Saturday, December 31, 2011

It All Started With Lucent

Look, we actually like faux-Latin. We think it's funny, and -- frankly, our own command of the actual language being what it is -- we often find ourselves mumbling the faux variety when we didn't mean to. (Hey, it's not not like we're offending the natives, right?)

But when Bell Labs changed its name to Lucent in 1997, it was like Pandora opening her box. What followed was a deluge of macaronic neologisms: Altria, Vocera, and on and on. And why? "Bell Labs" was easily the most respected name in privately sponsored research. They invented everything you've ever heard of, and their original name carried so much weight that, as the company's fortunes declined, Lucent eventually re-rebranded itself as Bell Labs again, in a futile effort to stave off its corporate decline and retreat from basic science.

Despite this, other companies jumped right onto the bandwagon. Latin was appealing because the rebranders could easily find familiar-sounding words that nobody had yet used. Lucent itself, of course, is a form of luceo: they shine. But its successors got wilder and wilder. Novartis, for example, might conceivably be a dative or ablative plural of the feminine noun "novarta," meaning new art -- if such a word existed, which it doesn't. It's just gobbledygook, and transparently fake gobbledygook at that.

But the dogs piled on. James Archer has a list of them here, several of which he counts among "the biggest jokes in corporate naming." And you know what's on the list, right?

Thrivent. Of course.

The names of Lutheran Brotherhood and the Aid Association for Lutherans may not have been quite as prestigious as Bell Labs, but they sent a message of solidity and community. Thrivent, a Latinate verb ending stuck onto an Old Norse root, sends just the opposite message. It cries out phoniness, fakery, Potemkin-villagery. And, for the record, we at the Egg like Thrivent, a lot, and have trusted it with much of our financial well-being. We're just worried about the name, which stinks of desperation and lack of corporate confidence.

So comes now the most ominous name-change yet. The ELCA Board of Pensions is changing its name to Portico. The word itself is not fake; it is a real English word, with obvious Latin roots (porticus and of course porta). And that's the nicest thing we can say about it.

In an astonishing bit of double-speak, the BOP website claims that "We're changing our name to be clear about who we are and what we do." This is nonsense of the arrant variety. "ELCA Board of Pensions" was nice and clear. Sure, they've had some bad publicity lately, as the value of their investments (and therefore ours) has plummeted. But at least you knew what the organization was there for.

As for the new name, well, it doesn't say much of anything. The publicity makes a big deal about how a portico is a covered area where people gather, and well as the entrance into "something larger" -- they mention Solomon's Temple, although not a church, but let's assume that's what they meant. There's no real sense to this; they aren't a social organization, and they although they serve the church's mission, they certainly aren't leaders in evangelism per se.

Color us mystified, and annoyed. And a little scared: it took twenty years from the moment of its rebranding for Bell Labs to get out of basic science. How long will it take the Board of Pensions to get out of ... pensions?

On the other hand, you can't fight progress, or city hall, or the tide. Maybe this is a good and God-pleasing development, soon to be followed not merely by church-related organizations, but by churches themselves. After all, none of us likes the alphabet soup that makes churches sound like New Deal agencies, so maybe it's time for some ecclesiastical rebranding. Here are some suggestions; yours are welcome:
  • The Presbyterian Church USA becomes ... Kirkitas.
  • The RCA becomes ... Extra-Calvinisticum.
  • The United Methodist Church becomes ...
  • The Roman Catholic Church ... well, they already think they have trademark protection on "The Church," so they're not going anywhere.*
  • The United Church of Christ becomes ... Occupy Wall Street.
As for our own tribe:
  • The LC-MS has often been ... Virulent.
  • The ELCA, if not careful, may wind up ... Silent.
* The Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA is in court right now, fighting the RCC's trademark claim.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Honey in the Mouth

If you are preaching come Sunday, we certainly hope it is upon the Name of Jesus. This feast (which is historically connected to that of the Circumcision) is sufficiently important to Lutherans that it is, along with the Comites Christi, among the only Lesser Festivals granted precedence over a Sunday for which the color is white.

For those averse to rubrics, that means, um, "Hulk like Jesus Day."

Devotion to the Name of Jesus has a long and complicated history, well beyond the scope of a little blog post. But it is especially prominent in two very different settings: Western Europe in the later Middle Ages, and modern African-American churches.

With regard to the latter, a member of our Bronx parish often reflected upon her experience when visiting friends' congregations. She was an uneducated woman from the deep South, and we will not try to reproduce her distinctive grammar, but as she described it,
They just sit there during the sermon, as if they were barely listening. But then the preacher says 'Jesus' and they all begin to moan. Then he says 'JE-sus,' and the moaning turns to clapping. Then he says 'JEEE-SUS,' and they are all shouting and stomping their feet.
Please note that this woman was not herself entirely comfortable with the devotions she described to us. On the contrary, although raised in Bapticostal churches, she had been Lutheranized deeply enough to find the practice a bit suspicious. The name, she said, is not an idol to be worshiped; she came to church in order to hear the good news of sin and redemption, rather than to bark like one of Pavlov's dogs. (That may not be quite how she said it.)

In fairness, however, it is hard to imagine that, in most African-American churches, the Name of Jesus can ever be separated from the content of the Gospel. On the contrary, it serves as an epitome of the Gospel narrative, the proverbial nutshell containing the Iliad.

