Thursday, September 29, 2011

Hark! The Church Proclaims Her Honor

Here's a hymn we had never seen, and quite like. It sounds like the sort of thing many of us need to hear after the council meeting gone wrong, or the synod assembly gone long.

It was written by Samuel Preiswerk, translated by Catherine Winkworth. (CyberHymnal proposes singing it to Lobe den Herrn, although we think that may be a mistake.)

Hark, the Church proclaims her honor,
And her strength is only this:
God hath laid His choice upon her,
And the work she doth is His.

He His Church hath firmly founded,
He will guard what He began;
We, by sin and foes surrounded,
Build her bulwarks as we can.

Frail and fleeting are our powers,
Short our days, our foresight dim,
And we own the choice not ours,
We are chosen first by Him.

Onward, then! For naught despairing,
Calm we follow at His word,
Thus through joy and sorrow bearing
Faithful witness to our Lord.

Tho’ we here must strive in weakness,
Though in tears we often bend,
What His might began in meekness
Shall achieve a glorious end.

Pinker as Pangloss

Tired of grim tidings from around the world? Can't handle the thought of predator drones, Hellfire missiles, car bombs and loose nukes? Here's some good news: we're living in the golden age of peace and personal safety.

Stephen Pinker does not believe that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. But he does believe that we are living in a world that has become progressively less violent throughout history. He knows that this flies in the face of many stereotypes (but ... but ... but ... two world wars!), and so he came with charts. Please do read the transcript of Pinker's presentation, courtesy of It's fascinating stuff.

The data seem compelling, although we aren't nearly expert enough to evaluate them. Here are some tidbits:
  • "CSI Paleolithic": Prehistoric burial sites show rates of violent death averaging 15%, against 3% in the twentieth century and 0.3% in the twenty-first. (So far.)
  • Europe's homicide rate has plunged since 1300: "So a contemporary Englishman has about a 50-fold less chance of being murdered than his compatriot in the Middle Ages. (By the way, [the high point] of 100 per 100,000 per year comes from Oxford.)"
  • Fewer atrocities: Pinker looks at major events -- war, man-made famine, and so forth -- measured as a proportion of the world's population throughout history. He finds that "World War II just barely makes the top ten. There are many events more deadly than World War I. And events which killed from a tenth of one percent of the population of the world to ten percent were pretty much evenly sprinkled over 2500 years of history."
There's much more of this. In the present age, colonial wars are gone; wars between great powers are becoming rare; while civil wars are more numerous, they are growing less deadly. Slavery is illegal, wife-beating is on the decline. Arab Spring, anybody?

Why is the world so much less violent? Pinker proposes that there are four developments which incline people toward peace:
  1. The Hobbesian Leviathan: "a state and justice system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence, can reduce aggregate violence by eliminating the incentives for exploitative attack; by reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance (because Leviathan is going to deter your enemies so you don't have to), and by circumventing self-serving biases."
  2. "Gentle Commerce": "Over the course of history, improvements in technology have allowed goods and ideas to be traded over longer distances, among larger groups of people, and at lower cost, all of which change the incentive structure so that other people become more valuable alive than dead. To be concrete: I doubt that the United States is going to declare war on China (though there's much that we don't like about that country), because they make all our stuff. And I doubt China will declare war on us, because we owe them too much money."
  3. The "Expanding Circle": (The term is borrowed from Peter Singer, the idea from Darwin.) "[E]volution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. That's the good news; the bad news is that by default, we apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races, both sexes, children, and even other species. This just begs the question of what expanded the circle. I think one can argue that the forces of cosmopolitanism pushed it outward: exposure to history, literature, media, journalism, and travel encourages people to adopt the perspective of a real or fictitious other person."
  4. The "Elevator of Reason": "As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules."
Now, its all seems very nice, and fits well with our own elitist private-college blue-state worldview. But we do have some reservations.

First, this sounds suspiciously like those confident Victorian declarations that history is the record of endless progress from savagery to a state of universal civilization. These declarations were shot through with prejudices of race and class. They presumed that "civilization" was defined and evaluated by the standards of male Anglo-Americans of a post-Enlightenment Protestant tendency.

Pinker is neither Protestant nor particularly confident -- he sees no guarantee that the trend toward peace will continue -- but he (and his audience, to judge from the Q&A) clearly do have the prejudices of the modern academic class. Surely it can't be a coincidence that he attributes human progress to governments, travel, journalism, books and abstract thinking -- just the things that modern liberal academics value most.

Second, Pinker dances around the role of religion. This is easy to understand; it doesn't take an atheist to recognize that religious faith has served to create both peace and conflict. But where are the comparative data? It seems to us that one of the great contributions of the world's largest religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism -- has been to help "expand the circle," by uniting in one loose community people who had previously been divided by various forms of tribalism. Ultimately, this process has served to unite (more or less) billions of people at a time. How does this contribution measure up against the subsequent tendency of these united communities to make war on each other? We don't know, but we'd like to see some charts.

