused the two young people of a "shakedown for money." And who knows, at this early stage of the game?

Still, the story raises a couple of points worth talking about. One is the relative intolerance of homosexuality in African-American churches compared to those of European Americans. This is easy to exaggerate, but in our own experience it does seem to be true, at least to some degree. So even if these stories do prove to be false, they will also be exceptionally destructive.

The other point, though, is more interesting. Scanning the intertubes, we learned that in 2008, Long met with some of the SoulForce people. It was a long meeting, and we don't know much about it, but afterward, one of the SoulForce reps said:
Not only was [Long] open with regards to talks about homosexuality, he was able to say that there are some things that he does not know, and some things that he has to learn,
Huh. That invites some jokes, we suppose, but never mind. (Okay, fine: "A lot to learn," and he's studying hard. Sorry.) What interests us is that, if you dig into the really vile stuff -- and we did -- you can find several anti-gay sites attacking Long for this display of charity and diplomacy. And when the wing-nut sites attack, they really attack:

If you are a member of Eddie Lee Long’s assembly, a member of any assembly that claims him as your leader, associate with Eddie Lee Long in any manner, watch his TV broadcasts, or listen to his radio broadcasts, NOW IS THE TIME TO TOTALLY SEPARATE YOURSELF FROM EDDIE LEE LONG AND NOT LOOK BACK!!!

He has not only gone against scripture in meeting with promoters of abomination, who teach of a false jesus that endorses sin. ... He’s led teachers of homosexual doctrines to feel they have something valuable to help him with and his people are considering allowing homosexuals to teach classes in their doctrine of abomination to his assembly members.

(We like the lower-case "scripture" and "jesus." Adds a kind of E.E. Cummings spin, dunnit?)

Another attack, though, is even more interesting. A blog called Gay Christian Movement Watch led with the curious header "Looks like Eddie Long just got pregnant. Only nine months to go and we know who the baby's daddy is." We're not at all sure what this is supposed to mean, and the related links are now dead, but we suspect it is a veiled suggestion that a meeting with SoulForce was meant to presage a major re-orientation of Long's discourse about sexuality. If so, a commenter called "EnochWalked" caught the ball and went deep:
I have a hunch that there is someone(s) in leadership at New Birth that is on the downlow or in the closet–or Soulforce is BLACKMAILING New Birth because they have some strong incriminating evidence against New Birth leadership that they threaten to expose?
Sure, it's crazy paranoid wingnut stuff. The thing is, he may have been right.

Why We Love the Post

Three words: Nude fashion show.

It actually makes perfect sense, if you're a milliner. What better way to draw attention to your product than to march a bunch of supermodels down the catwalk, naked except for some hats. Big, silly-looking hats.

Click up top for a slideshow.

Worst Pun of the Day

On a topic of the utmost seriousness.

The Keep--A-Breast Foundation is devoted to something that can get mighty grim -- raising awareness about breast cancer. And yet, as its name suggests, the foundation is not averse to a little wordplay.

Comes today this report, that the foundation is distributing wrist bracelets that say "I [Heart] Boobies." Kind of juvenile, even when true, but inoffensive enough -- except that they are giving the bracelets to high school students. Egg readers, of course, may have belonged to the rare cohort of teens who were able to have a sustained and serious discussion of life-or-death matters, all inspired by a whimsical piece of art. But probably not, and neither do most kids.

Still, whether you think the bracelets are bit of clever provocation or a guarantee of bawdy jokes and unkind teasing, you have to admire the foundation's moxie:
Keep A Breast defended its decision to include the word "boobies," saying that the bracelets are intended to provoke conversations on touchy subjects.
Of course, they also tried this one:
"We fully understand that the 'I Love Boobies' campaign is not for everyone, but we also feel that the word 'boobies' is not a four letter word."
Not as successful, but still, points for the attempt.

On to the Next Scandal

An Italian money-laundering investigation has frozen about $30 million in transfers made by the Institute for Religious Works (IOR), better known as the Vatican Bank.

We have no idea what the facts are, but the whole thing makes us a little suspicious. Why, you ask? Here's why:

1. Because Italy is a tricky place. It has never been famous for transparency or honesty, and these days -- well, Berlusconi is in charge. At the very end of her Times article, after reporting such facts as are available, Rachel Donadio leaves us with this bit of innuendo: The [current] investigation appeared to show a more aggressive stance by the Bank of Italy, a player in the complex power dynamics of contemporary Italy. What is she hinting at? That the BoI is trying to clean up the world of Italian finance? Or that it is doing the bidding of its nation's power-mad leader? We don't know. But we'd like to.

2. Because all readers of a certain age will remember the genuine scandal of the 1980s, involving IOR and Banco Ambrosiano. It was pretty ugly, and ended with BA chair Roberto Calvi ("God's Banker") fleeing Italy on a false passport, and being found dead under a bridge in London. Twenty-five years later, a group of men with both Mafia and Masonic connections were acquitted of his murder. Icky-poo, right? So today, if you want to slander the Vatican, all you need to do is hint at a banking scandal, and many people will say, "Ah, yes, the same as in those days."

3. The popes and curia are not stupid people. Quite the reverse. It seems that, after the 1980s scandal, they did what you would expect smart and basically decent people to do: clean house. We gather that the current IOR head, Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, is respected within his profession, and runs a tight ship. Under his watch, the bank was working toward a place on the OECD's "white list," which certifies the the highest level of banking transparency.

Add these things together, and it looks possible -- possible, although far from certain -- that what we have here is a maneuver by somebody in power to draw attention toward the IOR and a Roman Catholic church already suffering a scandal-induced p.r. crisis. If so, it is not impossible that the goal is to draw attention away from, or give plausible cover to, some other impropriety elsewhere in Italian banking.

On the other hand, there's already been a serious crisis-management goof from the Vatican's side of the table. At this early stage of the story, officials of the Holy See are quite right to declare its "perplexity and amazement" at the investigation, since the investigation may well prove to be completely specious. And Gotti Tedeschi is not wrong, exactly, to admit to a "procedural error." But he is completely wrong, from the perspective of crisis management, to claim that this error "is being used as an excuse to attack the institute, its president and the Vatican in general."

It may be true; it may even be dead-on. But this isn't the sort of thing you can just say out loud, because it looks like another too-familiar phenomenon: the Roman Catholic church whining. You know, the whole "of course the child abuse was bad, but the real problem is a hostile media environment" thing. We aren't saying that such an environment doesn't exist, exactly. But we have said many times that blaming the press for reporting, even sometimes exaggerating, your own mistakes is a terrible strategy for the church. Better to just confess and amend your life. Or, if you really are innocent (as IOR and Gotti Tedeschi may be) to produce facts, fast and furious and in public, so that people can take your side with a good conscience.

