Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Fast of the Fingers

During Holy Week, by tradition, the Lenten fast is extended to become a "fast of the ears," during which church bells fall silent. At least in theory.

We think it may do us some good, spiritually, to attempt a "fast of the fingers" this year, by which we mean a forty-day abstinence from blogging. Starting today, the Egg will go silent until Easter.

Well, almost. We'll answer comments (the polite ones, anyway) and we will actually blog a lot more than usual over at our parish soapbox. The difference is that those posts will be about faith and ministry, they'll be less combative -- and they'll be written in the first person singular, if we can still remember how that works. (Ego ... sum, is it?)

Mind you, should something really important happen -- Jesus comes, war is declared, or Newt Gingrich gets a lock on the nomination -- we may need to say a little something here as well.

Assuming, however, that things go as usual, we'll see you all in early April. Until then, say your prayers, preach well, and defy the forces of evil.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our Kind of Atheist

We've always had a soft spot for atheism. Many of our friends are atheists, our dearest college chum vociferously so. We ourselves are no strangers to the varieties of doubt and the inclination to disbelieve. To be frank, we consider agnosticism a thoroughly respectable position, and rather miss the days when we could hold to it.

Lately, of course, there has arisen a particularly noxious variety of person, inclined to use "atheism" as an opportunity to work out his or her (but mostly his) own Daddy issues, using anybody who believes in God (but mostly Christians) as a convenient stand-in for the real object of simmering Freudian rage. All over the web -- including, until a recent editorial decision, our own comments section -- one can see this sort of enraged tooth-gnashing. It normally takes the form of recycled Dawkins and lame efforts to imitate Hitchens. Given our passionate admiration for Hitchens, we'd be happy to put up with the latter, if it even approached the erudition, wit or flair of the original. It doesn't.

Still, just as (according to America's second-most-famous Mormons) one bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch girl, nor does one generation of child-molesting priests quite spoil the whole Roman project, so we do not believe that one efflorescence of unpleasant internet trolls entirely discredits all of atheism. In the words of well-known atheist Jean-Paul Sartre, au contraire. (We assume he must have said that at one time or another; the Frogs always do.)

All this brings us to a review of Alain de Botton's new book. De Botton is a popularizer of philosophy, and an atheist. But his new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, sounds like a pleasant change from the recent rounds of believer-bashing. According to John Gray in the New Statesman:
It is only the illiteracy of the current generation of atheists that leads them to think religious practitioners must be stupid or thoughtless. Were Augustine, Maimonides and al-Ghazali - to mention only religious thinkers in monotheist traditions - lacking in intellectual vitality? The question is absurd but the fact it can be asked at all might be thought to pose a difficulty for de Botton. His spirited and refreshingly humane book aims to show that religion serves needs that an entirely secular life cannot satisfy. He will not persuade those for whom atheism is a militant creed. Such people are best left with their certainties, however childish.
Well. That's more like it, eh? In the words of Rodney King, can't we all just get along?

Seriously, though, there is no reason for the sort of Kirchnkampf stuff we've been seeing lately. Yes, sure, the fundies started it, but they're -- by definition -- a freakish reaction against modernity. To turn yourself into their mirror-image is to abandon the basics of modernity, which include the ability to tolerate diversity in civil society. Much of the "skeptical" world would find itself able to work together with much of the believing world, achieving great things for the common good (not least marginalizing the fanatics), if only it were willing to try. Instead, it often resolves to fight fire with fire, and devolves into a fanaticism of its own. Paging Robespierre!

We're also delighted to see this warm review of de Botton in the New Statesman, a newsmagazine of the British Left. The hard copy we picked up in London a few months ago was absolutely chockablock with sneering, unreflective antireligiosity. It's nice to know that the editors haven;t quite given up on the modern world, and can still tolerate some diversity.

Abomination: UPDATE

A few posts back, we began fulminating about individual communion cups. We're not done yet.

Eventually, we'd like to dedicate a static page to some links and documents regarding the history of those little glass emblems of human frailty and contempt for tradition. It would sketch out the history of the things, which now extends just over a century, with a particular focus on the history of resistance to their introduction and spread.

We mentioned, in particular, a little pamphlet put together by H.E. Jacobs and the faculty of the Philadelphia Seminary, at the request of the Pennsylvania Ministerium, from 1895. We read it years ago, and as we recall is summed up the whole matter very nicely. A couple of seminarians offered to look into a scan or other reproduction of this document (if you find it, guys, send it to our buffer address,; or send me your address in a comment, which I won't publish but will use to get in touch).

In the meanwhile, the mysterious internet figure known alternately as Stynxno or the Seminarianzilla has tracked down a very similar document, and posted it. With his permission, we're reposting it here.

So far as we can tell, the Ministerium was not able to put this question to rest, but was rather forced to revisit the matter frequently. At one point, the Reading (Pa.) Eagle reported that Lutheran pastors serving congregations which shared buildings with Reformed congregations had members threatening to go over to the Reformed if they didn't get their shot-glasses. Per the Eagle, the official response of the Ministerium was, in so many words, "Let them go."

Yes, that's just how deeply-felt the opposition among these fairly conservative Lutherans was to this particular innovation. As Seminarianzilla says,
In the 1902 minutes, on page 30, it’s reported that the Ministerium reaffirmed its actions of 1895 (Eng min p 25:10): “That we unqualifiedly condemn the introduction of the individual communion cup.”
Unqualifiedly, baby. That's strong language, albeit a questionable prose style.

The document at hand is transcribed from the Ministerium's Minutes. It appears that in 1902, the seminary professors were again asked for their opinion on the little cups. Again, their opinion was sharply hostile; we imagine that most of it was what they had said in 1895, but we can't be sure. Anyway, here it is. We'll emphasize the juiciest bits:

156th Annual Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States
Philadelphia PA
June 4th to 10th, 1903

June, A.D. 1903 page 161

Appendix I. “The Individual Communion Cup”
Opinion of the Philadelphia Faculty

Within the last few years, an innovation in the mode of administering the Lord’s Supper has been introduced into many congregations of other denominations, and into a few of our own name in this country. As long as there was no danger of interference with the uniformity that has prevailed in our churches this innovation could very properly be left unnoticed. But since a few of our congregations have been agitated by the example and the discussion in other denominations, the time has come, in the judgement of the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania, for an opinion on the subject.

