Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Rugăciunea de dimineaţa a lui Luther

If you've always wondered how to say Luther's Morning Prayer in Romanian (or Hungarian), you can find it posted at the parish soapbox. Had to post it as a JPEG file, because WordPress wouldn't display the Romanian diacritics. For shame!

Monday, January 30, 2012

To the Best of Them

In our first parish, there were some financial shenanigans being played by the people who held the money. It ranged from a family that routinely reimbursed itself for gifts directly from the donation plate to an endowment treasurer who decided that he wasn't going to make reports anymore. Most of the congregation's leaders grumbled, but refused to take any action.

The upshot was that Father A. made it his policy to personally open every single piece of mail that came onto the property, no matter to whom it may have been addressed, and to record in a priate account book every account statement and remittance that he could find. This never provided a complete picture, mind you. The general-account treasurer was also chair of a committee that handled significant amounts of cash, for which she refused on principle to give any account.

Oh, yeah. Good times.

But by the time he left, Fr. A. was the only one -- the only one -- who could say with any certainty how much money the church had in its various accounts. He took a grim pride in this, but also bitterly regretted the time spent playing a combination of accountant and detective. None of it was much good for his spiritual life, or that of the congregation.

So he resolved that, in the future, he would let lay people do the work for which they are elected and appointed -- which most certainly includes taking care of the money -- and concentrate his own energy on preaching, praying, and teaching the faith. For a couple of years, it worked okay, too.

But after leaving one parish -- we will leave the details vague here -- Fr. A. learned of a pattern of fraud and deception, perpetrated by people who had been trusted with significant responsibility, which had cost quite a bit of money in a very short time.

On one hand, the system ultimately worked. It was an astute council president who had uncovered the deception; laypeople came though. On the other hand, Fr. A. has been tortured by the experience. Had he returned to the role of accountant/detective, he could probably have stopped it all much earlier and less expensively. Upon his eventual return to conventional parish ministry, he will --- not without some regret -- take more responsibility for small-scale financial oversight.

We confess all this as a way of extending our sympathy to Archbishop (and Cardinal-designate) Timothy Dolan, who is probably feeling some mixture of rage and shame tonight. He too has been cheated by somebody he trusted, to the tune of a cool million. Here's the Times lede:
The Manhattan district attorney’s office on Monday arrested a Bronx woman who is accused of stealing more than $1 million from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York when she worked in the archdiocese’s finance office, law enforcement officials and church leaders said.
Ooof. That's gotta hurt.

For what it's worth, we recall that the ELCA's New England Synod was victimized the same way a few years back, and for a similar sum. Which doesn't make it any less painful.

Lady Godiva in Davos [UPDATED]

We're torn. These interwebs are buzzing with pictures of three Ukrainian protesters at the World Economic Forum in Davos. That's a politics story. The reason the pictures are everywhere is that the protesters were topless women -- extremely pretty topless women. So that's a sex story. And for the trifecta, the same organization to which these young ladies belong has previously protested at the Vatican, making it a religion story. In other words, perfect grist for the Egg's mill.

The problem, of course, is that this is a family blog. (At least if your family is a little odd.) Didn't used to be that way. Six years and 1300 posts ago, we would have posted pictures, and probably subtitled them with mildly off-color observations about, um, Ukrainian politics. Sadly, we have been tamed by the loss of our relative anonymity, not to mention the knowledge that our mother, wife and godfather all read the thing.

So instead, we'll -- sigh! -- try to provide a little background.

The group is called Femen (Ukrainian portal here; Wikipedia page here; hi-res glamor shots from Davos here; nothing safe for work). Founded in 2008, it consists mostly of university students, and uses topless protesting as its publicity tool. Its main goal appears to be organizing women, full stop; founder Hanna Hutsol says "I set up FEMEN because I realised that there was a lack of women activists in our society; Ukraine is male-oriented and women take a passive role." It is considering entering partisan politics and seeking a place in the legislature.

Surely there is more to it than Wikipedia lets on. Hutsol was apparently moved by stories of Ukrainian women "duped by false promises from abroad" -- this sounds like coded language for human trafficking. Femen has protested at the Turkish embassy in the Ukraine, and in front of Iranian diplomats as a protest against the execution of a women in Iran. So the organization does seem to have some broadly feminist goals. But to get their message across, they really ought to consider a manifesto.

At Davos, the Femen activists have written slogans on their body -- conveniently enough, in English:
  • Gangsters Party in Davos
  • Poor Because of You
  • Crisis Made in Davos
Our opinion? As a means of gaining attention -- personal or political -- few tactics surpass naked breasts. In that sense, the Femen activisits are just using the tools at their disposal. After all, protest movements are engaged, almost by definition, in a kind of asymmetric warfare. So Femen uses breasts the way Greenpeace used to use its Zodiac rafts. On the other hand, we'll find their feminism a bit more convincing when we see protesters with a more diverse range of body types. [UPDATE: commenter Manona pointed us toward this video, which does indeed show some less-model-y women protesting, and also includes a disturbing story about protesters being abducted in Belarus.

Now then -- on to Davos. The World Economic Forum calls itself "The World's Foremost Stakeholder Community," which gives you a sense both of the its self-importance and of its corporatespeak-heavy culture. It was founded in 1971 by a German businessman and, despite other activities and gatherings, is symbolized by its annual gathering of 2500 or so business and government leaders in the Swiss mountains. Here's a sample of this year's prospectus:

The contextual change at the top of minds remains the rebalancing and deleveraging that is reshaping the global economy. In the near term, this transformation is seen in the context of how developed countries will deleverage without falling back into recession and how emerging countries will curb inflation and avoid future economic bubbles. In the long term, both will play out as the population of our interdependent world not only passes 7 billion but is also interconnected through information technology on a historic scale. The net result will be transformational changes in social values, resource needs and technological advances as never before. In either context, the necessary conceptual models do not exist from which to develop a systemic understanding of the great transformations taking place now and in the future.

We can certainly see why English teachers would protest outside this assembly. But it turns out that other people do as well, and pretty routinely.

The WEF gathering has drawn many protests over the years, most notably the sometimes violent anti-globalization demonstrations of the 1990s. Briefly, protesters see the WEF as a club of elites ("Davos Man," who lives not in a nation but in a the cloudcuckooland of wealth and power), out of touch with the needs of the masses and gathering only to consolidate and perpetuate its own collective power.

Now, it is not intrinsically feminist to oppose the regime of bankers and politicians who drive the world into economic crisis and walked away just as rich and powerful as ever. But since women are often hurt most by ... well, everything ... it makes sense that groups with an interest in justice for women would stand outside the gates at Davos. And if they want to take their shirts off in the Alpine cold, well, more power to them.

Latin News. In Latin.

Zuhlsdorf posted this today. Even if your Latin is as shaky as ours, it's worth a look. Not to mention the German subtitles!