Third, Pinker seems to dismiss "moralism" while ... moralizing. His brief conclusion is a modest defense of modernity and the Enlightenment against their occasional detractors. He talks about moving from a "moralistic mindset to an empirical mindset" -- this is the hallmark of Enlightenment thinking, and we ourselves like it very much. But let's be honest about the internal contradiction when Pinker describes this move as asking "not just 'What have we been doing wrong?' but 'what have we been doing right?' " The question, like the presentation, itself presupposes at least a rudimentary moral framework, in which violence is bad and non-violence is good, and a society without violence is best of all. It is hard to disagree with this presupposition, and we certainly do not; but it is a moral position nonetheless. The truth of this becomes more clear when we notice that Pinker's measurements of non-violence include the growth of vegetarianism and the decline of harm to "sentient beings" such as chickens.

Still, reservations duly noted, the presentation is fascinating, and well worth some time.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

"How to Talk About Religion Without Starting a Fight"

That's the title of a handy little post at Jezebel.

It's basic stuff: figure out if it's appropriate; don't assume you're an expert; seek common ground. Still, we've known people to whom we would have liked to hand a printout of the post, along with a magnet to make sure they put it on their refrigerator.

Funny thing: some of those people don't even believe in God, and yet they still have astonishingly strong opinions on religion.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hard-Working Muscles

The hardest-working muscle in the body politic, at the moment, is not the Republican presidential candidates. Rodeo-clown season is winding down, and the serious players are probably on the field: Romney, Perry, and a few other people (Bachmann, Paul) who can't possibly win the nomination, much less the election, but who may influence the process. At this point, though, none of the candidates can afford to say anything noteworthy, and none has much power to do anything at all. The Supreme Court isn't in session yet, so Justices Scalia and Thomas are presumably enjoying sleepovers with their favorite corporations, roasting marshmallows and talking about which girls they like.

It's not even Ron Sukind, whose current book on sexism in the Obama administration quotes former communication director Anita Dunn as saying that the White House is such a boys' club that it "would be in court for a hostile workplace," when what she actually said was "if it weren't for the President, this place would be in court," etc. (It still doesn't make the White House sound like a lot of fun. C.J. Cregg never talked like this!)

No, the hardest-working muscle these days is made up of the Republicans in Congress. Attentive readers know that's not meant as a compliment.

Item: They're trying to destroy foreign confidence in America's fiscal stability. Key GOP leaders in Congress just wrote a letter to Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, demanding that his institution refrain from stimulating the economy via "quantitative easing." (Politico report, here). We have, frankly, no grasp of the economics here. But we do know that the Fed's independence from politics is important to its ability to maintain the trust of international markets. So when politicians start throwing their weight around, they put the Fed in a tough spot. If it goes with them, it appears to be caving; if it resists, then it's defiant. Either way, its independence is open to question.

Item: They're going to almost-shut-down the government again. The question at hand is whether Congress can pass a stopgap funding bill. The Senate wants to add an amendment requiring the US to fund disaster relief at the levels Congress has already agreed to. Where you or I might call this "paying the bills," House Republicans call this "playing politics," and plan to blame Harry Reid when they make another big stupid stink that gets our credit rating downgraded and makes us all look like idiots.

Item: They don't actually know what Social Security is or how it functions, but they want to dismantle it anyway. According to Lawrence Hunter (who is obviously a Commie, even though he writes for Forbes, supports the gold standard, and thinks "Obamacare" is a cancer),
The position of the Republican establishment in Washington is not to convert Social Security from a financial house of cards into an actuarially sound retirement program that would improve everyone’s retirement income, but instead to scrub its rolls and transform it into a real welfare program by means testing it, reducing benefits and making people work longer.
He goes on:
Trying to make Social Security a better deal for government by making it a worse deal for workers as the Republican Establishment wants to do is the ultimate exploitation of the people by the government.
When Forbes is sticking up for the workers against the GOP, things are just plain scary.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Curvature Crowdsourcing Query

Perhaps a friend with access to a proper theological library can assist us here.

If you ask the internet, it will tell you -- over and over -- that Augustine described a sinner as homo curvatus in se (or in se curvatus, or se incurvatus; same diff.). It will not, however, tell you where Augustine might have said that. A search of Augustine's online opera omnia reveals virtually nothing, except a remote possibility that the phrase has its inspiration in Ps. 38:6 (Vg. 37:7). (There, however, Augustine clearly relates miser sum et curvatus to the humility of Christ).

Matt Jenson has written a dissertation-cum-book on the subject of sin-as-curvature in Augustine, Luther and Barth, of which we can skim part at Amazon. (This is a great idea for a book, and we look forward to reading it.) He mentions that Anders Nygren located the image "in two of Augustine's expositions of the psalms and in one of his sermons," and offers a citation to Agape and Eros (Harper & Row: 1969), p. 485 n.6. Since it's under copyright, Google books will only provide us with a snippet of the Nygren book, and it doesn't include the reference.

