Friday, November 30, 2012

Grammar or Heresy?

This was the benediction after vespers at a recent synodical function:
Be the great God between your shoulders
To protect you in your going and coming;
Be the Son of Mary near your heart;
And be the perfect Spirit upon you pouring.
It's by the Rev. Carol Ford, of the Kirk of Scotland, inspired by Deuteronomy 33:12, or so says the Vatican website.

In writing, we can see that this is the subjunctive mood ("be that as it may").  However, we are reliably informed that some listeners took it for an imperative ("be thou my vision," or "be gone").  Were it the latter, it would indeed have been ill-advised.

Which is just one more reason that grammar matters.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


Although he has traveled a bit in Mexico, Fr. A. has never seen the famous Acapulco cliff-divers.  He regrets this for many reasons, and is therefore delighted that Acapulco seems to be his new home.

No, we haven't taken a(nother) exotic parish call.  It seems that Acapulco has come to us, as Washington's leaders gather in conclave to work out an agreement regarding tax and spending policies.  The nation is sliding toward what Ben Bernanke once -- and the mass media ever afterward -- called "the fiscal cliff."

And while most people expect a last-minute deal to be struck, we at the Egg do not.  We think these crazy-arsed sumbitches are going to run straight over the edge.  It will be like the last scene in Thelma and Louise, which is a pretty funny way to think of  Boehner and Obama.  (Still easier to think of them that way than as than Butch and Sundance, though).

The bottom line is that we don't think either side will be able to stomach, or sell to its constituents, the level of  change that is necessary.  The modern Republican party is held together by two things: fighting  abortion and lowering taxes.  Violate either of these commitments, and a national GOP candidate is doomed.  If the Democratic party is held together by anything -- a debatable proposition -- it is by a general commitment to the ideals of the Great Society, extrapolated considerably.  On one hand, the President has no future election to contest; on the other, he needs to govern for another quadrennium. Not to mention that neither Mr Reid nor Ms Pelosi has imminent plans to retire from public life.

So, yes, many Republicans in Congress have begun to repent their vow to the pagan deity that is Grover Norquist.  But we would be surprised indeed if they were willing to do what must be done -- which, in our opinion, begins with letting the Bush tax cuts expire, continues with a return of the top marginal rate to a Reagan-era 40% or so, and continues with the destruction of another golden calf, as the last decade's massive increases in military spending are rolled sharply back.

Likewise, we'd be surprised if Democrats, despite their customary spinelessness, could bring themselves to do their bit.  Government programs need to be cut, including Medicare.  And more than a little.

Fortunately, there is a way for our fearful leaders to make all this happen, and still take no personal (or electoral) responsibility.  And that is to jump right off the damned cliff.

If they do not come to an agreement, then the policy designed by the late "supercommittee" will automatically come into force.  Taxes will go up, spending (half of it military) will come down, the the US budget will slowly begin to move toward balance.  This is called "austerity," and although it's not a particularly wise or effective policy during an economic crisis, it is the policy that the IMF and other rich-world agencies have imposed upon struggling nations for decades.  So at last we Americans get to put our money where our mouth is.

Mind you, nobody will be happy.  The faithful of both parties will cry bloody murder, and not only they.  Taxes on the middle class will go up so much -- around $2,000 for a typical family -- that people will buy less stuff, and the recession will return (or deepen, if you don't think it ever went away).  If you're jobless now, you'll more-or-less certainly be jobless in July, too.

But here's the thing:  we'll have some resolution.  The government won't be paralyzed every few months by debt-ceiling negotiations that fail anyway.  Our bonds won't keep losing value.  Everybody will lose, but posterity will (probably, maybe) win.  And the key point is that the people doing the negotiating don't have to do anything, least of all negotiate.  They can stand by their guns, keep their doctrinal purity, and still even out the spending-to-revenue balance.

Once upon a time, politics was called "the art of the possible."  In America, at least, those days seem to be gone.  Our government, particularly at the federal level, is so hopelessly divided that it seems incapable of any meaningful action.  Politics is no longer about getting things done; it is about posturing in public, and scoring points for your own party -- but it is not about making deals or, bless you, actually governing.

So, since politics has failed, we only have one alternative.  Next month, we are jumping off the cliff.  Hold on to your birettas.

"Round Up the Jews"

That's more or less what a member of the Hungarian parliament suggested the other day.  To make it better, he suggested that Jews were enemies of the state.

As you might imagine, this didn't go over well with Hungary's 100,000 Jews.  Between five and six hundred thousand of their brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents were slaughtered during the Holocaust, so it is easy to see why they might be just a bit sensitive.

On one hand, Marton Gyonyosi is a member of Jobbik, the right-wing nationalist party.  Educated in Ireland and formerly employed by accounting giant KPMG, he is part of a frightening trend in European politics -- but, by definition,  his party stands outside the mainstream.  On the other hand, well, Jobbik holds 44 of the 386 seats in Parliament. That's 11%, more than enough to make it an important player in building coalitions.