The practice referred to is that of the so-called “individual communion cup.” According to it, in the administration of the Holy Supper, each communicant takes from a tr[a]y, offered by the officiating pastor, a minute cup containing a small amount of wine, and, after having drunk, replaces the cup in the tray. The plan provides also in large congregations for the washing of the emptied vessels while the communion proceeds, in order that they may be refilled for subsequent communicants.

In regard to this practice, we must concede that it belongs to the non-essentials of the sacrament. The sacrament is not destroyed by the variation in the mode of its administration. If the practice, abolished by the protests of Ph. J. Spener, of Administering the wine through reeds or tubes, were to be re-introduced, the sacrament itself would be unaffected. Nor would it be any the less the Lord’s Supper if, according to ancient practice, the wine were largely diluted with water. These are non-essentials; but, nevertheless, they are matters of no light moment. The essentials of a sacrament may be unaffected, while, with it, there may be practices interfering with its impressiveness, destroying reverence for a holy ordinance of God, disturbing the minds of devout communicants, and confusing the order of the Church.

Our Fathers, in the Formula of Concord (Solid Declariation, x:9) have declared:
“We believe, teach and confess that, in regard to adiaphora, the Church of God, of every time and place, has the fullest power, according to circumstances, to change, abrogate and appoint anything, provided it be done without levity and offense, becomingly, and in good order, and that, at each particular time, regard be had to that which, to the greatest extent, promotes good order, godly discipline, and the edification of the Church.”

A change, even though it be in regard to matters that are of themselves adiaphora, which completely antagonizes and revolutionizes a practice sanction[ed]not only by the usage of the Church in all ages, in all lands and under all Confessions, where the cup has not been denied the laity, but also by the example of the Apostles and the institution of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, should not be contemplated by individual pastors and congregations, except in consultation and agreement with the churches with which they are synodically united. The good order of the Church and the edification of believers are not promoted by radical changes in the administration of the Holy Supper, that occasion great diversities and contrasts among congregations that profess to stand in closet fellowship with one another. Wherever the practice is unusual, the mind of the communicate is withdrawn from “the chief thing” in the sacrament, the words, “for you,” to the innovation, and to all the associations that have suggested and the arguments urged for its introduction.

The historical practice, observed by our churches, teaches, with great force and clearness, the fact that, while our Lord, by the gift of His Body and Blood to the individual communicant, assures him individually of the forgiveness of sins, the communion is not to separate, but to unite, believing children of God with one another. As a pledge of such union, the Lutheran Order of Service lays particular emphasis on the common cup. The exhortation in the Church Book and Common Service [cul]minates in the words: “For we are all one bread and one body, even as we are all partakers of this one bread, and drink of this one cup. ” The principle is not necessarily that of an entire congregation being restricted to but one cup at an administration, but that of a number of communicants drinking from the same vessel, as a testimony to the common bond that unites them in soul and body by partaking of the same Lord. What they elsewhere shrink from doing, they cheerfully do here, in recognition of their Lord’s unspeakable love to them and to each, even the least and the vilest, of their brethren.

As to the one argument upon which the innovation rests, that of the danger of incurring disease, the lists of the hundreds of thousands communing yearly in our churches, and of the repetition of similar communions in all Protestant churches, for nearly four hundred years now, since the Reformation, is a stronger argument than that urged by the professed scientific spirit of any particular age. If there be remote danger, this is found not only in the use of a common cup, but also in inhaling the same air, a peril which can be avoid only by completely isolating ourselves from our fellow-men.

The refinements of modern life have, after all is said, probably more to do with the proposed change than even sanitary reasons. It must be acknowledged that, where proper precautions are not employed by pastors, there are abused which give much ground for offense. Every possible care should be taken to cleanse the cup continually during the administration and fulfill every requirement suggested by regard for cleanliness and decency. Ordinary prudence will indicate that special attention should be given to communicants whose participation in a general communion might, because of disease or other serious physical cause, render others reluctant to commune after them.

With these precautions, there is no reason among us for deviating from the historical practice.

Where variation from it occurs, a revision of the entire Communion service should be necessitated. The innovation is foreign and antagonistic throughout the spirit of the Lutheran Church. Denominations in which the Lord’s Supper is distributed not by the pastor but by church officers, through the pews or otherwise, for their own self-administration, can adopt the change far more readily than a Church which seeks most directly and immediately to reach the individual communicant with word and element applied through the pastor. The innovation sacrifices the individualization of the word to the individualization of the cup. Neither “good order,” nor “good discipline,” nor “the edification of the Church” either requires or even advises it. Until a demand, based on such reasons, be recognized by the general agreement and official action of the Church, no individual pastor or congregation should yield to any sudden clamor for it, and thus arbitrarily separate from the common and approved practice of the Church.

The Faculty
Mount Airy, Philadelphia, March 18th, 1903.

Minutes of the Proceedings of the annual convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and the Adjacent States, Issues 153-158
Google eBook

Page 626-627 in 1051 page PDF
(By the way, we've seen straws for the administration of Communion on display in museums, but had taken them for a medieval thing. Does anybody know much about their connection to Philip J. Spener, the Pietist hero?)

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Keeping the Tent Big

Holidays -- Christmas, Thanksgiving, that sort of thing -- are always hard in broken families. We've never had to deal with this, but we imagine it is pretty hard to serve turkey with a smile when your ex-husband shows up with his blonde-of-the-week, bringing expensive gifts for the kids even though his child support is always late. You eye the carving knife and wonder whether a jury would convict you.