So. Does a kindly reader have a moment to skim one or the other of these books, and give us an idea of where the late bishop of Hippo used the historically-important phrase in question? Just because questions like this keep us awake at night.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Class Warfare Waged by the Political Class

Republicans love to talk about class warfare. Only Communists in the days of Lenin seem to have loved the phrase more, or used it with more gusto. Here's the latest, via Politico:

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is ripping President Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich, calling it "class warfare."

"Class warfare might make for good politics, but it makes for bad economics," the Wisconsin Republican said on "Fox News Sunday."

Acually, Ryan's got it backwards. Using "class warfare" as a rallying cry is great politics. There are still a few Americans left who harbor a visceral antipathy for anything that reminds them of the Reds. And many more of us, virtually all, take seriously the idea that our society, however stratified economically, is still classless in the sense that all people are equal under the law.

So talking about "class warfare" hits us all in a sensitive place, because we cherish the idea that we're all in the same class. And, so far as the criminal code goes, that is more or less true. More or less, since black people are clearly not in the same class that white people are, at least so far as rates of conviction and incarceration, as well as what lawyers call "collateral consequences."

But economic stratification does create different classes, at least economic ones, and it bewilders us that Republicans perpetuate the idea that there is something wicked about a tax code that recognizes these differences.

In fact, it was those Commie-symp pinkos of the Greatest Generation -- you remember, the ones who fought WWII and built the suburbs -- who voted into effect the sort of progressive tax code that created a thriving and productive American middle class. Nobody called it class warfare in those days, though. They called it common sense and good citizenship.

As for economics, the myth of the "trickle-down" remains deeply beloved of the right. They believe, in the face of all evidence, that when the wealthy are left to do whatever they want with their money, they will choose to create jobs. That this is nonsense ought to be shown by the fact that America has, right now, the greatest concentration of wealth in the fewest number of hands since the Gilded Age, and yet it also has the deepest unemployment crisis since the Depression. After they buy a few houses and some yachts, the super-rich don't create jobs; they create big bank accounts. Lots of jobs for investment advisors, but not so many for the rest of us.

The irony, of course, is that Ryan is attacking a proposal nicknamed "the Buffett Rule," after one of the most successful investors in history. Buffett has long argued that rich people don't pay enough in taxes, and when asked whether he would lend his name to the President's proposal, answered, "Sure, its what I believe."

So if Paul Ryan and the Republicans want to argue that the proposal is good politics and bad economics., they will first need to convince us that they aren't scoring cheap political points, and that they know as much about economics as Warren Buffett.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Does GR Really "Get Religion"?

That's the question Joanna Brooks asks over at Religion Dispatches. They're having a spat over gay Mormons; Brooks said that the LDS community is starting to accept them, and GR honcho Terry Mattingly said that it's not.

In the latest exchange, Brooks chides Mattingly for beating up on a reporter who says that Roman Catholics "worship" Mary, rather than "venerating" her. Ah, yes: dulia versus latreia. It's an important theological distinction, to be sure; but as Brooks says, it is often lost on the faithful. She even has an example:

... Mattingly’s piece reminded me of the day I sat in the back pew of a Catholic church on the eastside of Austin, Texas, with my friend Rose, who is Tejana and Catholic. Pointing to a gorgeous mural of a dark-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe that spanned the cathedral chancel, Rose smiled at me conspiratorially and said, “I bring my kids here to see God as a big, brown-skinned woman.”

Don’t tell Rose that she doesn’t worship Mary, or that she doesn’t “get” Catholicism, as heretical as her feminist Tejana take on it might be.

Of course, it is perfectly cogent to argue that a "heretic" doesn't get her own religion. That's a loose definition of heresy. But Brooks has a point as well. This is the old academic distinction between "official" and "popular" religion which is rarely drawn as sharply as in Roman Catholicism. Frankly, if Johann Tetzel had restricted himself to the official teaching on indulgences, the Reformation might never have happened.

Longtime readers know that we find Get Religion both indispensable and infuriating. It provides a much-needed running critique of the confused, ignorant and sensationalistic stories too often served up by reporters on the "God-beat." (Just like you, we get sick of hearing Pentecostals described as "Evangelicals," and anybody with a conviction as "fundamentalist.") On the other hand, GR has two biases of which readers need to be aware.

The first is a mild preference for the traditionalist wing of any Christian church that has one. All told, it's pretty mild, and we think that Brooks is overreaching to call GR a "conservative watchdog." It's notably less doctrinaire than, say, Religion Dispatches. But the preference is pretty clear in the stories that the team chooses to examine, and in many of the conclusions they draw.

