Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"I'll Have What She's Having"

Nora Ephron died recently, from complications of leukemia.  She was 71.

If she had never written a single screenplay apart from When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron would deserve mention in the Egg, on the grounds that she was a Hero of Sex.  We aren't thinking so much of the diner scene (although that, too) as of the movie's ability to draw credible, conflicted characters, and show them slowly -- so slowly! -- growing into a relationship that is all the more passionate for being based on friendship.

In fact, she wrote a lot of other screenplays, some of which (Heartburn, anybody?) take a more jaundiced view of matters amatory.  There's plenty of room for that in this life, too.  Others aren't about love or sex at all -- Silkwood, for example, is the true story of a brave whistle-blower.  A few are probably best left unmentioned (okay, fine:  Michael.  Bewitched.).  But on the whole, she deserves to be remembered warmly, not least as the sort of writer, director and producer to succeed at making the sort of movies Hollywood wants to believe cannot succeed any longer.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Like an Eternal Sieve

If you're a bit fuzzy on the so-called "Vatileaks" scandal, Religion News Service has a tight executive summary that cuts through most of the murk.

Bottom line:  it's not a big deal, but nobody likes to have their family arguments aired in public.

What's Up Down South?

A month ago, we read with mild interest that Lenoir-Rhyne College was merging with the (badly named) Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  "Ah," we thought.  "A cost-saving move.  Fire some secretaries and IT people and whatnot."  Our assumption was that the two would become one principally at the administrative level, retaining their separate campuses (for a while), as well as their degree programs and faculties.

Oops.  Our bad.

Today, we learned that the merged institution has declined to re-hire three members of the seminary faculty:  Mary Havens (history), Robert Hawkins (worship) and David Yeago (systematics).  All three are long-serving, tenured and prominent in their fields.

An online petition by and for alumni suggests, strongly, that this development came quite a surprise.

Bear in mind that the seminary only has 13 professors, so this is a substantial number.  Bear in mind further that church history, worship and systematic theology are part of the core curriculum of a theological school.  Fire the Greek, Hebrew and homiletics teachers, and you might as well teach engineering.

Now, we're not especially well-informed about any of this.  We didn't go to Southern, for one thing.  We do know a couple of profs there, but, save by reputation, not these three.  So we certainly won't fly off in a righteous dudgeon (nor would we even if our dudgeon were fueled up and waiting on the runway).  We have not signed the petition, and don't intend to.

But we'd certainly like to know what is going on.  Do any readers, by chance, have more information about what the rationale might be for a such a seemingly odd move?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hey, Wild-Eyed Libertarian Mil-Bloggers: Need a Chaplain?

Okay.  Here're some things you may not know about Father Anonymous:
  • He used to read Soldier of Fortune.  Occasionally.
  • He once crossed a picket line of his own college professors to hear G. Gordon Liddy speak.
  • He liked Liddy's speech so much that he read the guy's autobiography.  Which he also liked.
  • His son is named after a Republican president.  (And, okay, a 4th-century Turkish bishop).
  • His mother once dated Ron Paul.  Have we mentioned that often enough yet?
  • A number of his relatives are required by their employers to be proficient with firearms.  Highly proficient.
All of which we mention only to make the point that the little guy isn't all about Latin poetry and the conventional moderate-leftiness of mainstream Protestantism.  In fact, despite a certain age-related mellowing, he's never really been "moderate" anything.  During the Soldier of Fortune era, for example, he also routinely fell asleep to WBAI radio; his favorite programs were The Moorish Orthodox Radio Crusade, the Real Live Lesbian Show, and Democracy Now!.  You may not know what these are, but -- trust us -- there's nothing moderate about them.

Nonetheless, it came as a mild surprise to check our stats (for the first time), and discover that one of the sites which has brought us the most clicks this week is called The Arctic Patriot.   It seems the author recommended our recent piece on agriculture policy, and his readers followed up.  Thanks, people!

So, we naturally wondered, who is the Arctic Patriot?  We assumed at first that there was a Lutheran connection  -- perhaps the blogger was a fellow Finn?  But no; he seems to be a displaced Alaskan, with passionate views on religion and politics.  What a delight -- those are things we like, too!  Still, at a quick reading, it is pretty clear that our politics are different; indeed, it is unlikely that we have ever voted the same way on anything, up to and including what to order for lunch at the office.

