Thursday, May 31, 2012

Augustine on the Beach

If you're preaching Sunday, you may struggle a bit (as we always do) for a way to talk with ordinary people about the Trinity.  A couple of years back, we talked about non-Euclidean geometry; that's still our favorite approach, and one we'll come back to in the future.

But here's another possibility:  the hoary old fable of St. Augustine by the seashore.  This baby has been making the rounds for centuries, and is well-enough-known to be the subject of several medieval paintings.  You might find it useful

One caveat, however -- the story is plainly false.  It comes from the Golden Legend, a collection of wildly imaginative, and generally spurious, vitae sanctorum.  Please don't try to pass it off as a true story about one of the greatest theologians in history.

That said, here is William Caxton's translation:

... I will set herein one miracle, which I have seen painted on an altar of Saint Austin at the Black Fri[a]rs at Antwerp, howbeit I find it not in the legend, mine exemplar, neither in English, French, ne in Latin. 
It was so that this glorious doctor made and compiled many volumes, as afore is said, among whom he made a book of the Trinity, in which he studied and mused sore in his mind, so far forth that on a time as he went by tbe sea-side in Africa, studying on theTrinity, he found by the sea-side a little child which had made a little pit in the sand, and in his hand a little spoon. And with the spoon he took out water of the large sea and poured it into the pit. 
And when Saint Augustin beheld him he marvelled, and demanded him what he did. And he answered and said: I will lade out and bring all this water of the sea into this pit. 
What? said he, it is impossible, how may it be done, sith the sea is so great and large, and thy pit and spoon so little?
Yes, forsooth, said he, I shall lightlier and sooner draw all the water of the sea and bring it into this pit than thou shalt bring the mystery of the Trinity and his divinity into thy little understanding as to the regard thereof; for the mystery of the Trinity is greater and larger to the comparison of thy wit and brain than is this great sea unto this little pit. 
And therewith the child vanished away. 
Then here may every man take ensample that no man, and especially simple lettered men, ne unlearned, presume to intermit ne to muse on high things of the godhead, farther than we be informed by our faith, for our only faith shall suffice us.
To be honest, this story has a major flaw:  it is very nearly the opposite of Augustine's "psychological" argument for the Trinity, which (so far as we grasp it, which isn't far) proposes that the human mind itself offers various operational "trinities", such as memory, understanding, and love, which serve as a model of the divine Trinity; and further that the human mind can begin to perceive the Trinity precisely because it retains the imago Dei.  At least that's what we think he meant.  (To see if we're right, check out De Trinitate.  It may helpful to start with the synopsis in Book 15 and work backward.)

Another Use for the Athanasian Creed

Many moons ago, young Vicar Anonymous was assigned to teach his first confirmation class.  There was no pre-packaged curriculum from a church publishing company; the pastor's instructions were "Come up with something good, and get 'em ready for me," meaning for his line-by-line exegesis of the Small Catechism the following year.

Vicar A. came up with a straightforward tour of the best-known Bible stories, supplemented by some homework and weekly quizzes.  Not the most creative format, but easy to understand and familiar.

The class consisted of six or eight kids.  They were ten or twelve years old.  None seemed like intellectual powerhouses.  There was one in particular -- let's call him Jimmy; a sweet little boy being raised by his granny -- who had a learning disability of some kind.  He could read, but poorly, and seemed to have no comprehension of what he did read.  For obvious reasons, he spent most of his class time clowning around (which we encouraged; clowning around together has always struck as an important part of the bonding process).

What we discovered, though, was that when we assigned homework, he would come back the following week brimming with details about the reading.  Obviously, Granny was reading the stories to him, slowly and patiently and over and over.  But Jimmy brought more than that to the table.  He brought questions, ideas and insights. He was, easily, the smartest kid in the room, and the one most interested in what we were teaching.

The problem was those quizzes.

They were designed to test the kids on what we had learned that particular day -- the idea being to make it as easy as possible to get a good grade, bolster some self-esteem, and feel good about coming back.  The problem was that the same setup which made most of the kids look good had the perverse side effect of making the one really motivated kid look (and feel) bad.