The second, about which we have written (and to which Mattingly has happily copped) is a preference for reporting about official doctrine over the way adherents experience their faith.

Both of these biases -- or, if you prefer, editorial preferences -- make a lot of sense. The vast majority of religious communities seek to sustain and pass on a particular vision of reality, one which was passed on to them. This the definition of tradition, and it is inherently conservative. Likewise, in a world full of opinions, it is important to recognize that official statements of a community, in its canons and so forth, have a generalized descriptive power which the remarks of a single priest or parishioner (or theologian) can't. Lutheranism is, in fact, defined by the Book of Concord, rather than by the peculiar folkways of Lake Wobegon.

But still. The imaginary people of Lake Wobegon -- or the real ones in Minneapolis, Stockholm or Harare -- may be shaky on, say, the duplex versus triplex usus legis, but they still call themselves "Lutheran," and mean something by it. While sorting it all out may be work better suited for an anthropologist than a reporter, it still seems to us that reporters can legitimately be allowed to write about popular religion, and to do it in layman's language. While we warmly approve of GR's call for clarity of thought and expression, we worry that it sometimes turns into an expectation that reporters will become amateur theologians, and make distinctions somewhat above (or, really, below) their pay-grade.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Last Shall Be First

If you're preaching Sunday, you might have a look at Augustine's Sermon 87 (Latin here, English here), on St Matthew 2o:1-16. It rambles a bit, but contains the usual lapidary moments. It is also a nice example of how to talk about works while preaching grace. And, frankly, there a few places where Augustine sounds like an American revivalist.

He reads the parable of the workers in the vineyard eschatologically. It is a story about the last times, and of our eternal fate. The "evening" of the parable is the Day of Judgment, and he depicts it as a brief history of salvation:
The first righteous men, as Abel, and [Noah], called as it were at the first hour, will receive together with us the blessedness of the resurrection.
Other righteous men after them, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all of their age, called as it were at the third hour, will receive together with us the blessedness of the resurrection.
Other righteous men, as Moses, and Aaron, and whosoever with them were called as it were at the sixth hour, will receive together with us the blessedness of the resurrection.
After them the Holy Prophets, called as it were at the ninth hour, will receive together with us the same blessedness.
In the end of the world all Christians, called as it were at the eleventh hour, will receive with the rest the blessedness of that resurrection.
Even though Augustine has already, and somewhat blithely, mentioned that the Jews have lost their reward for rejecting Jesus, here he lines up a bunch of Old Testament figures and sends them straight to Heaven, with no limbus patrum to worry about. Christians, humbly, are added on last.

This is noteworthy. Preachers often turn this parable into "lifers" versus "converts," or even "longtime members versus new members," which is a message some churches need to hear. And Augustine talks about this reading as well:
[Some] were called at the first hour, who begin to be Christians fresh from their mother's womb; boys are called as it were at the third, young men at the sixth, they who are verging toward old age, at the ninth hour, and they who are called as if at the eleventh hour, are they who are altogether decrepit; yet all these are to receive the one and the same denarius of eternal life.
But his first distinction is between the community of the Old Testament on one hand, and that of the New on the other. And for Augustine, we Christians are all the new members. All Christians are late to the table, all Christians are eleventh-hour hires, all Christians deserve (by human thinking) less than those who came before.

He goes on an excursion (which may belong to some other sermon), talking about
[T]wo things [that] are the death of souls: despair, and perverse hope. For as a good and right hope saves, so does a perverse hope deceive.
We mentioned Luther's White Devil the other day, a clever nickname for the perverse hope which makes a person think that something evil is actually righteous. This may be useful for some sermons.

But then Augustine hits on something that most of us in the Pauline tradition have to deal with: the moral hazard of grace. You know -- spiritual laziness, the "I can sin a little bit now, and be forgiven later, and still go to heaven with the saints." That is, surely, one way of reading the parable; and as we all know, it was a popular one in some quarters. Government bigwigs would put off their baptism until they retired, or even lay on their deathbeds, so that they could launch as many wars or kill as many prisoners as they wanted, and have it all washed away at the end.

Augustine attacks the problem from several angles. For example, he says, don't claim that you have not yet been called; Christ is nowadays known and preached everywhere, and that preaching calls you. To pretend otherwise is to wilfully reject Christ. People do reject him, of course; usually either in a frenzy or in a torpor, out of rage or out of laziness.

Frenzy and torpor are both symptoms of an illness. When you are sick, says Augustine, you go to the physician, right?
Well, the whole race of mankind is sick, not with diseases of the body, but with sin. There lies one great patient from East to West throughout the world. To cure this great patient came the Almighty Physician down. He humbled Himself even to mortal flesh, as it were to the sick man's bed.

The Incarnation is a house-call? Sweet. Then come examples of Christ healing the people whose symptoms are frenzy: Saul, of course; the first persecutors, some of whom changed their hearts afterward, so that "they were converted to Him whom they crucified, and as believers drunk in the Sacrament His Blood, which in their violence they shed."