On the other hand, his description of Jesus is very appealing.  So there's that.

Further reflection brought into relief a fact of which we had only been half-aware:  some measurable number of the Egg's readers, and commenters, are bloggers with a military, or at least militia-y, bent.  They seem to range from active soldiers to crypto-survivalists.  Some are avowed Christians, others appear to be skeptics.  They seem to be united by an affection for guns, a suspicion of the government, and a predilection for extreme rhetoric.  Many (like this one) are lamentably casual about spelling and punctuation.

Needless to say, any and all readers are welcome (although we are bit picky about comments, to deter trolling).  It gives Fr. A. real delight to imagine that his occasional rambles on John Mason Neale are read, not only in oak-paneled rectories but also in concrete bunkers and camouflaged (but web-enabled) bivouacs.

Which brings us to our real point.  Fr. A. is available for call at the moment -- seeking a pulpit to call his own.  So if your particular militia is looking for a full-time chaplain, and objects neither to differences of political opinion nor the occasional digression regarding punctuation, patristics or the Caped Crusader, then by all means drop us a line.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why Nuns Matter to YOUR Parish

Nuns matter.  Even if you are a Lutheran.  Or a Presbyterian.  Or a Baptist.*  Here's why.

Readers surely recall the recent hubbub regarding nuns, in which the Vatican's Congregation on the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) offered a withering report on perceived doctrinal irregularities among the largest umbrella organization of American women religious (the LCWR), and insisted upon some outside supervision.  The Margaret Farley business is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a further development.  In the media, this is generally portrayed as "power-driven bishops cracking down on saintly servants of the poor."  A minority view runs with "theologically orthodox bishops rein in heretical crypto-Wiccans."

Neither side shows a lot of interest in, or knowledge of, a core division among American religious orders:  in addition to the LCWR, there is a smaller umbrella organization called the CMSWR.  Briefly, the LCWR is the original organization, represents more women in more orders, and certainly skews toward sisters without habits.  The CMSWR was founded in 1992 because of dissatisfaction with the LCWR; it represents many fewer women, and skews toward habit-wearing.  The LCWR represents roughly 80% of American women religious, the CMSWR roughly 20%.

There's an obvious liberal/conservative divide between the two organizations.  But, as we've often said, those words lose much of their meaning in a theological discussion; it was Dorothy Day's doctrinally conservative Catholicism which made her such a powerful advocate for the sort of political views normally called "liberal."  The divide between the LCWR and the CMSWR might better be described as "post-Vatican II" versus "post-post-Vatican II."  You know:  reform against reform-of-the-reform.

There is another strong difference between the two organizations.  The LCWR skews much, much older than the CMSWR.  A fascinating 2009 report by the National Religious Vocations Conference found that the average age of an LCWR-affiliated sister was 74, while that of a CMSWR sister was 60. (Point of comparison:  in 2009, the average ELCA member was 55).  In fact, though, the age gap among the nuns runs much deeper than this.  More than half of all new vocations in the CMSWR orders were among women in their 20s, as opposed to 15% in the LCWR.  Although the report doesn't spell it out, one also gathers that the CMSWR communities are attracting a disproportionately large number of the new vocations overall.

Basically, the more visibly and intentionally traditional orders are attracting young women in a way that the less traditional, although more numerous and deeply entrenched ones, are not.  This matters to you, if you are part of a church, because all of us are interested in appealing to highly-committed young people.

So -- what is the appeal of the CMSWR over the LCWR?  Father John Larson offers a straightforward analysis:
Have you ever met a young woman that wanted to spend her life with a group of grumpy old women that hate the Church (or at least the leaders of said Church) that produced the community in the first place? There aren’t many.
There is probably some truth to that, and it could probably be extended, by analogy, to conditions in many Protestant communities as well.  Grumpy old people who complain about their denomination are a turnoff.

But the NRVC study offers some other possibilities as well. For instance,
Millennial Generation respondents [here, meaning born after 1982] are much more likely than other respondents -- especially those from the Vatican II Generation [born 1943-1960] -- to say that daily Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharistic Adoration and other devotional prayers are "very" important to them.  Compared to younger respondents, older respondents place greater importance on faith-sharing and, to a lesser degree, on non-liturgical common prayer.
This adds to the small but steady trickle of research supporting what we have always believed:  there is a vast gap between the liturgical preferences of [most] Boomers and [most] Millennials.