There were any number of ways around this problem, the easiest of which would have been to can the cockamamie quizzes.  But, for reasons which elude us now, we settled on the same strategy our junior high teachers had liked:  giving out extra credit.  It was hardly necessary; it's not as though we were going to flunk these kids in the ordinary sense, and deprive them of their year-long Catechism class.  (Had the offer been on the table, they might have begun giving wrong answers, in the hope of escape.) Nothing was at stake beyond bragging rights, but we wanted all the kids to have equal access to those.

So one day, Vicar A. announced that there would be extra credit available to anybody who memorized the Apostles' Creed.  A few kids tried, and struggled; Jimmy nailed it in a week.   After that, we announced more credit (a lot of it) for anybody who could recite the Nicene Creed.  Two weeks later, Jimmy came back, and rattled it off perfectly.

Then he wanted more.

Half-joking, we told him that he would get a massive super-dose of extra credit -- a guaranteed "A" in this ungraded course, probably along with a sports car and 72 virgins in Paradise -- if he could learn the Athanasian Creed by heart.

And Jimmy went to work.

Summer break was our enemy.  There simply wasn't enough time between the beginning of his project and the end of our time together.  But by gum, Jimmy got pretty far.  Our memory has grown faint with age, but we think he actually made it through the Trinitarian confession, running out of time only before the Christological section.  This is pretty good.

We don't know if the kid ever got his car or his virgins; we don't even know how he did the following year, learning which things were or were not most certainly true.  But he earned our undying respect.  And we sleep just a little better knowing that there is at least one person out there who will never be fooled by Modalism.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Quicunque Vult

This time of year, worship leaders -- at least some of us -- find ourselves trapped in a simmering perennial debate about the Athanasian Creed.   Shall we use it at all in worship, and if so, how?  Passions run surprisingly hot over something that is, from any objective point of view, an awfully minor point of liturgical concern.

For those who are fuzzy on this, the Ath. Cr. (one can't really abbreviate it with AC or q.v., both being taken already) is a medieval Gallic statement of faith in the Trinity.  It hasn't got much of anything to do with St. Athanasius, and some of its arch doctrinal formulations -- especially "believe this or go to Hell" -- have made it a subject of debate for centuries.   Oh, and it's as long as ... well, believe this.

Still, it was popular in the Middle Ages, and that popularity continued right into the Reformation.  The older BCP tradition prescribed its use periodically throughout the year, in place of the Apostles Creed at Morning Prayer.  Since Morning Prayer was often the chief Sunday service, this meant that for centuries churchgoing Anglicans heard the Athanasian Creed monthly or more often.  Since the 1860s, however, its use has dropped off dramatically.  In former Roman use, it was said at Prime on Sundays.   The modern Roman practice appoints it for Prime on Trinity Sunday alone -- meaning that laypeople rarely if ever encounter it.

One finds it in among the confessions of the Evangelical and Reformed churches.   Among us Evangelicals, in particular, the Athanasian Creed has been guarded with considerable zeal, including occasional recitation in worship.  We recall reading in one of the early reports of Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue that the PECUSA team was quite surprised by how seriously their Lutheran counterparts took the Creed.

All this means that, threats of damnation and all, it holds a venerable place in the Western tradition, and that many churches are accustomed to its use in worship. Or at least they were once.  These days, it's hard to say who's accustomed to what.  Evangelical Lutheran Worship, for example, doesn't include the Ath. Cr. in its pew edition.  This suggests that the editors don't consider its use widespread enough, or important enough to congregations, to be supported.  We disagree; but then, the ELW team made few editorial decisions with which we do agree.

Still, the Athanasian Creed is not without its problems.  Let's talk about the practical ones first:

  • Since Lutheran parish worship rarely includes a Sunday service of Morning Prayer, the Athanasian Creed is often appointed for use at the Eucharist on Trinity Sunday.  This means that, if we use the Ath. Cr., we are importing it into a service to which it is somewhat alien.  It risks disrupting the structure of the service, and taking attention away from the essential matters of the Word proclaimed and sacrament administered.
    • Sed contra, many parishes disrupt the structure of the Mass for occasional services -- not merely baptisms and weddings, but announcements, awards, blessing the Boy Scouts, and what have you.  Surely an annual celebration of the trinitarian faith in its marvelous,  mind-blowing obscurity merits the same exception.
  • That length is truly formidable.  At 658 words, it is longer than the entire books of 2 John, 3 John, Philemon, or Obadiah; it gives St. Jude a run for his money, too.  So how does an assembly manage it?  
    • Father A. likes to read the Ath, Cr. responsively by verse, like a psalm; it is not especially well-adapted for this.  
    • A former parish was wont to divide the creed into longer paragraphs, and read those responsively; this worked pretty well.  The pastor was usually assigned the "go-to-hell" bits, on the odd theory that they were less offensive coming from him.
    • Eventually, though, the worship committee decided that it preferred to recite in unison, reflecting the corporate nature of a creed.  This was a little chaotic, but not as bad as you might think. 
    • Fr. Charles Austin has designed a service in which the Athanasian Creed is read piecemeal, one section near the Kyrie, one in place of the psalm, etc.  This may help soften the blow for some congregations, although we also worry that it will prove confusing to others.  Will everybody know that these seemingly random bits of recitation are in fact one coherent thing?
  • The language may be a problem in some quarters.  No, not Latin -- even the English, including juicy bits like "coeternal" and "undefiled," may challenge those who speak it as a second or third language.  We're not sure if a Global English version of the Athanasian Creed has been attempted, and we're not sure we'd have much use for one if it did.  But this will be an important consideration for many communities, not least our own. (Indeed, to be honest, we may omit it Sunday, for this reason alone).
What about the theological concerns?

Most of these hinge on the "damnatory clauses."  They are indeed rough stuff, and do not reflect the personal beliefs of all that many modern Christians.  Get enough of those people into one room, and recitation of the Athanasian Creed becomes an exercise in hypocrisy -- mouthing out words which nobody believes to be true.

But this touches on why creeds matter at all, an especially important subject for the Evangelical and Reformed churches, whose existence is predicated upon their creeds.  Perhaps one's own personal beliefs are at variance with the confessions of one's church.  This does happen, often upon some small doctrinal point -- say, the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin (expressed clearly enough in the Smalcald Articles and the Solid Declaration).  One must then choose:  (i) abandon one's church; (ii) deny the church's teaching, either publicly or privately; or (iii) admit with some humility that one's personal judgment may not be the measure of all things, and submit it to the judgment of the community, even with the private reservation that this submission is temporary, until such time as God may vindicate the individual over the community.

To say the Church's creeds, and especially its most difficult one, is to make the third choice.  Some people may not be able to do this, as a matter of conscience; they are welcome to maintain a dignified silence.  But for many Christians, it is just this choice -- to be admit that one's own ideas about God and the universe may not be correct, and that those of the Christian community well may be -- that constitutes the essential leap of faith.  It is this openness to the idea of the Holy Spirit at work among God's People as a whole which makes it possible to take one's own place among the people, trusting that God's apparent foolishness is greater than one's own supposed wisdom.

Or, to put it more simply:  Get over yourself, say the creed and stop worrying so blessed much.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The End of the Jewish Left?

Much of 20th-century history revolves around the embrace of radical politics by Jews.  From revolutionaries in Europe to intellectuals at CUNY, not to mention kibbutzniks in Israel, there was a distinctively (although not especially religious) Jewish voice calling for communism, socialism and suchlike isms.

Even during our youth (spent, mind you, within striking distance of the fabled Lower East Side, home of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory), it was safe to assume that one's Jewish neighbors leaned as far to the left as any of one's neighbors, and generally a bit further.  Given that we were raised in Hippie Paradise USA, that is really quite far to the left.

These days, of course, one can make no such assumptions.  First because, despite the number of European nations that have recently elected Socialist governments in protest against conservative austerity measures, radicalism lacks its erstwhile chic.  And second because Jews today, both in America and Israel, seem to be no less attracted to the the right than to the left.  This is natural enough, in the sense that people in an open society are prone to spread themselves across the political spectrum; there is no pressing reason that Jews, any more than Catholics or chemistry majors, need cluster at one end of the spectrum.