And then, at last this:

And so again many lethargic ones are healed. For to such are they like, who are not violent against Christ, nor malicious against Christians, but who in their delay are only dull and heavy with drowsy words, are slow to open their eyes to the light, and are annoyed with those who would arouse them. Get away from me, says the heavy, lethargic man, I pray you, get away from me. Why? I wish to sleep. But you will die in consequence. He through love of sleep will answer, I wish to die. And Love from above calls out I do not wish it.
Just read the last bit over a few times: Ille amore somni, Mori volo, respondet. Et caritas desuper: Nolo. Gives you the shivers, dunnit?

The Good Old Days

Per Philip Schaff:
The Lutheran order of worship underwent some radical changes in the eighteenth century under the influence of Rationalism; the spirit of worship cooled down; the weekly communion was abolished; the sermon degenerated into a barren moral discourse; new liturgies and hymnbooks with all sorts of misimprovements were introduced.
Misimprovements, eh? Nicely said.

In defense of the modern age, we consider the spirit of worship to be warm enough, at least most of the time and in most places, and of course weekly communion has spent a century (and more) fighting its way back. So we're two-for-four over some of our ancestors.

Still: how many sermons have you heard or read, over the years, on subjects like self -care (disguised as "keeping the Sabbath"), or welcoming strangers (disguised as evangelism, but in which sharing the Gospel is reduced to recruiting members)? Don't get us wrong here. We warmly approve of self-care and churches that make people feel welcome; discourse about them is rarely "barren." But it is, at best, moral counsel, and never the Word of Life.

As for the misimprovements, well, just look for the word "alt." at the bottom of a hymn, and make your own decision.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Refuse to Be Terrorized"

That, in a nutshell, is the way to defeat terrorism, at least according to Spencer Ackerman at Wired. He argues that Al Qaeda was never as potent a threat as we imagined, and is by now reduced to the comparatively small-scale menace of car-bomb plots. From this, it follows that their lasting victory, so far as they have one, is the massive security state that the US has built up over the past decade. Setting aside the cost of the wars and the new bureaucracy and the spying and what-all else, consider (and this is us, not Ackerman) how much income is lost by the airlines, given the massive disincentives to travel now imposed at every airport.

Here, in short, is his diagnosis:
In case you haven’t noticed, hysteria is what the terrorists want. In fact, it’s the only win a decapitated, weakened al-Qaida can get these days. The only hope that these eschatological conspiracy theorists possess for success lies in compelling the U.S. to spend its way into oblivion and pursue ill-conceived wars. That’s how Osama bin Laden transforms from a cave-dwelling psycho into a world-historical figure — not because of what he was, but because of how we reacted to him.

So why don't we just quit ... reacting? Stop spending trillions and trillions of dollars to fight an enemy whose best remaining weapon is a car full of fertilizer? Here's why:

Former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke has an answer. “There’s going to be a terrorist strike some day,” Clarke told Frontline for its “Top Secret America” documentary this week. “And when there is, if you’ve reduced the terrorism budget, the other party, whoever the other party is at the time, is going to say that you were responsible for the terrorist strike because you cut back the budget. And so it’s a very, very risky thing to do.”

The risk, in other words, is a political risk.

That's why it is, as Ackerman says, "a bipartisan race to the bottom."

There's a lot more to it. Ackerman makes an exception for nuclear terrorism, a means by which the bad guys can create truly massive casualties. This is the one area in which he says we have "shamefully underreacted." In other words, we can stop being afraid ... of most things.

We're not sure we agree with all of this, mind you. We at the Egg have always supported the war in Afghanistan, and frankly cheered on President Obama's liberal use of Predator drones, Hellfire missiles, and all the other scary weapons that we have and the enemy hasn't. The whole point to asymmetrical warfare is that it's asymmetric: one side has a lot more stuff to work with, and doesn't need to be devilishly creative when it can vaporize your leaders with robot planes from the stratosphere.

But still, we think Ackerman is onto something. America overreacted from the very beginning, and the overreaction has been costly. The bizarre, immoral, expensive and unnecessary invasion of Iraq is the most obvious instance, followed closely by the TSA lines and their ever-changing list of absurd restrictions. Add those to the rest of it -- the decay of our democratic institutions, the day-to-day anxiety promoted by politicians and the media -- and you've got a seriously high-ticket freakout.

So maybe ten years on is a suitable time to take a deep breath and control our panic. Get a grip on the loose nukes, not to mention the bacteria, but let some of the rest of it go. Agree that we won't blame each other for the one or two times that the bad guys score against us, in exchange for a chance to take back our country and our way of life.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Watch Your Language -- Part 2

Is Superman taking the Lord's name in vain?