Pizza Update

We have scanned these interwebs a bit, searching for more info on the Home of the Mother (see below). We haven't got much, mostly because we are lazy, lazy people currently nursing a head cold.

But two related things have come to our attention, one about HoM and the other about Ave Maria University. Or maybe its just one thing, which happens to be true of both organizations independently. Either way, we have learned this: both of these seemingly ultra-Papist institutions have been subjected to some pretty scathing criticism from conservative Roman Catholics.

Please bear in mind that this post is the result of some quick surfing through the underbelly of the Net, the sort of sites run by people so passionate that they may look (or be) crazy, and who live in a world so completely self-referential that they can take for granted not only that red is blue, but that a massive conspiracy of Freemasons and Illuminati has spent hundreds of years covering up the basic facts of the prism. (Here or, here, especially the sidebar notes.) We're edging into Lone Gunmen territory here. So read this with a grain of salt.

That said:

1. The Home of the Mother is sometimes praised for its evangelical fervor, but just as often accused of "cult-like" behavior. But what does this mean? Probably something milder than old-style Jim Jones/David Koresh stuff. We have seen exactly zero reports of weapons caches or poisoned Kool-Aid. If there are any details floating around out there, we haven't seen them yet.

Our own brief exposure to the Focolare movement reminds us of an instructive fact: there is a fine line between "charismatic movement" and "cult," a line which can be extremely difficult to discern. To this day, we aren't sure which one Focolare is. Perhaps more to the point, it is unlikely that anybody knew what to make of the Franciscans in 1220 or the Jesuits in 1540; it has taken time to separate them from the Joachimites and Fifth Monarchy Men.

Still, it does seem that the Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice (Florida), where Ave Maria is located, has kept some distance between himself and the HoM people. This suggests that he may have had some reservations about them.

2. Just as interesting to us are the criticisms of Ave Maria University and its pizza-baron chancellor. The harshest of these, by far, surround Maine-based Jackson Laboratory, which wants to set up a facility near AMU. Jackson is a genetics lab, which claims not to experiment with embryonic stem cells, but admits that its seminars and meetings will inevitably include the discussion of such research. AMU considers this position to be compatible with its vision of Catholic ethics, but a few hard-liners disagree.

Perhaps just as much to the point, Tom Monaghan is a partner in the real estate company negotiating to sell some swampland to Jackson, and stands to make a pretty penny if the deal goes through. So, to the hard-liners, it appears that despite their great show of "conservative" Roman Catholicism, neither Monaghan nor AMU is conservative enough.

Coming as we do from a different school of theological ethics, we aren't especially moved by, or even interested in, the moral debate here. Nor are we surprised that the soi-disant "conservatives" always have somebody attacking them from the right. That's how purity codes work: Obama may be a socialist to Fox News, but you just know that when Ralph and Dennis and Noam get together for coffee, they call him a corporate sellout.

What interests us, really, is the Carl Hiaasen vibe of the whole story. We love that Carl Hiaasen.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lesbian Sex Scandal With Pizza

It's not that big a deal, really. But that's a header guaranteed to get us some search-engine traffic.

A Papist group called "Home of the Mother" has been booted off the campus of Ave Maria University in Florida. Apparently, university administrators have just learned of "immoral conduct" by a religious sister toward a female student. The real issue seems to be that the community had known about the relationship for some time, and had recalled Sr. Maria Elena to Spain -- but without telling the university.

"Home of the Mother" -- properly Hogar del Madre -- is not a recognized religious order as such, but rather a "public international association of the faithful." What precisely that means, we have no idea. It was founded in 1982 by a Spanish priest with six young women, and seems to engage principally in evangelism and recruitment among young people. Its website lists three "missions in the Church," namely:
- The Defense of the Eucharist.
- The Defense of the Honor of Our Mother,especially in the privilege of her virginity.
- The Conquest of the Youth for Christ.
At Ave Maria, there was evidently some confusion about the privilege of virginity, not to mention just what it means to, ahem, "conquer youth." The scandalous sister was part of a Home of the Mother group leading a "discernment program" for female students. The idea was apparently to help them discern a call to join Home of the Mother, although Heaven knows that college is a time when young women experiment with all sorts of things in an effort to discern ... well, you see where this is going.

Frankly, the university seems to have acted as quickly as it could, and any fault here attaches to the Home of the Mother people, who sound to us like one more Pope-idolizing, youth-recruiting, secret-keeping rightist clique. Paging Opus Dei or -- more to the point -- the Legion of Christ. Now that they're on the radar, we can keep an eye on them.

As for pizza, we only mentioned it because Ave Maria University's founder and chancellor is Tom Monaghan, known to the secular world as the founder of Domino's Pizza. Which, incidentally, is not an especially good pie.

A Pretty Good Run

Well, Pretty Good Lutherans is officially gone. Susan Hogan launched it a year ago, promising "ELCA news in real time," but delivering, in the end, considerably more.

The site did share news about the ELCA and some of its ecumenical partners, and these items were often the sort of thing you might not find somewhere else -- news about somebody else's synod, including not only press items but the occasional tidbit gleaned from a synod council report. It quickly became an indispensable source of information.

But there was more to it than just news. Susan would ask readers for opinions, and get them -- often in large numbers, in the comments section. Then she would poke and prod a bit, asking people to clarify half-formed ideas and sometimes coming right out and criticizing the the ones that really bugged her. (Our favorite response to a comment: "Thanks, Mr. Sensitivity.")

On the sidebar was a list of recently updated blogs by Lutheran bloggers, many of them friends of the Egg. That right-side panel became a reader's guide to what like-minded Lutherans were up to.

And yes, we do mean "like-minded." Did PGL offer pure unsullied "objective" journalism? Not at all. Susan has some pretty strong convictions, and she didn't mind promoting them. (As we often say to ourselves in Egg staff meetings, "It's not the New York Times, dammit. It's my freakin' blog.") They aren't always convictions that we share, by the way, but that's the whole point. A demand for total agreement is the telltale sign of sectarian thinking, and neither her blog nor ours -- nor the ELCA -- makes such a demand.

In its one brief year, Pretty Good Lutherans made a big impression. It was a great model for building community. It was apparently not a good model, or even a workable one, for earning a living. So Susan has moved on to "new projects," about which we will be happy to hear when she announces them. And the Lutheran world is left with a little hole, which we hope will be filled in time.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Batman Joins the Air Force

Many years ago, a recent college graduate then known as Recent Graduate Anonymous attempted to join the United States Army. He had wanted to be a Marine, but his wise old uncles talked him out of it. (The words "just damn cannon fodder" were used freely).