Still, it is a cultural change worth noting.  Adam Kirsch, writing at Tablet, notes it engagingly.  he describes a recent conference entitled "Jews and the Left," and brings together several remarkable propositions made by various presenters.  Most notable is the argument of Michael Walzer, that Judaism considered as a religion is inimical to the exercise of politics; the legal codes are presented as divine fiat, rather than human work-product, while the prophets do not call for decision-making but submission.  This flies in the face of much liberal theologizing, both Christian and Jewish, but is a thesis worth thinking about

Kirsch doesn't mention the neoconservative phenomenon in particular, although its existence is a large part of the narrative.  A late generation of Jewish intellectuals, raised in the radical milieu, converted in early middle age to a rather forceful species of conservatism.  A close look at their spiritual lives might help to support or weaken Walzer's thesis; although the neocons certainly use religion as an instrument of politics, we have never been certain that they are any more personally pious than their opponents.

Kirsch does touch on one of the appalling ironies of Jewish existence, which is that both as radicals and as conservatives, Jews are often required to make a home with their natural enemies.   Communism in Russia was led by a bloodthirsty anti-semite from Georgia; conservatism in the US has a long history of anti-semitism as well, much of it still felt in another Georgia and its neighboring states.  This does not mean, of course, that all Reds or Republicans are anti-semitic; they absolutely aren't.  But if you want to find anti-semitism, those are good places to begin looking.

The essay is worth a look.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

So. The Avengers.

The picture has made over a billion dollars so far, several of them our own.  People like it, including -- to our neverending surprise -- folks who don't really dig comics.  What do you people even see in these movies?

For his own part, Fr. Anonymous reckons that a copy of The Avengers was among the first comics he ever bought.  (Probably #85, an alternate-reality yarn featuring the Squadron Supreme).  Must have read that sucker a million times.  Even looking at this picture, our mind's eye adds the spine roll, torn corner, and piece of Scotch tape.
So we were pretty excited about the picture.  And, speaking as a fan, our review of the movie is:  Sure.  Great.  And at the same time:  Ehhh.

Joss Whedon did a fine job of balancing quick characterizations and context-rich action scenes.  Several of the performances were very good, the effects were great.  It was loads of fun to see our childhood fantasies projected onto the silver screen.  But at the same time, the picture was cautious, careful to protect Marvel's insanely valuable intellectual property, and to leave ample room for sequels.  This left it, to our eyes, a little soulless.  Which doesn't mean we won't watch it again, probably more than once; it just means it lacked the kind of reckless we'll-try-anything daring that you can get in a low-stakes medium like pulp magazines or actual printed-on-paper comics.

But the movie's massive success has brought a new focus to the strange, sad story of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  For those who don't know, those are the guys who invented most of the Marvel Comics characters; they are both legends in the industry.  Lee was and remains a writer and, more successfully, a promoter, both of himself and of his products.  Kirby, who died in the 1990s, was one of the most gifted graphic storytellers of his time.  His drafting skills never approached those of, say, Will Eisner; but his sheer creativity was wondrous.

Lee and Kirby are a legendary team, in their own way even more legendary than Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.  The sadness, of course, is that Lee made (and still makes) quite a bit of money from their creations, and Kirby didn't.  Just how that worked, and whether it was right or just or even legal, is a complicated matter.  It is largely because of this story, along with that of Siegel & Schuster, that "creators' rights" is such a big part of the modern comics industry.

If you're interested, Alex Pappademas offers this relatively balanced introduction in Grantland.  Neil Kirby offers this brief memoir of his father in the LA Times.

Don't Think of the Children!

One of Charles Palliser's characters remarks, if we recall correctly, "Nothing is ever changed until it conspicuously fails to function.  That is the glory of the Anglican Church."  Would only that things were so!

It seems that the Episcopal Church is considering revisions to its Hymnal 1982.  That such a project is fraught with danger goes without saying.  What does need to be said is this, which comes through clearly in this survey report and in the thoughtful analysis by Fr. Robert Hendrickson (and a tip o' the biretta to Fr. Rocknrolla for directing us to it):

The group that was most resistant to the idea of revising the hymnal are those under 29 years of age. They are the most resistant by a large percentage. ...
The survey found that those “whose age is significantly above or below 50 are less likely to support revision. Middle-aged Episcopalians are more supportive of revision than younger and older Episcopalians.”
Hendrickson goes on in considerable detail here, and little of what he says is surprising to us.   Basically, the people who favor revision most are middle-aged female clerics.  (Reasons for this will probably be evident to people who work with a lot of middle-aged female clerics, Egg readers notably excepted.)  The people who favor revision least are young adults -- even though, if history is any guide, the revision will be promoted as an attempt to make worship "contemporary" and "relevant" to just  those young adults.