It seems unlikely. While some level of cussing has become acceptable in comics over the past few years, there are certain characters for whom it just seems ... out of character. Of these, the most extreme are Superman (whose typical expostulation has historically been "Great guns!"/"Suns of Krypton!"/"By Rao!") and Captain Marvel (who says "Holey Moley" a lot, no doubt in reference to the little-known Coptic hieromonk, Abba Moley of Dendera).

Still, DC is rebooting its entire universe, and strange things may happen. A guy who runs a comics shop in North Carolina thinks that Mrs. Kent's little boy has taken a sudden turn for the profane. Apparently, when being zapped by some sort of ray gun, he doesn't recapitulate his classic observation that it tickles, but instead says, and we quote, "GD." (It's upper case, but comics lettering is almost always upper case).

Based on this, the shop owner has preached a Crusade, and sworn to boycott Action Comics until writer Grant Morrison steps down, or Jerusalem is taken back from the infidel.

Reached for comment by every possible comics-related news outlet, Morrison responded, "it's a grunt."

Which, actually, sounds about right. You get hit by a death ray, you're gonna grunt.

Watch Your Language!

Surely you remember the old joke: "What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? You can negotiate with a terrorist." The joke was funnier in the 1970s, when people still thought it might be true.

We attended a fascinating assembly of the local ministerium today, which included two presentations on the liturgy. Both were in Hungarian, and although our translator did yeoman's labor, he was also pushed close to his limit; afterward, he said, "Now I go outside and smoke ten cigarettes." Ah, Eastern Europe!

One presentation, by the professor of practical theology at the nearby seminary, was restricted to the pending reforms of the Lutheran liturgy in Romania. Since the work hasn't gone very far yet, she didn't have much to share: a little background, and some inconclusive survey results from Germany. Just a thought: We're not sure that survey results are the wisest basis for liturgical reforms.

The other presentation was by Jakabffy Tamás, the leader of a very fine schola cantorum here in town. He and the professor collaborate on a regular Gregorian-chant Vespers service at our church. (Well worth a visit, if you happen to be in central Transylvania on the first Monday of the month). Because of the language barrier, we've never had a chance to pick the fellow's brain, but we don't think he worries much about survey results. Our distinct impression is that one doesn't really negotiate with him. If you see what we mean.

Still, his presentation, on liturgical language, was fascinating. He made the same basic point that, say, the New Liturgical Movement people often do: After Greek and Aramaic, Latin is the next language of Christianity; it is the first language of the Latin church, and enjoys pride of place over other languages, even when those are permitted. Likewise, Gregorian chant is the church's proper song, and enjoys pride of place even when other kinds of music are permitted. If, frankly, they must be permitted. Which, ahem, they shouldn't be.

Underneath this rather forcefully-stated legalism lay the same sort of theoretical basis that most of us were educated with: that the liturgy is both a public service and a divine service, both the "people's work" and the opus Dei; that in it, the presence of Christ is communicated [in the literal sense, close to "mediated"] to the People of God; that the liturgy is itself a language, with a grammar like any other, and that like any other language it may change slowly over time, but resists sudden or inorganic change, especially by determined individuals.

Basic enough, but worth remembering once in a while.

Afterward, there was only one question, from, double-ahem, a foreign visitor: Given the reform-of-the-reform under Benedict, and the effort to re-evaluate Vatican II documents (such as Sacrosanctum Concilium) by taking literally their frank embrace of liturgical Latin, does he see a renewed place for Latin in the regular public worship of his church?

We figured this was a softball. He'd say yes, and then we'd drop a broad hint that the monthly ecumenical Vespers would be a lot more fun for some people if it were in a language other than Hungarian. Everybody would boo and hiss, but we'd have done our bit to support "full and active participation."

Instead, we got this sad and strange surprise. It seems that, eight years ago, a local group petitioned Rome for the privilege of a monthly Latin Mass. They never heard back. So the cathedral took it upon itself to offer one; a visitor from Rome was dispatched, who -- if we understood correctly -- didn't so much forbid the proceedings as criticize them out of existence. (We have no idea whether this was an EF or OF Mass, or even whether we understood the story correctly).

But he concluded by looking a little stricken and saying "We are a Latin church without the Latin language."

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Next Archbishop of Canterbury

Our home synod is struggling over the question of how, precisely, to choose its next bishop. No hurry; we've got years to decide.

MadPriest has an interesting suggestion: pick the prettiest one. He even proposes a candidate to succeed the beleaguered Dr. Williams, and we heartily approve of his choice.

Forgiveness: Upstate and by the Numbers

In New York City, it is customary to refer to most places outside the city limits as "upstate." Father A. once served a parish in the Bronx, and invited his members to an event at the Wartburg Home for Decrepit Lutherans, in Mt Vernon. It would have taken about fifteen minutes of travel in the church van, but they declined saying, "Oh, pastor, we really don't like to go ... upstate."