As for the first setting, we don't know very much about it. The old Catholic Encyclopedia has a short article, which makes special mention of Bernardino of Siena (1380-144). Blogger Terry Prest has a very nice piece on St. Bernardino, about whom we knew nothing previously. He posts a sermon by Bernardino from the Vatican website, which includes this stirring bit:
The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendour of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heard. And how do you think such an immense, sudden and dazzling light of faith came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached?
This is well worth quoting, or adapting, for a Lutheran sermon.

Bernardino's more famous namesake (and we imagine eponym) is of course Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), about whom there is no shortage of information on the web, or in any respectable church history. Bernard, sometimes called "the last of the Fathers" and "the honey-tongued doctor," was a Cistercian reformer, and -- perhaps apart from his enthusiasm for the Crusades -- one of the most admired churchmen of his own or any other time. (John Donne quotes him more frequently than any other medieval writer.) Bernard's passion for the Name of Jesus comes through in much of his writing, and samples can be found with a quick web search.

But here is a thoughtful meditation on Bernard and the Holy Name, offered by Pope Benedict XVI at a 2009 audience in St. Peter's Square. We'll highlight the best bits:

[Bernard's] solicitude for the intimate and vital participation of the Christian in the love of God in Jesus Christ does not offer new guidelines in the scientific status of theology. But, in a more than decisive way, the abbot of Clairvaux configures the theologian to the contemplative and the mystic.
Only Jesus -- insists Bernard in face of the complex dialectical reasoning of his time -- only Jesus is "honey to the mouth, song to the ear, joy to the heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)." From here stems, in fact, the title attributed to him by tradition of Doctor Mellifluus: his praise of Jesus Christ, in fact, "runs like honey."

In the extenuating battles between nominalists and realists -- two philosophical currents of the age -- the abbot of Clairvaux does not tire of repeating that only one name counts, that of Jesus the Nazarene. "Arid is all food of the soul," he confesses, "if it is not sprinkled with this oil; insipid, if it is not seasoned with this salt. What is written has no flavor for me, if I have not read Jesus." And he concludes: "When you discuss or speak, nothing has flavor for me, if I have not heard resound the name of Jesus" (Sermones in Cantica Canticorum XV, 6: PL 183,847).

For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consists in a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And this, dear brothers and sisters, is true for every Christian: Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us."
"Honey to the mouth, song to the ear, joy to the heart." While Lutheran pastors are generally not encouraged to steal their sermons from the Pope, it seems to us that these paragraphs, at least, could be borrowed (with attribution!) to good effect.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bethlehem Broomstick Brawl

Ah, yes: ecumenism at work.

Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox clergymen screamed at each other and beat each other with broomsticks during Wednesday's cleanup inside the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Merry Christmas to everybody!

By the way, the same guys did this last year, too. So now it's a tradition. Which, since they're Orthodox, means it will be repeated without fail forever, using the identical curse-words and, ideally, gold-sheathed brooms copied directly from the originals.

We mentioned in our last post that the behavior of one's fellow Christians often makes other religions, or no religion at all, seem suddenly appealing. Then we recall that Stalin was an atheist and Pol Pot a Buddhist, and the point seems moot. It is human nature, not any particular expression of it, which is the problem.

But here's our favorite bit: Palestinian security forces broke up the melee, and no serious injuries were reported. How bad do tribal relations have to be for the Palestinian Authority to play peacemaker?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Noonan's "Faith" Turns People Atheist

A reader accused us of treating Peggy Noonan uncharitably the other day, and perhaps we did.

Still, we don't much care for the Pegster. She annoys us. And apparently not us alone; C.T. May is especially annoyed by her writing on religious themes, which May finds "short of common sense and scruples," "dumb about logic [but] clever about manipulation," and ultimately "vile."

Now that's uncharitable.

May's little screed is itself short on charm; the best attempted bon mot is this: "I’m agnostic and proud, but when I read Peggy Noonan on faith I become an atheist until the effect wears off." It doesn't quite work. Trying too hard, maybe?

Nevertheless, we do recognize the sentiment -- there is plenty of writing by Christians, not to mention the faithful of other religions, which urges upon us a certain momentary suspension of allegiance to the Church in particular and theism in general. In any club, there are a few members who make one cast a longing eye upon the neighboring establishment.

Good News, Bad News: Islamofascist Division

Good news: The Iranian judges who convicted a woman of adultery and sentenced her to death by stoning have had a change of heart.

Bad news: They're going to hang her instead.

Jezebel has a synopsis of the story so far. Basically, though, it's just what it looks like; she shtupped a guy who wasn't her husband, and they're going to kill her for it. The only legal wrinkle, beyond that, is that she was later convicted of killing her husband -- apparently while she was in prison. Any number of countries, Texas not least among them, execute you for murder. In this case, though, there seems to be some judicial uneasiness about the murder conviction; it incurred only a 10-year sentence, which was later reduced to five for mere "complicity." So they're going to kill her for adultery.

Now, there are all sorts of things wrong with the story. You don't have to oppose the death penalty full-stop to think it is misapplied here. You don't have to be part of the Republican Party's anti-Shariah wing to think that this speaks badly for jurisprudence in the Islamic Republic. You needn't support free love to think that this is wrong, nor need you consider Iran's international reputation salvageable to hope that the judges here will try to salvage it.