In that spirit, we note that representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently sat down with representatives of the North American Lutheran Church. The ELCA press release strikes us as ... curt. Quoting an official statement, it says:
"This meeting was not intended to, nor did the participants seek to, resolve issues between the two church bodies," said the statement. "Rather, the participants sought to share and clarify disagreements to improve mutual understanding." Conversations also centered on local mission and ministry.
To "clarify disagreements" is surely the first step in an ecumenical relationship with partners from whom one has been separated for centuries, or never had any prior relationship -- Rome, the AME Zion, whatever. In the case of these two bodies, we would have thought the disagreements were pretty clear. As for "local mission and ministry," we wonder how much of that consisted of "Why won't you give us those buildings" and how much of "Pay back your damn loans, mission grants, and ELCA-subsidized seminary ejumacations first."

But, difficult though the first step may have been, and rancorous though our own wretched hearts may still be, we are glad it has been taken. We take a certain muted pride in knowing that the initiative here came from the ELCA's 2011 churchwide assembly. As why should it not? We didn't kick them out, and even if life is a wee bit easier without them, we want good a relationship now, and the hope to have them back someday before Jesus comes.

(Actually, seriously, we're beginning to consider a Benedict XVI-style ordinariate thing, someday down the road. Non-geographic synods trouble us in principle, and "alternative episcopal oversight" hasn't really helped the CofE, but ... well, maybe it would be worth trying. Someday when tempers cool.)

All of which brings us to a dispiriting story we just heard. We can't share the details, but it's something like this:

A very, very conservative congregation in our synod (and a large one) has been witholding its benevolence money for years. But it has continued to do two other things: give generously to the synod's ambitious missions programs, and organize and host an annual synodical event, at its own considerable expense, as a gift to the whole community. Now, even though this parish has surely been tempted tempted by the iron pyrites of the NALC, it has not broken communion. It has even continued supporting mission work. All things considered, this shows considerable strength of character, as well as a commitment to unity.

And yet its offer of hospitality has been rejected by influential synod leaders. We're not sure why -- whether it is about the benevolence money, or simply the deep disagreement over sex and so forth. But either way, we are a little shocked. To reject a gift is ungracious under most circumstances; under these, it seems both impolitic and ... well, almost cruel. If the parish can make its tent big enough to accommodate people who disagree with its consensus, surely the synod can as well.

All of which brings us to our point. We've been pretty scathing about the leaders of the NALC, CORE and the rest of it. And -- let's be firm -- we don't think they have behaved wisely or honorably. But there are also hundreds, probably thousands, of pastors and congregations who have struggled with conscience and conviction, and decided in favor of unity over purity.

These congregations pose a particular challenge to those of us who feel that CWA 2009 was, if not wise as Chalcedon, at least doing the best thing under the circumstances. Have we done our part, whatever it may be, to honor our friends and colleagues who disagree, but have chosen to stick it out by our side anyway? Have we gone just a little bit further than we might have, to answer their love and faithfulness with our own?

The question isn't rhetorical -- since the Egg moved its production facility offshore, we really don't know what's happening back home. Maybe ELCA gatherings, from a conference Bible study up, have all turned into the Peaceable Kingdom. We hope so. But if not, it seems to us that the people who feel like they won have an obligation to the people who feel like they lost.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Facts and Opinions

No reader is likely to be surprised by the assertion that Wikipedia is not -- to put it mildly -- a reliable source of facts. Oh, you can start there, of course; but if you are even a little bit serious, you move on quickly.

Here's why. Timothy Messner-Kruse, an historian at Bowling Green, is the author of two books and several articles on the Haymarket Riot. But when he tried to correct some errors in the Wikipedia article on his subject, he found his changes reversed, not because they were wrong but because they didn't reflect the consensus of opinion. And the opinion solicited here is represented by secondary sources, since Wikipedia (albeit for understandable reasons) discourages the use of primary sources.

The problem is, or course, that facts don't depend on a consensus of opinion. They depend on sources, which in the case of historical writing are original documents that can be examined and cited -- things Messner-Kruse had done, in some cases making him one of the first researchers to do so. But until his findings are more widely disseminated, they won't count so far as Wikipedia is concerned.

Honestly, we can't get too upset with Wikipedia. If they didn't have some policy like this one, they would be flooded with obsessive-compulsive cranks, swamping their servers with "evidence" for alien abductions and Fortean phenomena. But that doesn't mean we actually trust their second-hand facts, either, and neither should you.

Dept. of No Surprise: Headlines Edition

Sometimes, just skimming the headlines can turn us back into fourth-graders. At least it can provoke the comment most heard on our fourth-grade classroom -- apart, of course, from speculation about cooties. In our tender years, when somebody said something that was obvious, stupid or both, it was the custom of our cohort to respond derisively, "No duh."

A few years later, scatological Holmesiana came to serve the same purpose. But in the fourth grade, people still said "Duh," which curiously meant the same thing with or without the "no."

And in the spirit of the fourth grade, we offer a few of today's no-duh headlines (bear in mind that the headers of different pages may vary; all of these, however, have been observed verbatim at some point today):
These are all worthwhile stories, we imagine -- worth reporting and worth reading. It's just that none of them can possibly come as much of a surprise to anybody.

Now, this, on the other hand, surprises us -- and delights us:

Monday, February 13, 2012

Moral Hazard

The Times has spent a couple of days pointing out that government benefits have come to subsidize what is left of the American middle class -- including many people who believe in sharply reducing government benefits. (Story here, map here, charts here).

Now, this sort of thing is great fun as we approach election time. Look, we are allowed to say as we point a righteous finger, this guy in Minnesota depends on federal money to feed his kids breakfast and lunch at school, to pay for his mom's hip surgery, and so forth -- and yet he supports the Tea Party! Nothing makes us cleave to our received convictions like watching somebody we disagree with get ribbed for hypocrisy, which is why politicians and op-ed writers (and bloggers) so love to pluck the low-hanging fruit.