By this reckoning, Fr. A. now lives way, way, way "upstate." But New York, where he has spent most of his life, remains his customary point of reference, his home, even if he never lives there again. That's just how these things work.

All of which makes this coming Sunday's sermon a bit of a challenge. It will mark a nice round decade since some lap-dance-loving Saudis flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, killing one of Fr. A.s parishioners and traumatizing dozens more. And, of course, initiating a chain of events which has cost many thousands of lives all over the world.

And here is Jesus again, talking about forgiveness. Rassum-frassum Jesus.

Now, there are plenty of ways around this, and they aren't strictly legalistic. It's not as though the 9/11 conspirators, or any other suicide bombers we know of, actually apologized, or asked for forgiveness. They certainly haven't fallen down weeping before us, like the slave in the Gospel or Joseph's brothers in the first lesson (if you're using the thematic lectionary series). On the contrary, they appear to believe that their evil deeds are in fact good -- the delusion that Luther called "the White Devil." You could argue that, where there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness.

For that matter, St. Paul is clearly talking about the forgiveness and mutual toleration that [should] prevail among members of the same religious community. You could argue, if you really wanted, that all of these lessons depend for their teaching upon a mutual relationship -- the church in Romans, the social hierarchy in St. Matthew, the family in Genesis. You could argue that, where no such relationship exists, "seventy times seven" does not apply.

Sadly, however, we aren't convinced. Of course there is a shared relationship between terrorists and their victims; we are all human beings -- no man is an island, every man's death diminishes me. All homicide is fratricide. And even if my brother is a monster -- even if he never asks for my forgiveness, or any other kind of help; even if he is guilty of such terrible crimes that I myself am required to capture him, prosecute him, convict him and imprison him -- he is still my brother. That's just how it works.

Is the acknowledgment of this ontological relationship the same as forgiveness, in the sense that Jesus talks about it? Probably not. It doesn't get my brother out of jail. But it does forbid me to hate him, to desire his destruction, or to surrender the hope that he will repent. His crime does not give me permission to pretend we are less than brothers.

Anyway, here's a mathematical formula for forgiveness, courtesy of Karl Jacobsen at
The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 150,000 years worth of income ...

The slave in our parable is owed 100 denarii. ..

One talent is equal to 5,475 denarii. In the backwards thinking of the king the equation looks like this: T x 10
4< FS; where FS is the life of the forgiven slave, and T is the talent, the wages of sin. In the kingdom of heaven forgiveness is exponentially powerful. Even 10,000 talents worth of guilt and debt are counted as nothing compared to the new life of the forgiven sinner.

In the backwards thinking of the unforgiving servant the equation is reversed when it is applied to someone else: US < d x 10
2; where US is the life of the unforgiven slave, and d is the denarius, the debt the first slave clings to as his right. To put the comparative equation simply, in the eyes of the sinner 100 coins are more precious than the life of another human being; in the eyes of God 54,750,000 coins (the equivalent value of 10,000 talents in denarii) are nothing to be considered next to the fate of the sinner. Forgiveness, as laid out in this parable, is extravagant in the extreme, and more precious by far than the wages of sin.
Wow. We were always bad at math. We can barely manage 70 x 7.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Superman and the Hermeneutics of Continuity

Latin hymnody is nice enough, but what really get Father Anonymous going in the morning are comic books. And not your arty Daniel Clowes-Marjane Satrapi stuff, either. (Well, not only). Here at the Egg, we follow the same Golden and Silver Age superheroes who thrilled us in childhood, and whose lore we are passing on to our offspring. This includes some fairly obscure stuff -- Preschooler A. spent the morning demanding more adventures of Earth 3's Crime Syndicate. But at the heart of the mythology are characters known all over the world: Batman. Captain America. And above all, Superman.

So imagine our concern when DC Comics, one of the two major superhero publishers, announced plans to reboot its entire "universe," the shared imaginary world in which its characters interact. Oh, we understand the need: when you have been telling stories about the same characters for 70 years and counting, there is an inevitable need to freshen things up, not to mention sort out the conflicting versions of a single storyline. This may or may not be an artistic necessity, but it is certainly a commercial one, if new readers are ever going to understand what is going on. And the reconstruction of a universe is by no means the end of the world. DC did another major reboot in the late 1980s, for example, with decent results.

Fans, however, are generally uncomfortable with reboots. We have spent years following the characters, and mastering the obscure details of their imaginary existence. (Yes, it's just like soap operas. But with more robots.) We love these stories -- most of them, anyway -- and the thought of seeing them revised, often revised out of existence, fills us with a sense of loss. Anticipation, sure -- we all want new and better stories, and for that matter we want the ailing comics industry to survive -- but also loss.

The reboot begins today, with the release of a new Justice League of America series. It will reveal, among many other things, Superman's new costume (similar to the one featured in the forthcoming movie). The fanboy internet is in an uproar. For our part, we only wish that the nearest comics shop weren't ... well, soooo far away.