Over the twenty years or so that we have been paying attention, there has a been a small but consistent stream of research suggesting that young people, especially those who are attracted to comparatively traditional churches and most especially those who come to those churches as adults, after some prior experience with the less-traditional, place a high value on tradition.  They want church to look, feel and sound like church.  They don't walk into Le Perigord expecting a Kiddie Meal, and feel a little insulted if they are offered one.

It seems obvious when you say it that way, but it goes against what the report calls "the 'common knowledge' hypothesis."

Beyond that, anyone who has paid the least attention to decades of marketing fluff has heard that both GenXers and Millennials have been so thoroughly marketed-to, in the course of their lives, that they can smell marketing a mile a way.  And it smells like pandering, which they find contemptible.  What they seem to crave is authenticity.

All this is counterintuitive -- even incredible -- to the Baby Boomers, who were also marketed to intensively, albeit less skillfully, and whose rather jolly life experience is indeed one of being constantly pandered to by those seeking their approval, their participation, and their cash.   But it shouldn't; the church of their youth pandered to them with folk masses and slangy prayers, and they abandoned it in droves.  So whether they believe it or not, there is now a half-century's clear evidence that making worship "contemporary" and "relevant," at least as those terms are understood by the sort of ideology-driven church insiders who revise hymnals, is a suicidal error.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

So You Say You Want An Evolution

Some time back, President Obama said that his views on same-sex marriage were "evolving," and it appears that they have now evolved.  Yesterday, he announced his personal belief that men should be able to marry men, and women should be able to marry women.

The real question, of course, is whether this is evolution or intelligent design.

Now matter how true, heartfelt or long-considered, it seems certain that the president's remarks were also part of a campaign strategy, intended to shore up support among the left (and, okay, center) of his own party at the expense of its vestigial right.  It is possible that they were also an appeal to certain unaligned swing voters, especially those of a libertarian stripe.  And 61-65% of people under 40.

Mind you, some people -- savage Gawker critique here -- aren't all that impressed.  Obama gives his personal opinion, but doesn't offer to lead a charge.  He wants to let the states decide, which is perfectly reasonable if you consider it a moral gray area, but less so if you consider it a matter of fundamental right.  (As a political reality, we are hard pressed to imagine any other way to make same-sex marriage possible.  The Scalia Roberts Court will trash any federal rule or law, and the present political climate would not permit a constitutional amendment in favor of puppies.)

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell offered a look at GOP heir presumptive Mitt Romney's own "evolution," which appears to have reversed the trajectory of Obama's.  In 1994, Romney wrote a letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, proudly declaring his support for "full equal rights for gays and lesbians," actually trying to position himself to the left of Ted Kennedy, and today he says that he opposes gay marriage.

O'Donnell claims that, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court gave its okay to the idea of same-sex marriage, Romney took a "hard right turn" on the question; this does not seem entirely fair.  First, the quotation from the 1994 letter doesn't specifically mention marriage, and it may be that in those innocent years Romney didn't consider the question of marriage to be a matter of equal rights.  Second, the more recent video clip has Romney adding that he supports equality in "partnership benefits, hospital visitation rights, and the like."  This may not be what "full equal rights" look like in the current debate, but it was not so long ago.  In any case, there is a right much harder than this to which Romney might have turned.

It seems to us that both men are inclined to moderation on the question, and with good reason.  Public opinion is changing rapidly, but the debate remains fierce and emotional.  For a man who wants to be elected and then govern, discretion probably looks like the better part of valor.

Still, Obama has staked out a position on the matter, which -- under the rule that presidential candidates may never agree about anything beyond the color of the sky and the wisdom of the American People -- practically forces Romney to stake out another.  His fellow-Mormon, Harry Reid, has already made a sharp distinction between his personal opposition to gay marriage and his willingness to accept it as part of a a "civil society."  Romney could try this, and it might work.  (It might also have the virtue of being honest; our gut says that's about where he stands.)  But for many Republicans, this would simply be further proof that Romney is a French-speaking Massachusetts liberal, or as they like to say a RINO.