What is fascinating is that Gyonyosi, under pressure, issued one of the most half-hearted apologies we can imagine.  He said, in essence, that he only meant that the government should keep a list of Hungarian citizens with dual Israeli passports.  Not all Jews; just those Jews.  They are the ones who "pose a national security risk to Hungary."

For the record, dual passports are pretty common.  Hungary, for example, gives them to Romanian citizens of Hungarian ancestry.  The Romanians used to complain about this, but their case is weaker since they started giving passports to Moldovans.

Also for the record, hatred and suspicion of Jews in Europe, especially eastern Europe, is a lively phenomenon.  It is a lot quieter than the hatred of gypsies the Roma, but you don't have to dig deep to find it.      

Let's say it straight:  The right wing in Europe has been treading a fine line for decades, trying to figure out just how close it can come to the craziness of the genocidal '30s without actually growing the moustache and putting on the armbands.  Jobbik seems to be taking the next logical step -- a prospect which should frighten all of us.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


The Book of Kells may be one of the most beautifully illuminated of all medieval Bible manuscripts -- and certainly the most famous to come out of the Irish church -- but it is also full of transcription errors.

There's a sermon illustration in there crying to get out.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Struggling to digest our Thanksgiving dinner, we spent some time flipping channels the other night.  Along with the customary Star Trek and James Bond marathons, we also found a station showing The Godfather and its sequels.  We flipped in and out, managing to catch many of our favorite bits: the scene in the restaurant, the strangulation in the car, and - of course -- the baptism-cum-takeover of Las Vegas.

As always, we were captured both by the solemn beauty of the picture, as well as by the characters:  they are crude thugs posing as men of honor, inhabiting a world in which success comes not through hard work or innovation, but through calculated violence and the manipulation of unstable personal networks, in which "family" is everything -- until it is not.

The movie made us think about Snorri Sturluson.

For those who may have forgotten, Snorri was a 13th-century Icelander, remembered principally as the author of the Prose Edda, which is our principal source for understanding Norse mythology.   If you have ever enjoyed the stories of Odin, Thor and Loki -- or the Ring of the Nibelungs, or Tolkien -- then you owe a debt to Snorri.  Because while their names and little bits of story can be found in other sources, not least the dense poetry of the Elder Edda, Snorri's retelling is the only place in which the tales are set out as simple, beginning-to-end narratives.  Without Snorri, we would know very little, almost nothing, about the legends of the pre-Christian north.

So who was Snorri Sturluson?  Not, as we had always imagined, a Viking raider with a bit of literary talent, nor a Christian monk with an antiquarian bent.  He was -- as we learned from reading Nancy Marie Brown's recent book, Song of the Vikings:  Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths -- something quite different.  Fat and cowardly by nature, Snorri was nonetheless one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Iceland; he achieved this not through martial valor but through shrewd manipulation of those around him, as well as through the strategic deployment of a singular gift for poetry.

Brown does a good job of depicting Iceland in the high Middle Ages.  Settled by ninth-century Norsemen fleeing an aggressive king, it was a a land with no king of its own, ruled by clans and chieftains.  It possessed some remarkable civil institutions: its laws were written down long before those of Sweden, and its Althing remains the oldest "parliament" on earth.  On the other hand, though, chieftains arrived at the Althing with their armies in tow, because this was really less like a parliament than like a Mafia conclave.  A tough place to farm, Iceland didn't have many other sources; notably, for a remote island, it possessed no trees large enough to make seagoing ships.  Although Christian by law from A.D. 1000, the Church's presence was not strong.  Divorce, for example, was common and lightly penalized -- as were murder and theft.  Snorri himself was murdered, and the plot was hatched by members of his own family.

One thing Icelanders were famous for, though, was their ability to tell stories.  Like the modern Irish, their achievements in poetry and song seem to have been far greater than you might expect from a small nation.  When they left Iceland, poetry and storytelling were their entree into the courts, and sometimes even ranks, of the European nobility.  Poetry, as Brown says, was power.

Brown is writing for a general audience, and this causes as many difficulties as it resolves.  Making sense of the characters in Snorri's life -- many of them sharing names with each other -- can be maddening.  Brown is a sensitive interpreter of Snorri's writing, and one wishes she had given us less biography and more intepretation -- but then, her readings depend upon a grasp of the biography, so what choice does she have?

To be honest, our favorite chapter is the last, in which she leaves behind Snorri and his violent life, to briefly sketch out the later history of his most famous book.  The Prose Edda was forgotten for centuries, then rediscovered and translated, into Latin and other useful languages, in the 1500s.  This did not merely mark the recovery of the Norse myths themselves although that would have been enough -- but also the birth of an artistic sensibility infused with the vision of wild landscapes and half-remembered creatures hidden in the darkness.  This would, in time, directly shape the Gothic novel, and poets like Thomas Gray and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Through Tolkien, it would would also shape the modern genre of "high fantasy," by now expressed in countless three-novel paperback series as well as video games like Skyrim.