For those who prefer their Latin news on the page, we remind you of those sturdy souls at Ephemeris.

Havel's New God

Fifteen years ago, in a Prague castle, a former theatre critic for the Village Voice sat across the table from a former playwright, well-regarded in downtown circles. They spoke of Joe Biden, NATO, real estate and God.

Paul Berman had gone on to write for the Times, and Vaclav Havel, of course, to lead the Velvet Revolution and become the first president of the post-communist Czech Republic. In a New Republic essay, Berman reflects on their interview. It's a magnificent read for many reasons: the portrait of Havel; the snapshot of Biden undiplomatic bluster; Berman's voice, as he describes his beer-soaked realization that Biden may have done some genuine good. But the essay's principal value is that it lays out and tries to make sense of Havel's ides about the role of God -- or a god, some god, a transcendent reality -- in the modern world.

Havel borrowed from Heidegger, whose disciples, as Berman notes, tend to veer off toward the extreme right to the extreme left. Yet at first, Havel sounds almost Tea-Party-friendly:
He granted that, in modern times, it has become unfashionable to speak about democracy in connection to anything above us or beyond our understanding. ... He stood in a grand tradition, though. He invoked the American Founding Fathers. The Founding Fathers spoke about a Creator. Why, after all, does man have a right to freedom and a right to dignity? Who has bestowed these rights? They do not come from treaties. They are not human inventions. They are gifts of the Creator. The rights also imply a duty to the Creator. Havel cited the Declaration of Independence—all of which seemed to me rather stirring, given that, unlike a lot of people who natter on about the Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson, Havel meant what he was saying, and the Czech Republic was there to prove it. He was Thomas Jefferson. Without slaves!
But of course there is more to it:
His proposed new god, for instance, did not have an Enlightenment look. Havel paused to reflect on the god. A new god, he told me, would most likely be abstract and multicultural —- a god who brought together Allah, Buddha, Christ, and so on.
Berman rightly catches the Romantic heritage behind this idea. He also sees why this sort of speculation, useful enough for an artist, might not have been helpful to a statesman:
... Of course I could see why he was in no rush to be quoted. One of his closest advisers had confessed to me that even his inner team rolled their eyes over Havel’s screwy ideas. A multicultural god -— “multicultural” was his word -— might upset the various mono-cultural churches. There was no reason to start up pointless controversies over theological musings of a kind that might, in fact, have been enhanced by beer.
Havel was not entirely clear about any of these ideas, so interpretation is needed; Berman does a fine job, one we expect that PhD candidates will spend debating. The whole article is well worth a read.

It is especially interesting because, although Berman does not go into this, the Czech Republic is often pointed to by apologists for atheism. It is, to judge from poll numbers, the least theistic nation in the world; roughly 30% of its residents say that they believe in no god, spirit or transcendent "life force." And yet its citizens are decent, law-abiding folk, possessed of ethical standards comparable or superior to those of their neighbors (except perhaps in the realm of human trafficking, in which the Czech Republic plays a role disproportionate to its size).

In this connection, we may consider Berman's observation that:
Havel was frightened by atheism. In his eyes, communism was atheism’s apotheosis. Communism led everyone to focus on material circumstances and to dream of improving the circumstances, and to dream of nothing else. For why should anyone dream of anything more than material improvements? More does not exist. Such was atheism’s message. To pine for a new automobile made sense, but there was no point in contemplating the state of your soul.
In the same way, Havel wrote about the danger of Western materialism. Berman quotes a 1994 lecture in which Havel explained that people in many parts of the world admired Western values -- democracy, human rights, open markets -- but at the same time feared
... what many cultural societies see as the inevitable product or by-product of these values: moral relativism, materialism, the denial of any kind of spirituality, a proud disdain for everything suprapersonal, a profound crisis of authority and the resulting general decay of order, a frenzied consumerism, a lack of solidarity, a selfish cult of material success, the absence of faith in a higher order of things or simply in eternity, an expansionist mentality that holds in contempt everything that in any way resists the dreary standardization and rationalism of technical civilization.
Havel sounds not entirely unlike another Eastern European dissident, John Paul II, who in his visit to Cuba warned against the materialisms of both the East and West.

Was Havel's tentative religiosity merely a reaction against Communism and a fear of what might replace it? Or did it spring from a genuine appreciation of the role that faith can play in the life of a nation and, especially, the life of an individual? It's hard to be sure, although Berman suggests in his conclusion that the latter is true:
If you think there is something more, a Being or transcendental something-or-other that goes beyond your own material existence, your own life is bound to end up seeming, by way of comparison, humbler, therefore easier to put at risk. Havel seems to have understood pretty clearly that his own life was not the greatest of all possible values. ... He was one of the greatest and most heroic figures of modern times, or maybe of all time, but he was a great and heroic figure because his own thinking gave him the courage to risk not being anything at all.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Update: Glass Houses

Per the Times, an Arizona judge has ruled against Alejandrina Cabrera, forcing her removal from the ballot.

Judge John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court rendered the decision based on an examination "by a Brigham Young University linguist" -- does that sound suspicious to anybody else? -- name William Eggington, who found that Ms Cabrera's command was not up to the task of conducting city business.

Eggington may be right, for all we know. We are certainly not thrilled by the idea of city officials who can't wade through the vast amounts of dreary technical reading -- laws, regulations, tax codes, construction documents -- that are part of the job.

But the case makes us uneasy. Where does proficiency begin, we ask; and is this license of a cascade of partisan purges? Surely, somebody will ask about San Luis' mayor next, since he was frank about his own limitations even while criticizing Cabrera's. Where will it end?

Judge Nelson "acknowledged that there's no precedent for him to follow," according to one of Cabrera's attorneys. This does not surprise us; we hope the case does not serve as precedent for many others.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sin a Little

Pastor Joelle recently drew our attention to this passage from Martin Luther's 1530 letter to Jerome Weller. It has been making the internet rounds since it was broadcast on The Writer's Almanac by Garrison Keillor (the Lutheran world's favorite Episcopalian). We offer it here both to get a properly sourced text online, and because it's cool.

Weller was a young pastor who seems to have suffered from what we might call depression, but which in the old days was surely thought of differently. Luther counselled him:

Whenever this temptation comes to you beware not to dispute with the devil nor allow yourself to dwell on these lethal thoughts, for so doing is nothing less than giving place to the devil and so falling. Try as hard as you can to despise these thoughts sent by Satan. In this sort of temptation and battle contempt is the easiest road to victory ; laugh your enemy to scorn and ask to whom you are talking. By all means flee solitude, for he lies in wait most for those alone. This devil is conquered by despising and mocking him, not by resisting and arguing.

Therefore, Jerome, joke and play games with my wife and others, in which way you will drive out your diabolic thoughts and take courage....

Be strong and cheerful and cast out those monstrous thoughts. Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing.

Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles.

We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you : "Do not drink," answer him : " I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.' One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me.