Apart from a genuine streak of patriotism, the then-RGA was probably inspired by his lifelong passion for Army surplus camping equipment. This seemed like a great way to stock up on steel mess kits and canvas tents. More inspiration, though, came from the stories his uncles told -- the first training jump; calling in a napalm strike on the Georgia woodlands; selling your CO that pretty white Benz just after the cylinders seized.

And, okay, there were the comic books and pulp novels. While you didn't need to serve your country in order to become a rugged he-man on the order of Doc Savage or Alan Quatermain, it certainly seemed like a good first step. If you looked closely at a GI's kit, it was all the sort of stuff Batman carried, except much, much bigger. And nobody, but nobody, loomed bigger in the RGA's formative years than Batman.

How did it turn out? Well, the RGA was not an entirely promising specimen. Although trim and flexible after eight semesters of college fencing, he was not then -- nor is he now -- what you would call a large man. Nor average-sized. Not even "a bit on the small side." His intellect had been liberally stimulated with English poetry and German opera; he had a fair grasp of Machiavelli and David Hume and a working knowledge of art history from classical times to about Picasso. On the other hand, he was a bit weak on practical things like mathematics, chemistry, geology, firearms, and taking orders. Oh, and he couldn't drive a car.

Anyway, it was the atopic dermatitis that ended his military career, literally five seconds after it had begun. The doctor signed on the line that said "fit for duty," then paused, flipped back to page 3 of the form, and started asking questions. That was all there was to it. Turns out that American soldiers are required to have excellent skin.

Well, you can never know about the road not traveled. We doubt that our military career would have been long or distinguished. Either a dead first lieutenant in Gulf One or a major who resigned in fury over Gulf Two, most likely. Maybe -- just maybe -- a lieutenant colonel now, popular neither among his troops nor among his peers, who stuck around after retirement age because of stop-loss, an eccentric egghead writing obscure War College documents on things like "the application of Machiavelli's Discorsi to Pasthun tribal politics." We are better off, and so is the world, with things as they actually turned out.

So what, you may wonder, is the point of all this? Nothing, except that nearly every major development in military doctrine or technology creates a brief fantasy, somewhere between wistful regret and spiteful jealousy -- "Damn that Petraeus! I should have written the new counterinsurgency manual. Me, me, me!" That sort of thing.

So imagine our response to the headline above, which we have borrowed whole from the awesome Danger Room article to which it is linked.

Since 2004, the Air Force has worked to reduce the physical load of gear carried by its Special Operations Forces — the superheroes who seize hostile airfields and rescue captured troops behind enemy lines. Those airmen are often weighed down on these missions, lugging as much as 160 pounds worth of stuff. Since much of the bulk comes from their communications gear, the Air Force opted to cut out heavy batteries to power it, fueling the gear through methanol fuel cells that get lighter as the charge dies. That allows elite airmen to essentially wear their gear like a scaffold, a concept the Air Force calls a “Human Chassis.”

Except a human chassis isn’t a cool enough name. So the program, pursued at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, bears a moniker that strikes fear into the heart of villains everywhere. It’s the Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge (just go with it). Yes: the BATMAN.

Oh, well. As Mother A. often says, "You still get to put on a black suit and fight evil." But somedays we do wonder what it would have been like.

The Price of Freedom

We always thought it was eternal vigilance. Turns out it's actually $180,000.

City and county authorities say that's what they spent protecting Dove World Outreach Center and other "soft targets" in the run-up to the Quran-burning-that-wasn't, and they expect Terry Jones to foot the bill.

We kept our mouth all but shut during the Dove brouhaha, mostly because we thought that nobody involved dignified themselves. Jones is clearly an attention-whore of Gagaesque proportions; the press pimped him for everything he was worth; and as for the various mobs of outraged Muslims rioting in the streets and burning churches, well, write your own expression of contempt and imagine it [here].

Still, we have to admire this response on the part of the government -- it's both a bitchy kind of payback to a guy who just spent a month making their lives miserable, and a clever disincentive for any future dumbass rednecks who want to exercise their constitutional rights in ways that make sensitive souls cringe.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Getting an Update

As you know, poor old Father A. was uncharacteristically timid when he offered a few criticisms of Get Religion the other day. They're a team of professional journalists; he's one guy with a notoriously big mouth. And in a web filled with so many mediocre sites, not to mention an infinity of bad ones, it seems churlish to criticize the good ones.

Anyway, and to our considerable surprise, Terry read our comments and posted them, with his own responses (all linked above). He feels pretty sure that we've misunderstood the philosophy which guides his team, and it's good to hear him articulate it a bit. Needless to say, we aren't entirely convinced, but that's the whole point to sharing ideas.

GR readers will probably chime in shortly, and we shudder a bit at the prospect.

Dept. of Bad Ideas: Papal Visit Edition

More on the pope's visit to Britain:

We still don't think the newspapers are like Nazis (see below), but we do think that the advertising people are acting like Bart Simpson. Or at least the whiz kids who handle the Antonio Federici ice-cream account.

Their pregnant-nun ad was banned, which bothers us because we support freedom of expression. On the other hand, they make no secret of what they are doing:

The company plans to continue with the same theme and, in addition, make a point of targeting Pope Benedict with the campaign during his four day visit to the UK which begins today.

An Antonio Federici spokeswoman said, "We intend to defy the ASA's ban and will publish another ad from the series before the Pope's visit later this week. We are also in the process of securing billboards close to and along the planned route of the Pope's cavalcade around Westminster Cathedral."

The ad carries the tagline, "Immaculately Conceived ... Ice cream is our religion."

Previous ads from the company have shown two male priests about to kiss and a half dressed male priest about to kiss a nun.

Did you catch that? Targeting the pope. They actually said it.

If Roman Catholics were more like Muslims, there would be rioting in the streets of Poland over this, and an ice cream factory in Argentina would be blown to smithereens. Yummy, yummy smithereens.

We're against violence, of course. We can't even see ourselves rioting over an advertisement. The boycott is a tired strategy that has lost its clout. Our preferred recourse, in response to folly and outrage, is always mockery, but this thing mocks itself. So we have no choice except to shrug our shoulders and declare that the ad campaign is in, ahem, extremely bad taste.

Newman and the, uh, Queens

Don't blame us. We're just quoting our friends at New Liturgical Movement.

Here's the deal: John Henry, Cardinal Newman, was one of the essential figures of his age. He was a "convert" from Evangelicalism who became first a pioneer in the modern re-imagining of Anglicanism and then, when he abandoned that project, a prominent spokesman for the idea, then controversial in English life, that Romanism was compatible with intellectual independence. His Apologia Pro Vita Sua is a masterpiece of strategic self-representation, and several of his works -- A Grammar of Assent, The Development of Doctrine, and The Idea of the University -- have a lasting value which should not be restricted to historians.