Sadly, as Brown shows, the recovery of Norse mythology would also help create the academic study of  philology, which in turn would lead to a nasty little intellectual obsession with the heritage of Northern Europe -- not only its poetic history, but its half-imagined racial one as well.  Snorri, one must admit with regret, fed the unhealthy fantasies of a pig like Wagner and a monster like Hitler.  He continues to feed the relatively harmless goofiness of the self-styled "Asatru" neopagans, as well as the more menacing underground culture of the Aryan Nations and their ilk.

One irony which Brown observes, but about which she says little, is that our principal source for an understanding of Norse paganism was a Christian and part of a society which had been Christian for centuries.  Snorri prefaces his Edda with an account of the Creation derived directly from Genesis, and his "gods" are strongly Euhemerized -- treated, in other words, as historical men and women about whom legends have grown up.  Nor are they particularly admirable men and women; if the Greek deities were prone to adultery and wrath, the Norse gods often seem petty, cheap, and more than a little dim-witted.  On occasion, Snorri has a good laugh at their expense.

That's probably the point.  While it is tempting to think of Snorri's Iceland as only half-Christian, with pagan rites still practiced in its dark corners, the evidence doesn't really support that, and the Eddas least of all.  The Church may not have had as much authority in Iceland as it did in, say, France, but it had at least managed to so discredit the competition that people had a hard time remembering just why their ancestors had worshiped those cranky old gods.  All of which suggests that the various neo-pagan movements are exceeding the brief presented by the nominal source of their faith, by projecting onto the Eddic outline a religious philosophy which they have themselves invented.

Anyway:  we recommend Song of the Vikings, with only a few reservations.  It is a brief, original and deftly-painted portrait of an important literary figure, the godfather, as it were, of Norse mythology.  We hope that Nancy Marie Brown will follow it with a deeper analysis of Snorri's work, and of its role in modern culture.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

No Nudes is Good Nudes

As you may have heard, the city of San Francisco has recently prohibited public nudity, except under certain specified circumstances.  Like a parade.

All of which reminds us that, before Florida became the crazy uncle of America, there was California.  One of America's biggest cities used to let you run around in your birthday suit, and now it won't -- except if you're in a parade.

Comments at Gawker are pretty amusing.  Most people seem relieved that they won't have to see naked people, especially old an/or fat ones.  A few people are defensive, claiming that "the human body isn't indecent" and so forth.

Honestly, we're sympathetic to both sides.  The human body isn't indecent; God made it, and did a pretty good job.  On the other hand, the human heart is indecent as hell, and nothing provokes its indecency like thinking about sexytime.  Concupiscence is the ten-dollar theological word.  It isn't that our sexual impulses are sinful, but that they are so strong they will drive our thoughts away from everything else -- like driving, prayer, and not committing adultery. (Also, ick.)

Here in New York, of course, we have a two-pronged assault on this sort of silliness.  Prong One:  it's cold.  Hey Mr. Exhibitionist -- not so much to exhibit now, is there?  And Prong Two:  Fashion Week.  We fetishize clothes. Not everybody, to be sure -- and certainly not Father A. -- but just enough to matter.  When looking good is part of the local culture, most people realize that nakedness is not their best camera angle.

So for all the disappointed nudies in the Bay Area, we can offer only this cold comfort:  Yes, your bodies are wonderful, marvelous things.  And wouldn't they look better in a well-cut suit?

Please Read This Other Person's Blog

Yesterday, Pastor Joelle posted something really, truly important on her blog.  You should read it.

Basically, she challenges the Bonhoefferian cliche "cheap grace."  Billige Gnade.  Whether or not Bonhoeffer intended it, which is a question for experts, the expression is often used as a back-door return to legalism.  Typically, it goes like this.  You say, "Salvation is a free gift of God to all people," and then somebody else says "As long as we [confess our sins] [have a personal relationship with Jesus] [recognize the Pope as Christ's vicar on earth] [eat Wheaties]."

And when, as Pastor Joelle points out, you say, "Actually, 'free' means 'free,'" then your interlocutor suggests that you go read The Cost of Discipleship.  Again.

Anyway, she's onto something big here.  Read her post.

Slapping the Bishop

(No, that's not what we meant.  Get your mind out of the gutter.)

The Church of England's General Synod voted yesterday against the proposed ordination of women to the episcopate.  (Good article here.) This was a slap in the face to both the present Archbishop of Canterbury and his chosen successor, the present Bishop of Durham.  Both men are on record as supporting, strongly, the ministry of women as bishops.  It may also be a slap at the government, of which the Church is after all an arm; PM David Cameron has said that the CofE needs to "get with the program."  And of course it is certainly a slap at the women already serving as priests, who are given to understand that their priesthood is somehow ontologically different from that of men.  You could even see it as a slap at the Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith, who is herself a woman.