Mind you, the liturgy is only part of it, an external expression of the desire for authenticity.  Younger people are more likely to be drawn in by "a desire to be committed to the Church and to their particular institute by its fidelity to the Church."  They are noticeably less resistant to wearing their habits, at least some of the time.  Quotations from individuals reflect an even sharper generational gap; one young monk writes that he finds "loyalty to the Church, orthodoxy, seriousness about living the vows, commitment to common life ... lacking in many members older than 40."  Ouch.

Now, one doesn't want to extrapolate too much from a study of Roman Catholic religious orders to the lives of Protestant congregations.  But one would be shortsighted not to extrapolate a little bit in the face of such strong evidence.

The most crucial point, it seems to us, is to be careful with the Boomers and their predilections.  At the moment, they have a lot of the power in American churches; they hold many of the leadership positions, earn (and therefore donate) a lot of the money, and so forth.  As so often during their lives, they get what they want, which is ironic given that of all American generational cohorts, it is the Boomers who have least known what they wanted.  But for pity's sake, be careful of their brilliant ideas for parish life, and especially for parish liturgy.  Be careful of their individualism and their reactive disdain for institutions and authorities.  Be especially careful of their conviction that novelty is always good, that "tradition" is a word best qualified with "hidebound," and that they know what "young people" care about.

It cannot be said often enough that tradition is a powerful thing, and that in a world of constant change, people are drawn to stability.  Nor can it be said too often that pandering is a bad thing, because people raised in a world run by cynical marketing consultants crave nothing more than authenticity.  Don't be afraid of your church's traditions -- the good ones, the ancient ones, the ones that speak truths worth passing on.  Because, if we learn anything from the nuns, it is that people want to hear those timeless truths.

* Although, seriously, does the Egg have any Baptist readers?  It's hard to imagine.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mutual Affirmation and Admonition

The Reformed Church in America is meeting in its General Synod, and one of the topics it has been asked to discuss is whether to continue in the full communion relationships established by the 1997 Formula of Agreement (FoA).

That document established the highest level of inter-ecclesial relationship possible, short of merger, among the ELCA and three large Reformed bodies (the RCA, the PCUSA and the UCC).  Under it, all four recognize each other as "true churches in which the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered in accord with the Word of God," or something to that effect.  Members of one church are welcomed into eucharistic fellowship at the others, and under certain circumstances even the clergy may be shared among them.

The present discussion is all about (homo-)sexuality.  Again.  Of course.  Because what else would it be about, at this point in history?  If we hope for nothing else from the synod assemblies we may yet attend, we hope someday to participate in a good old-fashioned floor fight about racism, poverty, war or the death penalty; we'd settle, frankly, for whether to patronize the Marriott hotel chain, drink Pepsi or buy Chinese widgets. Call us visionaries, but we think the time has come to put sex back in the bedroom, at least usually.

Where were we?  Oh, yes:  the RCA.  There is a certain unpleasant irony here.  Back in the day, some Lutherans -- including a younger and more fire-breathingly-high-church Fr. Anonymous -- looked deeply askance at the idea of full communion with our Calvinist partners.  Eucharist, Zwingli, yadda-yadda-yadda.  Basically, the FoA's  language of "mutual affirmation and admonition" seemed to us, then, inadequate to resolve a long-standing division over something as central as the nature of the divine presence.   In the years since, we have softened our line considerably.  If Ratramnus and Radbertus could live together in a single community, we imagine that the various children of the Reformation ought to as well.

So the irony, from our perspective, is that we can "affirm and admonish" each other regarding something as central to Christian theology as the presence of Christ in the world, but apparently not over a considerably more tangential matter of moral theology.  The Eucharist, after all is a sacrament; marriage, at least as typically viewed by the churches united by FoA, is not.

