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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the Rectory Lawn

A week or two back, some colleagues were discussing, via Facebook, the advisability of posting election placards on the rectory lawn.

This is, obviously, a brilliant idea.  Can there be, in a society that is deeply and artificially divided by partisan politicking, any better way to hasten the decline of the institutional church than by identifying its ministers with a particular party or, better yet, candidate?

But let us say, for the sake of argument, that one does not want to destroy the church one serves, nor render it irrelevant to 47% of the population (or 53% if you swing the other way).  And yet, despite this quaint old-fashioned style, one nonetheless believes that the Church has a role to play in the world of public affairs, to shape and inform the consciences of voters.  What to do?

There are surely thoughtful, long-term ways to do take one's proper part -- by teaching and preaching in ways that stimulate reflection on public questions without choosing sides, by inviting qualified experts on public policy to discuss their specialties with the congregation, and so forth.

But, of course, none of that can be summed up in a few words and stuck into one's lawn.

So if one really cannot resist the urge to deface a perfectly nice patch of grass with a cheaply-made disposable eyesore, here is the sort of thing we recommend:

Clear, Biblical, nonpartisan.  We have some other ideas along the same line:  "Vote Your Conscience" against a waving flag background; maybe a daring "Just Say No to Usury" or a countercultural "Render Unto Caesar."  But this is our favorite.

"Noah" Flooded

Darren Aronofsky's movie Noah -- yes, about the patriarch, played by Russell Crowe -- has been forced to halt production because of flooding.  Among other things, it turns out the ark was not seaworthy.

Honestly, friends, it has been a bad week, meteorologically speaking.  We fled our home, our brother's family spent the night cowering in their basement, most of Breezy Point is gone and a lot of people died.  So forgive us if we enjoy a moment of cheap irony.

Thought for the Day

Perhaps, instead of Reformation Day, we should call it Evangelization Day.

Awkward, to be sure.  Despite decades of use by the Roman Catholic Church, we remain unconvinced that "evangelization" is or should be an English word. But, on the other hand, we get a little tired of people who don't know better saying that "Lutheranism is a Reformed church."  They mean well, and they aren't wrong except for that upper-case initial.

But, as Egg readers know, that initial is a problem.  The reformers in Saxony and those in Switzerland took very different approaches to their work -- one side to preserve tradition except where it was incompatible with the Gospel, the other to throw out traditions except when they were commanded by the Scriptures.  (And the English, bless them, tried both strategies alternately).

From a Lutheran perspective, the tumult of the 16th century was, precisely, a rediscovery and re-affirmation of the Gospel, defined as the specific understanding of justification by grace.  Thus, logically, the name they chose for themselves was "Evangelicals."  The Calvinists enacted a far more sweeping program of revision, and its is quite natural that they came to be known as "the Reformed."  They were re-forming the Church in a literal sense, attempting to shape it anew.  By comparison, the more conservative branch settled (and was criticized for settling) for a light revision.

Of course, subsequent developments -- the heavy influence of the Swiss, Pietism, the gradual emergence of a "Protestant" identity in Europe and pressure to assimilate in America -- all created forms of Lutheranism as chock-full of novelty as any others.  It's ugly, but it's true.

But, for those of us whose vision of  fixing the Church remains an Hippocratic "do no harm" model -- that is, minimally invasive reform -- it is a constant nuisance to be thrown in semantically with the ecclesiological Dr. Moreaus of the world.  Yes, to be sure, Luther reformed the Church; but he does not seem to have desired a Reformed Church.

What he did was re-affirm the Gospel.  That is, he re-evangelized the Church, at a time when (as now, and as usually) it was in need of clarity about its mission and its goals.  So, as we celebrate the posting of the 95 Theses, perphas we ought to re-name the day in honor of the poster's own vision:  Evangelization Day.

To be honest, though, it barely matters to us.  We are celebrating the Vigil of All Saints.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Servants of Love

Liberati servi efficimur caritatis.