So who did the slapping, and what are we to make of it?  The Times summarizes the vote:
More than 70 percent of the 446 synod votes on Tuesday were in favor of opening the church’s episcopacy to women. But the synod’s voting procedures require a two-thirds majority in each of its three “houses”: bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops approved the change by 44 to 3, and the clergy by 148 to 45. The vote among the laity, though, was 132 to 74, six votes less than the two-thirds needed.
Ah.  It was laypeople who blocked the move -- specifically, a minority of the lay voters.  We expect that some conservative commentators will mutter, "You see?  It is the laypeople who are the real theologians, steadfastly resisting the trendiness and political calculation of the clergy."  And we expect that some liberals will murmur about a cabal of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, natural enemies united only by their refusal to face the future.

Perhaps the most churlish analysis we have yet read comes in the Telegraph, from a former-Baptist-turned-Papist named Tim Stanley.  He claims that "in its search for 'relevance,' the Anglican church is losing relevance," and that the CofE has 'supinely" refused to take a position and stick to it, instead continuing to discuss  and vote on difficult topics. This attitude betrays a vast failure to understand what Anglicanism is, and always has been. Stanley has moved from one authoritarian church to another; he says clearly that he wants, and believes most other churchgoers want, authoritative answers.  But, except on a few central matters, the Church of England has never been about authoritative answers.  We Lutherans and Roman Catholics, with our stern dogmatic traditions, may tease -- we do tease -- but Anglicanism has done pretty well by embracing different, even warring, perspectives within a single tradition of worship and hierarchy.

Of course, the hierarchy is just what is in question here, and a church defined by its bishops does need to speak clearly about who they are.  Are female bishops truly "the future"?  They don't need to  be, of course.  A church that has gone on for many centuries without them may well be able to continue just the same. If the culture doesn't like it, well, culture be damned.

But it does seem almost inevitable that women will be bishops in England eventually.  The convictions of the theological leadership already support it; the expectations of the broader society support it; the likelihood that the resistant minority will dwindle seems strong indeed.  A priest of the American Province and friend of the Egg counts something like 32 women serving as bishops in churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  One of them is the recently-elected Ellinah Wamukoyah, of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who will soon be the first female Anglican bishop on the African continent.

If female bishops are inevitable, then it is a sign of the times that they have arrived in Africa before England.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Of Lutherans and Latin

One of the things they teach you in confirmation class, then maybe a World Civ course, and sometimes even in seminary, is that the Reformers of the sixteenth century wanted Christian worship to be held in "a language comprehended of the people."  Meaning, as they tell the story to children and seminarians, that once the Reformation fervor hit a particular city or princedom, Latin was out and German (or another vulgar tongue) was in.

It's a nice, simple story.  The problem is that it's not quite true.

As readers of Odd Hours know, Latin retained a significant place in Lutheran worship.  Melanchthon wrote that "we have retained the Latin lessons and prayers" in the Mass, (Apology 24).  Luther urged that the Daily Office be sung in Latin, and the Wittenberg Church-Order expressly requires this.

Mind you, the Office was sung by schoolboys, and it is pretty clear that Latin was retained at least in part as a teaching tool.  But this wasn't just a college-town affectation, and it didn't disappear after the earliest years of the Reformation.  

In a 1991 article, Ann Moss offered a survey of "Latin Liturgical Hymns of the Reformation Crisis (1520-1568)."*  As she demonstrates, Lutheran worship during what is sometimes called "the confessional period" made significant use of Latin, not only in Wittenberg but throughout Germany and Bohemia.  Nor was this merely a conservative retention of old and beloved songs, although there was some of that; on the contrary, Lutheran poets and theologians were busily engaged in the writing of new worship materials in Latin.  She places this work within the intertwined contexts of both Renaissance humanism and the movement for Catholic liturgical reform.

Moss points out that, among Protestants, the use of Latin hymns was restricted to Lutherans.  Calvinists were suspicious of hymnody altogether, and
[t]his was also the case in England, where a total commitment to the vernacular, coupled with a belief in the absolute primacy of Scripture over all other forms of the written word, meant that the compilers of the reformed prayer-book found no room in it for hymns, [either] Latin or vernacular.  [She does note the "curious exception" of the Englished Veni creator spiritus sung at ordinations.]
Among the Lutheran liturgical hymn-writers to whom Moss points:

  • Hermanus Bonnus (1504-48):  From the 1540s, revised the sequences and hymns for saints' days to reflect Evangelical theology;
  • Philip Melanchthon, from 1544 onward, composed a few "replacement" hymns for saints' days.  Given his prominence as a theologian, Moss notes that "Latin hymn-writing could hardly have had a more spectacular seal of approval;"
  • Johannes Spangenberg (1484-1550):  Edited a large 1545 collection of Latin and German hymns for church use, apparently at the urging of Luther himself;
  • Reinhardus Lorichius translated into Latin twenty of Spangenberg's own German hymns (1555), with theological commentaries.  (Discussing Spangenberg and Lorichius, Moss speaks of "Lutheranism's bilingual culture");
  • Mattheus Collinus: A Czech poet whose hymns (1545 et. seq.) are "engagingly confidential ... [and take] a rumbustious approach to feast-days, with an emphasis on the feasting;"
  • Georgius Fabricius (1516-71): "the most accomplished of Lutheran Latin hymn-writers [and] a humanist of the first rank;" his hymns range over "Christ's Passion, the canonical hours, the whole of the Church's calendar, and various occasions in the religious life;"
  • Matthias Flacius Illyricus, the most despicable of all major Lutheran theologians prior to the 1930s, also assembled a collection of Latin hymns, although one gathers that, rather than recommending them for worship, his intent was to hold them up as bad examples of the unregenerate past.
Perhaps the most interesting book described by Moss is the 1561 second edition of Lucas Lossius' Psalmodia hoc est Cantica sacra Veteris Ecclsiae selecta [....].  Although Lutheran worship was, as it remains, an intensely localized phenomenon, Lossius's book, which lays out the typical liturgy of Luneburg, was reprinted often and widely enough that it may represent a "standard use."  Moss notes that 
Latin hymns are sung at vespers, and Latin sequences at the traditional moment in the mass, with the addition of rhyming Latin 'cantica,' hymns in German or hymns in a macaronic mixture of German and Latin provided for the communion.
That's a lot of Latin for congregations that were a generation -- or two -- past the break with Rome.

Apart from antiquarian interest, why does this matter to modern-day Lutherans?  First, because it is a reminder of just how liturgically conservative our ancestors were; but most of us already knew that.  Second, and more subtly, the idea of Lutheranism's "bilingual culture" is more profound than Moss may have understood.  Here in the U.S., Lutheran churches have often struggled to embrace both their Teutonic ancestry and their place in a religious culture shaped by the English and Scots-Irish, and to which African American religiosity has provided the principal counterpoint.  As the old WASP hegemony declines, we continue to struggle with our place in the new demographic order.  It is helpful to be reminded of a cosmopolitanism buried deep within our ecclesiastical DNA.

But third and most centrally, we think, is this:  It reminds us that the Latin language, which is of such immense importance in the history of Christianity, and which since Tertullian coined the word "Trinity" has been an almost peerless vehicle of tradition, is an indispensable element not only of the Lutheran academic heritage, but of the liturgical heritage as well.  The Reformers meant to be sure that undereducated church members could follow the service; they never meant to exclude from the service the language of learning and of tradition.  

It is difficult to square this with the populism which has shaped most liturgical reform since the late-20th century.  From the Lutheran Book of Worship through the Hymnal Supplement to With One Voice and Evangelical Lutheran Worship, there has been an intense push to make the language of worship more easily accessible to the hypothetical "average" worshiper.  One sees the same impulse in liturgical reform among most of our ecumenical partners; to it has recently been added a particular concern for gender neutrality.  This push is often supported with appeals to the Reformers and their use of the vernacular, so it is useful to recall that their use of the vernacular was not absolute.  

Roman Catholicism's "reform of the reform" has led to a new English missal which strives for greater fidelity to the underlying Latin.  While it has been sharply criticized in some quarters for its use of English words which are unusual and difficult for the "average" churchgoer, it has been praised in others for offering a witness to the faith which is deeper and, at least to those with some basic preparation, clearer.  Some Roman Catholics are running, often despite the reluctance of their bishops to allow it, toward services in Latin, which they believe present a more "authentic" Catholicism.  Lutheran worship is shaped by a different set of concerns, but might still consider the possibility that, in some circumstances, congregations are well served by a diet of hard-to-chew meat along with their pureed carrots.   

*In Humanistica Lovaniensa:  The Journal of Neo-Latin Studies (vol. XL) 73-111.   (Read it here.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"All In"

You may wonder why the Egg has had nothing to say about the Petraeus Affair thus far.  The reason is simple:  things change too fast for us to keep up.  First it's an ex-general shtupping his biographer; then it's a biographer threatening a socialite; then it's another general exchanging tens of thousands of emails with the same socialite -- some of them now said to be "flirtatious."

And somewhere in the mix, it appears, there is a shirtless FBI agent.

By the time you read this, we fully expect that the story will have broadened to include bootleggers, circus clowns, and the ghost of Elvis.  Ann Friedman believes that the whole business can be understood by watching the movie Mean Girls.