Anyway.  The fact that the subject has been proposed (in what is called "an Overture," offered by 2 classes out of 32 -- if "classes" is the correct plural of "classis") does not mean that the General Synod will vote to discuss it, and the fact of a discussion certainly does not mean that the RCA will elect to withdraw from the Formula.   So maybe nothing will happen, and maybe -- if something does happen -- it will be a discussion that brings the RCA into a deeper fellowship with its partner churches. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

My Happy Home

On Sunday, thinking about those birds of the air who make nests in the branches of the mustard shrub, our parish will sing Jerusalem, My Happy Home.

It's a good old song, more than a bit sentimental, and the LBW version offers five stanzas about the "happy harbor of the saints," with its "gardens and [its] gallant walks," its flowers and fruitful trees.

But like so many old hymns, this one -- apparently both known from a manuscript and first published in 1601 as Hierusalem etc. -- has many stanzas which are not printed in most hymnals.  Oremus Hymnal offers 25, although some versions include as many as 55.  Most are fairly banal, and their customary omission is no great loss.  But others may be worth a look.

Of particular charm to us, at least, are three stanzas which describe the choir of saints:

There David stands with harp in hand
as master of the choir:
ten thousand times that man were blessed
that might this music hear.

Our Lady sings Magnificat
with tune surpassing sweet,
and all the virgins bear their part,
sitting at her feet.

There Magdalen hath left her moan,
and cheerfully doth sing
with bless├Ęd saints, whose harmony
in every street doth ring.

Nice, right?  A bit more detail than the usual "heavenly chorus," right down to the tune being sung.  We'll think of it at Vespers.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

"New" Sermons by Origen

A researcher at the Bavarian State Library has recently uncovered what appears to be a collection of Greek sermons by Origen of Alexandria, many of them hitherto unknown or known only in Latin translations.

Those with even a little background in patristics will see at a glance how important this find may be.  Origen was a towering, and deeply controversial, figure.  Famous throughout the Christian world during his lifetime -- not least for his symbolic exegetical techniques -- he was anathematized after his death.  To this day, the debate rages over whether Origen actually held the doctrines condemned under his name.  In any case, many modern theologians, including Pope Benedict XVI, find him worthy of reading and discussion.

In a slow-moving field of study, this is potentially enormous news.

The sermons were identified by Dr. Marina Molin Pradel, and their contents have been confirmed by Dr. Lorenzo Perrone, an expert on Origen.  Pradel's results are to be published in Adamantius, the journal of research into Origen and the Alexandrian theologians.

Here is the press release (in German).  Here is a series of blog posts by Roger Pearse.  Here is our own original source, John Zuhlsdorf, whose readers -- always quick with self-parody -- immediately begin questioning Origen's orthodoxy.  And here are images of the book itself.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Strange Things

This would be a good time to know something about Mormonism.  If you agree, bookmark Mormon American, a thoughtful blog put together by Ryan Bell and D.T. Bell.

Its mission is "to politely but doggedly highlight the inaccuracies and unfair and sloppy thinking that so often characterize the national conversation on Mormonism." At first glance, it seems to do this quite well.  Both the posts and the comments, of which thus far most appear to to be written by Mormons, focus on presenting the Mormon movement as its adherents themselves understand it.

Here's a sample.  To the frequent charge by anti-Mormon (and anti-religious) writers that his beliefs are "weird," Ryan answers:
Yes, I do believe those things that sound strange to outsiders.  But the reason I do is because those peripheral ideas are woven into a much larger fabric of belief that reaches to the foundations of why I am here and what my life should be.  If modern, secular commentators want to toy with those out-hanging threads, they should at least consider tracing them back to the web at the heart of the belief.
This is a useful perspective for addressing the strange and seemingly bizarre aspects of many religions, our own included.

As the presidential campaign heats up, it is virtually certain that we will read a great deal about the LDS and related churches.  If the 2008 campaign and the intervening years are any guide, much of what we read will be ignorant, bigoted or foolish.  Let us hope that the Bells can provide the sort of balance which enables the mutual understanding incumbent upon citizens and neighbors in a pluralistic society.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

"And Aquaman is His Prophet"

 Readers may recall that some slight but measurable portion of the English population routinely tells census-takers that its religious affiliation is "Jedi Knight."  This is an obvious example of a religion that is, even by its own understanding, invented.  Skeptics, of course, say that all religions are invented, but they miss the point.  The re is a difference between believing that your sacred books are a divine message, your sacred heroes divine messengers, and knowing perfectly well that they are not, and yet choosing to order your life around them anyway.