He was not, however, a burly-chested he-man. Some people think he was a little, well, you know. The Wikipedia article gives a taste of the special pleading:

... the longest friendship in [Newman's] life was with Ambrose St John, who lived with Newman for 32 years from 1843 (when St John was 28).

Newman wrote after St John's death: "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine." Newman directed that he be buried in the same grave as St John.: "I wish, with all my heart, to be buried in Fr Ambrose St John's grave — and I give this as my last, my imperative will."

John Campbell Shairp, who knew Newman at Oxford, described him as "a woman's soul in a man's body"; Lytton Strachey described Newman's "soft spectacled Oxford manner, with its half-effeminate diffidence". ...

[B]iographer Geoffrey Faber wrote of Newman's relations with Hurrell Froude: "Of all his (Newman's) friends Froude filled the deepest place in his heart, and I'm not the first to point out that his occasional notions of marrying definitely ceased with the beginning of his real intimacy with Froude."

The case is far from proven; Victorians constructed both friendship and sexuality very differently than we do. Arguably, both were more emotionally intense than the common run of modern experience, but that does not mean that the lines between them were less clear. If anything, we suspect the line was drawn more sharply then than now, in the age of "friends with benefits" and all that.

It hardly matters. Except, that is, to a society divided, at either extreme, between those who want to use the existence of homosexuality in history to argue for their pet theories and policies today, and those who want to sweep the whole business back under the rug or, if you prefer, into the closet. Sadly, we live in just such a society.

As a result, the visit of Benedict XVI to Britain -- the first state visit there ever by a pope, and one which will feature the beatification of Newman -- has stirred up a bit of chatter. Fr Hunwicke is quick to decry the "The methodology of the anti-Catholic and anti-Papal propaganda machine [which is] very similar to that of Goebels."

This strikes us as unfair to the press; here is an excellent essay from the FT, which -- while describing the questions about sexuality -- concentrates upon a picture of Newman as an inspiration to Catholic liberals suspicious of papal tyranny. It may not be quite fair to Newman, who used "liberal" derisively, but it is certainly not sleazy or propagandistic.

As opposed, for example, to this attention-grabbing headline in NLM today: Cardinal Newman and the Two Queens of England.

Get your head out of the gutter. They mean Victoria and Elizabeth II. Of course.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Unhappy Eid to Pakistan's Lutherans

Did you know there was a Lutheran church in Pakistan? For about a hundred years now, as a matter of fact. In its present form, the Northern Diocese Mardan is part of the Church of Pakistan, a union church. Per Wikipedia, this makes it the only one of South Asia's union churches to include Lutherans. We expect that's why it isn't part of the LWF. But the diocese retains its Lutheran identity -- click the link here to check out its website, with the big Luther Rose sliding across the page. Its bishop is the Rt. Rev. Peter Majeed

Here's the problem. The Lutheran church building in Mardan was blown up on Sunday night. Services were over, if they had even been held, and the only people injured were night watchmen. (Click up top for a brief story).

The story, written in English bad enough to make interpretation a problem, tries to connect the bombing both to the second day of the Muslim holiday of Eid and to the already-aborted-by-Sunday Quran burning in Florida. Maybe those are genuine connections, maybe they are not; it is hard to know. Pakistan is a pretty wild place right now. We will say that blowing up a church is not the best way to encourage respect for one's own sacred texts.

Getting "Get Religion"

The blogs listed to the side -- the ones we read scrupulously -- are a mixed bag. We find every one of them entertaining and informative, but that doesn't necessarily mean we find them agreeable. According to the very precise metrics developed by our Consumer Ratings Team, we find ourselves nodding along with Pastor Joelle about 92% of the time. Father Z., more like 31.6%. As for Hunwicke, well, half the time we aren't even sure what (or who) he is talking about.

And then there's Get Religion.

Make no mistake, friends. It's an exceptionally fine website, which fills an unique and important niche. It offers criticism of the mainstream press's [mis-]handling of religious news, written by professional journalists who both cover religious affairs and participate in the lives of their own religious communities.

The importance of this will be evident to every pastor who has ever spent hours carefully explaining to a reporter just why Justus Falckner's tercentenary matters, only to read a one-inch article headed "Lutherans Support Atlanta Football." (Get it? Because they're the Falcons.) It is far more important on the national stage, where carefully-worded church documents and policies, not to mention the public statements of bishops and so forth, are routinely reduced to incomprehensible mush.

We read GR every day or two, and comment more often than we ought. Some days, we feel as if Terry, Brad and especially Mollie are old friends -- the way another generation thought of such every-evening "visitors" as Chet and David, or anyway Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy. Despite this, we have to say that the site irritates almost as often as it pleases us, and we're not sure we can explain why. But we're going to try.

First, things GR does really well:
  • Its traditional[-ist] perspective. Because the writers are both participants and observers, they are able to provide a running critique of reporting that is religiously illiterate -- i.e., which displays an ignorance of (or lack of interest in) doctrine and polity, or which overlooks "ghosts," GR's pet name for hidden religious motivations.
  • Its professional staff. Because they are real reporters (as opposed to, say, bloggers or cable-teevee infotainers), they can offer a running critique of journalism that would be substandard on any beat. GR often highlights stories that are all about impressions (or cliches) without any facts; stories that report a fact but place it into the wrong context, or none at all; and for the use of AP style in reference to the clergy. They wage an endless, but seemingly vain, battle for the proper distinction between "evangelical" and "fundamentalist," as well as for more precision in the use of adjectives -- e.g., what does "devout Catholic" mean somebody who goes to Mass daily? Or weekly? Or somebody who went to Catholic school and still talks about it while cheating on all his wives?
So far, so good. But whence our irritation? We think it's a series of related matters:
  • Because of that traditional perspective we mentioned, the GR writers often ask traditional questions, and become irritated when they can't get traditional answers. For some readers, this translates into a "conservative bias," although that's a little unfair. (To the writers. The endless stream of off-topic commenters are another matter.) The problem isn't the questions so much as the annoyance -- or, really, the insistence that a religion story has to be reported in one particular way. Which way? Read on.
  • GR often emphasizes doctrine as a means of understanding religious communities. This seems logical enough, since most American believers take for granted that their communities are held together by shared doctrine. We suspect that it is a red herring, which results in a tendency to overlook other factors which are just as important in American religious life. Ethnicity, law, and money come immediately to mind. The issues facing many churches, not to mention mosques and synagogues, often grow far more directly from these things than from questions of belief.
  • As a result, GR often seems to push for journalists to become better-informed about what a church (or whatever) teaches, something that for many of them requires a virtual re-education, but rarely suggests that reporters do in Godbeat reporting what they are trained to do in, say, political reporting: follow the money. Or the delicate ethnic questions. Or the legal ones. When pushed, they will readily acknowledge that this makes for good reporting; but we don't remember ever seeing them ask for it.
  • Part of the problem is that GR defines "newsworthy" largely according to what the pack reports on -- rather than according to what the pack should report on. (Apart from "ghosts," of course.) They want religion reporting to be better, but not necessarily different. So if, for example, we suggest that stories are inherently flawed if they treat the public statements of a church with hierarchical polity just like those of one with congregational polity, GR will respond, in effect, "But that's what all the stories do." True enough, but wrongly so. For example, the authority of a papal encyclical and the authority of The Baptist Faith and Message are different in nature, and congregations which disregard them stand in quite different positions relative to their parent bodies.
  • At its very worst, all this means that GR sometimes shares the signal flaw of journalism in the internet-and-cable age, which is the tacit belief that "news" is principally, or even significantly, the sharing of opinions, rather than the revealing of hidden facts.
  • Bottom line: GR does outstanding work, but it could up its game by broadening its understanding of religion's connection's to the rest of human activity.
Even writing all this, we feel a bit guilty. So we'll say it again: Good website. Smart people. We like it so much, we just want it to be a tiny bit better.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Crazy, Um, Stuff