Would that I could contrive some great sin to spite the devil, that he might understand that I would not even then acknowledge it and that I was conscious of no sin whatever. We, whom the devil thus seeks to annoy, should remove the whole decalogue from our hearts and minds.

- Letter to Jerome Weller, summer 1530; from Preserved Smith, "The Life and Letters of Martin Luther," (NY & Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Riverside Press, 1911), p.324. [Paragraph breaks are my own insertion].

See? Cool.

Needless to say, the memorable part of this letter is "sin a little to spite the devil." But latter-day Lutherans, taught as we sometimes have been to separate Law from Gospel with a paring knife, may find that Uncle Marty does it with a rhetorical chainsaw. "Remove the whole decalogue?" From the guy who wrote the Catechisms? One thinks not.

What's more interesting, to us at the Egg, is the expression of a dynamic fundamental to Lutheran thinking, and often confusing to our dialogue partners. The idea is that we are free in most things -- to eat food sacrificed to idols, or not to eat; to fast in Fridays, or not to fast, and so forth. But the moment somebody forbids us, or requires us, the freedom disappears. This is the tricky way that adiaphora can inadvertently provoke a status confessionis.

Mind you, the peculiar quirk is often more of a sectarian reflex than a sound theological judgment. Strictly speaking, it only applies when the prohibition or requirement is made a matter of salvation. So, for example, when some Lutherans got all uppity about the historic episcopate as a condition for full communion with the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA, they were missing the point; mutual recognition of each other as true churches possessing true sacraments and true preaching had been achieved many years earlier. Except among a few -- largely ignorant and bigoted -- Anglo-Catholic extremists, there was no question concerning salvation, only good order. So no status confessionis was called for.

On the other hand, were we to negotiate with Lutherans, we would be very careful to make requests (which can be acceded to out of love) rather than to assert requirements (which must sometimes be rejected out of evangelical freedom). It just moves things along faster.

Annals of Hypocrisy: Spanglish Edition

Arizona, surely the state sinking most rapidly into crpyto-fascism, has been in the news this week for more than Gov. Brewer's tarmac finger-wag. Namely, the Attack of the Pedants.

Per the Times, Arizona (like other states -- news to us) has a law requiring office-holders to be "proficient" in English, without quite spelling out what constitutes proficiency. One woman, running for a seat on the governing board of a small city called San Luis, has found her place on the ballot challenged by political opponents.

Indeed, it sounds as though Alejandrina Cabrera does speak English poorly -- "hesitant and heavily accented," the story describes it. We can certainly imagine circumstances under which this might be an impediment to effective governing; on the other hand, especially in a border town, so can a poor command of Spanish.

What astonishes us is that the challenge to Cabrera comes from one of her high school classmates, San Luis mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla. And hear is how Mayor Escamilla describes Cabrera's candidacy:

I do feel this opening a box of Pandora ...

Wait a second. "A box of Pandora?" Yup. That's right: Escamilla doesn't speak English all that well himself, and has said so on TV:
I feel I don’t dominate 100 percent, but I can still get by,” said Mr. Escamilla .... “I can write, read and understand it very well.”
Um, dude: glass houses?

Look, we ourselves live in a country whose predominant language we speak less than fluently. "Hesitant and heavily accented" is a goal we hope someday to achieve; we're still closer to "like a mentally deficient toddler." And we have a fellow expat here whose language skills are far superior to our own, as he lets us know whenever the opportunity arises, in a way which has probably limited the number of invitations he finds in his inbox. He's a smart guy, and seems like a very decent one, but ... we prefer to take our grammar advice from natives.

In the same way, we are inclined to think that (a) Mayor Escamilla is a jerk of the first class, and that (b) his grammatically-challenged remarks about Ms. Cabrera reveal the truth about the political right's passion for English. It's not a matter of not racism or nativism, so much as straightforward gerrymandering. They don't really care about how well a candidate speaks the language, so long as the candidate is from their own party. The "English Only" movement is just another way to weed out people who might vote Democrat.

Should have been obvious that these guys never cared about English proficiency. After all, they elected Bush.

We're Voting for Newt!

Even typing those words sent a little shiver of guilt-cum-nausea through our body. (Or maybe that was the fish we ate last night. Mmmm -- perch with hazelnuts. But we digress.)

Anyway, Gingrich has promised that, if elected, he would create a permanent inhabited base on the moon. At first glance, and in the present economic climate, that seems shockingly unlikely. On second glance, it looks like a prime target for cries of "Big government run amok," especially within Newt's own party. And on third glance, it looks like just another campaign promise, easily made and easily broken. (Like Gingrich's wedding vows, areweright?)

(And, incidentally, the WaPo description of this discussion sounds like a cleaned-up version of the "presidents on the Titanic" joke: Gingrich claims 1930s science fiction is a Big Idea; Romney says that if an employee brought him this plan, he'd fire him; Paul says the people he'd send to the moon are politicians. Seriously, these guys should do vaudeville.)

Sure, it sounds a little ridiculous. But ... but ... darn it, we want a moonbase.

When we were little tykes, they told us that by The Year 2000, we would have personal jetpacks, commuter flights to Moonbase Alpha, and a pony. (Yeah -- a cloned robot pony.) Needless to say, we waited patiently but expectantly, and needless to say the past eleven years have been a grave disappointment.

Still, we soldier on into the future, only a trembling upper lip revealing the wounded little boy inside us. The Internet and big-budget superhero movies are nice, but they're no jetpacks. And nothing, nothing, can replace a colony on the moon.

So Gingrich says we should have one. That makes him, by a cruel twist of fate, our preferred candidate for the Presidency of these United States. Nor are we alone; the bastion of corporate geekery, i09, has a list of 181 reasons Newt is right ... about the moon. Needless to say, the man is wrong about every other subject on which he has ever offered an opinion, including the time of day and which direction is up.

Mind you, if Newtie No Beauty manages to win the nomination, and then the general election, and yet there is no moonbase within some reasonable period of time -- six weeks should be adequate; we've had 32 years to get ready -- there will be grave repercussions. Like we'll call him even worse names than we already do. How do you like that, Newt in a Suit? Er ... we'll come up with better ones by then -- promise.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Cage-Fighting and Christianity

"Jesus Didn't Tap" -- meaning surrender -- is apparently a tattoo worn by some Christians who participate in the sport called mixed martial arts, a.k.a cage-fighting. One hastens to add that the Lord didn't cage-fight, either. Or wear tattoos.

Christianity Today has an interesting little set of ethical reflections on the martial arts. To summarize:

  • Marine Corps veteran and Christian Coalition editor Joe Carter argues that while the truly martial arts -- those that prepare a warrior to fight in a just war -- are entirely ethical, turning them into games and entertainment is not.
  • Ted Kluck -- who has been at various times missionary, author boxer and football coach -- says it's all good, and argues that violent sports teach Christian values. We are not remotely convinced.
  • Duke divinity student -- and former cage-fighter -- Matt Morin suggests rephrasing the question. He considers "should a Christian do it" to be divisive, and prefers to ask "why would a Christian do it." Hairsplitting, if you ask us. Either way, his answer is blunt: Cage-fighting is the new pornography.