But all this has us thinking about theology, and most especially about Pope Benedict XVI. He is not, despite the red boots, Superman. But he has addressed, in language surprisingly clear for the Vatican, one of the critical challenges faced by any religious community, not least the Roman church: how to reconcile the needs for continuity and reform.

Since the late 1970s, theologians have often talked about an "hermeneutic of suspicion." The term is adapted from Paul Ricoeur, who used it to describe a post-Hegelian philosophical condition, in which all theories of meaning must be confronted with the biases of the theorist. It was borrowed by, for example, feminist Biblical scholars to describe a particular method of reading Scripture (and other Christian documents) with a lively awareness of the male-dominated culture in which they were written. We have since seen the method, or at least the term, applied to other studies as well, including that of Hinduism. And why not? As any historian knows, documents often say as much about their authors (and mises-en-scene) as about their subjects.

To the hermeneutic of suspicion, some writers have proposed radical alternatives: hermeneutics of generosity, of faith, and -- especially in the last few years -- of continuity. These, they propose, are safer ways for Christians to read the Bible, as well as other documents constitutive of our tradition. Rather than assume the authors are somehow deceiving us, they say, let us assume that they are telling us the truth, not between the lines but in the plain sense of them, and as that sense has generally been understood by the Church. And, again, why not? It was Luther himself who argued against speculative interpretations when common-sense grammatical ones were ready to hand. Occam's Razor, yadda-yadda.

Of these Ricuoerian spinoffs, the hermeneutic most adverted on the internet, at least among conservative Roman Catholics, appears to be that of continuity. (Examples here, here, here.) Indeed, one popular blog has adopted this as a title. As a quick Google search reveals, the phrase is commonly associated with Pope Benedict. And -- yet again -- why not? Benedict has continued the task undertaken by his predecessor: to establish a definitive interpretation of the Second Vatican Council which reads the Council as an expression, rather than a disruption, of the Catholic tradition. Of course, the council itself made just this claim. But its most enthusiastic interpreters, in the early years, seem to have seen Vatican II as a license to rewrite history and redefine tradition. (So do its most bitter detractors, which means that the SSPX looks dimly upon the effort to "save" Vatican II for traditionalism.)

It is worth noting that Benedict himself, in his now-famous Christmas 2005 address to the Curia, did not talk about "suspicion" versus "continuity." At least according to the official transcript, he spoke rather of "disruption" versus "reform." The difference is not vast, but stil noteworthy.

Here is Benedict's analysis of the difficulty his church has faced in implementing -- and even understanding -- its most recent council:

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

In contrast, Benedict argues for a literal and minimalistic reading of the conciliar documents. This is what pleases many of his readers, since such a reading presumes a continued celebration of the Latin Mass in its older form, not mention (among many other things) the Daily Office said in Latin, at least by those competent to do so. He wants to assure the faithful that "the Church, both before and after the Council, was and is the same Church, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, journeying on through time ...."

We're all for the general approach. But we are intrigued by the idea that it is a matter of reform, rather than -- mere -- continuity. In that word, there is the explicit admission that the old thing, the ecclesia quo ante, was deformed, in need of judicious reconstruction in order to express its original intention accurately. In a very general way, of course, this has also been the approach taken by some of the Reformation churches, or at least some members within them. From Melanchthon to the Petris to Charles Porterfield Krauth, there have been those who attempted to develop Protestant theology as an expression of Catholic tradition. (Of course, there have also been those -- from Flacius to Schmucker and so many, many more -- who have treated Protestant theology as a replacement for Catholic theology, and indeed of the supposed "Protestant Church" as a replacement for the Catholic one.)

The same impulses which Benedict sees in the appropriation of Vatican II can be seen, by anybody willing to look, in the far longer and more complex effort of Protestants to understand their own Reformation. All of which means that Evangelical Catholics, and Anglo-Catholics, and any remaining adherents of the Mercersburg theology, or even Methodists in the Order of St. Luke, ought to pay close attention to the intellectual leadership that benedict offers to his own community. We suspect strongly that Benedict has learned something from his observation of Anglicans, at the very least, and probably of Lutherans as well. Even if we disagree about the details -- the precise content of the tradition -- we can learn from his approach to it. He is, in this sense, our brother.

All of which brings us back to DC Comics and the big Justice League reboot. We will be curious to see, over the next few months, how these new versions of old stories are accepted by readers, and then modified by the editors and writers. The new Superman -- with his short sleeves, his high collar, and his lack of underpants on the outside -- certainly looks different from the one we have been used to since Granpda was in seminary. But will he be all that different? Is the "new universe" a radically Protestant one? A Bugnini-style liturgical one? Or will it be, after all, something more readily identifiable to the initiates -- one that exists in continuity, however tortured, with the world we have known and loved?