(We call it "stuff" because Our beloved Godfather is sensitive about four-letter words.)

Just a few random bits and pieces:
  • Sharron Angle is a crazy lady running for office somewhere our west. She recently challenged her opponent to a debate, agreed to the date and venue, then backed out because she wants "an informed electorate." We only care because of one geektastic data point: the would-have-been host, one Jon Ralston, expressed his anger with a reference to the movie Scanners "where people's heads exploded." Man, we still love that picture:
  • A dress made out of meat? Lady Gaga is the most effective fame-whore ever. If this is what happens to kids who grow up watching Madonna videos, what will happen to kids who grow up watching this?
  • In 1972, a Roman Catholic priest joined the IRA and helped to blow some people up. The police gave evidence to the church hierarchy, which ... transferred him to a new parish. And they wonder why nobody trusts them lately?
  • This picture is the infamous military briefing slide which symbolizes the divide between PowerPoint Rangers and the Stanley McChrystal school of tech-lite warcraft. It is also one heckuvan argument against slideshows during Mass, or (we suppose) anything else:

'Nuff Said

Been a while since we glanced at the Bad Vestments blog. It has gotten even better.

And more terrifying.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

On a Happier Note

The eleventh of September, despite its other associations, will always be a day for us to celebrate as well, and here's why.

Paging Oblivion

As longtime readers know, I lived, right through my first year of seminary, on Hudson Street, in the part of Manhattan called TriBeCa. It was a sweet little bachelor pad, an illegal studio with no toilet. (Funny story.) My usual evening run took me out onto West Street, down past the World Trade Center or, since it had a few specks of grass, the World Financial Center, through Battery Park City, past the ferry landing, and up Wall Street. I'd pass Trinity and St. Paul's, then dog-leg my way home.

Those who know the terrain will realize that this is a very short jog indeed. It's no secret: by the time I started seminary, I was already past my athletic prime, and working hard on my present pear shape.

Anyway. Not the point.

It was a few years later -- two seminaries, three or four churches, marriage and a cat -- that some sons of bitches decided to hijack a pair of airplanes and fly them into my old neighborhood.

I wasn't living there at the time, but serving a parish in suburban Nassau County. Here's the thing about the 'burbs: their economy depends, to a significant degree, on proximity to the city, because that's where the money comes from. My congregation, which was very large by northeastern standards, included a lot of people in the financial industry. Also a lot of cops and firefighters. A lot.

You see where this is going, right?

A lot of people had it worse. I was many miles away from the site. I didn't have to evacuate my home, or stare up at the plume for days on end, or live for months with the smell of crushed concrete and incinerated flesh. I wasn't permanently traumatized. I didn't die. All these things happened to people that I know and to some readers of this blog. Compared to them, I walked away unscathed. Compared to them, I might as well have been living in Saskatchewan.

I didn't even have it bad compared to the guys at the local Roman parish. We were big, but they were bigger still, and even more heavily Irish -- meaning more cops, more firefighters. More dead people. More funerals. It went on for months, as body parts were found. (That's something they don't tell you about. I led two funerals for the same guy -- the first time after he was declared dead, and the second time when they found some "tissue." Don't ask what that means.) No, the guys at St. Killian's had it a lot worse.

But everything's relative. It was still my old neighborhood. They were still my friends and family and colleagues and church members. It was still the second-worst day of my life, and you will never, ever, read about the worst day.

So here's the thing: I know that all over the country, people are putting up signs that say "Never Forget," and showing pictures of those two towers, which for the record I thought were the ugliest damn things ever built. People put those signs up every year, now. It's like wearing green on St. Patrick's Day. I know that at this very moment, were I to look at Facebook, I'd see the same phrase repeated, over and over, mostly by people who were living far away at the time. And I know that they mean well.

But I need to say this, the way I do every year: If I could forget, I would. There are few things I would like better in this world than to forget. And I actually resent the signs and the slogan, because they remind me that some people may be able to do what I want to, and I envy them.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Oriens Nomen Eius

In our present parish, we celebrate the Eucharist ad orientem -- that is, facing the "east" wall, which in lamentable fact is the north wall.

We don't do this because of any strong theological conviction about the matter. The ad orientem and versus populum people have been at each other's throats for decades, each convinced that their side alone possesses the secret truth which will make a Mass faithful to both God and the Great Tradition. Each side has a strong case, so strong that we find them balanced more or less equally. Being of the Lutheran persuasion, we simply can't get very excited about something so clearly adiaphoristic. In a pinch, we suppose that Christ might even agree to be present if the celebrant were to stick by the old Anglican rubrics, and face northward, turning his or her profile toward the assembly. Emphasis on "might."

Our practice, therefore, is to follow the local custom, especially as it is embodied in the architecture and furnishings. If we have a free-standing altar, we will face the people; if we do not, then we will not. (It pleased us no end when Fr. Hunwicke recently suggested something similar, although more detailed). The one thing we will not do, incidentally, is pretend that an east-facing altar is in fact free-standing, and turn around mid-consecration. We have visited one or two parishes where that was the custom, and sworn never to return, less for theological reasons than for aesthetic ones. (And, perhaps not incidentally, because the preaching was atrocious).