We at the Egg have a passing acquaintance with two "martial arts." In youth, Fr. A. did a little boxing and a lot of fencing, both sports with obvious antecedents in warfare. He enjoyed both, although it was apparent that boxing was dangerous to the intellectual capacities. (The best fighter in our little college club explained that he had to suspend boxing as he wrote his senior thesis, because after a morning of blows to the head, he couldn't think straight for the rest of the day.)

We continued to enjoy watching the fights on TV for many years, at least until the reign of Tyson stripped away any pretense of art, and revealed the professional sport, especially among heavyweights, for the unmitigated thuggery it is. Today, we think of boxing the way a recovering alcoholic probably does about his last beer: with a strange mixture of shame, fear and longing.

To be brief, we think Carter is right, Morin is bombastic but also right, and Kluck is missing the logic of his own arguments. That's a shame, because he says something well worth hearing:

I think if we evangelicals are going to get indignant and legalistic about cage fighting, we have to do the same thing about professional and college football ....

If we're going to start playing the moral superiority card, we will have to unpack the various ethical dilemmas that distinguish other sports at a high level. These include academic fraud and the performance-enhancing drugs that make the NFL players you watch religiously (pardon the pun) look like comic book heroes.
That's right, Ted. Except that instead of following this through to its conclusion, you assume that nobody is willing to look at the ethics of, say, the NFL or even the NCAA. We should look at all of those thing, hard -- harder than you seem willing to actually look.

This is not about "legalism" or "moral superiority," any more than the abolition and civil rights movements were or religious doubts about capital punishment and abortion are. It's about ethical reflection as a community, upon the meaning of humanity and the right use of our bodies.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Die or Be Slain?

If you're preaching Sunday, you may want to consider the passage from Deuteronomy. Or you may not; it doesn't jump out and scream "preach me." One verse, in particular, has attracted our attention today.

Here's the original:
אַ֣ךְ הַנָּבִ֡יא אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָזִיד֩ לְדַבֵּ֨ר דָּבָ֜ר בִּשְׁמִ֗י אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־צִוִּיתִיו֙ לְדַבֵּ֔ר וַאֲשֶׁ֣ר יְדַבֵּ֔ר בְּשֵׁ֖ם אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וּמֵ֖ת הַנָּבִ֥יא הַהֽוּא
The verse is usually translated along these lines:

  • KJV: But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
  • NASB: But the prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’

But the final clause is sometimes rendered this way:

  • CEV: ... and you must also kill any prophet who claims to have a message from another god.
  • NIV: ... a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

Ruh-roh. There is a significant difference between the these two ideas -- the prophet shall die, or the prophet shall be put to death. It is, least, significant to the prophet in question. One allows passivity -- natural causes, old age -- where the other demands agency, either God's or, in the bloodthirsty case of the CEV, the community's.

Unfortunately, our once-respectable Hebrew skills have declined, and we are an ocean away from our trusted research tools. (So far that we don't even have our own BHS, and have trouble making out the points in online texts). Our first thought was that the problem is the binyan of the verb to die -- is it maybe a huqtal, with a passive/causative effect? Then we were reminded that the future can have an imperative sense. (This guy defends the idea that it is the community's job to kill presumptuous prophets, but he doesn't seem like a great source).

But the bottom line is that we're a bit muddled here. Die or be slain? This verse is unlikely to figure largely in our eventual sermon, but ... gosh, we're curious. Can a kind hearted Hebrew scholar (or sharp seminarian) give us some insight?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

That's Why They Call It "Dope"

These things just make us want to cry. The East Greenwich (Rhode Island) Patch reports:
... a plow operator clearing the parking lot of the Washington County Veterinary Hospital on Tower Hill Road notified [police] that a car with a flat tire almost struck him.

When police arrived, they found a white Volvo with ... the driver's side front tire missing from its rim.

The driver was identified as [State Representative] Robert Watson [D-30]. According to Buckley, police saw a pipe of the type often used to smoke marijuana on the floor of the front driver's side. In addition, police found a clear sandwich bag containing what turned out to be marijuana near the driver's seat.
The Patch further informs us that Watson was picked up in nearby Connecticut last year for DWI and marijuana possession. He claims to indulge in the interests of pain management, but does not possess a medical marijuana user's card.

And, we may add, it is our understanding that causing car crashes is more likely to cause pain than to cure it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

What Do They Want?

If there is an experience in life that will teach you the meaning of original sin, [church] finance chairman is that role.
That's what Terry Mattingly, religion reporter and chief honcho of GetReligion, says in a 2006 speech reprinted here. Based on his own tenure as the finance chair at a Baptist congregation many years ago, he continues:
What I discovered through that experience is that there is no connection whatsoever between how much a family gives to the church and how much money that family makes. Instead, I found that the key connection is faithfulness in worship. If you attend the Sunday night service at a typical Baptist church and look around at the 40 people there in comparison to the 200 or 300 in attendance on Sunday morning, you will find that about 80 percent of the church's giving is accounted for in that group.
This is great stuff, but the speech gets better. Mattingly, a Baptist PK who has converted to Orthodoxy, is speaking to other Orthodox believers on the question of "What Do the Converts Want?" He observes that the small group of passionate, faithful believers is something familiar to Orthodox parishes as well. This proves to be the center of his proposal, which is that what converts to Orthodoxy want is "a winsome, living faith," which he characterizes this way:
The converts also want good preaching .... Emotions are OK. Movement is OK. Beauty is OK. Humility before God is OK. And more than anything else, participation in worship is more than OK -- it is essential.
Which is not to say that they want the sort of sideshow offered them by much of Protestantism, particularly of the Jumbotron variety. Mattingly claims that most of the converts to Orthodoxy come from the world of "evangelicalism," as that word is customarily used in America.

He's surely correct, although the convert we know best came from Romanism via Lutheranism; the many hundreds of Orthodox believers we know these days are, of course, cradle Orthodox -- a somewhat different crowd, although not as different as you might think. Frankly, the people we know here who are tired of the Orthodoxy they have grown up with are generally looking for the same things Mattingly mentions: faith, preaching, participation. So are almost all the converts we have ever met, from anything and too anything.

The speech is great reading for anybody with an interest in how churches grow. It may be especially interesting to Lutherans, many of whom are only a couple of generations removed from the immigrant experience. Many of the things Mattingly talks about -- assimilation, in various senses; why children stray from their ancestral faith -- are questions that Lutheran pastors talked about intensively a century ago, and even more recently than that.

Mattingly's prescription also provides some useful perspective on the past half-century of liturgical thought among Western churches. He is surely describing "full, active participation" in the sense that Vatican II intended it. But he is manifestly not describing the vision of ritual that emerged from the 1960s and 70s; the converts of whom Mattingly spoke have deliberately and despite considerable difficulty chosen a church in which that vision has no place.