So Obama has taken a modest gamble here.  Now Romney needs to take one as well.  How far to right can he move without looking like spineless opportunist?  And how far to the left can he go and still hope to be  Republican president?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Do As I Say

Kenya's Anglican Archbishop Eliud Wabukala recently gave a public lecture on why the churches of the West were failing morally.  He then went home and was secretly -- well, privately -- married.  This marriage entailed paying a fee to the bride's family, as though she were a piece of furniture. Please read MadPriest's tart post on this.

One commenter on MP's blog observes that the practice of a bride-price forces some some African priests to set up households outside of marriage,  since they can't afford the dowry.  "Living in sin," as some of us still call it. Years later, when they have saved some money, the priests and their illegitimate children hold a wedding.  If true, this is both scandalous and ironic.

West Goes North

Our spell in South Jersey coincided with the much longer one of Cornel West, but beyond a single (apparently forgettable, because now forgotten) guest lecture, our paths never crossed.  Nor are we familiar with his many books, even though Race Matters was quite a hit among some of our classmates.  Professor West is known to us principally by reputation, which is to say little at all.

We are aware of his most public spats -- with Lawrence Summers at Harvard, and latterly with President Obama -- as well as of his modestly eccentric public persona.  And, to be sure, we are aware of his Christian convictions, which are (along with and inseparable from his concern for Americans of African descent) the seeming core of his message.

So the longish profile in New York magazine came a pleasant surprise to us.  One reason for both the pleasure and the surprise is that we have long considered New York the worst magazine in America, narrowly edging out Esquire and Leg Show.  Any article there worth reading, let along one on a significant public intellectual, comes like a warm day in February.  But beyond its mere existence, Lisa Miller's article was a pleasant surprise because it manages to treat both West and his detractors respectfully and, so it seems, objectively.

In particular, West's faith is not mocked, although some readers will doubtless mock it on their own.  When asked which of the disciples he desires to emulate, West answers "I want to be like Jesus."  To the devoutly secular, this may sound grandiose.  But the rest of us recognize the familiar pious ideal of the imitatio Christi when we hear it.  Miller describes West as a prophet, or at least a man who believes he is a prophet, as well as a proponent of the theological school interested in Jesus principally as a social revolutionary.

Although Miller shows great interest in West's criticisms of the president, she does not present them with much specificity, which is a shame.  Criticism of Obama from the left has been a steady drumbeat over the years, and needs to be understood.  On the other hand, she does point out -- without much editorializing -- that West's personal life, including multiple broken marriages and an illegitimate child -- falls short of the Christian ideal.

One detail that hit us, hard, is that West's recent move from Princeton University to Union Theological Seminary has entailed teaching a full course-load at half his prior salary.  Although we do not gather that the prolific author and frenetic lecturer is hurting for cash, we are still heartened by his willingness to put his money where his mouth is, in the education of pastors and theologians.

For us, though, the two most impressive paragraphs were these:

At Princeton, West regularly taught an undergraduate philosophy course with Robert George, a prominent conservative and an architect of the pro-life movement. “West’s reputation is as a firebrand, as an activist, and as a rhetorician,” says George, a professor of jurisprudence. “But what you see in the classroom is not that. What you see is a person who loves learning for its own sake. Who believes in the project of what he himself always calls paedeia [“education” in Greek]. Not to get a better career, social mobility, to get ahead. But in the inherent enrichment of the human being by engaging with Shakespeare or the music of Mozart. Or the music of the Carter Family. What’s so beautiful to see, and Cornel draws it out of the students, is turning them on to non- instrumentalized education. You’re pursuing knowledge for the sake of truth itself.”
In the classroom, George adds, West is no showman. He listens. He considers all sides of an argument. “Never once did I see him propagandize, or demonize a point of view, or engage in demagoguery,” says George. “The world would be a much better world if everyone had the heart of Cornel West.”

We don't much care what a philosopher thinks of the president, or why.  Nor are we terribly surprised when his life matches imperfectly with his philosophy. But we do care, passionately, about how he teaches.  Good teachers -- not merely teachers of good ideas, but those who teach them well -- are a blessing to the world, and bad ones are a curse.  George's description leads us to believe that the students at Union will be blessed indeed.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Siege Perilous

Years ago, Father A. had a yoga teacher named Tony, and Tony did not like chairs.  In fact, Tony disliked them so much that he had led a citizen's uprising in his son's rural school district, attempting to have chairs banished from the classroom.