All you really need is to remember that Lady Justice has a pair of scales, and that they're supposed to balance. Adultery is a bad thing -- God's Top Ten, after all -- but, Leviticus 20:10 notwithstanding, a punishment like this would have been over the top even under the bloodthirsty Christianism of Europe's religious wars. (Witches and heretics were fair game; adulteresses -- except in royal cases like Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard -- much less so.) To modern eyes, there is no way that judicial murder balances adultery.

Of course, no sensible person accuses Iran of having modern eyes. Or justice. On the other hand, they do have one of our drones, and (maybe) the makings of a an atomic bomb.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Churches to Close On Sunday

Nearly 10% of Protestant churches in the US will be closed this Sunday. And why? Because it is Christmas.

Heavens. What are these churches going to do when Easter falls on a Sunday?

The logic here is baffling to us. Christmas is a good reason to go to church; Sunday is a good reason to go to church. How is it that the combination of the two somehow becomes a reason to stay home? And what sort of pastors accept this reason?

Apparently, Lutheran ones. Over the last few weeks, we've observed a couple of online discussions of this phenomenon, including one among our Lutheran colleagues. At least a few of them it seems, will be among the nearly 10%. We find this profoundly shocking.

At the WSJ, David Gibson offers a mildly outraged op-ed piece on the subject, which tries to locate the problem in a conflict between beloved domestic traditions (stockings hung by the mantle with care) and public ones (going to Mass). That's certainly the gist of it; pastors are deciding to cancel worship because they don't expect large crowds.

This, to us, is the core of the problem -- and make no mistake, we do consider it a problem. Parish churches are not, generally speaking, summer chapels. By this we mean that the implicit contract made by churches (and their pastors) both wit members and with society at large is that they will hold services, at the very least on Sundays and holy days. The service in question need not be especially grand; read some lessons, preach a sermon, confect a sacrament and off we go.

Okay, yes, we confess that over the years we have ourselves polled the parish and opted to transfer a few holy days, including big ones. The Epiphany and the Ascension are especially vulnerable. But Christmas is different; it is the second great feast of the church year, and for many Christians secretly the greater of the two. For some people, it possesses an emotional power which can bring them to the heights of exaltation, or provoke a profound depression. There may not be many people in worship on Christmas Day, but those who show up do so for a reason, and it seems cruel to abandon them.

As for the Lord's Day, which is in fact a feast more central -- more essential, in that it touches directly upon the churchs' esse, its being -- than either Easter or Christmas, the idea of simply shutting the church down when it could be open seems to fall somewhere between bad judgment and sacrilege. Are we so entirely governed by the logic of the marketplace that we will abandon our most fundamental duty simply because we don't expect a crowd?

Beyond the one point, Gibson's thinking is a bit muddled -- none of this has much to do with either the Puritans or St. Augustine; he seems to elide the distinction between holding a service that is shortened or goofy ("the Jingle Bell Mass") and holding none at all -- but he does make one point that every pastor ought to hear clearly:
Perhaps it's a bit puritanical to insist that believers dump their cherished family traditions to march off to church on Christmas morning. But it's also self-defeating to complain about keeping Christmas holy when churches close on Dec. 25.
There's the real point, right there: if you close the church, you lose the right to complain that nobody comes.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can Advent be Saved?

Here's a post from the rarely-updated parish soapbox. Basically, it contrasts the rigorous pre-Christmas penitential discipline of the Orthodox church to the ... thing that Advent has become for us in the West.

Read it, if you like, in some of the copious free time we all enjoy these next few days.

Slapping Jesus

Science proves the Shroud of Turin is real! (Oh, wait, no it doesn't.)

This are the competing contentions of twinned articles in the Telegraph. Of mild interest on themselves, they are a window onto a more general nuisance, namely the routine use of Christian holy days to sell newspapers and score political points.

Every year, around Christmas and Easter, the news-magazines slap Jesus on their covers, in the form of some arresting graphic (the manger surrounded by members of Congress; the risen Christ with advertising logos where the nail- and spear-marks ought to be) and accompanied by some catchy headline which suggests that maybe some of the supposed experts (scientists, historians, even theologians) don't believe the same things that you do.

It is as predictable as clockwork, and scarcely more interesting to watch.

This strategy, of course, depends upon a particular social setting for its effectiveness. We live in an intellectual world in which many of the central claims of Christianity have been subject to about three centuries of critical examination, and yet continue to exercise a deep influence upon the collective consciousness. Were the first of these things not true, there would be no latent controversy to arouse, no sleeping dog to poke in the ribs; were not the second, nobody would care when the dog began to bark.

But as it is, the semi-annual Jesus-slapping ritual is a marvelous way to remind society at large of its divided mind, and of the particular influence of one religion upon that mind. With a single headline, the savvy editor can get blood flowing in the hearts of both the passionate believer and the militant secularist. With an article sufficiently heavy on intimation and light on straightforward reporting, it is possible to leave both parties with the sense that they are under attack, and need to defend themselves. It changes nobody's opinions, but it gives everybody something to complain about. (Much like the average parish Christmas pageant, but we digress.)

In recent years, the news-magazines have been easily outpaced by more volatile outlets. The specious idea of a "War on Christmas," for example, is the work of cable-news hosts and Republican Congressmen. (How specious is it? In our society, one might as well imagine a banker, looking out from his executive dining room at the huddle of insect-sized protesters below, complaining about a War on Capitalism.) At the same time, the secularist grinches of Santa Monica have chosen this particular time of year to place anti-religious placards on public property, to prevent those awful Christians from wishing anybody a Merry Christmas.