That is, "Set free, we are made servants of love."  It's part of the big chunk we quoted from Augustine yesterday, but we can't get it out of our heads.  Here, in a nutshell, is what we Lutherans call "the new obedience.  That is, the reason for all those good works Christians are always doing (at least in theory, and often in practice as well).  It is a quick outline of the relationship between Law and Gospel. It is a reminder of who and what, especially in the Johannine literature, God really is.  And it is, like so much of Augustine (and Tertullian), eminently quotable.

A little while ago, on Facebook, a colleague confessed that Sunday's sermon was coming slowly, that he was troubled by the sort of anxieties that often beset reflective preachers.  It is a personal struggle, and there wasn't much we could offer the fellow.  But we did offer him this, to use as a mantra, or a prayer, or a byword.  We offer it to our readers as well, especially those who may be struggling with one thing or another:

Set free, we are made servants of love.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

St. Augustine on Reformation Day

If you're preaching on Reformation Day, and considering something more than a colorful retelling of some stories from the life of Luther, you might take a look at St. Augustine's remarks on the lesson, in his Tractate 41 on the Gospel according to St. John.

For those who just can't bear to wade through the clunky NPNF translation, here are our own favorite bits, handily excerpted.  Mind you, we can't do justice to Augustine's whole case, but we can provide a taste to sharpen the appetite.

1.  Jesus is the Liberating Truth:
The truth is unchangeable. The truth is bread, which refreshes our minds and fails not; changes the eater, and is not itself changed into the eater. The truth itself is the Word of God, God with God, the only-begotten Son. 
This Truth was for our sake clothed with flesh, that He might be born of the Virgin Mary, and the prophecy fulfilled, “Truth has sprung from the earth.” (Ps. 85) This Truth then, when speaking to the Jews, lay hid in the flesh. But He lay hid not in order to be denied, but to be deferred [in His manifestation]; to be deferred, in order to suffer in the flesh; and to suffer in the flesh, in order that flesh might be redeemed from sin.  
And so our Lord Jesus Christ, standing full in sight as regards the infirmity of flesh, but hid as regards the majesty of Godhead, said to those who had believed on Him, when He so spake, “If ye continue in my word, ye shall be my disciples indeed.” For he that endureth to the end shall be saved. (Matthew 10:22) “And ye shall know the truth,” which now is hid from you, and speaks to you. “And the truth shall free you.” 
After this follows a brief discourse on Latin usage compared with Greek, which bored even us.

2.   Slavery to Sin is Worse than Ordinary Slavery:
Men [i.e., slaves] frequently, when they suffer under wicked masters, demand to get themselves sold, not seeking to be without a master, but at all events to change him. What can the servant of sin do? To whom can he make his demand? To whom apply for redress? Of whom require himself to be sold? 
And then at times a man’s slave, worn out by the commands of an unfeeling master, finds rest in flight. Whither can the servant of sin flee? Himself he carries with him wherever he flees. An evil conscience flees not from itself; it has no place to go to; it follows itself. 
Yea, he cannot withdraw from himself, for the sin he commits is within. He has committed sin to obtain some bodily pleasure. The pleasure passes away; the sin remains. What delighted is gone; the sting has remained behind. 
Evil bondage! Sometimes men flee to the Church, and we generally permit them, uninstructed as they are — men, wishing to be rid of their master, who are unwilling to be rid of their sins. But sometimes also those subjected to an unlawful and wicked yoke flee for refuge to the Church; for, though free-born men, they are retained in bondage: and an appeal is made to the bishop. And unless he care to put forth every effort to save free-birth from oppression, he is accounted unmerciful. 
Let us all flee to Christ, and appeal against sin to God as our deliverer. Let us seek to get ourselves sold, that we may be redeemed by His blood. For the Lord says, “Ye were sold for nought, and ye shall be redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52:3) Without price, that is, of your own; because of mine. So saith the Lord; for He Himself has paid the price, not in money, but His own blood. 
It bears repeating that Greco-Roman slavery was a rather different system than the one familiar to Americans, and that this example should therefore be cited only with great care.