A little ... utopian, you say?  Why yes.  That's why people move to the Berkshires.

Still, the evidence is strong that every chair is a deathtrap.  As an industrial designer with the improbable name of Colin McSwiggen explains over at Jacobin:
[L]ast year, the American Cancer Society wrapped up a fourteen-year longitudinal study of 120,000 participants and discovered that sitting for extended periods during the day dramatically increased participants’ risk of death. 
The result held even among participants who exercised regularly, and although there’s the usual confusion over causation and correlation, the study falls atop a growing pile of evidence that long times spent seated are a contributing cause of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and practically innumerable orthopedic injuries. 
It does not matter if you are young, eat well and live an otherwise active life. Just being seated, in excess, will hurt you.
The problem is not, McSwiggen goes on to clarify, that sitting is the opposite of exercising.  It is deeper than that; the problem is that chairs themselves -- raised seats with back supports -- are inherently unhealthy.  They distort the muscles and ruin posture.

Oh, and they're politically dubious as well.  McSwiggen traces the history of the chair from the Stone Age to the Renaissance, arguing that until the Industrial Revolution, chairs were a rare commodity, generally reserved for monarchs and heads of households.  Everybody else squatted, and lived longer.

So:  the chair is a deadly, dangerous thing.  We hardly needed an industrial designer to tell us this; every bishop knows it.

Best. Summer. Ever.

Based on the comments we receive for some posts, and the deafening silence for others, Father Anonymous estimates that approximately 0.00% of Egg readers care about his taste in comic books and science fiction.  You all seem to come here for the hymns.

Still, it has to be said:  There is every reason to believe that, at least for the 10-year-old boy inside the cassocked greybeard, 2012 will be the best summer in the history of the universe.  (Or the multiverse, if you're a DC reader.)  And it starts on Friday.

Friday, as you may have heard, is the Romanian release of The Avengers.  It's about a team of superheroes who don't really get along, but still save the world.  To put it in terms our readers may understand more easily, imagine Franklin Clark Fry, Pope John XXIII, and Simone de Beauvoir join forces to stop the National Review from ever being published.  I know -- awesome, right?

On June 8, we get Ridley Scott's Prometheus.  How good will this movie be?  Nobody knows.  But it is a kinda-sorta prequel to Scott's 1979 Alien, which is one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time; and of course, Scott also made Blade Runner, which is the greatest science fiction movie of all time, full stop.  He also made The Duelists and Thelma & Louise, respectively the best fencing movie and Susan Sarandon vehicle of all time.  Come to think of it, I'll bet Ridley Scott's home movies are better than anybody else's, too.

And of course the biggest news comes July 20, when we see The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's final entry in the Batman trilogy.  Who would have thought, back in the days of Adam West and Burt Ward, that a movie about the Caped Crusader would ever become the medium for a serious reflection on the nature of justice and the the possibility of virtue in a fallen world?  Heck, who would have thought -- in the days of Val Kilmer and Chris O'Donnell -- that anyone would ever, ever make another movie about Batman?  Or watch one if they did.

But while Nolan is the sort of filmmaker who works well with genre fiction and special effects, he is also committed to telling stories about things that matter.  Memento was a noir thriller about the nature of identity, Inception a science-fiction adventure about the nature of reality.  His first two Batman pictures were more of the same.  And they were something else, as well -- something fans of this particular genre have never gotten from anybody else:  an attempt to take our cockamamie fantasy world seriously.  To imagine, for just a moment, what it would be like -- what it would mean -- if comic-book things actually happened.

So, yes, we have our hopes up for Number Three.  Most of you will get a thrill-ride; for a few of us, it may be like Wagnerites sitting down to the premiere of Gotterdammerung.

All that said, we're an easy audience.  For us to consider this a masterpiece, Nolan has only got to provide a single scene that rivals this one:

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Court Officials for the Kingdom of Heaven

A month or so back, several ELCA pastors found themselves ranting, online, about the abomination that is the ELW psalter.  In the midst of this, one pastor -- a friend and classmate, incidentally -- piped up, praising the said psalter for its inclusive language, and wondering whether the rest of us could really be so deeply committed to the endless litany of "he, him, his and LORD."