Of course, our seemingly sensible practice is undermined by congregations that mutilate their altars in an effort to be au courant. We once served a parish in which the altar had been pulled away from the wall -- but not very far. We could just barely squeeze ourself between the altar and the wall, with precious little room for elbows and none for a processional cross. And yet, because the front of the table had been drawn precisely level with the edge of the step below, the altar candlesticks were now so high that a normally constructed adolescent altar server had no realistic hope of lighting them.

More common, at least in our synod, is the addition of a new freestanding, while the old altar is left in place to serve as an overly-elegant credence table. This is often done in order to preserve an exceptional piece of furniture, which could not feasibly be replaced with anything as beautiful. We have served two such parishes, and understand why our predecessors made the choice. We cannot despise it, either. And yet it is not the choice would have made ourselves.

Anyway, we have no favorites, we're even-handed, blah-blah-blah. But all that said and done, we confess that we have been thinking a great deal lately about the ad orientem-ist argument, or at least aspects of it, and our thoughts are positive if not downright wistful.

Here's the gist: we cherish the idea that Christ is himself our East, the rising sun, the single point by which lost souls can orient themselves. This is a very old idea, rooted in passages like Luke 1:78 ("the dawn from on high shall break upon us"). It is well-excavated by the erstwhile Cardinal Ratzinger in his Spirit of the Liturgy, chapter 3. (A fine book, by the way, and if you haven't read it then by all means stop surfing the blessed Web and get busy). Our own feeling is that the image connects revelation to creation in a way that ought to please the eco-Christians while also satisfying Patristics-heads. This is a win for everybody.

Our ecclesiastical hero, John Donne, often talked about Christ this way, citing the Vulgate version of Zechariah 6:12 -- "his name is East." Donne knew perfectly well that this was a mistranslation, rectified already by Coverdale and in the English bibles he knew best (Geneva and the KJV). But one verse neither establishes nor tears down a tradition. Donne, of course, was also subject to the facing-north rubric, which must have chapped his bum severely -- but the very fact demonstrates that love for the image of Christ as the rising sun need not compel an eastward-facing celebration. That's just not the point here.

And yet. We are concerned that the wild success of celebration versus populum, and particularly the academic success of is zealous advocates, may have helped to undermine the image. Logically, a people which no longer faces eastward yearning to see Christ will no longer think much of Christ as the East.

We found some evidence for this recently, while picking hymns for Sunday. Preaching on various things that are lost and then found -- the nation of Israel, a sheep, a coin -- we planned to describe Jesus as our compass, our GPS beacon, our northstar. And, naturally, our east. Using Augsburg's Sundays and Seasons website, we ran a quick search for the word "east," and the results were not encouraging. Apparently, the word occurs principally in Christmas hymns, referring to the Star of Bethlehem. Other uses address the catholicity of the Church -- "A Multitude Comes from East and West" and "In Christ There is No East Nor West" -- but not the specificity of Christ.

Our evidence is by no means conclusive. The rising sun image is preserved in several fine hymns. Consider Wesley's "Christ Whose Glory Fills the Skies," or of course "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Or any musical setting of the Benedictus. The most popular is probably "Let Us Break Bread Together," a song that always made us chuckle in seminary, since the Presbyterians who invariably scheduled it for our chapel communion services never actually, you know, knelt. Less on-target, but useful, is "The King shall come when morning dawns," a song that upon reflection doesn't really belong in LBW's Christmas ghetto. There's also a tenable Marty Haugen number -- "Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn." But then you have to deal with Marty Haugen.

Still, our quick and unsystematic search suggests that the pickings are slim. The imagery is usually weak and easily-missed. Apart from the first few examples above, we can't think offhand of any hymn in current use that really makes the point, describing Jesus with this powerful language of dawn -- much less connecting it to his presence with us in Holy Communion.

Can readers offer any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

"Honor" Crimes

Every year, something on the order of 20,000 women are raped, mutilated and killed because some male relative disapproves of their boyfriend, hair style or skirt length.

There is a terrifying piece by Robert Fiske, linked above, which is based on a "ten month investigation by the Independent in Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank." We aren't quite sure why the investigation was restricted to those places, since the crimes certainly aren't. These days, they occur in nearly every nation.

The subject is of obvious interest to anyone with a shred of human decency. But we are especially interested, just now, by one item in particular: the role of religion in these killings.

As honor crimes have been discussed in the press, a fairly straightforward dialogue has emerged between those who connect them strongly to Islam, and those who vitiate that connection by arguing that they are the product of tribal cultures, not a religion which seeks to place itself over and above tribalism. We can practically hear Terry Mattingly now, demanding examples of honor crimes by non-Muslims, and accusing the liberal press of hiding the religious "ghost" in the story.

For the record, we don't know much about it, and we suspect that very few Westerners do.

So we are struck by two lines in Fiske's article. First:
Men are also killed for "honour" and, despite its identification by journalists as a largely Muslim practice, Christian and Hindu communities have stooped to the same crimes. Indeed, the "honour" (or ird) of families, communities and tribes transcends religion and human mercy.
And then, later:
In Jordan, women's organisations say that per capita, the Christian minority in this country of just over five million people are involved in more "honour" killings than Muslims – often because Christian women want to marry Muslim men. But the Christian community is loath to discuss its crimes and the majority of known cases of murder are committed by Muslims.
These are important claims, and we'd like to know more about them. We're hardly shocked that men are victims as well as perpetrators of honor crimes -- what, after all, was the dueling culture of the European Renaissance? (Yes, we know: duels were consensual crimes. That was true in the eyes of the church, the state, and pretty much everyone except the duellists themselves. In their culture, we suspect that many felt they had no choice at all).

But we are indeed shocked by the claim that in any country, anywhere, Christians may account for a larger per capita number of honor crimes than Muslims. If this is true, and if it can de documented, it might very well change the shape of the dialogue. The question is whether it is true, and can be demonstrated.

We'd be grateful for any solid evidence that readers may know of.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Best Book Review Ever

Despite blogging about sex, Father Anonymous admits that he has never read Lady Chatterley's Lover. Reason: D.H. Lawrence's short stories and poems are terrible. The idea of reading a novel by that man fills your humble blogger with dread. Think of the time that could be better spent reading comics. Or the phone book.

Still, the court cases which lifted the Chatterley ban are landmarks in the history of free expression, and to some degree made contemporary literature possible. (Oh, joy). It is worth celebrating the British case, resolved just fifty years ago next month. The story is well told by Ben Yagoda in the article linked above. Yagoda explores the curious way that the leading litterateurs of the day were enlisted by lawyers in defense of a novel which most of them knew was embarrassingly bad.

Several howlingly wretched excerpts from the book are introduced, which you will need to read for yourself in context -- remembering that here, the context is an elegant wood-paneled courtroom, the text recited by bewigged barristers.