3.  Freedom for Love:
Since, then, every one that committeth sin is the servant of sin, listen to what is our hope of liberty. 
“And the servant,” He says, “abideth not in the house for ever.” The church is the house, the servant is the sinner. Many sinners enter the church. Accordingly He has not said, “The servant” is not in the house, but “abideth not in the house for ever.” If, then, there shall be no servant there, who will be there? [....]
He has greatly alarmed us, my brethren, by saying, “The servant abideth not in the house for ever.” But He further adds, “But the Son abideth ever.” Will Christ, then, be alone in His house? Will no people remain at His side? Whose head will He be, if there shall be no body? Or is the Son all this, both the head and the body? For it is not without cause that He has inspired both terror and hope: terror, in order that we should not love sin; and hope, that we should not be distrustful of the remission of sin. [....]
Our hope is this, brethren, to be made free by the free One; and that, in setting us free, He may make us His servants. For we were the servants of lust; but being set free, we are made the servants of love. 
This also the apostle says: “For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” (Galatians 5:13) Let not then the Christian say, I am free; I have been called unto liberty: I was a slave, but have been redeemed, and by my very redemption have been made free, I shall do what I please: no one may balk me of my will, if I am free. But if thou committest sin with such a will, thou art the servant of sin. Do not then abuse your liberty for freedom in sinning, but use it for the purpose of sinning not. For only if thy will is pious, will it be free. 
4.  Liberty is Eschatological:
What then is that full and perfect liberty in the Lord Jesus ... and when shall it be a full and perfect liberty? 
When enmities are no more; when “death, the last enemy, shall be destroyed.” “For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. —And when this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy struggle?” 
What is this, “O death, where is thy struggle”? “The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh,” (1 Corinthians 15) but only when the flesh of sin was in vigor. “O death, where is [now] thy struggle?” Now shall we live, no more shall we die, in Him who died for us and rose again: “that they,” he says, “who live, should no longer live unto themselves, but unto Him who died for them and rose again.” (2 Corinthians 5:15) 
There's also a nice bit about the Prodigal Son, in which the Church is portrayed as the innkeeper.  Not sure that does us much good right now, but it's worth coming back to.

As usual, Augustine's concerns are not precisely our own; but they are close enough that many Lutherans will recognize them instinctively.  In particular, most Christians will recognize the perennial concern that liberty in Christ not become license to sin, but rather a new power to love.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Liberal Media!

The Salt Lake City Tribune endorsed President Obama over Governor Romney.

This is remarkable not only because Romney shares the faith of so many Tribune readers, but because he famously organized the Salt Lake City Olympics.

The only possible explanation for this outrageous defiance of stereotypes is the shameless liberal bias of the mainstream media!  Right?  Or maybe this:
The Tribune, published by MediaNews Group, criticized Romney’s “servile courtship of the Tea Party” to win his party’s nomination and called him “shameless” in pandering to various constituencies, terming him the GOP’s “shape-shifting nominee.”

(Courtesy of Glen Johnson at Boston.com)

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Dinesh D'Souza isn't exactly a bigamist.  That's the good news.

Technically, he may not even be fooling around on his wife.  However, he has apparently come close enough to cost himself the presidency of a small Christian college remarkable only for having once being located in the Empire State Building.

To make a long story short, D'Souza married a woman named Dixie Brubaker in 1992; in 2012, at a conference, he introduced another woman, Denise Odie Joseph, as his fiancee.  He was still married to Brubaker at the time, and indeed -- so far as we know -- he still is.  D'Souza denies that he and Joseph shared a room, and maintains that, since he was separated from Brubaker, he didn't know he was doing anything considered wrong "in Christian circles."

We love that "in Christian circles," with its subtle suggestion that in other circles this sort of thing is perfectly fine, and that perhaps D'Souza is being held to an unfair standard  --  notwithstanding the fact that, at $10,000 per speech, D'Souza is one of the best-paid speakers at Christian conferences in America.

Better yet, D'Souza is now crying libel against The World, for breaking this story.  Mind you, this is the guy who produced a movie which insists the Barack Obama is a Kenyan Socialist, and who once wrote an entire book arguing that Roman Catholic bishops had been used as pawns by a leftist conspiracy. Not to mention his role in producing The Manhattan Abomination Declaration.  A lovely guy all around.

Anyway, The King's College trustees have announced that D'Souza will no longer serve as president.  We applaud their judgment.