But beyond the rhetorical theatrics lie genuine ethical questions, as well as genuine personal pain. Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff, in the Times article, do a decent job of showing us both. Democrats have long ben fascinated, and appalled, by the way Republicans convince poorer people to vote aganst their own apparent economic interest, and this article offer a little window into that phenomenon.

There are at least three ethical problems at play here. The first is the obvious concern that government expenditures greatly outnumber revenues, and create a snowball of debt which poses a risk to future generations. Fair point. The second is that government money doesn't necessarily go to what the Times has always like to call "the neediest cases":
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54 percent in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.
This is, or may be, revelatory. For a moment, one thinks: Wait -- has the middle class taken to stealing money from the truly poor? And then, with a gasp of horror, one realizes the deeper truth: that without money from the government, much of the middle class would be truly poor.

From the dawn of time, politicians have used their power to reward their supporters, and buy more support. Cicero did it, and so did Boss Tweed. And for decades, American politicians have known that their political fate depended upon the votes of the middle-class masses, so they have thrown them bone after bone, until at last the bones have come to replace the meat, once represented by good jobs and affordable services.

These considerations lead to the third ethical consideration, which is sometimes called "moral hazard." That's the theory that providing people with help when they need it will cause them to become permanently dependent on such help. You hear it most often when conservatives decry the supposed welfare state, which has -- again, supposedly -- created an entire underclass of government clients, families who have been on the dole for generations with no hope of getting off. (The existence of such a class is debated, and we are aware of evidence both ways.) But the moral hazard theory is also championed, for example, by insurance companies, which use it to argue that insuring their clients against risk will then encourage them to take risk. This argument may not lack merit, but can easily become (yet another) cynical excuse for not paying a claim.

The implicit question in the Times story is whether the use of government benefits to appease voters has been a symptom of the middle class's disappearance, or a cause. If it is a cause, then government benefits have helped millions of people get by, even if they have also helped to mask the severity of the situation. But if benefits are reckoned as a cause, then the moral hazard theory seems vindicated, and those benefits have actually killed off the sort of initiative that might have kept the middle class going.

We have no answer to the question, by the way. We are certainly skeptical of easy answers, especially ones like Charles Murray's recent suggestion that poor people are poor because they lack virtue, an idea only marginally less offensive than his earlier proposal that black people are poor because they are stupid. We haven't been able to take political pontifications about "virtue" seriously since we learned of Bill Bennett's $8 million gambling debt.

Which brings us to the personal pain involved here. Remember, the "initiative" envisioned by moral hazard theory is, to put it bluntly, hunger. It is hunger, poverty, and curable diseases that go untreated, which have historically driven some poor people to educate and innovate their own way out of poverty. (Also, not incidentally, to lie, cheat and steal their way out.)

And that's what makes the story so compelling, at least in places. Over and over, the authors interview people who depend on government benefits to get by, and yet who believe -- seemingly not because they have been brainwashed, but as a matter of principle -- that those benefits must end for the good of the whole country. Even if this belief proves to be ill-founded, it is hard not to admire. And your heart breaks when one man admits that he doesn't know whether his mother should be able to walk, another whether his wife should go blind, and when a woman -- trying to balance her needs with her principles -- simply surrenders, and begins to cry.

Turnaround Time

The Army's Joint Special Operations Command has long been a key factor -- arguably, the key factor -- in America's overseas battles. Most of us understand that it is the various special forces, such as Delta, the SEALS and groups whose names don't trip as easily off the tongue, which are doing some of the most creative fighting.

Still: holy cow. We had no idea how tough those guys were, or how smart -- or (and this is important) how their increasing degree of smarts has helped move the military's intelligence gathering beyond the bad old days of anonymous torture chambers in Bucharest.

A lot of it comes out in this Wired interview with journalist Marc Ambinder, who has just written a book on the JSOC. We'll offer a few representative tidbits.

On toughness:
The leader of a JSOC unit in Iraq, known as K-Bar, gets shot in the chest by insurgents. K-Bar waves away his medic until he finishes killing his assailants. His reward? Leading JSOC’s operations in Afghanistan.
On torture:

Ambinder estimates that a very small number (50 or fewer) of JSOC operators were directly involved in torture, and that most or all of them have been punished or removed in a subsequent disciplinary process, orchestrated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Michael Flynn. The interviewer asks:

DR: So they torture people until Flynn figures out there’s a better way to get intelligence?

MA: I know that sounds like a neat narrative, and this is a complicated story. But in essence, that is what happened. While you have to say the command was complicit in the rough, bad stuff early on, they figured out what was happening, and they figured out a much better, humane and more effective way of doing it. Then they proselytize it, and make sure rest of the military knows they’re doing it that way. You can’t ever erase the stain of torture, but this command deserves credit for figuring out what to do about it, and how to meet the need for intelligence without roughing people up, and how to get inside the decision loops of the insurgents.

On smarts:

Some of the [new intelligence-gathering] tactics were as simple as equipping your [operators] with a camera. Instead of rounding up insurgents, bringing them to one area of a house, they’d have pictures of them exactly where they are, and take pictures what they have on them exactly. ... And they’d send pictures back in real time to an intelligence fusion center. ... And you’d have analyst who could use many of various databases that JSOC had access to, and many that JSOC was building. ... There were teams of U.S. intelligence officers who were trying to get as many fingerprints, DNA samples and so forth of anyone in Baghdad as they could. The analysts would be able to create link analysis charts from them.

If you captured Abu So-and-So, you’d be able to say within a minute, “Hey, I know your uncle is this person, who we really want to get to. If you can tell me where this person is right now, we’ll give you a break and even let you go.” And often, that would be what Abu So-and-So would do, because it would be in his best interest. Within maybe 20 minutes, JSOC could launch a second raid targeting the uncle of Abu So-and-So

The whole interview is worth a read, and we expect that Ambinder's book will be as well.