On the contrary, we were all swift to say.  Generally speaking, we like language that includes everybody who ought to be included.  That's how most of us speak naturally these days, and how we preach.  The problem is that it is not, for the most part, how the Psalms were written.  And where most traditional English translations may have been too quick to supply masculine pronouns, relying on the grammatically dubious idea of a "masculine neuter," ELW has gone much too far in the other direction, changing person and number at will, effectively rewriting the psalms.

This is, of course, part of the old translator's lament.  Traduttore, tradittore, as they say.  Or, in a funnier but more sexist expression: les traductions sont comme les femmes; lorsqu'elles sont belles, elles ne sont pas fideles, et lorsqu'elles sont fideles, elles ne sont pas belles.

One of the problems with translation -- all translation -- is that imposes the translator's vision of the world onto the text.  There's really no way to avoid this.  When Paul writes to his adelphoi, does he mean -- as a literal rendering would have it -- brothers?  Or, in a language in which the masculine neuter is a reality, can we safely assume that he means brothers and sisters?  The answer, whichever answer one chooses, says a great deal about leadership in the early Christian communities.

One must make decisions about the meaning of a word, or about how to express that meaning in one's own language; and the moment one decides, one shuts off the alternative possibilities, even those which moments ago had seemed nearly as valid.  Like any other editing, it is a painful, darling-killing business.

This creates particular problems in the world of Bible translation, since (unlike many Jews and Muslims) most Christians depend so heavily upon sacred writings in languages they have never learned to read.  Readers and preachers may choose among the wooden literality of the NASB, the politically-compromise-laden NIV and NRSV, or the "decent obscurity" of the KJV.   They may also choose, of course, the free and simplistic renderings of the Good News Version and its successors, those translations most thoroughly committed to the idea of "dynamic equivalence."

In fact, in our own parish, the Contemporary English Version is in regular use for the Old Testament and Epistle lessons.  For most of our regular worshipers, English is a second (or third, or fifth) language, and it seems charitable to give them something they can manage without a lexicon.  The CEV is a Global English translation, generally adequate to the task, apart from the occasional howler (e.g.,  "In the beginning was one who was called the Word").

Sunday's lesson from Acts falls somewhere between "tough decision" and "howler."  It tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch -- or, as the Contemporary English Version calls him, the "important Ethiopian official."  

Ah, well, one says.  "Eunuch" is a pretty tough word, after all.  One doesn't hear it very often these days, and it probably needs some clarification for the average listener.  Its meaning, unambiguously in either Greek or English, is a man who has been castrated.  But the normal reason for doing such a thing, in antiquity, was preparation for a particular kind of service in a royal court, for which one needed access to the women's quarters.  Etymologically, the word actually comes from something like "bed-watcher," and so refers to one's duties, rather than physique.

Maybe that's right.  It is, after all, his service to the queen that the story seems to highlight; perhaps what mattered to the early Christians was the fact that their religion had spread to Africa in the person of a royal advisor.

The problem, of course, is that "important official" sets the man's body altogether aside.  Is the mutilation of his genitals so unimportant to the story?  Perhaps -- and perhaps not.  Years ago, we heard a memorable sermon by Richard Jeske, which reminded listeners of the Deuternomic charge that no mutilated person, and especially no man who had lost his testicles, be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.  From this, and perhaps from some other texts which we have forgotten, Jeske made a leap to the then-still-common argument that gay sex was inherently wrong because it could not lead to children.  And yet here, said Jeske, is a man who (although possibly able to have sex, under certain circumstances) cannot conceivably bear children, a man forbidden from access to the God of Deuteronomy, but one who nonetheless is baptized and sent forth as a servant of the Gospel.

Whether or not this was the best exegesis of the text is not the point; it was a useful one, and it took seriously the idea that the Ethiopian eunuch matters to us because he was a eunuch as much as because he was a court official -- that his body matters as well as his job.  The CEV translation, ahem, cuts off that possibility.

Incidentally, the CEV goes even further with its rendering of Matthew 19:12.  Those who "have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" become those who "stay single" -- really, somebody should have introduced Origen to dynamic equivalence in time.