(Via the Daily Beast)

UPDATE:  It now appears  (per Gawker) that Ms. Joseph is also married, and not to Mr. D'Souza.  So we're clearly dealing with a crowd of people who get the importance of traditional family values.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It's Irish.  Check Twitter for details.

We missed most of last night's vice-presidential debate, but we did happen to overhear one exchange, on the subject of Mitt Romney's secretive economic policy.  We aren't sure of the details, but it went roughly like this:
VOICE:  ... Are there studies showing it would do this?
PAUL RYAN:  Six!  There are six studies showing it would do this!
JOE BIDEN:  [unintelligible]
PAUL RYAN:  If you cut taxes, it will stimulate --
JOE BIDEN: [unintelligible, something about John Kennedy]
PAUL RYAN:  Ronald Reagan!
And there, friends, we have the story in a nutshell.  Postgame spin doctoring has included the GOP's contention that Biden, by interrupting Ryan, smiling a lot and chuckling from time to time, was impolite and therefore unpresidential.  The Democrats have responded that Mr Romney, in his last at-bat, was impolite -- not to the President, but to moderator Jim Lehrer.

Whatever.  The man we eventually elect as president will live, daily, in face-to-face combat with global terrorism, unreliable foreign allies, a divided Congress and an openly partisan Supreme Court.  Good manners aren't the job's primary qualification.

Nor, to be honest, is a great economic plan.  The POTUS doesn't really have that much economic power.  Most government spending is ultimately determined by Congress, and the American Congress is not famous for its bold, decisive decision-making.  Or any other kind of decision-making.  Still, it is customary for the person who actually proposes the budget, organizes the Executive Branch and appoints Federal Reserve governors to offer some token of economic competence.

This is what Ryan was talking about.  Although the details of Romney's economic plan remain unknown, there have been some educated guesses about what he might do, and projections about what might happen if he did.  As Matthew O'Brien points out at The Atlantic, these "studies" -- which include, inter alia, blog posts and Romney's own campaign white paper -- don't make a convincing case.  A couple say that Romney's plan only works if you assume magically large growth rates, and others that it only works if you ... well, change it.  (At the Times, Catherine Rampell lays the artithmetic bare.)

It looks very much as though Paul Ryan stretched the truth here, a point that only matters when we remember that Ryan already has a troubled relationship with the truth.  Remember that this is a guy who lied about his marathon time.

So we still don't know much about Mitt Romney's plan for the economy, but it sounds suspiciously like more of a substance with which Mr. Ryan is already deeply familiar:  malarkey.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Annals of Liberty: Ukrainian Edition

Ukrainian legislators are considering a law which would, among other things, make it a crime to screen Brokeback Mountain.

The bill, which has sailed through its first reading in parliament and -- despite considerable criticism -- stands a good chance of passing, prohibits any "pro-homosexual propaganda," including "positive depictions" of gay people.  So those reruns of Will & Grace you've been enjoying in Kiev?  Kiss 'em goodbye.

Likewise, and more seriously, a gay rights parade or even, we suppose, a gay bar.

This is the sort of heavy-handed, human-rights-violating legislation we have come to associate with Archbishop Peter Akinola's Nigeria, or in the openly theocratic nations of the Middle East; it is a bit shocking to see it in Europe.  The case deserves a moment's consideration.

As the BBC notes, they Ukraine was the first post-Soviet republic nation to decriminalize homosexual activity.   And yet, in recent years, there has been an upsurge in violent assaults on gay people, and the the current bill unites the major political parties and a large swath of public opinion.  So what's going on?

There are a couple of possibilities.  One is that Ukrainians, having had a taste of Western-style liberty, are growing uncomfortable with it.  We have seen Romanians, both young and old, who are able in one breath to describe the genuine awfulness of their lives under Communism, and in another to grow nostalgic for its comforting predictability.

Another possibility is that this is connected to the rise of the extreme right which has been taking place all over Europe, from Finland to Greece, from Hungary to France.  This (it seems to us) is less about discontent with modernity and its libertine excesses, and more about economic uncertainty and the perceived danger posed by Muslim immigrants.

Heaven knows that both antimodernism and nationalism could be at work together.  And speaking of Heaven, there is also the role of religion to consider.