The Jedi (and Sith, at least in Scotland) are more of a political protest than a anything else; nominal adherents don't actually seem to organize their lives around their invented religion.  But others may -- the Church of the Sub-Genius and the Discordians, for example.  Such, at least, appears to be the premise of Carole M. Cusack's 2010 Invented Religions:  Fact, Fiction and Imagination.  We haven't read it, nor (at $94 for the freaking ebook) are we likely to.

(One wonders, parenthetically, about Scientologists and even Mormons.  Surely they must notice that their very recent faiths have an "invented" feel, and yet adhere to them for other reasons -- community, ethical considerations, or whatever.)

We haven't read Cusack's book, but we did read with interest Fred Folmer's review, at The (newly-redesigned) Revealer.  It's a worthwhile essay, but our favorite part was near the beginning.  Folmer wasn't sure how widespread these "invented religions" really were.  "And so," he writes,
... I did an Internet search for Batman, the first comic book character I could think of (that’s right, my comic book knowledge is terribly deep), and added the word church. Sure enough, there’s a Facebook group for, ahem, the “Westboro Batman Church,” a group that claims to be “a pious church that worships the ONE, TRUE god, Batman!” In addition to a theological statement, in the “description” section we learn that the group’s 10 Commandments were handed down by Aquaman, and that one of the directives is simply “I’m BATMAN!” What’s more, there’s a similar Facebook group for Aquaman, although apparently their theology is still in the developmental stages. The group does, however, identify itself as “the church of our savior, Aquaman.”
Were we at the Egg someday to lose our faith and seek another ... well, never mind.


Time does not permit us to list the many ways in which American agricultural policy is mistaken.  Suffice it to say that, in the quest for votes from thinly-populated states, generations of Midwestern politicians have steered huge amounts of pork to the farm.  Which is funny, because the pork is supposed to come from the farm, but ... whatever.  Where were we?

Oh, right.  The latest scam is farm insurance.  The Times covers it here; we'll try to simplify.

Remember that farming is a tough way to make a living, and that large portions of North America are not especially fertile.  The Great Plains are like the Amazon rain forest:  seemingly lush, but really made of thin (and on the plains, arid) topsoil which already grows pretty much whatever it can.

For a long time, farmers desperate to squeeze every dollar out of their land would plant in places where the yields were likely to be small indeed.  This exhausted the land, and led to soil erosion -- which in turn poses a threat to the more fertile areas.  So, for years, the government has paid landowners not to farm on marginal land.  It's not a fortune -- about $50/acre/year, but still:  they pay farmers just to own land and not to farm it.  In addition, the government subsidizes private insurance for farmers, to protect them from poor harvests.

This doesn't sound like a great policy, but it's better than the new one working its way through the Senate.

Here's what has happened:  certain crops -- notably corn and soybeans -- have become more valuable over the past few years.  This means that farmers make more money.  This, in turn, means two things:
  • Insurance costs go up -- about $1.2 billion to $7.3 billion since 2000; and
  • The pressure to convert marginal land increases.  That $50/acre doesn't amount to much if you can grow even a few of those newly-precious soybeans on it.
So, basically, farmers -- largely meaning agribusinesses these days -- are doing pretty well because their product is more valuable.  But rather than encouraging them to protect the land, it encourages them to go back to pushing it beyond its natural limits.

And now, our bold and courageous senators propose to change the insurance program.  Instead of paying farmers to keep the marginal land wild, they want to create a $3 billion subsidy for insurance against losses on any land which is farmed.  Which means that even if you have made the stupid and short-sighted decision to farm on lousy land, and if -- as one might expect -- your harvest is not good, you still get paid.

All this creates an evident moral hazard.  Here's the Times:
By guaranteeing income, farmers say, crop insurance removes almost any financial risk for planting land where crop failure is almost certain.
“When you can remove nearly all the risk involved and guarantee yourself a profit, it’s not a bad business decision,” said Darwyn Bach, a farmer in St. Leo, Minn., who said that he is guaranteed about $1,000 an acre in revenue before he puts a single seed in the ground because of crop insurance. “I can farm on low-quality land that I know is not going to produce and still turn a profit.”
Another quote compares it to a bailout -- but one which is repeated every year.