All of this, needless to say, is a sideshow, staged by the cynical for the entertainment of the vulgar. More sober thinkers have always recognized that the battle over symbols is, as Tom Chivers says in his anti-Shroud opinion piece, "undignified":
The intelligent faithful don't need trinkets like this to justify their belief, surely?
Of course not; nor do they need their Ten Commandments carved in marble outside a courthouse, or Nativity scenes plastered in public parks. By the same token, neither do atheists need to use municipal property to attack somebody else's religion. These may -- arguably -- be among the privileges of a free and open society, but are hardly elemental human rights on par with the actual freedom of conscience.

Worse yet, the various forms of Jesus-slapping undermine the genuine civility which lubricates, or ought to lubricate, the machinery of civil society. The truth, evident to a moment's reflection, is that the co-existence of those with different beliefs (including those who claim to have none at all) ought to be the jewel in the crown of a democratic nation. More than that, the easy and opportunistic division of those with different beliefs into warring camps is a trick worthy of the British Raj, or their successors in central Asian tyranny.

In fact, not only can communities professing different beliefs co-exist, they can cooperate, and often do so quite naturally. Even those who disagree about, say, the hypostatic union can find common ground regarding highways and tax policy. Surely, reflective Christians and reflective atheists are able to recognize that a civil-rights regime which protects one must, by definition, protect the other. And so forth forever.

Slapping Jesus in public is, no doubt, better than slapping each other. He can take it. But it would be more honorable, more dignified -- and for Christians, a more fitting acknowledgment of the Incarnation -- to give up the slapping, and embrace not just our common humanity, but the duties and responsibilities that come with our common citizenship.

Or, in the case of the news-magazine, to stop baiting us and actually report some news.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Competition

Admit it: you want to buy a copy of Odd Hours, our Latin-English prayer book. You think it sounds cool, right? We agree! After a week or two of use, we're pretty happy with the way it turned out. So move your mouse over to the sidebar, and click the link to learn more.

But ... wait! Maybe you shouldn't. Let's talk about this, shall we?

First off, let us give you some good reasons not to buy our book. The truth is that it could use some proofreading. We wanted to get the thing out by Christmas, and we may have rushed a bit. So far, we've only found minor typos, but there are a lot of them.

Second, and more seriously, the English psalter is hard to use. It's the Coverdale translation, in the original spelling, which is both very beautiful and historically important. But in early printed books, some letters were omitted, and replaced by a horizontal line, called a macron, over nearby letters. Our version lacks the macron, so words that are already spelled strangely are made to look stranger still. For example, "womb," spelled "wombe" in those days, looks like "wobe." The good news is that, since the Coverdale psalter was used in the Book of Common prayer, the odds are that you already know every word in it by heart. Without knowing that you know. Still, the spelling takes some getting used to.

Third: it's not a true breviary! There are a few brief lessons offered, to use if you're stuck somewhere without a Bible, but no lectionary (which one would we use?) and certainly no daily lessons printed out. That would have been a much bigger book.

And fourth, there may be other books that you would enjoy more. Not all that many, mind you; this is a niche market. But we have a couple of ideas:

For All the Saints. Years ago, Fred Schumacher put together a 4-volume breviary based on the Lutheran Book of Worship. It includes complete daily lectionary readings and a generous selection of devotional readings from ancient and modern writers. We used it ourselves for a long time, and can recommend it highly for somebody who just wants to say Matins and Vespers, and likes modern modern language.

What FATS lacks, compared to Odd Hours (and apart from a better acronym) is ... well, the oddity. No Latin, no "thee" and "thou" -- those are the main things. But it also lacks the selection of seasonal hymns, the Litany, the Small Catechism prayers, Suffrages and Compline. Not to mention the Angelus and Marian antiphons! This is a good choice, though; it offers much that ours lacks, and lacks some that ours offers.

In the same general vein (i.e., all English, and starting with the "official" prayer book), there are many Anglican Daily Office books, some of which look very good. Here's a one-volume Anglican Breviary, reprinted from a 1955 version. We might pick that one up ourselves. Here's an American version, in two volumes at Amazon, from 1986. As you might expect from our Anglican cousins, they look quite nice, and don't come cheap.

The Brotherhood Prayer Book, put together by the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood. We've never seen a copy, but it looks great on their website. Again, it lacks some of the quirky features of Odd Hours, but it more than compensates with something else: musical notation. The daily office begs to be sung, and BPB makes it a little easier. (The hardbound edition has notes, the paperback is text-only.)

Now, it's English-only, but there is a way to work around that. Benjamin Mayes has put together a Latin companion the Brotherhood Prayer Book, which is available (only? let us know) as a free downloadable PDF. We haven't really looked at it, but the idea seems simple enough. Print it, staple it, and hold it next to your BPB. On second thought, that doesn't sound simple; it sounds awkward. And we're not sure how to staple a 250-some page book. Still, just looking at the table of contents, it seems like a very impressive piece of work.