[UPDATE: Today, the Times reported on Adm. McRaven's request that the Special Operations Command be given a freer hand, meaning more autonomy, which of course equals less oversight and control. We doubt that the timing of the two articles is a coincidence; alongside the gee-whiz admiration, Ambinder also dwells a bit on the danger that the Secial Operations people may already be lacking in the oversight and accountability departments. Caveat lector.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Incense in Our Churches

We mentioned "the Romantic myth of repristination" a moment ago. Just another word about that, if we may.

Enthusiasts for traditional worship, not least amateurs, often have an antiquarian bent. If a practice can be historically attested, it is jumped upon with great excitement and its adoption encouraged as an expression of Tradition. Never mind that the practice in question may have dropped out of use for good reason, whether theological or practical; never mind that it may never have communicated much to the People of God, and now communicates nothing. If it's old, they cry, count us as sold.

This approach was typical of the 19th-century liturgical movement, exemplified (at its best) by the likes of Gueranger at Solesmes and the Lutheran Common Service in America. (And, okay, some English guys got in on the act too.) They typically looked back as far as they could stand -- the Middle Ages or the very early stages of the Reformation -- for their models of worship and church life. At its worst, this approach devolved into kitsch, or a sort of fussy ritualism which one still finds occasionally among Lutherans and often among Episcopalians.

Then came the 20th-century Liturgical Movement (please note the self-awarded upper case initials, which create the illusion that their grandfathers weren't liturgical, or at least weren't a movement). These guys made an effort to broaden their view of what "the liturgy" was and could be; but, when you push, you find that their arguments often boiled down to something like this: "Well, we don't have to do it the way they did in the Middle Ages; we can do it the way the Church Fathers did." Which would remain a highly speculative claim, even if it were a valuable one.

At its worst, this degenerated into a free-for-all, in which any service which looked remotely formal and could be squeezed into Justin Martyr's four-part schema was treated pari passu with the Tridentine Mass (which nobody much cared for anyway).

Consider this, from Edward Traill Horn, himself one of the makers of the Common Service:

The Service of the Church is what it is because every age has given to it its life-blood. . . . It would be false (unliturgical) to go back to the First Age, or even to the Sixteenth Century, for an absolute standard. . . . An incense fills our churches in which linger the devotions of Egypt and of Asia Minor, of Jerusalem, of the catacombs, of Roman churches when the barbarians were hovering on the borders of the Empire, of France when the Moors had swept over Spain, of the heroic age in Germany, and just as well of the Pietistic and Moravian eras, and of later days. We must expect and serve the development of the liturgy, its healthy and natural growth.
Catch the difference? For Horn -- an integral if late part of the Romantic phase --
"authentic" worship was infused with the spirit of the church's whole long, broad history. This is far more than an argument for any one historic model -- and yet it is an argument for worship shaped, even normed, by historic models. The 20th century movement got this, but so did the best of the 19th century guys. And, clearly, he understands that none of these are "the last word," because worship is not static -- it develops organically to meet the needs of every age.

Our concern at the moment is that, in the 21st century, the emphasis is migrating away from historical models, from organic development, and toward wilfully (even desperately) trying to meet the supposed needs of the age. This desperation misses the mark, because one need, in every age, is visible continuity with the past, and with the great cloud of witnesses.

Or, to use Horn's metaphor, we wish our churches had more incense these days.

Our Own Tract XC

We have often mentioned our respect for Charles Porterfield Krauth, the 19th-century Lutheran theologian whose Romantic return to sources spurred the creation of the General Council, the Philadelphia seminary, and far more than those.

This choice bit is among our favorite passages from his best-known book, The Conservative Reformation, pages 215-216. While it certainly does not reflect a modern ecumenical spirit, nor even a full-throated evangelical catholicism, it does give a sense of how Krauth understood Lutheranism, especially in relation to Roman Catholicism and tradition. Read it cum grano salis, but by all means read it:

An age of darkness is a creedless age. Corruption in doctrine works best when it is unfettered by an explicit common statement of that doctrine. ... Error loves ambiguities.

In the contest with Rome, the Reformers complained bitterly that she refused to make an explicit official statement of her doctrine. Our opponents, says the Apology, "do not bestow the labor that there may be among the people some certain statement of the chief points of the ecclesiastical doctrines."

[Members of the Papal party were] reluctant to have its doctrines stated in an authorized form, and only under the compulsion of a public sentiment which was wrought by the Reformation did the Church of Rome at length convene the Council of Trent. Its decisions were not completed and set forth until seventeen years after Luther's death and thirty three years after the Augsburg Confession.

The proper date of the distinctive life of a particular Church is furnished by her Creed. Tested by the General Creeds, the Evangelical Lutheran Church has the same claim as the Romish Church to be considered in unity with the early Church, but as a particular Church with a distinctive bond and token of doctrinal union she is more than thirty years older than the Romish Church.

Our Church has the oldest distinctive Creed now in use in any large division of Christendom. That Creed is the Confession of Augsburg. Could the Church have set forth and maintained such a Confession as that of Augsburg before the time over which the Dark Ages extended, those Dark Ages could not have come. There would have been no Reformation for none would have been needed.

To modern eyes, it looks a little ... quaint. Too defensive, too recherche. And yet it is, in a sense, our own Tract 90 -- a guide to reading one's central document, and in this case a statement of what it means, or at any rate could mean, for Lutherans to read their history not with an hermeneutic of disruption but rather one of continuity.

Of course, the question is not whose church should get bragging rights for antiquity, nor even -- quite -- upon what basis. The question is what it means for a church to be the bearer of a continuous tradition. Lutherans willing to adopt this hermeneutic of continuity would not, we imagine, be quite so ready to cast aside ancient forms simply because those forms were, technically speaking, adiaphora. They would be moved rather by Melanchthon's summa voluntate, the utmost desire to preserve such forms wherever those were not frankly injurious to the Gospel.