But our very favorite bit is this review of Chatterley, excerpted from Field and Stream. Yes, that Field and Stream:
This fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the occasional gamekeeper. Unfortunately, one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion the book cannot take the place of J. R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeper.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Come Labor On

Why didn't somebody tell us it was Labor Day? We just brushed our white bucks.

Truth be told, we are oblivious to all but a few secular holidays. St. Michael and All Angels we observe without fail, but Columbus Day is hit or miss. (And did you know there's actually a holiday dedicated to presidents in general? We wonder if that includes the presidents of banks and synods.) Despite the fervent objections of Mother Anonymous, we don't take those long-weekend Mondays off. They're a great time to sneak into the office and catch up on paperwork.

Ah, but Labor Day. Now that's different. Not because of any particular enthusiasm for the "labor movement." We like unions just fine. Mom and Dad were members, and their retirement is pretty pleasant as a result. Come to think of it, labor unions are probably the only reason we ever had any health insurance as a child. So we like unions, although we will never join one. But for us, Labor Day means something else entirely.

Father and Mother A. were married in late August, and try to take their vacation then. Most years, they visit the wee Adirondack camp where Father A.'s parents summer, both (a) because the accommodations are free and (b) because there is no place on God's green earth they would rather be. While there, we worship at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal congregation in Blue Mountain Lake, NY. It's a tiny wooden building, open summers only, right on the lakeshore. Some people come to church in kayaks or guideboats. Very picturesque.

But picturesque will get you one Sunday. It takes more than that to keep us coming back to church. "More" in this case meaning a unique community, able to embrace people of wildly different backgrounds and beliefs. Transfiguration offers that. (Music, not so much.) And for many years, the guy who brought that community together was the parish priest, a fellow named F. Lyman Farnham, or Barney.

We won't try to describe Barney in any detail. We couldn't do him justice, and would win d up making him sound like every other aging clergyman -- kind, conscientious, funny but always in a mild way. There was a lot more to him than that, and a lot more to the gentle but firm way he took hold of Transfiguration and steered it spiritually. His sermons were odd, but often oddly affecting. We could have lived without his chosen canticle of praise, but in every other regard, he was what we would like to be, in the same situation. Or even in our present one.

For more than a decade, he was the closest thing we had to a parish pastor.

And as sure as the blackflies swarm in June, Barney would choose the same hymn on Labor Day:
Come, labor on.
Claim the high calling angels cannot share --
to young and old the Gospel gladness bear:
redeem the time, its hours too swiftly fly
The night draws nigh.
Since our vacation almost always extended over the holiday, we were going to be in church to hear it. And since it isn't in most of the Lutheran hymnals, this was the only place we ever heard it. So it makes us think of him, every time.

Barney died a couple of years ago. He had been getting sicker, and he let us know about it, one step at a time, preparing us as he was surely preparing himself for what happens. By the end, it wasn't a surprise, although it was a terrible shock. He died the way we feel a pastor ought to -- honestly, without denial or despair. Teaching the faithful to live is the easy part. Even a hypocrite can do that. Teaching us to die is another thing.

So, yes, it's Labor Day. For us, that doesn't have much to do with unions and worker safety, nor with the supposed end of summer. For us, it is reminder of our mission, to claim the high calling. It is a reminder of Barney, and every other honest worker in God's vineyard who has inspired faith not just with words, but with his life and with his death.

Our Grandfather's Church

"This is your grandfather's church." That's the very clever slogan chosen by the Brothers of John the Steadfast, a traditionalist group within the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Perhaps the cleverest thing about it is that it refers to a 1988 ad campaign for a car which is no longer manufactured, meaning that you pretty much have to be a grandfather to get the joke.

Still, it's a good slogan, and we at the Egg wish we'd gotten to it first. (Here's a nice essay on the subject). But it has also caused us to think a little bit about our own grandfather, and his church.

Grandpapa was a Brooklyn-born graduate of Gettysburg College and the Philadelphia seminary, ordained in 1935. He served one parish, in an area of New York City that during his tenure developed from farmland to suburb to textbook urban decline. He retired in 1973, and served into the 1990s as an interim and supply pastor in the rural areas well north of the city. His "Lutheran church" was , by turns, the ULCA, the LCA and the ELCA. But -- and this matters -- it was the New York version, a Lutheranism different in history and in tone from the Lutheranism of the Midwest.

So what was it like?

In some ways, it could not have been more different from the Lutheranism of today. The ELCA's "representational principle," or quota system, would have been unimaginable until it was actually imagined. Synod assemblies (and for that matter church councils) were all but wholly male.

In others, it was like looking at modern Lutheranism through a funhouse mirror: the same elements appear, but they are strangely distorted. For example:

(1) It was, overwhelmingly, a church built by immigrants -- Lutheran immigrants -- and their children. Only a generation earlier, there had been a major schism between "liberal" pastors, who felt that services in English were still authentically Lutheran, and the "conservatives" who considered this anathema. This schism had only ended as Grandpapa entered seminary, by the merger of three ULCA synods, and English remained a second language for many pastors and more of the faithful. Today, of course, English has long since won the field. And for better or worse -- we aren't sure which -- Lutheranism has spent a solid generation trying to reach the children of non-Lutheran immigrants.

(2) It was a church struggling with ethnic outreach. There was more to it than English versus German (or Swedish, or Norwegian). Then as now, bishops in New York were prone to bragging about how many different languages their churches used for Sunday worship. Then as now, the number hovered around 20, but they weren't the same languages -- more Polish, for example, and less Chinese. But then as now, nobody knew whether it was worth the effort. (Hint: How many Polish-speaking Lutheran churches do you know?)

(3) They drank and they smoked. If there is one thing we know about our grandfather's church, it is that cigarettes and booze were in plentiful supply. Our childhood memories are proof enough of that. It was like Mad Men, but with less adultery. And cheaper suits.

(4) They argued about sex. From about 1930 until the early 1950s, our grandfather's church was deeply divided over matters of birth control and sex education. Liberals favored counseling the use of artificial contraception, and conservatives found it wholly outside the traditions of Christianity. There was a movement to withdraw from the National Council of Christian Churches over just this issue, or at the least to require NCCC statements on the subject to acknowledge the disagreement of the Lutheran participants. The liberals won, and today only a very small minority would have it any other way. Draw from that what conclusion you will.

(5) They ordained women. Not until 1970, some thirty years after the Lutherans in (ahem) Romania, but they did it. Grandpapa wasn't wild about the idea, but on the other hand a woman presided at Grandmama's funeral. This places the Steadfast fellows -- and all of Missouri -- dramatically at odds not only with my grandfather's church, but also with most of the major Lutheran churches in the world.