But the main thing to remember is that, whatever anybody says on CNN, it is very likely that several laws have been broken here:

Military Law.  First off, the liaison between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell may, in and of itself, be criminal.  Adultery is a punishable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Article 134.  A particular case may be punished when it is "to the prejudice of good order and discipline" and/or is "of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."  Both parties were (or anyway, may have been, depending on when the affair began) serving officers, a general and a lieutenant colonel in the reserves; he was in in as public a position as a general can have, and she was a writer and lecturer.  Not to mention the differences in rank and seniority.  This  story stands to prejudice as much good order and reflect as much discredit as we can imagine.

Obviously, Gen. John Allen is also subject to the UCMJ.  If it does prove that he was sleeping with Jill Kelly, he is likely to face charges under Article 134 as well.  Broadwell will probably be allowed to resign rather than face charges, but Allen is a much bigger fish, with a lot more to lose.  The Army may be inclined to treat him very severely.

That's just the question of adultery.  The far more serious question, for both Petraeus and Allen, will be whether either man may have leaked classified documents to a paramour.  It's going to be hard to work out the details -- if Broadwell's research notes include classified documents, for example, she might have received them from any number of sources.  And not all documents marked "classified" are actually classified.   Still, if a prosecutor is determined, this is where the possibility of actual jail time comes in.

Civilian Law.  If the affair had begun before Petraeus took over the CIA, and if he failed to disclose it during the vetting process, he is probably guilty of a crime right there.  In August, the FBI issued a press release about a guy who worked at the Denver airport, and had failed to disclose a criminal record, thus potentially jeopardizing airport security.  "If convicted of making a false statement," it said, this fellow "faces not more than five years in federal prison and a fine of not more than $250,000."  If they bring that kind of heat down on a baggage-handler, they probably have a lot more to offer a CIA director.

What if the affair began only after Petraeus took over the CIA?   It may not be technically illegal, but it is still a massive violation of the CIA's code of conduct.  James Bond notwithstanding, the intelligence services are notoriously averse to sexual escapades which might open their personnel up to extortion or coercion.

Moral Law.  Let's be frank.  Even if Petraeus and Broadwell did betray the confidence of the Army and the CIA -- and thereby the United States -- it seems very unlikely that they did any lasting damage.  They weren't passing secret plans to Chinese operatives or anything like that.

But both Petraeus and Broadwell (and perhaps Allen and Kelly, depending upon what we learn next) have betrayed their families in ways that are likely to do vast damage.  Under the best circumstances, an affair is destructive; when it creates a massive public scandal like this one, the destruction can only be amplified.  To be really blunt, that's why it is in the Ten Commandments.

All said and done, we don't really think there will be a lot of legal action here. So long as national security was not compromised, all the principals will probably be run through the customary wringer of public humiliation, and then sent on their merry ways.  Petraeus will make a fortune giving speeches and  serving on corporate boards. Broadwell will work at a conservative think tank, and may even get to be a talking head on cable news.  If Allen is in real trouble, he will retire very soon; if not, he will serve a few more years, in important positions -- but never on the Joint Chiefs or anything like that.  As for Kelly, well, she will emerge from bankruptcy and co-host a reality TV program..

Friday, November 09, 2012

Establishment Man

After months of deliberation (meaning, we expect, behind-the-scenes intrigue), the Prime Minister's office has announced the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

Justin Welby is 56 years old, educated at Eton and Cambridge, a former oil executive, married with five surviving children.  His infant daughter was killed in a 1983 car accident, an experience which he claims brought him closer to God. He left the business world in 1987 and was ordained in 1992.  He has been Bishop of Durham for less than a year.

Welby is part of the CofE's evangelical wing; during his business career, he was a member of Holy Trinity, Brompton, the birthplace of the Alpha Course.  As a theologian, he has written on the subject of  business ethics (His Can Companies Sin is out of print at Amazon, but we expect that will change).

So far as genital matters go, he is on record as supporting the ordination of women to the episcopate, and opposing same-sex marriage.

We congratulate our Anglican cousins, and extend our condolences to Bishop Welby and his family.

Looking For Love (In Just the Right Places)

Our attention was recently drawn to a very fine aphorism, attributed to St. Augustine:
Scripture teaches nothing but charity, and we must not leave an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.
Trying to track this down was not entirely successful.  It seems that, in its present form, the remark is in fact Karen Armstrong's summary of Augustine's hermeneutical proposition, from a 2008 TED talk.  Unless we are mistaken, the first clause is a quotation, while the second is a gloss.

The quotation is from Augustine's treatise On Christian Doctrine (Book 3, chapter 10).  This chapter is a jewel, by the way.  Augustine asks how we can tell when Biblical speech is to be read literally, and when it is to be read figuratively.  His answer is that, if a passage does not show "purity of life" (meaning love of God and neighbor) or "purity of doctrine" (meaning knowledge of God and neighbor), then it must be read figuratively.  Simple enough, right?