The Baronius Press Breviarium Romanum. This is going to be great, if it's ever actually published. The 1961 Roman Breviary, in Latin and English; 3 volumes, bound in leather; lots of illustrations; rubrics printed in red. They have been teasing us with this baby for years; it was supposed to come out last year, then last summer, and right now the website says maybe Christmas, which of course is six days away.

But good things are worth waiting for. Given the delays, we assume the proofreading and other quality-control matters will be nearly perfect. Frankly, if you don't object to any of the underlying theology, it might be the best thing going.

The BR is easily ten times the book that Odd Hours is. Of course, at $350, it is easily ten times the price, too. Heaven forbid that a few pages get crumpled in your bag, or that it falls into the snow when you are hurrying in to see Mrs. Olafsson at the nursing home.

Of course, none of these books offers much for people whose spiritual lives require the modern-day comforts of, for example, inclusive language. Neither does ours; that is one of the costs of using liturgical language from an earlier era. For that, you can (of course) use Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Or, for something a bit more user-friendly, there is Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, put together by Shane Claiborne and some of his "New Monasticism" pals. Phyllis Tickle's four-volume The Divine Hours is similar. Apart from their modern language and lefty leanings, these are books intended largely for the sort of people who aren't used to a traditional liturgical style, and need some hand-holding. Nothing wrong with that, and much right with it. They represent another take on structured daily prayer, and are probably just right for some sensibilities.

So, seriously, take a look at some of these, and see what you think. Meanwhile, we'll be at the prie-dieu, mispronouncing the versicles.

Monday, December 19, 2011

More Books to Buy

Father Anonymous isn't the only one whose creative juices have been flowing lately. We have recently been apprised of some other self-publishing endeavors that may interest our readers.

Let us say, for the sake of the argument, that you aren't eager to own your own Latin-English prayerbook, complete with a difficult-to-use psalter. Hard to imagine, but there's no accounting for taste. Or perhaps your copy is already on order, but now you're in an indy-book-buying frenzy and must have more.

Then by all means consider Campfire Christmas Songs. Here's how the author, Our Beloved Godfather, describes it:

When my son asked me to join him for a weekend retreat during the Christmas season, I happily agreed and headed down to the local music store to buy a Christmas collection. To my dismay, the collections that I found either included obscure chords (F#mSus4), or too many chords to play at a reasonable tempo, or melody lines that seemed to be written only for high sopranos or countertenors!

The failure at the music store sent me to an online search that also turned up nothing useful. Since then I have gathered a collection that would be both playable by the campfire guitarist and in a voice range comfortable for the back-pew alto.

While we wouldn't know what F#mSus4 was if it jumped us in a back alley, we are very much afraid of contracting a case, and imagine that a book like this may provide some immunity. For five bucks, you can't go wrong.

Or perhaps you'd like to celebrate Christmas by looking at beautiful pictures of beautiful churches. Good news -- we know a guy for that, too. Only a week or two after we expressed our admiration for Mark Christianson's photos from the south German town of Bad Wimpfen, with its historic cloister, he announced their publication in book form. While it seems entirely unlikely that he got the idea from the Egg, we intend to take full credit anyway. Or not. Either way, the book looks beautiful, and we sincerely hope that Mother A. buys us a copy for our birthday.

The Future of Wine

Wine is doomed! Global warming has imperiled the international wine industry. By the end of the century -- and maybe much sooner -- the fabled wines of France, Italy and Iberia will be little more than a memory.

Or, on second thought, maybe not. At the moment, high-quality wine grapes are growing in places like Britain, where they have not grown since the later Middle Ages. At the same time, there is no evidence that the flavors of the great European vintages (or Napa Valley) have been affected. In other words, there is more good wine in circulation than ever before; we are living in the golden age of viticulture.

These are the competing conclusions drawn by John McQuaid, in an article posted at Yale's environment360. In an age of sound bites and over-the-top alarmism, it may seem mealy-mouthed on McQuaid's part to resist confidently projecting a single scenario, whether of doom or of comfort. It took us a moment to remember that serious journalism, like any other sort of serious fact-based discussion, used to routinely resist following after Chicken Little. What a strange place the past is, even for those of us who have been there!

Anyway, the article is interesting for anybody who cares about wine. And why shouldn't we? After all, it is a sacrament.

Note to self: stock up on tawny port. Just in case.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

The essayist and contrarian Christopher Hitchens died yesterday, as he had expected that he would, from esophageal cancer.

Hitchens was a remarkable figure, a sharp and often dazzling writer, and -- although we never met him -- we are told that his conversation was sharper and yet more dazzling, even (or perhaps especially) after a few drinks. We regret that we will never have the opportunity to find out for ourselves.

Here, for the record, is a taste of Hitchens on George W. Bush:
He's unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things.
We wish we'd said that. And yet despite this, Hitchens was a vocal supporter of the Iraq invasion, a position which cost him some friends:
It led to him being accused of betrayal: one former friend called him "a lying, opportunistic, cynical contrarian", another "a drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay".
Surely it is unfair to call him cynical or opportunistic. Hitchens had come so see "Islamofascism" -- his coinage, if we recall correctly -- as the great challenge of the day, comparable to the struggle against Hitler and Mussolini. In this, we disagree not about the challenge but only about how best and most effectively to meet it.

We also disagreed, of course, about the matter of God. Even so, one has to admire lines like this one, from his bestseller on the subject:
I have been called arrogant in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator — that's beyond my conceit.
The irony, of course, is that in the end he published more on the subject of God than we ever have, and spoke with no less conviction. Make of that what you will.