Pace Braaten and Jenson, we wonder whether, of all recent theologians, it has not been George Lindbeck who most nearly succeeds in realizing Krauth's vision in a way that is credible to modern theology. While not so archly confessional as Krauth, he is as deeply engaged with contemporary culture, perhaps because of the differences between his time and Krauth's, seemingly more able to discern continuity without recourse to the Romantic myth of repristination.

We mention all this, it may be worth saying aloud, after eavesdropping on some recent conversations among our colleagues, especially younger ones. We are not surprised to learn that many Lutherans, and many Lutheran pastors, care little about the external forms of tradition, epitomized by worship and discipline. We are surprised -- okay, shocked -- to discover how many of them there are, and how little they seem to care, or even to know, about such basic matters as what vestments to wear and why one might choose to wear them, much less the plain fact that our service books contain orders for both private and public services of confession, on the assumption that such things have a role in church life.

We're not trying to impose a law here, any more than Krauth was. We are trying to hint, as delicately as possible, that Lutheranism, understood not merely as a confessional movement but more deeply as an expression of unbroken tradition, has no need to strip itself down to its undies when it can profitably make use of a full wardrobe. Or something like that.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Pink Gun Saga Continues

When last we left the charitable souls at Discount Gun Sales, they had just stopped offering their modified Walther P-22 "Hope Special" for sale, and the embattled folks at Susan G. Komen for the Cure were loudly proclaiming that they had nothing to do with any guns, what are you talking about?

Since then, there has been a funny little dance between DGS and Komen. (Nice description at HuffPo). basically, Komen says that they never authorized the Hope Special, and never received any donation from DGS. Meanwhile, the people at DGS say -- anonymously -- "Yeah, we cut them a check," but decline to provide specifics.

Where does the truth lie? We have no idea. At the moment, though, it looks as though either (a) DGS is just lying, which would not surprise those of us who don't trust the firearms industry, or else (b) Komen's Seattle chapter has lousy record-keeping skills and donor follow-up, which would not surprise those of us in the non-profit world. Of course, it could also be that (c) Komen is lying, or even (e) the whole story was concocted as a publicity stunt, to drum up business for DGS and/or distract attention from Komen's other recent PR mishap.

Best of all, it appears that the Hope Special will go back into production, although its proceeds -- if any -- will go to some other cancer-related charity.

We'll say this for the Hope Special: it's a great weapon if you ever have to perform a covert assassination inside a cotton-candy factory.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Preacher's Pride

John Mason Neale's book on Medieval Preaching (1856) begins with a scathing, and funny-if-it-weren't-so-horrible, description of preaching in the 18th century, of which this is just a token:

Persons are now living who can remember a curate hunted from a metropolitan pulpit because it was his custom to raise his eyes from his manuscript.

To hear Neale tell it, the Age of Reason was an age of deadly, dull, irreligious sermonizing -- and, surprisingly for an Anglican, he doesn't think the 17th was much better. That's right: he even picks on (gasp!) Lancelot Andrewes.

But then Neale tells an anecdote well worth remembering, especially for those of us who enjoy preaching, imagine ourselves to be good at it, and may sometimes take a bit too much joy in a well-constructed sermon that manages to edify, inspire and still please the crowd:

An anecdote, lately told in the life of a Dissenting minister, has a fair claim to the admiration of every Priest who is in earnest. There was a minister named ---, who, it appears, had obtained no small reputation among his brethren for his eloquence generally, and more particularly for the logical sequence, and most of all for the impressive conclusions, of his sermons.

On some great occasion he was appointed to preach, (it was in the open air,) and he had deeply interested his auditors through a long discourse. Just before the conclusion he was observed to hesitate, — and then, in a rambling manner, he recapitulated part of what had been already said, until he reached a very lame and impotent finale.

At the subsequent dinner, when the preacher's health was proposed, 'Brother -- ," said one of the ministers present, "we must all, I am sure, have been charmed by your discourse; but, if I may hazard the observation, I thought that, at the conclusion, you lost the thread of your argument, and hardly equalled your ordinary excellence."

"If I must tell you the reason," was the reply, "thus it was. Just as I was about to conclude, I saw a poor man running up to the place, hot and dusty, and eager to hear. ' Speak a word to him,' said Conscience. 'You will spoil your sermon if you do,' said Pride. And I did spoil it, I know ; but I may have done him good."

Sometimes, it's not about pleasing the crowd. It's about doing your real job.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Speaking of the Apocalpyse

We'd be grateful for a little help here, particularly from a reader with access to a good seminary library. It relates to Sign of the Apocalypse #1.

Years ago, we were killing time in Krauth Memorial Library, when we stumbled across a little pamphlet on the ever-popular subject of Lutheran communion practices. Like Augustine, we heard a voice cry tolle, lege -- and like Augustine, we complied.

There wasn't much in the booklet that we didn't know. To make a long story short: those little shot glasses that some people use for the Blood of Christ were introduced in the 1890s. They were an instant hit with many Protestants, averse to those newly-discovered monstrosities called "germs."

Lutherans, in those days at least, were more averse to change than to microbes. Pastors in Pennsylvania asked for an opinion, and the Ministerium answered with a firm "Nein." Or nicht, whatever. A couple of years later, the subject came up; pastors in union churches worried that their members would run off to the shot-glass-slurping Reformed communities; the Ministerium responded, literally, according to an account in the Reading Eagle, "Let them go."

And of course, it came up again a few years afterward. This little pamphlet was a response, not from the Ministerium but from the faculty of the seminary at Philadelphia, drafted by its president, who was also a fine liturgical theologian. The faculty had also given little cups a big thumbs-down.

We read the booklet with delight, enjoying the arguments and wishing they had been more widely heard. And as we read, none other than Gordon Lathrop walked past us, and said good evening. We pointed to the pamphlet, and said, "Have you seen this?"

He nodded a little sadly. "Right there at the beginning," he said, "and they already understood the whole problem."