Then comes this bit of psychological insight:
But as men are prone to estimate sins, not by reference to their inherent sinfulness, but rather by reference to their own customs, it frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions.
This is an idea worth bearing in mind:  that much of what is reckoned as "sin" or "virtue," both by Christians and non-Christians, is in fact cultural value, rather than divine dictate.  The application of this principle to discussion of sexual sins, which have often been subjects of far more concern in Christian churches than in Scripture, should be obvious.  Or, regarding virtues, consider that we live in a society which praises as "good business" certain practices -- such as shrewd manipulation of interest rates -- that would have appalled Jesus and his contemporaries.

And how, since the rise of capitalism in the later Middle Ages, has this difficulty been dealt with?
And thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative.
Here, then, is where Augustine announces his hermeneutic principle:
Now Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men. 
Precisely:  Non autem praecipit Scriptura nisi caritatem, nec culpat nisi cupiditatem; charity and lust might be better translated as "love" and "desire."  (Hominum, of course, refers to the whole species.)  It really is a remarkably bold claim:  the Bible commands one thing, and condemns one thing, and is to be read accordingly. As in interpretive lens, this is comparable to -- and perhaps more sweeping than -- Luther's was Christum treibet.

All this "love alone" business does not make the Bible a book to be reinterpreted at will, because there are other hermeneutic principles to consider as well:
In the same way, if an erroneous opinion has taken possession of the mind, men think that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to this must be figurative. Now Scripture asserts nothing but the catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present. It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present.
In other words, please don't use contrived Biblical "exegeses" to argue for Gnosticism or Pelagianism or what have you.  An interpretation which casts aside the catholic faith is a false intepretation.  (Or so we read it; alternatively, he could be saying that the catholic faith subsists in a right reading of Scripture.  Either way, the next question must be where else to look for "the faith" or discern "right reading.")

These are just a few paragraphs from a long and very thorough book, so let's not hang too much on them.  But do let us remember, in the face of the rampant misinterpretations both by Christianity's opponents and by its supposed "defenders," that the Bible commands  nothing but love; and that this is how it seeks to shape our lives.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Bang, Zoom!

To the moon, Alice!  To ... the ... moon!*

It seems that a Gingrich presidency was never the only pathway into space.  All along, sneaky old Barack Obama has been hiding a secret plan to send manned missions to the Moon.  Now that he's been re-elected, the rockets should start flying soon.**

According to, the President has asked NASA to prepare plans for exploration of "the expansive space around the Earth-Moon system."  This seems to mean parking a manned craft at the Lagrange point, visiting the Moon and then a near-earth asteroid -- all to get ready for the push to Mars.

Sadly, the timeline for this is a little longer than we might wish.  Think parking at L2 in 2015 or beyond, Mars in the 2030s.  Still, if they're looking for a geriatric chaplain ....

The best part of the story, though, is that these plans really were kept more-or-less secret during the campaign.  Apparently, the Republican candidate might have argued that this was a big government program.  Which it is -- the kind we like.
*For the record, we can't watch the Honeymooners anymore, just because of this repeated threat of spousal violence.  How infected are we by the dread virus of liberal angst?
** Sorry, Pakistan.  We didn't mean those rockets.  Sore subject, right?

Sunday, November 04, 2012

News from Our Full Communion Partners

Still in storm-enforced exile from the land of cold showers and four-hour gasoline lines, we went to church in a tiny upstate New York village this morning.  The choices being limited (and the Roman Catholics having failed, on a previous visit, to distinguish themselves liturgically), we and our family stopped in to see what the Methodists were doing.

It was a curious experience.

The assembly, about fifteen people with an average age of 80, could not have been warmer or more welcoming.  They gave us coffee and chatted with us.  They passed Kindergartener A. crayons and a coloring book to use during the service.  They invited us to their chicken dinner next Tuesday.  They offered us gifts -- a cup, a pen, a little flashlight.  (As our home has no electricity, we anticipate letting that little light of theirs shine to good effect.)

The parish being vacant, this was a lay-led service; the Sunday including the propers for All Saints, Holy Communion was offered. Communion, that is, by extension.  The elements had been previously consecrated, we were assured, by an ordained person.  (The lay leader who offered this assurance added with a touch of asperity, "Just so that you know we have our legalistic details covered.")

We'll get back to those elements in a moment -- they're important -- but first a few more general notes.

The hymns, pounded out by a hard-working organist, were pretty good.  Better, to be frank, than the ones we've been hearing in Lutheran churches lately.  [Insert here customary rant about ELW.]  Some we knew, some we didn't, and there were plenty of them.  None, we regret to say, had been written by Charles Wesley -- but one cannot have everything.

The sermon was quite good.  The lay preacher plans to attend seminary, and one suspects she has already had some basic homiletic training.  The usual failings of the amateur -- self-involvement, rambling, irrelevant quotations and canned anecdotes -- were conspicuously absent.*  Quite the contrary:  it was a solid, thoughtful message, proclaimed in a strong voice with no theatrics.  If she did not make a smooth transition from the raising of Lazarus to the memory of those who have inspired our personal faith, one can hardly blame her too much.