This is especially important to liturgically-oriented Protestants. In recent years, Rome has taken a number of steps back from the abyss -- most notably the new English translation of the missal. It has recognized that participation does not mean dumbing down or require pandering. But Lutheran and (even) Anglican liturgiology seem to be continuing in the post-1965 direction, seeking ever more "accessible" forms of worship -- and creating a profusion of language and rituals which echo tradition without embodying it. More on this some other time, perhaps.

Mattingly sums the liturgical case up nicely:

The American converts are not looking for some kind of post-Vatican II, carved-down liturgical experience. They have that all around them. They are not trying to cut the service down another 15 to 20 minutes so that more young people will hang around -- as if that would work. Speaking as a journalist, I can tell you that the lively, growing Roman parishes are not the ones that have cut the Mass down to 45 minutes.

You see, the people who want to worship, want to worship.

One of the trends in American journalism is to try to create newspapers for people who don’t read. This seems to me to be somewhat contradictory. Similarly, there are many churches that are creating worship services for people who do not want to go to worship services. The Orthodox converts are not interested in those churches.

And why, indeed, would anybody be interested in those churches?

Dirty Old Ultra-Orthodox Men

Writing about the strange new rhetoric of "religious liberty," we mentioned in passing the ever-more-strident calls of Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority to be granted a "liberty" which imposes harshly upon that of their fellow citizens.

They work little to be free for "study," enjoy tax benefits and substantial welfare checks, and are excused from military service even though it is their intransigence which adds so much to Israel's precarious security situation. And, lately, their very presence in a room is sometimes seen to require that other Israelis comply with their sectarian requirements that women be seated separately, dressed modestly, and kept silent.

To call this an imposition upon the freedom of their fellow-citizens is an understatement. In fact, it runs counter to the sexually egalitarian character long typical of Israeli society. One wonders what Golda Meir would make of it.

Dov Linzer, himself an Orthodox rabbi and educator, has a tart little op-ed piece in the Times about this business. He argues that the strictures to which these sectarians appeal are misunderstandngs -- indeed, reversals -- of the Torah and especially the Talmud:

The Talmud, the foundation of Jewish law, acknowledges that men can be sexually aroused by women and is indeed concerned with sexual thoughts and activity outside of marriage. But it does not tell women that men’s sexual urges are their responsibility. Rather, both the Talmud and the later codes of Jewish law make that demand of men. [...]

Put more plainly, the Talmud says: It’s your problem, sir; not hers.

Like equally rigid Muslim extremists, Israel's ultra-Orthodox claim, at least implicitly, that their rules protect women from the prurient gaze of men. But as Linzer writes:

In fact, though, their actions objectify and hyper-sexualize women. Think about it: By saying that all women must hide their bodies, they are saying that every woman is an object who can stir a man’s sexual thoughts. Thus, every woman who passes their field of vision is sized up on the basis of how much of her body is covered. She is not seen as a complete person, only as a potential inducement to sin.

Of course, once you judge a female human being only through a man’s sexualized imagination, you can turn even a modest 8-year-old girl into a seductress and a prostitute.

At heart, we are talking about a blame-the-victim mentality. It shifts the responsibility of managing a man’s sexual urges from himself to every woman he may or may not encounter. It is a cousin to the mentality behind the claim, “She was asking for it.”


Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt Should Switch Parties

Newt Gingrich should become a Democrat. Here's why:

Near the start of the last Republican debate, newt Gingrich was asked the sort of question that might have embarrassed a human being capable of that quaint emotion.

"Sir," said the moderator. "Does it trouble you that your ex-wife went on national television last night to claim that you are an amoral dirtbag? That, after she helped you break up your first marriage, you then cheated on her for six years straight? That you engaged in the nasty with your little adulteress in her very marriage bed? That when you were out of town, you would call your then wife to say good night, while the two-dollar tart you later married sat there listening in? Do you, sir, think that a man of your evident moral turpitude can possibly be qualified to lead our nation?"

We may have paraphrased a bit there, but it was something along those lines.

To which Newtie the Cutie, a man who has left shame so far behind that he can't even see it in his rear-view mirror, responded thusly (transcript here):
I think -- I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.
Really, Newt? You object to the destructive nature of the news media? How about the destructive nature of the Congress you led, with your unpopular and unsuccessful attempt to unseat the last president who actually provided peace and prosperity? But he went on:
Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.
Really, Newt? You can't imagine anything closer to despicable than that? How about serial adultery? How about being the first Speaker of the House in history to be penalized (by a Republican Congress) for ethics violations, to the tune of $300,00 -- and, incidentally, lying to the committee assigned to investigate you? Because if asking a guy's ex why she wouldn't vote for him is despicable, we really do think that cheating your country and lying to Congress are a little more so.

Now, Newt did deny the claims made by the second Mrs. Gingrich:
The story is false. Every personal friend I have who knew us in that period says the story was false. We offered several of them to ABC to prove it was false. They weren't interested, because they would like to attack any Republican.
Which part of the story his ex told on ABC was false? We have no idea, and the context is fuzzy. Surely the parts "he cheated on me with Callista" were true. Maybe the parts about calling her up to tell her he loved her were false. More likely, though, Newt meant to say that the part about asking his wife for an open marriage were false. Only he, she and God know who is telling the truth on that one. (We can't imagine, by the way, how any of his "personal friends" could vouch for claims like this. Did the Gingriches really share their bedroom talk with the tennis club?)

We suppose that in Newt's world, it is considered good tactics to respond to accusations in a self-righteous huff, whether or not they are true. To turn the rhetorical tables, and accuse your accuser of being -- get this! -- shameless simply for bringing it up. And NPR quoted some twangy halfwit as saying that Newt's counter-attack actually impressed him, on the grounds that "when the country gets into a fight, we want a pit bull on our side us, not a poodle." So maybe, in Newt's world, that display was a good tactic.

In Newt's world, which these days is the religiously-supercharged realm of Republican primary voters, it certainly makes sense to talk -- as he and the other candidates were quick to -- about "forgiveness" and even "redemption." Although God lurks in the language, the real question being posed is whether the voters can forgive Newt for his career of sleaziness.

But that's the wrong question.

First, let's dismiss the righteous bluster about his personal life being personal. In fact, the presidency is one of those jobs for which a person's sex life has always been taken into consideration. From the broadsheets that first broke the (truthful) story of Jefferson's liaison with Sally Hemmings, to the (possibly truthful) slogan "Maw, Maw, Where's My Paw," right up to the (truthful) Gennifer Flowers accusations leveled at Bill Clinton during his own primary campaign, sexual misconduct has often been put on the table by a candidate's opposition. Newt knows this as well as anyone, and better than most.