Needless to say, we disagreed with Hitchens on any number of topics, but then so did everybody else. He was professionally disagreeable; that was his vocation. He was a gadfly by trade, and a nearly unswattable one.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book for Sale

It's finally here!

Odd Hours
, our collection of prayers in Latin and English, is now available. Click here to buy a copy, or visit the page linked on the sidebar.

Our own copy came in the mail the other day, and we're quite pleased. It's a sturdy little book, pleasing to look at and easy to use. We'll post some pictures when we can.

There are some flaws, to be sure. No shortage of typos, for one thing, and our choice of the original-spelling Coverdale Psalms may not have been as inspired as it seemed. (They're a little hard to make sense of, especially at first).

On the other hand, the selection of Latin hymns alone is a treat. Gathering them together has been an education. A few sermons by St. Augustine have slipped in to fill blank pages. And there are other little goodies tucked away, here and there, that may help to keep the heart and mind attentive. At least that's what we hope.

On Neo-Protestantism

Years ago, studying the Romantic renewal of ecclesiology and liturgy, we noticed that there were in the nineteenth century two working definitions of the term "Neo-Lutheran," and that they were directly opposite each other.* One referred to the revival of confessionalism and a style that looked selectively backward to the Middle Ages; another referred to the movement to broaden (and vitiate) the interpretation given to the confessions, and attempted to define a self-consciously modern movement.

One use was preferred in Europe, one in America, but the term was so rare and the historiographic problem so minor that we have now forgotten which was which. However, a similar problem arises in many of our conversations these days, and it is one which scholars ought to get busy building into their glossaries.

Here in Europe -- specifically, here in Romania -- the term Neo-Protestant is used, both by scholars and by other educated people, as a catchall for those religious communities which emerged after the Reformation, but from within the ideological world created by Protestantism. So, for example, the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican churches are Protestant, while Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists are Neo-Protestant. (Meanwhile, coeval movements within the Orthodox and Roman Catholic realms, such as the emergence of the Byzantine-rite churches or the Lord's Army, are classified differently).

This is an extremely useful distinction, at least on par with the one between the "magisterial" and "radical" Reformations. It may require some clarification, particularly with regard to Anabaptists and Methodists, but it is useful.

(In particular, this distinction -- were it to become common in Anglo-American circles -- could put paid to the anomalous refusal of some Anglicans and Lutherans to identify themselves as Protestant. Since the time of that very Romantic revival mentioned above, many of us have pointed in dismay to, say, Baptists, Quakers and Adventists, saying in effect, "Neither our theology nor our worship is as much like theirs as it is like the Pope's; so if they are Protestants, then we must be ... something else." Obviously, we at the Egg participate in this little charade, but we do so more from necessity than from joy. And if they are Neo-Protestants, then we can reclaim our proper Reformation identity without much fuss.)

There is, however, a problem. In Anglo-American scholarship, the term Neo-Protestant already has two senses. It is used both to describe (1) the modernizing, "liberal" movement which followed after Schliermacher (so, for example, the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought), and also (2) the eventual reconsideration of "classical" liberalism in the works of Barth & Co.

This latter usage is fairly rare; the preferred term is Neo-Orthodox, which from our current perspective is fraught with confusion of its own. (Oy, vey.) Still, it is common enough. Two minutes on Google turn up numerous examples, including some from notable theologians and sociologists. Part of the confusion is that a theological position opposed to "modernism" in any form makes no real distinction between Tillich and Barth. (So, for instance, Carl Henry, in this 1969 essay.)

Still, neither of the two conventional Anglo-American uses of "Neo-Protestant" is particularly widespread, nor does either one define a semantic boundary in such urgent need of definition as the Central European use. Historians, social scientists and pastors all have a pressing need for some easy way to distinguish the churches which emerged during the Reformation proper from those which in subsequent generations built upon, or strayed from, its legacy.

So let's hear it for neo-Protestantism! Hooray!**
* And, by the way, don't bother consulting Wikipedia on this. The relevant articles don't acknowledge the double-sense, and in any case are full of Missourian disinformation.

**This cheer is directed only to the technical term, and not to the movement identified thereby. Lest you think we were changing horses in midstream.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Très Mediocre"

That is how some French historian described the hymn Sol hodie nobis apparuit. But what do the Frogs know about art, culture or religion, especially in the Middle Ages?

The song is by Hildebert of Tours -- oops! He was French! -- but John Mason Neale, whose translation we offer below (and also, ahem, in our almost-ready-to-sell Latin/English breviary), does not seem to have been in love with the song either. In his Mediaeval Hymns, he gives the whole thing in a footnote.

But then he adds something to the effect of, "The reader cannot help but be reminded of Dr. Donne." And you know what that means, readers: Behold our new favorite Christmas hymn!

Two Suns appear to man to-day: one made,

One Maker: one eternal, one to fade.

One the stars' King; the King of their King, one:

This makes,―that bids him make,―the hours to run.

The Sun shines with the True Sun, ray with ray,

Light with light, Day with Him That makes the day.

Day without night, without seed bears she fruit,

Unwedded Mother, Flower without a root.

She than all greater: He the greatest still:

She filled by Him Whose glories all things fill.

That night is almost day, and yields to none.