Here's the thing: we can't, after all these years, recall the argument that Jacobs and his colleagues used. Oh, we could re-imagine it, but we would really like to get the details right. It's not on the net, so far as we can tell; certainly not at projects Gutenberg or Wittenberg, nor the Internet Archive, and Google Books gives us a tantalizing link and a 404 error.

On the contrary, there's a quite different article published by the United Brethren, and later printed in Lutheran Quarterly, which makes the opposite point. But we don't care so much what the brethren thought; we care very much what our ancestors did.

So here's the appeal: could somebody at a [Lutheran] seminary track this down for us? Here is the title:

Henry Eyster Jacobs, “The Individual Communion Cup: Opinion of the Faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia — At the request of the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania and Adjacent States,” (Philadelphia, PA, 1903).

We're pretty sure it is out of copyright, since its pre-1923 and all the authors are long dead.

If some kindly soul could scan this and post it on the net (or let us do it), the said soul will have performed a service to scholarship.

Komen Foundation: "Shoot 'em Up!" [UPDATE]

Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast-cancer charity, doesn't want its name associated with Planned Parenthood anymore. (UPDATE #1: Or anyway, it didn't.) But it doesn't mind being associated with ... handguns.

Pink handguns.

Per Gawker, Komen has teamed up with an outfit called Discount Hand Guns to market a $429.00 weapon called the Walther P-22 Hope Edition. It's slide is coated in pink ceramic.

Can this be real? What sort of Freaky-Friday world-turned-upside down are we living in?

Okay. Deep breath. Let's be honest: Komen says it wants to give money directly to organizations that perform mammograms; this is a perfectly reasonable thing, given its mission. But ... but ... handguns? Do they know those things are designed to kill people? The same thing cancer does, but faster.

And, in the case of a .22, not much less horribly. Sure, it's a ladies' gun. But what happens when it gets stolen from the lady's nightstand or glove box? (And yes, that actually happened to a classmate of ours. Why she was carrying an unlicensed handgun in her glove box is a long story, which can be summed up in one sentence: She came from Florida.)

Street gangs like the .22 because it is usually a fired from a small, easily-concealed and comparatively cheap weapon. But it's a low-velocity bullet, often deflected by bone or stopped by muscle. In other words, it's not especially lethal. Except, that is, when fired at close range into the head, where the bullet lacks the energy to exit, and instead bounces around, and does awful, awful scrambled-egg damage to the brain. So in addition to gang-bangers, it is the preferred weapon of CIA assassins.

Our question, then, is not why Komen declines to support Planned Parenthood, but why it is willing to arm the West Side Kings and the guys who nailed Che.

[UPDATE #2: Susan G. Komen for the Cure denies any involvement with Discount Gun Sales, which in turn has taken down the web page that advertised the Hope Special. So is the real story here an unscrupulous gun dealer running some sort of fake-charity scam? Or is there more to it? Stay tuned for details!]

High-Church Signs of the Apocalypse

Yeah, yeah, yeah: the moon will turn to blood, et cetera, et cetera. But what if the omens of the Apocalypse were more ... subtle? What if they were the sort of thing that could only be discerned through the particular lenses worn here at the Egg's Dept. of End-Time Prophecies? Scried, if that's the past participle we want, in our proprietary crystal ball?

Then perhaps they would look like this:

#7: Grape juice. Hey, it's fine in a kid's lunchbox. But on an altar?

#6: The ELW Psalter. We appreciate the large selection of Eucharistic prayers, as well as the improved texts and harmonies for so many hymns, really we do. We even -- if hesitantly -- appreciate the profusion of Mass settings. But that psalter is, in simple fact, the Abomination of Desolation.*

# 5: The Wedding Industry. Unity candles, crepe runners, floral excesses, cream-colored antique limousines -- with these and so many other innovations, the forces of business have created a parallel liturgical ordo separate from, and sometimes at odds with, the ordo of the church. (A friend recalls the wedding at which a priest turned to the altar and saw that the photographer had climbed onto it -- and refused to get down because he had "a perfect angle.") Starry-eyed brides and their families are ruthlessly exploited, and the ministry of the Gospel is reduced to serving as a scenic backdrop.

#4: Common Worship. When the Church of Freaking England can't be troubled to use the Book of Common Prayer, the end is surely nigh.

#3: The Pax-as-mosh pit. Thirty-some years ago, pastors struggled to loosen worshipers up enough to turn to their neighbors, extend a hand, and mutter "Peace." Today, we struggle to keep the "seventh-inning stretch" (and yes, a church member once called it that, approvingly) from turning into coffee hour or, worse yet, an opportunity for unwelcome smooches and gropes.

#2: Everything on the blog Bad Vestments. Wow. Gives new meaning to the exclamation "Holy cr*p!"

And, the Egg's most absolutely decisive sign that the locusts are swarming and the Four Horsemen are on the move, and have been since the 1890s:

#1: Individual Communion Cups. Need we say more?

But a moment of humility here: we at the Egg are priests, not prophets (nor, unlike Eddie Long, kings). So it is possible that we have misread the signs of the times. If you have searched the Scriptures, or more likely the internet, and found some yet more certain proof that the earth is about to swallow us whole, please drop a line.
*A quick check of the standard German commentaries on Revelation suggests that this spot may be shared with The New Century Hymnal.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Eddie Long is Now a King

And not the "Martin Luther King, Jr." kind, either.

Eddie Long, the Prosperity Gospel pastor accused of diddling the choirboys, has returned from a hiatus ("to work on problems in his marriage") just in time for his own coronation, which took place at his church -- if that's the word we want -- on Sunday. And mind you, Long wasn't just crowned king; he was crowned a Jewish king, which is much more impressive to a certain sort of sectarian mentality.

Anthea Butler posts some video at Religion Dispatches, as well as tart commentary. ("If it weren’t so offensive to Christian and Jewish sensibilities, it would be laughable.") Butler goes on to suggest -- okay, to state bluntly -- that Long is the leader of a cult, and a potentially dangerous one. She makes explicit comparisons to Jim Jones.