Second, let's go back to that question of forgiveness. It's the wrong question, because the reason people ask questions about your past ethical lapses (sexual or legal) when you run for president is not that they want to condemn you to hell as a sinner. It is, rather, that they want some clue about your character, about who you are as a human being -- and what they can expect from you in the future. And yes, the evidence suggests that we can expect some indiscretions from Newt Gingrich in the future.

That doesn't have to be the end of his campaign. Consider Clinton. Frankly, the nation elected him already having every reason to believe that he was a serial adulterer -- as indeed he was, and continued to be while in office. And although the Lewinsky scandal was a distasteful thing (and we wouldn't let our sister within ten miles of that silver-haired devil), Clinton's approval ratings stayed remarkably high for a guy who was impeached. The country did not elect him because it wanted a saint; it elected him because it wanted an executive. He offered peace and prosperity; he delivered peace and prosperity; he was and remains a popular figure.

So, were we Newt, we might drop the phoney outrage and try something like this: "Yup. Thanks for asking that question right up front, John. The fact is that I have done some truly heinous things, in my public life and especially in my private life. I try to do better, but the odds are that I'm going to fail. I'm not offering this country a model of moral perfection. I'm offering it a model of intellectual leadership that ...." Well, you can fill in the rest.

Of course, we think Gingrich is a dope, and we'll happily tear into his inconsistent and impractical slew of bad ideas. As soon as he stops trying to stop deflecting legitimate questions about his leadership ability.

The funny part is that while Democratic primary voters might actually go for that line -- they virtually did with Clinton -- Republicans won't. The old ones would have, and our kind of Republicans still might. But not the new breed; they want saintliness more than they want statesmanship, and nothing could make that more clear than the re-election of George w. Bush. For them, Gingrich has to sing Amazing Grace, over and over. And he can't offer them intellectual leadership, because it has the word "intellectual" in it.

But if he just made a(nother) deal with the Devil, Gingrich might change his fortunes. Democratic primary voters, after all, don't care so much about a candidate's sexual conduct, and they positively relish their smarty-pants policy wonks.

So whaddaya say, Newton? Ready to come over to the Dark Side?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

My Neighbor's Chains

"I cannot be free while my neighbor is wearing chains." These are the words of novelist Walter Mosely, but they echo a familiar refrain of the Civil Rights movement. They are rousing words, and seem, intuitively, to be true. A society in which black people (or serfs, immigrants, women, clones) are not free is by definition one in which white people (or nobles, natives, men, the customarily conceived) are not free either.

What if this idea is a nonsensical libertarian fairy tale? What if, in fact, freedom cannot be shared equally throughout a society, because some freedoms are mutually incompatible? Let's not reduce this to absurdity, either; obviously, certain people -- criminals, lynch mobs, Nazis -- cannot be "free" to harm others. Let us speak only of people whose values and goals fall within the boundaries of civil society. They do not seek to inflict positive harm upon anybody else, but only to live their lives as they see fit. Is it possible that they can do no such thing, because to live their lives inevitably means harming somebody else?

Think of the Amish. For reasons that the rest of us have a difficult time grasping, they chose long ago to freeze the material development of their society at a certain point in time. The decision to drive horses in the age of the automobile, however removed from any particular teaching of Jesus, is for them an exercise of religious freedom. And yet the complete and unfettered exercise of this freedom -- say, driving black buggies down public highways at night, without any lights or reflectors -- would impose upon the freedom of other citizens to drive fast modern cars on those same highways. (At least without killing anybody). And so the Amish are required to use reflectors.

Amish communities have also been involved in conflicts with the government over education law, photo-IDs and sewage. Here's a little more. Resolving these conflicts has been comparatively easy; the Amish are a very small group, generally well-liked by other Americans, who regard them the way one does an eccentric uncle.

But what if instead of funny German-Americans and their horse-drawn buggies, this were about Pakistani immigrants and their veils? The tone of the debate would change quickly. On the matter of photo ID, Pennsylvania caved, and allowed the Amish to carry cards without pictures. Some Muslim women in other states have asked for the same privilege, and the public outcry has been significant.

The recent Republican rabble-rousing against Shariah strikes us as absurd. Jokes about HaileyBarbour aside, we have a hard time imagining the circumstances under which America's courts or legislators would countenance the use of religious codes (Muslim, Roman Catholic or anybody else's) as a replacement or even a supplement to the civil and criminal codes established by the state. But of course there are countries, such as Nigeria, where it is done this way -- and part of the argument for the practice is that it respects religious freedom.

Even Israel, our supposedly modern democratic friend in the Middle East, makes legal exceptions for its ultra-Orthodox communities. So, for example, men and women were required to sit separately at a recent government ceremony -- because the civil liberty of a one man to sit beside his wife interfered with the religious liberty of another man to keep the sexes separate.

Over the past few years, and especially the year just past, some religious communities in the United States have registered their concern that the spread of same-sex marriage will restrict their religious liberty. In its early, crude, and misleading form, the argument was made that churches would be punished under civil-rights laws for refusing to conduct such marriages; this flies in the face of centuries of jurisprudence.

The newer form is less ridiculous. While the government has little incentive to shape religious ceremonies, it has long been a partner to churches involved in health-care, adoption, and similar work. Just as some Christian hospitals have struggled with laws which treat abortion as a matter of right, so many adoption agencies will struggle with laws which require them to treat same-sex couples just as they treat different-sex couples. It is easy to imagine

The case is made is a simple manner by a document called "Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods Which Stand or Fall Together." It is signed by the usual suspects: Richard Land, Timothy Dolan, and -- making their first appearances in the world of church leaders who sign meaningless collaborative documents, the new leaders of the LC-MS and NALC. It's not a great document, and we are suspicious of its more extreme interpretations. But this passage seems to describe a realistic possibility:

So, for example, religious adoption services that place children exclusively with married couples would be required by law to place children with persons of the same sex who are civilly “married.” Religious marriage counselors would be denied their professional accreditation for refusing to provide counseling in support of same-sex “married” relationships. Religious employers who provide special health benefits to married employees would be required by law to extend those benefits to same-sex “spouses.”

Such things might happen (although the recent SCOTUS decision suggests otherwise). One question is whether they are bad things, and if so how bad. But the pressing question, philosophically and legally, is whether the respective freedoms -- of the states to determine which marriages are legal; of the churches to determine which marriages are holy; of couples to adopt, counselors to choose their clients -- can be made compatible, or whether somebody will always have to lose.

It's all very tricky, though, because many of the possibilities do not involve actual legal punishment of recalcitrant churches, so much as the withdrawal of the government and its money from their activities. While sad, and extremely difficult in practice, this may not be the worst thing for a cash-strapped democracy. Saying that "we won't help your adoption agency" is somewhat different from saying "your agency must shut down." although in practice the effects are likely to be similar.