The Beeb story launches into an interview with one Valery Reshetinsky, pastor of a church in Kiev called Christian Hope, which the story describes as "evangelical."  Apparently, Christian Hope helped to promote the bill.  Reshetinsky offers two rationales.  The first is stolen directly from the Western anti-gay playbook, as represented by Dinesh D'Souza and the Manhattan Abomination Declaration:

In his opinion, freedom of speech for sexual minorities is a violation of what he considers his inalienable right not to have to hear something he finds offensive. 
"You can't do everything that you want to do, because there are people who have the exact same rights as you do," he insists.

In other words, recognizing the civil rights of people I disagree with is a de facto violation of my own civil rights.  (Actually, Herbert Marcuse wrote something similar, which is why we never read another word by Herbert Marcuse.)

The second rationale is a classic example of the paranoid mythology endemic to Eastern Europe:
The pastor goes on to accuse a worldwide conspiracy of Masons, New-Agers, postmodernists and financiers of various nationalities, of imposing ideas that are not "characteristic for Ukraine" on the nation's children.
Right.  Somebody should really round all those "international financiers" up and put them in a prison camp somewhere.

The BBC report, however, makes it sound as if this wretched bill were simply the product of the Ukraine's "evangelicals," making it fit the familiar American narrative of a Religious Right railing against modernity.  (Unspoken but implicit is the idea that the "rights groups" opposing the bill are made up of modern-thinking secularists.) We don't know much about the Ukraine, but numbers alone make us believe this explanation must be wrong.

Simply put, there aren't many Protestants in the Ukraine -- about 2% of the population, according to Wikipedia.  That two percent consists largely of Baptists and Pentecostals (who aren't really Protestants, much less 'evangelicals," but let it go for now).  The real religious power belongs to the three competing Orthodox communities (+/- 30%), with the combined Roman and Greek Catholic community a distant second.  So if religious groups are shaping public opinion -- and legislative agendas -- it is almost certainly the Orthodox who are the prime movers.

However -- and this is the key point -- a 2006 study concluded that 62.5% of Ukrainians consider themselves "atheist or not members of any church."  (That, mind you, is versus the 15% of Americans that everybody is making such a fuss about this week).  Now, 62.5% is a massive portion of the population.  It is, bluntly put, the number sufficiently large to give the "atheists and unaffiliated" an undisputed political and cultural hegemony, at least if they work together.

So the real question is not whether a Protestant minister thinks Brokeback Mountain violates his civil rights, but why so many of the supposedly progressive secularists do.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fearful Words

The town fathers of Wittenberg -- yes, that Wittenberg -- give out a"Fearless Word"  medal in honor of courageous speech, inspired by Martin Luther.  This year, they want to give it to the Russian groupe celebre Pussy Riot.

Curiously, the actual Lutherans in the area don't seem very excited about this.  Per The Local:

Theologian and one-time East German dissident Friedrich Schorlemmer blasted the recommendation as an "outrage" and highly offensive to Christians. 
"A Luther town should not honour blasphemy. The protest against the regime of (Russian President Vladimir) Putin as well as the close ties between the Church and politics in Russia are indeed justified," he told the daily Leipziger Volkszeitung. 
"But they chose the wrong place for their provocation."  
He added that the name of the band itself was scandalous. "You only have to translate it to the letter. Pussy Riot sounds offensive and indecent," he said.
This sounds reasonable, until you think about it.  Blasphemy is bad, right?  Well, yes.  On the other hand, when the Church links its fortunes to a tyrannical, unprincipled, journalist-murdering state, then it seems to us that the steps of a church building are precisely where the protest ought to start.

As for the indecency of the band's name, we will go on record as loving it, if only because of the intense discomfort it has caused to news broadcasters over the past year.

Still, the church/state situation in Russia is a bit more complicated than that, and Schorlemmer has a pretty solid track record as an activist himself.  While disagreeing with him, we are inclined to cut the guy some slack. 

Less slack comes the way of another fellow:
The Lutheran Church's state commissioner for Reformation and Ecumemism in central Germany, Siegfried Kasparick, said Pussy Riot had trampled on the feelings of the faithful.