Wherein God flesh, wherein flesh God, put on.

The undone is done again; attuned the jar:

Sun precedes day: the Morn, the morning star.

True Sun, and Very Light, and Very Day:

God was that Sun, and God its Light and ray.

How bare the Virgin, ask'st thou, God and man?

I know not: but I know God all things can.

This is to Easter what Mortis, Portis, Fractis, Fortis is to Easter -- monks at play, but pious play. (And, yes, French monks. it was a joke, okay?)

Neale is right; this does remind us of Big Jack. For that very reason, Neale's translation seems a little ... different. Better, in our opinion, than his work on many more run-of-the-mill hymns -- and a reminder of just how skilled Neale was at translation. He routinely matched meter and rhyme scheme to the original texts; but he also made a point of matching the poet's style -- elevated, robust, literary, or -- in this case -- almost too clever. Almost.

Monday, December 12, 2011

"Who Partakes Thy Woe"

Pastor Joelle writes that a friend was hissed and booed recently for writing that the Blessed Virgin was "far from perfect." Joelle takes up her friend's cause admirably, and we scarcely need to say more on the subject.

But when has that ever stopped us?

By a freakish coincidence, it happens that this very afternoon, we were tutoring a young Hungarian seminarian in the finer points of theological English. He's a bright feller, so in the past few weeks we have exposed him to the grammatical and lexical intricacies of Robert Jenson, Marilynne Robinson and George Herbert. But today we hauled out the big guns -- which means, as regular readers can surely guess, John Donne.

Dipping into the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, our friend saw some choice examples of the subjunctive, neologism, and the run-on sentence. (To the last of these, he gasped "Just like Hebrew," which was really quite intuitive -- a master of Latin, Donne was nonetheless shaky on Greek, but a notably more capable Hebraist.)

Then, to relax a bit and enjoy the Christmas spirit, we read through one of our very favorite poems on the Nativity, this sonnet from La Corona:

Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,

Now leaves his welbelov'd imprisonment,

There he hath made himself to his intent

Weak enough, now into our world to come;

But Oh, for thee, for him, hath th'Inne no roome?

Yet lay him in this stall, and from the Orient,

Stars, and wisemen will travel to prevent

Th'effect of Herod's jealous general doom;

Seest thou, my Soul, with thy faith's eyes, how he

Which fills all place, yet none holds him, doth lie?

Was not his pity towards thee wondrous high,

That would have need to be pitied by thee?

Kiss him, and with him into Egypt goe,

With his kind mother, who partakes thy woe.

Yes, it's clever, and touching, and metaphysical in both the Jonsonian and Aristotelian senses. But we knew all that. What we had never really noticed until we read it aloud in the winter darkness with our young friend is that Donne (raised Papist, and the sort of Anglican who would declare himself "catholic" in one breath and "puritan" in another, so long as you let him define the terms his own way) stakes out a position on the delicate question of the BVM.

Speaking to his soul, he says, "into Egypt go, with [Christ's] kind mother, who partakes thy woe." That is to say, travel a while with Mary, whose soul shares in your own condition: sinful until redeemed by the immensity she once enclosed.

This doesn't really address the complex matter of the Immaculate Conception, although one of Donne's favorite medieval writers was Bernard of Clairvaux, who argued against the idea. It most certainly has nothing to do with the matter of Mary's virginity, which we would be shocked to discover Donne had ever doubted for a moment, any more than Luther did.

What this does address, however, is the occasional tendency toward misdirected piety. So captivated are we by Mary's heroic faith, that -- just as the passiones of martyrs are sometimes rewritten to make the saint's life more nearly mirror Christ's -- so we attribute to the Mother qualities properly pertaining only to the Son. Such, for example, as sinlessness.

And it is on that count that Donne gently sets us straight here, as well as in the next sonnet (which begins with the last line of this one). Yes, she is holy, heroic, highly-favored; but those things -- and especially the heroism -- derive precisely from her humanity. She is godly, but never God; whatever her sins may have been, they were sins like ours, and they rendered her as imperfect as we are. The perfection she enjoys now is the same perfection for which we long, and dare to hope, and may receive only as a gift of God.

Of course, in one sense, Mary wasn't far from perfect -- she carried Perfection in her body. Donne would have liked that idea. But in the ordinary, moral, spiritual sense, she was just as far as any of us -- and just as close.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Midnight Special

"He himself was not the light." But all of Israel had been waiting for the Light, and of course the Church continues to wait -- joyfully and prayerfully, as tomorrow's Epistle says.

If you're preaching tomorrow, and racing to find a hook, you might consider the American folk blues Midnight Special, about a man in prison watching the train come down the tracks, hoping that it may bring a pardon from the governor, and set him free.

Shine your ever-loving light on me. It's not a bad prayer for Advent.

Like so many folk songs, it has a complicated textual history, and the lyrics are a bit hard to pin down. (Wikipedia background here; lyrics as recorded by the Band and CCR here; Leadbelly version here). And fair warning: Carl Sandburg thought that the song wasn't about waiting for a train to freedom, but about wishing to be hit by the train rather than remain a prisoner. (Still, a chance to talk about the sin of despair).

Friday, December 09, 2011

Ethical (and Other) Conundrums

What do you say when the op-ed writer you like least on Earth gets in a great line? Do you quote her, thus leading people to believe that she's anything but a crazy old bat still nursing her unrequited jones for Ronald Reagan? Do you quote her without attribution, thus stealing intellectual property?