The problems of adoption and employment strike us as being murkier than, but parallel to, the argument made by Muslims in many parts of the world. In addition to the mobs which express outrage when a newspaper prints a cartoon purporting to represent Mohammad, there are sober intellectual voices which propose that this exercise of free expression is, at the same time, a limitation of somebody else's religious freedom.

In both cases, adoption or cartoons -- not to mention seating at award ceremonies -- it seems to us that the emerging rhetoric of religious conservatism claims that the free exercise of religion means the freedom of religious people to do whatever they like, without criticism and with the complete support of the state and its laws.

Obviously, they are asking for too much. But what, if anything, can they ask for? What respect can a secular democracy pay to the different convictions of particular religious communities, without favoring one above another, or limiting the liberty of those with no religion at all? Or, to put it another way: What chains can we be asked to wear in support of our neighbor's freedom?

We have no ready answers. But we expect to see the question posed ever more sharply in the years to come.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If PIPA Passes

That's a literary (and geographical) allusion, but good luck finding out to what. After all, Wikipedia is shut down for the day. In English, that is; the Latin and Finnish sites are still working, for what that's worth to the morally-challenged students at third-tier universities all over America.

The bigger concerns are the laws to which this blackout has drawn fresh attention. We're not entirely up to speed on this, so we won't say much. Here's a quick rundown from Gizmodo, and a better one from Wired. Here's a very watchable 13-minute rant by TED's Clay Shirky.

We will say this: America's intellectual property laws are already strict enough to stifle innovation. Copyright and patent laws have been strengthened and, in particular, their terms have been lengthened. Rather than benefiting the actual scientists or artists who make new things, the laws now provide a startling benefit to corporations -- and almost in perpetuity.

These laws do stimulate one kind of innovation, but it's a bad one. They have created the entire industry of patent warehousing, in which big companies buy up patents for things they didn't invent and have never produced, for the sole purpose of suing some other companies that eventually invent and build something similar. Suing them, and then essentially stealing their profits. The website paidContent.org describes it as "a protection racket in which an entire industry has to decide whether or not to pay a licensing fee up front or fight off litigation in court."

Add to this the unnecessarily high cost of pharmaceuticals, which contributes (a little) to the outrageous surge in health-care costs, and you begin to see the creepy moral questions which hunker around the margins of IP law.

But back up. So far as we can tell, the laws presently before Congress have nothing to do with patents, and therefore with drugs. They are designed to protect two industries: recording and film.

Protecting these industries is like declaring dinosaurs an endangered species. Except that the dinosaurs were bloodthirsty killers, not cocaine-addled moral degenerates. It took a planet-sized meteor to kill the dinosaurs; the recording industry has been kept alive by Congressional favoritism since the 1990s.

Recording, in particular, was a perverse blip, which for the first time in history allowed musicians to become wealthy for something besides writing and performing music; it made the sleazy middlemen even wealthier, and they built that wealth up by deceiving and defrauding the actual artists. Record producers were parasites, living off people with actual talent and depending completely upon the existence of the copy-proof vinyl LP. Protecting these guys is an idea so bad it makes bailing out Detroit look like probity personified. Their industry is dying; it deserves to die; let it die.

The irony here is that, although we at the Egg lack even the minimal tech savvy required to file-share or otherwise download protected content, we live in a country where it is rampant. Where the customary fashion accessory for Eastern Europeans was once an anarchist newspaper tucked under one's overcoat, it is now a terrabyte external drive containing ten movies, a season or two of HBO, and more music than J.S. Bach listened to in his entire lifetime.

This sounds like an argument for stronger laws, right? After all, these people are pirates. But do you know why they are pirates? Because nobody will sell the stuff to them. Try to use Netflix, Hulu, any of the legitimate vendors, and they send you a polite note saying "We are sorry, but we are unable to distribute content to your country." PBS Kids won't let Preschooler A. watch clips from his favorite programs about talking teddy bears.

Now, not everybody we know would pay for the stuff, even if they got the chance. But some of us would, and the media companies would make a few bucks they aren't making now. And they wouldn't lose a cent.

Or, to paraphrase our friends at the NRA: When it becomes a crime to download content, only criminals will download content.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hailey Barbour Supports Honor Killing

Pastor Joelle says it all, bluntly and concisely.

While honor killings are not, as we understand it, part of Shariah per se, where one leads, the other seems likely to follow. In this case, that means Mississippi, where outgoing Governor Barbour chose to pardon a cluster of men who killed their wives -- crimes passionel, which is to say honor killings.

Meanwhile, he leaves in prison a pair of sisters whose crime was being in the car when some other people stole $11. At least he didn't cut off their hands.

Barbour claims to have done this in the name of "our religion," and no doubt his supporters think he means Christianity. But be warned, reader: the guy is clearly a sleeper agent for the Taliban.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

On t'a bercé trop près du mur?*

Ah, the self-destructive antics of Newt Gingrich. They are legend, and they never seem to stop.

By now, you've heard about the Newter's most recent anti-Romney attack ad, in which he accuses the Republican front-runner of two unspeakable crimes: coming from Massachusetts and speaking French. If you haven't seen for yourself, take a look:

To be honest, this could have been a pretty funny ad. Do you hear the Parisian cafe music playing in the background? Somebody was trying. If they'd kept the focus on France, they could have won us over. You know: Photoshop a moustache and beret onto Romney, show some file footage of the guy eating cheese or talking about Derrida. That would have been funny.

Sadly, though, the ad stopped short of anything really clever, not to mention incriminating. "Je m'appelle Mitt Romney," with a bad accent? That's not really a Gauloise-smoking gun.

It is worth mentioning, though, that Romney does speak French. As a young man, he spent two years spreading the wisdom of the Angel Moroni through the streets of Paris. We don't gather that he speaks it as well as John Kerry, who is said to be nearly fluent, but he does speak it. For us, that's a very good thing; we like the idea of a national leader who has seen the world, and who can make chit-chat in one of the great diplomatic languages of the West.

We ourselves speak something that sounds, for a moment, like French, and although it doesn't do us much good with actual French people (who have standards), it can be very helpful in a train car full of Africans or Middle Easterners.

In the mind of a certain Republican primary voter, though, French is the Devil's language, spoken by cheese-eating surrender monkeys, the sort of people who like labor unions and garlic, and who didn't support our heroic invasion of Iraq. So to accuse a candidate of speaking French is almost as bad as saying that he masticates every day, or once tried to interest a 13-year-old girl in philately.

One of the ironies here, of course, is that Newt Gingrich also speaks French. As a matter of fact, he went to high school there, in Orleans, and at one point his family lived in a chateau in the Loire Valley. (Not that Newt is an elitist or nuthin'.) His doctoral dissertation (from Tulane, in New Orleans, where French is still spoken on occasion) was on Belgian policies in the Congo, so he either reads French pretty well or is an utter academic fraud. (Or both).