Next he'll be telling a Danish newspaper that it shouldn't print cartoons showing Luther's fat belly.  This is a massive theology fail; Luther himself went after "the feelings of the faithful" with a (verbal!) pickaxe, when those feelings had been led astray by enemies of the Gospel.  More extreme Protestants were even more ... extreme.  As we keep on saying, pluralism demands a certain amount of tough skin, and a willingness to let one's feelings be bruised.

What we suspect is that Kasparick was speaking in his official capacity as his church's ecumenical officer, and playing the "be nice to our Orthodox brothers" card.  We've seen it before, frankly, and we're tired of it.  Freedom and justice are more important than ecumenical relationships; if the Russian Orthodox wants respect from Western churches, it ought to flex its muscles a little more -- and show its independence from the government -- by getting those girls out of jail.

Mutual Enrichment

We note with quiet satisfaction the return to blogging of Fr. John Hunwicke.  His Liturgical Notes page is now called Mutual Enrichment, although the URL has not changed.

Anybody Home?

We haven't received many comments lately, which is par for the course on a small blog like this. Makes us feel a little lonely, but we soldier on, like our childhood hero the Maytag Repiarman. 

But one regular reader reports (via email) that an attempted comment wouldn't publish.  Anybody else having this problem?  

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The End Times Are Upon Us

For the first time, Protestants are now a minority in the United States.  We will expect our affirmative action programs to begin shortly.

This is development not surprising; the demographic trends have been evident for decades. Roman Catholics may not make babies the way they used to, but they practically own the world of mass immigration.  And we're a more pluralistic nation than we used to be, what with all those Buddhist temples and kundalini meditation groups that Diana Eck has spent her life documenting.  Why, this year's presidential campaign comes down to the choice between a Gnostic and Muslim.  (Joking, for pity's sake.) 

"Christendom is dead" is as hackneyed as "paradigm shift," and the next person to use either one in our presence will get smacked. Still, the role of the various Protestant churches in American life has been so important for so long that it is worth pausing to think about what the future may look like without them.  We're eager to learn whether atheists and Wiccans may eventually take to founding hospitals and operating food pantries.

However, we hope that this reflection, when it comes, will run deeper than the LA Times blog post linked above.  It is a brief piece, which recounts the Pew Forum findings, provides some simple demographic breakdowns, and then throws in a few remarks by Southern Baptist spokesman Richard Land.  This is a strange choice -- Land is one of the more polarizing figures in American religious life.  There's some logic to it; the SBC is large, old, and manages to straddle the worlds of both mainline and soi-disant "evangelical" Protestantism.  Still, Land is noted neither as a sociologist nor as an historian; he is by and large a political player.  Why choose him?

The answer seems to come in the very bad final graf:
In a counterweight to evangelical Christians who tend to back Republicans, the vast majority of religiously unaffiliated Americans — who number 46 million — vote Democratic and are politically liberal. Two-thirds support President Obama, compared with 27% for Republican nominee Mitt Romney the study found. Nearly three-fourths support legal abortion and same-sex marriage.
Ah, so that's it.  This is a political story, at least in the eyes of the Times reporter.  In which case, we have to point out, the story is far more complicated.

To begin with, of course, there is the mainline:  the Lutheran, Anglican (including Methodist), Reformed and Baptist families.  In decline for decades, this group nonetheless represents what "Protestantism" means to most informed people.  (Indeed, as we've mentioned before, Romanian sociologists have a salutary custom of using another word, "neo-Protestant," for most of the movements that developed after the 16th century -- basically, they make "mainline" and "Protestant" synonymous.)  It is still a substantial group of people, numbering in the tens of millions nationwide and the hundreds of millions worldwide.  Pew, working with a somewhat different definition than we would use, calls the mainline 18.1% of all Americans.  Because we treat some socially and theologically conservative denominations from the major families as part of the mainline, we'd put the number closer to 30%.

And many, many of its members vote Democratic. President Obama is part of a mainline Christian denomination -- indeed, of one of the most severely challenged of them all.