Or do you assassinate her character, and then quote her?

Ahem. Behold the transient genius of Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, on why Republicans who know Newt Gingrich best are frightened by his rise in the polls:
What they fear is that he will show just enough discipline over the next few months, just enough focus, to win the nomination. And then, in the fall of 2012, once party leaders have come around and the GOP is fully behind him, he will begin baying at the moon. He will start saying wild things and promising that he may bomb Iran but he may send a special SEAL team in at night to secretly dig Iran up, and fly it to Detroit, where we can keep it under guard, and Detroiters can all get jobs as guards, "solving two problems at once." They're afraid he'll start saying, "John Paul was great, but most of that happened after I explained the Gospels to him" ....
Okay, fine. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

(via Gawker)

The Vegetarian Option is Steak

She's out of the running, if indeed she was ever in it, so there's no reason for us to crack wise about ex-Lutheran Michelle Bachmann. But still:

Jane Schmidt, a high school student in Waverly, Iowa, recently asked Michele Bachmann, "Why can't same-sex couples get married?"

"They can get married," Bachmann responded, "but they abide by the same law as everyone else. They can marry a man if they're a woman. Or they can marry a woman if they're a man."

(In Iowa, same-sex marriage is the law, at least for now, but never mind that.)

She expanded on this in a response to another student: "Every American citizen has the right to avail themselves to marriage, but they have to follow what the laws are. And the laws are you marry a person of the opposite sex."

Cue the sound of a thousand heads hitting a thousand desks.

The WaPo's Alexandra Petri has a field day with this:

"Why can't Rosa Parks sit at the front of the bus?"

"She can sit," Bachmann would say. "She can sit at the back of the bus."

... "Is there a vegetarian option?"

"The vegetarian option is steak,"

And so forth.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Father Anonymous is just off the plane from a quick family trip to London. It wasn't especially grand -- this was a very quick trip, staying with friends in the 'burbs and hauling a belligerent preschooler everywhere we went. Fr. A. himself was suffering from a tummy bug -- which is getting worse even as he types -- and was far more belligerent than the said preschooler. (Sorry, Honey.) Comparatively few sights were seen, and many grumpy remarks were made.

Still, the trip had its charms. In a less belligerent mode, Little Anonymous put his boots out on Monday night, and St. Nicholas managed to find them. Books in our native language were purchased, a decent Tex-Mex restaurant meal was eaten, and we gather that the Buckingham Palace guards were duly changed, although by then we were on a nearby lawn swinging Little A. in circles to make him dizzy. The friends were wonderful and hospitable, and we would much rather have visited them in their old home in Surrey than their new one in Kosovo.

Among the items not checked off on Fr. A.'s personal to-do list was what he calls the John Donne Heritage Tour. At a minimum, it would have included a trip to the chapel at Lincoln's Inn (which was constructed while Donne was, essentially, a law school chaplain); a tour of St Paul's Cathedral, where Donne was dean -- albeit in the former building -- and a chance to shudder at the ghastly statue; a pop into St. Dunstan's-in-the-West, where Donne held the benefice and which, coincidentally enough, is now used by the Romanian Orthodox community. We might have ferreted out his birthplace and a few other handy landmarks as well. They're all close to each other, and, alone, could have been visited in a long afternoon. We were not, however, alone.

Still, thanks to the utterly unmerited grace of Mother A., not to mention an episode of remarkably good behavior on the part of Little A., we were able to snake past the Occupy St. Paul's tent camp and take part in choral Evensong. Anglophiles get weepy-eyed about this, and more than a little pretentious. It isn't all that much, when you come down to it: just Vespers, out of the BCP, albeit sung very nicely indeed and in a strikingly beautiful church. (If one likes Baroque.)

But here's the thing: when you're still groggy from the wee-hours flight, when your intestines have been in full revolt and your mood is foul; when you have been rushing around in the cold, arguing with your loved ones; when the world seems like a nasty place, where the rich get richer and the poor get to sleep out in the rain -- when, in short, you are face to face with the brokenness of all humanity, especially your own -- then there is nothing much better than Vespers. There is nothing much better than to hear the words of hope, and to sing the songs of Zion; nothing much better than to sit with those you love and pray Cranmer's Collect for Peace, asking for precisely that peace which the world cannot give.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Noise of a Fly

John Donne was raised since infancy in a world of intense religiosity. He came from a family of saints and martyrs, and himself wound up the dean of London's cathedral and among the best-known preachers of his age. His Meditations alone stand among history's most thought-provoking considerations of life, death and prayer. Even during his supposedly rakish youth -- the rakishness of which is often wildly overstated -- Donne was a serious lay student of theology, at one point penning a mock-legal brief on the moral questions around suicide.

We may take it for granted that he prayed often and fervently (and, anyone acquainted with his prose may well suspect, in Latin as often as English).

Yet it seems that Donne, like most of the rest of us, found prayer difficult and demanding. He once preached:
I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God and his angels thither, and when they are there, neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door.
Can I get an Amen?

That's from Donne's sermon at the funeral of Sir William Cockayne, in 1626. We still remember the moment we first read it, and the shock of recognizing our own distractable nature in the prayer-life of ... well, of our hero. And that was when we realized that it wasn't so much our own distractable nature as human nature.