Newt's little adventure into Republican loyalist frogophobia is an embarrassment, and not to Mitt Romney. It is an embarrassment to the cowardly custard advertising director who didn't put in the moustache and the word balloon with a witty remark by Simone de Beauvoir. And it is an embarrassment to Gingrich, who makes a great show of his supposed intellectual prowess, and then attacks a colleague for possessing what, a generation ago, was the bare minimum attainment of a civilized person.

* Did they rock your cradle too close to the wall? It's a very mild insult.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Trouble Ahead

If you are preaching Sunday, disregard this post. It is devoted to bad ideas that won't offer you any help, and may actually do you some harm.

The lessons for 2 Epiphany B center on vocation and discipleship -- the call of Samuel, the call of Nathaniel, and Paul's encouragement of the Corinthians to refrain from sexual sin, on the grounds that their bodies are now also the Body of Christ. Good stuff.

Preachers in the United States may naturally be inclined to work Martin Luther King Jr. into this mix, and well they might. He is a great hero in one of the defining struggles of our nation's history. Because he was a clergyman, and because his civil rights mission sprang so evidently from his religious ministry -- and because he was killed for it, and is now safely deceased -- King is a ready example of vocation and discipleship. Were we stateside, he'd find a place in our sermon as well.

But we're not. Here in central Europe, the collective memory is different. There have been, and still are, people struggling for equality under the law; but for a foreigner to talk about them (or to them, or to the people with whom they are struggling) is tricky business. We could use King as a stalking horse, if we were determined, a way to introduce the idea safely. But it would involve filling in a lot of background, and take us away from the theme of discipleship as such.

Instead, we may talk about Michael Moller. He was a Lutheran pastor in East Germany, and was moved by conscience to help organize the resistance movement which eventually brought down the Berlin Wall. In the subsequent chaos, Moller -- still a very young man -- was drafted by the new government, and became (if memory serves) the last East German ambassador to the US. As unification approached, he had to choose between service to church and state, and he chose the church. In 1990, he was appointed to teach systematic theology at LTSP. In March 1997, while teaching in Thailand on sabbatical, he was killed in a car accident.

Other religious leaders were involved in the resistance movement, including some prominent Protestants here where we live. But it is easier to talk about Moller: he is foreign, meaning that he has no part in the painful local ethno-religious politics, and he is dead -- meaning that he never had to make the compromises that long-term political leaders do, and his memory is suitably unstained.

Speaking of stained memories, there is a way to work King into one's sermon which has some theological value, although it is a homiletical dead end of stupefying stature. One might draw together both the call of the prophet Samuel (who was more a prophet than King?) and Paul's warning against sexual misconduct (because, as his old friend Ralph Abernathy has testified sadly, King was a frequent adulterer). This is a way to make the important point that Christian heroes are not sinless plaster saints, but real people struggling daily with sin, death and hell -- simul iustus, as we say for short. But we can only imagine it would be received poorly in most assemblies, and uncharitably in the rest.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Slow it Down!

Where does your Communion bread come from?

Thanks to the Chez Panisse, the Slow Food Movement and Michael Pollan, Americans are more likely now than a generation ago to ask where their food comes from. This is a useful and healthy question, and how frightening is it that we so rarely know the answer? But, honestly, we at the Egg had never spent much time asking it of our most important meal.

Oh, we've served parishes where the answer was pretty clear. We've used a lot of bread baked by parishioners, and in our first call were lucky enough to have an old guy who made wine in his basement, and brought it over in gallon jugs. Provided that you have no theological objection to leavened bread (and we don't), this is probably the most spiritually and liturgically satisfying way to get things done.

Mind you, it's not perfect. The homemade wine was too sweet, not strong enough, and so heavily sedimented that that on the last Sunday before a new delivery, one consecrated sludge. Leavened bread, by its nature, crumbles -- and crumbs at the altar are something to be strenuously avoided. So despite the many charms of DIY Eucharistic elements, we confess that we are just a bit more comfortable with a chalice full of tawny port and a paten loaded with little wafers.

Given the obsessions of the oenologically inclined, it is easy to fine out where your wine comes from; most vineyards will happily cite you their average rainfall and the pH of their soil. Our sentimental preference: Brotherhood Winery, America's oldest and for most of our lives a local house. ("Local," at one point, meant amost within the parish boundaries).

Wafers are more of a challenge. We usually buy them mail-order, from any of three or four suppliers. Over the years, we have tried most the varieties: tiny, giant, "priest's host," whole wheat, gluten-free, stamped with a cross or a lamb or sometimes a crown, wrapped in cellophane or packaged in a jar. While we certainly have our preferences (small and ultra-thin, thank you, so we don't have to masticate our Savior), the truth is that one supplier's product has always struck us as as being pretty much the same as another's.

And now we now why: they're all made in the same factory. According to this fascinating and slightly disturbing article by Rowan Moore Geraty posted at Killing the Buddha, 70% of the communion wafers sold in the US are produced by one company, Cavanagh. Founded in the 1940s, they created the first machinery for mass-producing the wafers, and today (it seems) a great many church supply houses sell Cavanagh products.

According to Geraty, Cavanagh's innovations have had a double effect. One, not really examined in the article, is to centralize production -- bread is no longer a locally-made product, but one shipped long distances from a factory. The other, which occupies much of the article, is that the product has been secularized. What was once largely the work of nuns, and constituted for them both a ministry and a means of sustenance, is now the work of a commercial industry.

Indeed, a lot of the article is drawn from two sources: Cavanagh, and the Benedictine sisters of Clyde, Missouri, who are the largest remaining monastic manufacturer. Geraty makes it pretty clear that the nuns resent Cavanagh's dominance in their industry, but the sisters in Clyde seem to run a pretty big shop themselves. We can't help wondering whether the article would have been improved by interviews with a couple of micro-suppliers as well.

The article has flaws. Its description of pre-Cavanagh wafer production can't be quite correct. Geraty talks about nuns with cookie trays, but we have seen medieval wafer presses in museums -- they look a little like those long-handled sandwich presses that some people use with an open fire. The emphasis falls heavily upon Roman Catholic institutions and practices, to the extent that Protestantism is misrepresented (the move toward weekly Communion among Lutherans and Episcopalians, for example, has a history that long predates Vatican II). But this is small stuff.

For us, the most bluntly disturbing part of the article is not the beginning, in which Geraty's roommate eats unconsecrated wafers as a snack food, but the end, when Geraty describes in passing something called the Chasid Cup:
The online promotions for the Chasid Cup show the hermetically sealed container with a shot of grape juice and an individually wrapped Communion wafer against a purple background with slick font and a tantalizing picture of grapes reminiscent of juice advertisements.
We've heard of this monstrosity, but assumed it was something used by Baptists or community churches or ... well, somebody like that. But the following sentence reduced us to tears, and then prayer, and then tears again:
The product is billed as a sanitary and convenient alternative to conventional methods of serving communion, with sales growing, according to one church goods importer, primarily in the Lutheran market.
Oh, please, no. Please, please, please no.