Is this sort of thing dumber than, say, government insurance on beachfront property?  No, because farming really is tough, and because America needs food in a way that it doesn't need, say, private beaches.

But it's still pretty dumb.

Space Nazis!

We saw Iron Sky last night.  Capsule review:

  • SFX way beyond its tight budget;
  • No Producers, but still ... a funny movie about Nazis;
  • Slightly hamfisted political satire; 
  • Marry me, Renate Richter!

For a more thoughtful take, see the parish soapbox.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Open Thou My Lips

Two items from the Romish realm, but likely to be of interest in other desmesnes:

First, New Liturgical Movement has just posted a piece about the "Customary," or principal liturgical formulary, of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.  The chief news thus far is that the new book adopts old language -- what Shawn Tribe and his tribe like to call "hieratic" or "sacral" English.  We do not love those expressions; we're happier with "old-fashioned," "[faux-]Jacobean," or simply "theethou."  But by any name, it is a rose that smells sweet to some of us.

Since Roman Catholic liturgical materials were generally left in Latin during the Renaissance, few have a long or deep tradition of expression in the English of those days.  English-speaking Roman Catholics are for the most part left to choose between the banality of the post-Vatican II translations or the stilted accuracy of the new missal.  Whatever one thinks of the Ordinariate (and our view is dim), one cannot repress a shiver of excitement at the thought that these ex-Anglicans may bring to it, and to Roman Catholics in much of the world, their particular linguistic charism.

Second, it seems that for some terrible reason (jealousy, no doubt) we neglected to mention that the Baronius Press has finally released its Latin-English edition of the 1961 Breviarium Romanum.  It is a long-awaited masterpiece:  three volumes, leatherbound, illustrated, slipcased.  It is not cheap, at about $350, but ... it looks beautiful.

Except, ironically, for one thing:  the English.  Based on the scans they provide, the English translation looks serviceable and accurate, but unremarkable.  The hymns are from a 1950s edition by Joseph Connelly, which means that they are not selected from the many other fine translations of Breviary hymns, as for example by John Dryden, John Henry Newman and (of course) John Mason Neale.  Connelly would have to be pretty good to outclass those guys.

Getting Jefferson Wrong

David Barton is a strange fellow, who has built is reputation on the dubious platform of telling lies about the Founding Fathers -- as well as the more conservative-friendly strategy of bashing college professors.  (Hey, it was how William F. Buckley and Dinesh D'Souza got started.)

Apparently, some college professors are fighting back.  Not the relativist /deconstructionist/ poststructuralist types against whom Barton fulminates, but rather a pair from Grove City College, a Christian school conservative enough that its mission statement explicitly rejects "secularism and relativism."

Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter have recently published Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President.   Here's a review by RD's Paul Harvey; here's a link to the book.  Here is Throckmorton and Coulter's website.

Our own life has been blessedly unimpaired by the likes of Barton; we like our history reality-based, and so do most of the people around us.  But if you've had to deal with this guy's acolytes, you may want to check out Throckmorton and Coulter.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


The hawk-eyed interns toiling away in  the Egg's Dept. of Creedal Pedantry (basement level, third door, near the boiler) recently slipped a memo into Fr. A.'s in-box.  It reads, in essence, "Hey, bonehead, wake up."  Turns out the Lutheran world's answer to Baron Corvo missed a few key points in his comments an Quicunque vult, known here in the office as "the Creed Screed."

First, he got confused about the use of the Athanasian Creed in modern Roman Catholicism.  After centuries of use at Prime on Sundays, it was reduced to Prime on Trinity in 1914; in the post-Vatican II breviary, it is not used at all.  And certainly not at Mass.

Second, he joined the multitudes in panning Evangelical Lutheran Worship for failing to include the Athanasian Creed in its record-setting 1211 pages of liturgical material.  On its own, this may well be a legitimate criticism.  However, what Fr. A. neglected to mention was that the Athanasian Creed has not, historically, been included in all that many Lutheran service books.  It was in the LC-MS's 1941 Lutheran Hymnal, and the 1978 LBW, but that seems to be about it.  Since, as readers of our Latin-English breviary know, we consider the Service Book and Hymnal to be the high point of liturgical formularies in the style of the Romantic revival, and since the creed in question is not found there (nor, so far as we can find, even mentioned in Reed's commentary), it seems that the argument against its use in a Sunday parish liturgy is stronger than we had realized.