The liturgy was a shambles.  It proceeded by fits and starts, and was largely sidetracked by announcements.  Although none of the other traditional canticles was used, the Gloria Patri appeared, only loosely connected to a reading from Romans that served as a sort of Creed.  (The semi-independent use of the lesser Gloria is, to our mind, an almost certain indicator that the degenerate liturgical practices of the 18th and 19th centuries continue to inform an assembly's worship.)  The placement of a penitential rite just before the Gospel seems ... odd to us.

But, although there was no psalm, its place was taken by something that we found genuinely enchanting.  The 1989 Methodist Hymnal provides a responsive reading (#652) which warmly afirms the resurrection of the dead.  It is taken from the Wisdom of Solomon (3:1-9), and we were delighted to hear the Apocrypha used as part of a worship service.  We would have been more delighted had the officiant not attributed it -- twice -- to the Song of Solomon.

So, honestly, it would be more accurate to say this:  that, judged by the standards of snooty high churchmanship, the liturgy was shambles.  By the standards that apply here -- those of a pietistic prayer meeting -- it was pretty good.  The Scriptures were heard and expounded; the people shared the concerns of their hearts, prayed for themselves and the world, and affirmed their faith in Christ's saving power.

All of which brings us to the Eucharist, something which doesn't really fit into a pietistic prayer meeting, despite the effort of centuries to splice them together.  As we said, this a the distribution of previously consecrated elements.  The practice does not please us; but, if it must be used, one would expect forms which clearly distinguish this distribution from the celebration proper.  You know:  "At St. Bob's yesterday, Pastor Jerry told us the story of the Last Supper, in which ....."  Instead, we got a modified Sursom corda which led directly into a Eucharistic Prayer.

Worse yet, although the Methodist Hymnal provides a couple of serviceable Eucharistic Prayers, this one was taken from another resource (apparently, from this liturgy posted by the UMC's Global Board of Discipleship).  It's not despicable, by any means; but it's a bit longer than it needs to be, mixes up the anamnesis and the epiclesis, and has a few bits of tortured syntax.  Note to worship leaders:  If you've got a decent service book, why not use it?

And then came the communion proper.  And those elements.

We had seen some of it coming.  The huge white napkin on the altar did not hide the presence of pre-filled individual comunion cups.  (As there was no celebration, we would not have expected a chalice).  Remembering that Dr. Welch invented his diabolical grape juice for the use of the Methodist Episcopal Church, we were not surprised to find it sitting in those very full shot glasses.

But the bread did catch us off guard.  We do not recall ever before seeing the Lord's presence communicated under the form of a hamburger bun.  A soft, flat, white hamburger bun, the kind you buy in supermarket eight-packs.

Sigh.  We know it's bread.  Real bread, the kind people eat at their tables.  In that regard, it is arguably superior to either the evanescent wafers we snooty high church types so love, or to the flat loaves of gummy brown bread baked by pious churchgoers all over the country for sacramental use.  It is at least equal to a pita.  We know all that.

But come on.  Even with the fortification of eight vitamins and iron, this is the worst bread on earth.  It is hard to imagine Jesus choosing to be present in develomentally-arrested wine; it is harder still to imagine him choosing to be present in tooth-decay-and-and-diabetes-promoting hamburger buns.

But then, our challenge isn't to imagine his presence, as if our imagination made it real.  Our challenge is to recognize the objective reality, the fact accomplished by the promise.  Especially when we have trouble believing.

All of this sounds like a slam, but we don't mean it that way.  This was a church full (okay, one-twentieth full) of truly gracious people, gathered to worship their Redeemer.  We will happily worship with them again, and have no trouble acknowledging them as partners in a full communion.  We just want to offer a loving and fraternal suggestion:  anything but burger buns.
*Ordained preachers display these failings too, of course, but we are likelier by far to fall into our own peculiar traps:  groupthink; political rants; and - -worst of all -- exegesis that is either lazy or too creative by far

Friday, November 02, 2012

Dept. of Weird Hobbies


That's right, you read it here first.  Or maybe you read about it first in the Northern Echo, or at the blog of one Mr. Lawrence Edmonds.

Mr Edmonds, having made a bet with some of his mates, has embarked upon -- and indeed nearly completed -- one of history's most thoroughly trivial adventures:  to lick each of Great Britain's 27 Anglican cathedrals.  He has yet to reach Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh, perhaps because he dislikes the taste of Scotch.

While we ourselves find prayer more pleasing, it should be remembered that the great cathedrals have always served many functions.  In John Donne's time, the nave of St Paul's, London, was a place for lawyers and (other) prostitutes to meet their clients.

In any case, Mr. Edmonds advenure offers an interesting perspective for historians of ecclesiastical architecture.  Durham, for example, may be among the most beautiful buildings in Britain, but Edmonds reports that "its taste [is] disappointingly bland."