(6) There were gay pastors, and some people didn't like them. Grandpapa was ordained by Ellis Burgess. Do you know about Ellis Burgess? He was the Bob Rimbo of his day, in the sense that he had previously served as a bishop -- okay, synod president -- in another synod, before moving to New York. New Yorkers elected him after a strong oust-the-incumbent move originating on Long Island. The incumbent was Samuel Trexler, a local legend, who among many other things lived his entire adult life with another man. They didn't just share expenses, either; they vacationed together, they went to the theater and hung out with actors and writers together, were mentioned in each other's obituaries -- the works. Was Trexler "homosexual in his self-understanding," as Visions and Expectations says? There's no way to say at this distant remove. We can't spy on their bedroom habits. The construction of sexuality has changed since then. But you get the idea.

There are many reasons that the Long Islanders might have risen up against Trexler, not least of which was their anger with the privations forced by the Depression. Although nobody talked about this sort of thing, it is certainly possible that they found his private life objectionable. In any case, Burgess served one unimpressive term before Trexler was put back in office just in time for the Second World War.

By the early 1970s, of course, people did talk about this stuff publicly. Even before Stonewall, Lutheran churches in New York were starting to hold public discussions about homosexuality and Christianity. For example, Malcolm Boyd spoke at St. Peter's, Manhattan, just after the King assassination. Grandpapa, by then a crusty old conservative, hated it with a passion. He also hated modern art, and movies made by anybody except Ingmar Bergman. That didn't keep his church from moving forward with the conversation -- or keep him from recommending that his grandson do fieldwork at the offending parish.

(6) They were pretty high-church. For generations, the great majority of New York pastors attended the Philadelphia seminary, which was the home of the most important confessional and especially liturgical thinkers in American Lutheranism. From Charles Porterfield Krauth to Edward Traill Horn to Henry Eyster Jacobs (and his son Charles) and finally Luther D. Reed, LTSP had been home a family of scholars who read the Lutheran Confessions through a Romantic (that is, medievalist) lens. From this reading grew the then-shocking argument that Lutheran worship ought to follow the patterns Mass, adapted according to Evangelical theology.

In practice, of course, this insight was sharply restrained. (We expect they all remembered Philip Schaff's two trials for heresy, and were duly chastened). Reed, for example, called for cassock and surplice, with a stole, as a compromise between the talar to which many Lutherans were still devoted and the alb-and-chasuble that he knew were correct.

But from the 1880s, if not the 1860s, LTSP professors had made a case for the weekly Eucharist, the use of wine rather than grape juice and a chalice rather than individual cups. Krauth's daughter Harriet set the General Council Church-Book service to Anglican chant. It was Reed who composed the first proper Eucharistic Prayer for use in a US Lutheran service book. Celebrants faced east in those days, and Grandpapa, at least, never really cared for the versus populum revolution.

All of this had an early and lasting effect on our grandfather's church. Trexler, for example, was routinely called "bishop," long before the title was official, and was eventually given a pectoral cross to be passed on to his successors. At public events and in official pictures, pastors wore their collars-- our grandfather being a rebellious exception. In regard to worship and symbols, we expect that our grandfather's church matches well with the vision of the Brothers.

(7) They used the Confessions, but didn't obsess over them. Yes, LTSP had been a pioneer in the renewed attention to the Book of Concord. But that did not leave its alumni stuck in an intellectual ghetto, evaluating every theological idea according to the Solid Declaration. In part, this is because the traditions of our grandfather's church accepted and even encouraged Lutheran students to study at non-Lutheran schools, and pastors to study things outside conventional theology.

For example, Krauth had also taught philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. Trexler, early in his ministry, had been an itinerant chaplain, visiting Lutheran students at Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges. Gramps did his doctoral study at Columbia, in philosophy, and in our own experience spent far more time talking about Sartre or Alfred North Whitehead than he ever did about Melanchthon or Chemnitz. He died -- literally, he died -- with two books at his bedside: Fr. Raymond Brown's commentary on John, and a beaten old copy of Susanne Langer.

Now, it would be unfair to draw too sharp a line here between our grandfather's church and the Steadfast guys. For all we know, the whole bunch of them studied art history at Harvard. But the Old Missouri that they idolize was notorious for its clannish, inward-looking, and sectarian worldview. It trusted its own colleges and its own scholars to the exclusion of all others. The Bible mattered, but always as interpreted by the Confessions; and the Confessions mattered, but principally as interpreted by Walther, Franz Pieper and eventually Hermann Sasse. On this matter of intellectual orientation, far more than on any theological conclusions, our grandfather's church was the opposite of theirs.

(8) It was a church struggling to survive. But unlike contemporary mainline denominations, the struggle was recent and short-lived. During the first decades of the 20th century, Lutheran churches in New York State sprang up at an astonishing rate -- no fewer than one new congregation each year. During the Depression, church-planting ended abruptly. Many churches closed altogether; others were left with half-completed buildings. Pastors took sharp pay cuts, and congregations still could not pay their salaries.

And then it all changed, as the postwar suburbanization of America began. Church-planting restarted, especially on Long Island. It was a good 15 or 20 years before anybody noticed that the exodus of Lutherans to these new suburbs had left their old city congregations depleted of members, money and expertise. Even then, church leaders declared that urban churches could be revived by "evangelism," by which they meant recruitment of new members, often from ethnic communities with no experience of Lutheranism or even Christianity. The strategy failed, and yet remains a part of the treasured mythology of dying churches.

We wonder whether this mistaken belief, that superannuated congregations can be brought magically back to their youthful efflorescence, has its roots in the experience of Grandpapa's generation. Between 1930 and 1950, they had seen a church's rapid growth grind to a halt and then resume, seemingly as vigorous as before. Did they leap to the hopeful but mistaken conclusion that the period between 1965 and any-given-moment was simply another temporary stutter in an inevitable progress?

Here at the Egg, we do not make an idol of our grandfather's church. It was okay. There are some things we don't miss at all. Women were expected to work, but not usually to lead. It used way too much tobacco. It was blind to the seeds of its own destruction, demographically and (if its critics are correct) theologically. On the other hand, there were some things about it that we would pay good money to get back -- the pseudo-Tudor language of the Service Book and Hymnal; a national headquarters in Manhattan; a deliberately "churchy" feel that the ELCA tries to avoid.

But on balance, we will take our grandfather's church over their grandfather's church. We will take an expansive worldview over a restrictive one, a constructive dialogue with other churches (Lutheran and otherwise) over a tradition of offering nasty public denunciations and serving as a "spoiler" in ecumenical agreements. We will certainly take the slow, painful and awkward discussion of sex and sexuality that reaches from our grandfather's church to our own over the triumphal "No" with which theirs has answered every successive question.