This means, incidentally, that one really must not speak of the Athanasian Creed being "omitted" by ELW.  It has no more been omitted than the Small Catechism, included in some predecessor books, was "omitted" from the LBW.  And ELW, to its immense credit, does include the Catechism, albeit in an excruciatingly small typeface.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"Tacit Conventions"

Your middlebrow likes nothing more than to argue about language.  This seems to be especially true in English.  At least since Dryden began re-writing his published works to make their English follow the rules of Latin, and likely long before, speakers of our language have squabbled over what is right and what is wrong in grammar, syntax and vocabulary.  In classrooms and at family dinner tables, not to mention general-interest magazines, debates over language are notoriously fierce, frequent and self-righteous.

During the 20th century, the argument came to be described as a debate between "descriptivist" and "prescriptivist" positions.  Dictionaries are a common causus belli.  In our youth, Webster's Third New International was pilloried as a spineless capitulation to living and letting live, while the first American Heritage was regarded as a crypto-fascist effort to crush free speech.  Just recently, The New Yorker's Joan Acocella offered an entertaining attack on descriptivism.

The problem, as Stephen Pinker points out in Salon, is that these two polar positions don't really reflect the thinking of the people who study language scientifically.  He writes:
The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.
(That "Gregorian calendar" business is a touchy matter, living as we do on the borderlands of Byzantium.  It is a convention, by no means tacit, over which the Orthodox have a lively internal argument.)

Pinker has many more analogies where those came from:
Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate. One such controversy springs from the commonplace among linguists that most nonstandard forms are in no way lazy, illogical, or inferior. The choice of "isn’t" over "ain’t","dragged" over "drug", and "can’t get any" over "can’t get no" did not emerge from a weighing of their inherent merits, but from the historical accident that the first member of each pair was used in the dialect spoken around London when the written language became standardized. If history had unfolded differently, today’s correct forms could have been incorrect and vice-versa. 
But the valid observation that there is nothing inherently wrong with ain’t should not be confused with the invalid inference that ain’t is one of the conventions of standard English. Dichotomizers have difficulty grasping this point, so I’ll repeat it with an analogy. In the United Kingdom, everyone drives on the left, and there is nothing sinister, gauche, or socialist about their choice. Nonetheless there is an excellent reason to encourage a person in the United States to drive on the right: That’s the way it’s done around here. 
You get the point, and it is a good point.  The "rules" of language are neither (pace Noam Chomsky) natural laws like gravity nor universal moral laws with a self-authenticating power.  But they are laws, of a sort -- like traffic regulations -- which one follows, more or less faithfully, because  things go more easily when everyone works together.

Pinker's essay is interesting, and worth a read.  But it also raises a question for us here at the Egg, especially as we put off work on that pesky annual exercise, the sermon for Trinity Sunday.  Apart from driving and language, what other human enterprises depend upon Pinker's "tacit conventions"?  Specifically, we wonder sometimes, and with great hesitation, about the obvious dependence of Christian theology upon such human factors as history and culture.  While we are, at least nominally, committed to dyophisitism, it is hard to imagine that, had Chalcedon gone differently and Monophyisitism won the day, our life, ministry or preaching would be deeply changed.   More to the point, we are deeply attached to the doctrine of the Trinity, but had the Arians won (as they nearly did), God would still be God, and we wonder whether the Church would be essentially different or only conditionally different.

Theology likes to believe that its conclusions are necessary, and therefore true, statements about God.  This is the most prescriptivist position imaginable.  Its opposite, we suppose, is the post-New-Age "spiritual but not religious" position, in which beliefs can be evaluated according to no criteria but one's personal sentiment. But if, in theology as in language, the dichotomy is false, then the game would change a bit, wouldn't it?  We wonder what the world of ecumenism, much less interfaith relations, would look like if theologians -- and especially the unlearned faithful, who are often most zealous defenders of doctrinal difference -- learned to view doctrine as a body of tacit conventions, indispensable in their way but ultimately conditional and even changeable.