For us, it brings back terrifying echoes of Jack Hickman, the choirboy-diddling secret rabbi of Massapequa.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

"Those Monk People"

Hey, did you know there's a lively evangelical catholic movement in the United Church of Christ? Yep. We've heard rumors of such a thing for years, but don't recall stumbling across it until today.

The Order of Corpus Christi describes itself as a "religious order" which draws its members from the UCC laity and clergy, as well as those of the UCC's partner churches in COCU and other full communion agreements. The website provides background, a few pictures and the very simple foundational documents; you can read the whole thing in ten minutes, and we encourage you to do so.

It all seems unlikely. After all, the UCC is the left edge of mainline Protestantism, both politically and theologically. It was once chided by no less than Barbara Lundblad for threatening to become "the United Church of Causes." (And when Barbara chides, smart people pay attention.) UCC congregations are not infrequently dually aligned with the American Baptist Convention. Unlike most Reformed churches, it treats its historic confessions as "testimonies, not tests of faith" much as the (D&FMS of the) PECUSA now treats the Thirty-Nine Articles. One obstacle to full communion with the ELCA was our fear that the UCC lacked either the theological or organizational coherence to make a binding agreement.

And yet, let it never be forgotten that the UCC is the successor to the old German Reformed Church, in which two brilliant young theologians -- John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff -- pioneered a return to the sources of Reformed Christianity which practically demanded traditional liturgy, an emphasis on the reality and power of the sacraments, and so forth. Their "Mercersburg Theology" was an enormous influence on Charles Porterfield Krauth, and through him upon the General Council and ultimately the ELCA. Lutheranism in America owes as much to these guys as it does to Wilhelm Loehe. Maybe more.

Of course, among the Reformed, they were treated as heretics. Literally. Which is why we have generally argued that the long-term impact of Mercersburg is felt in Lutheranism, not the Reformed churches. It is a delight to be proven wrong. And certainly, the existence of the OCC is less surprising than that of the Methodist Order of St. Luke.

So, apart from an attempt to remember Nevin and Schaff, what is the OCC? The blogger A Simple Country Pastor describes the presence of some fellow-members at his installation last year:
One of the members of our church asked, “who were
those people all dressed alike?” The Order ‘dresses’ in similar albs and instead of a stole, wears the ‘scapular’ of the order. A friend’s wife asked, “who are those ‘monk’ people?”

... What is not immediately apparent is that participation in the Order is participation in a community of prayer. The community aspect became abundantly clear yesterday when those ‘monk’ people nearly outnumbered the local clergy who attended. They came from as far away as West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia.

That's sort of sweet.

The OCC will instantly remind Lutherans of another triliteral club, the Society of the Holy Trinity. We have many friends in the STS, and have attended a couple of its functions. But we have also said some sharp things about it on this blog in the past, which we will defend if challenged. It is one of those things we love in theory, but can't get comfortable with in practice. The OCC and the STS do indeed seem parallel, making suitable allowance for the conditions of their respective mother churches. But since those conditions are markedly different, we wonder just what the "feel" of an OCC meeting is. We wonder, for example, whether the Anglo-Catholic Socialism website linked on the sidebar would get more hits from the OCC than the STS.

Anyway, it seems to us that this poses a challenge for at least one of our ecumenical partners. Look, we've got the STS; Congregationalists have the OCC; Methodists have the OSL; Episcopalians have freaking Nashotah House just for starters, and Presbyterians are a lost cause. But, okay, Moravian Church, it's time to pony up. Show us your scapulars!

Davos Update: Nobody Knows

Foreign Policy's Clyde Prestowitz should take his shirt off. He is clearly of one mind with those lovely Ukrainian protesters at Davos. He begins,

As it always does this time of year, my inbox is filling up with messages of a certain kind. They all begin with: "I'm here in Davos" and then, in an intellectual form of name dropping, proceed to mention key words and phrases such as Geopolitical Risk, G-Zero World, and Rise of Regions. This, of course, sounds really heavyweight and important. But I am not fooled. Nobody knows what those words mean.

Upon reflection, he's not really of one mind with the ladies from Femen. They are protesting because they believe that the global elites gathered at the World Economic Forum do in fact control the world, and have brought it to the present crisis. Prestowitz, on the other hand, protests that they do not; for him, the whole thing is a self-deluding sham. He points out how these supposedly agenda-setting financial wizards failed to perceive the 1997 Asian crisis, the 2008 American crisis, or the 2010 European crisis.

His funniest bit of derision is this:
You have to hand it to Klaus Schwab, the founder and CEO of the Forum. He's the greatest showman since P.T. Barnum. Short, bald, and unimposing, he is what you envision when someone says "gnome of Zurich." Yet, despite his anti-charisma, Schwab has managed to persuade a large number of the world's top CEOs, politicians, academics, media stars, and bureaucrats that they have to be in a cramped, second rate hotel in a cold Swiss village with mediocre skiing and food every year during the bridge weekend between January and February. Indeed, he has not only convinced these people that they have to be there, he has them begging him for invitations and prime spots on the program.
More to the point, Prestowitz argues that the WEF is founded upon a delusion, and that in fact Davos-style globalization "doesn't work under today's circumstances," pretends to be a win-win propostion but isn't, and may not even be "sustainable." he concludes with this blanket condemnation:
Anyone interested in knowing what's really happening or in changing the way things are doesn't go to Davos.
Fine, Clyde. But why is your shirt still on?

Gingrich Campaign Lied About Florida Pastors

Per RD's Sarah Posner, the Gingrich campaign gave the press a list of names, all of whom were supposed to be members of its Florida Faith Leaders Coalition -- basically, members of the clergy who would support the Florida primary campaign.

But when Posner contacted three of the pastors on the list, they expressed confusion, and denied that they had agreed to help the campaign, or even been asked.

Oops. Guess those guys won't get to visit Moonbase Alpha.