What the reporters don't get (and neither, apparently, does Pew) is that "mainline Protestantism" is properly divided roughly into a liberal and a conservative wing (ELCA/LCMS, SBC/ABC, etc.).  The paired churches in these two wings each share a common history and doctrinal positions which would look very close to outsiders.  They are separated by a combination of history (often the Civil War), doctrinal minutia (e.g., views on predestination, ordination, or marriage) and social teaching.  But they are, in each case, divided brethren.

Over against these two wings stands a truly different form of Christianity, distinguished by a brief and largely American history, a shallow but intensely-argued body of doctrine, and denominational structures which run the gamut from weak to nonexistent.  This,if you must oppose the word to "mainline," is "evangelical" Protestantism.

By no means do all members of "liberal" church bodies have liberal politics, nor "conservatives" conservative politics.  But it is wildly irresponsible to write as though the decline of Protestantism were a matter of fussy old religious Republicans giving way to modern, forward-thinking unaffiliateds.

The thing we hope that journalists will pick up about this story is that it is not, really, a political one.  Nor is it a religious one, strictly speaking.  It is instead a story about the growing pluralism of American society, and the concomitant loss of a commonly-agreed-upon set of values.  Call it the End of the Midcentury Synthesis. Religious communities are one reflection of this change, but so too are labor unions (in decline, except for the public ones), universities (soon to be dominated by women and Asians) and broadcast television networks.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Jesus Is a Monkey"

That is the graffito spray-painted on a Christian monastery near Jerusalem recently, apparently by Jewish extremists.

A story in The Australian details "a growing series of attacks" on Christian insititutions (and sometimes Christians) in Israel, and notes that despite heavy surveillance around most of the holy sites, no arrests have been forthcoming.  This is on top of the more routine stuff -- a priest told he should expect to be spat upon in public, because "it's normal," and a politician publicly tearing a New Testament apart and throwing it in the garbage.

Now, look. We don't want to make too much of what the crazies do, because every religious community has a few.   So do irreligious communities, for that matter.  Tolerating the occasional cartoon, slur or desecration of one's holy books is part of the price we pay for free speech in pluralistic societies.

But this story does bring into relief some of our own thinking about the puzzling relationship of the United States to Israel.

Several of our friends, including inter alia a comparatively liberal cleric and a decidedly conservative soldier, have said things in conversation which seem to take for granted that the US-Israeli relationship is special and mist be preserved at all costs, and includes a strong American responsibility for the security of Israel.  We're not at all certain this is correct.

There seem to be two secular arguments in favor of this thesis:  (1) that Israel is the only democratic government in the Middle East, and deserves support from everybody who loves democracy*; and (2) that Israel is a sort of protective barrier against its unpredictable neighbors, notably Iran.  The first argument is vitiated by Israel's frequent flirtations with tyranny, especially where Palestinians are concerned.  The second seems frankly spurious; surely, America would have an easier time keeping the peace with those neighbors (Iran perhaps excepted) if its relationship with Israel were not quite so close.

In addition, however, there is a third calculus at work.  American Jews and, in far greater numbers, American fundamentalist Christians, have a devotion to Israel which springs from other sources.  This devotion is not entirely religious, especially in the case of the Jews, for whom Zionism is a complex cultural phenomenon which can be found both among the religious and among the thoroughly secular. In both cases, this devotion is zealous and reflexive.

The result is that politicians, Democrats and especially Republicans, have no choice but to toe the line.  Certainly, no man or woman can hope to be elected president who does not promise to be "a friend to Israel," with everything that suggests.  Indeed, in 2008, Hillary Clinton was pressed into service to assure nervous voters that Barack Obama would be just such a friend -- and in the weeks to come, Mitt Romney will surely make a public case that Obama has not been friendly enough.

For our part, we like Israel; one of our dearest friends lives in Tel Aviv, and we have always wanted to visit. But we aren't certain that the relationship of the US to Israel is as important as our public discourse makes it out to be.  While Fox News seemed shocked that President Obama did not take time to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the UN recently, we were more troubled that he did not meet with the leaders of India and Brazil, economic powerhouses with strong democratic institutions, alliance with whom over the next few years will be a powerful counterbalance to the power of China.

We wonder how the notoriously flammable passions of America's fundie-gelical voters will react to the news that their precious Zion stands among the places in the world where Christians are routinely subjected to public persecution.

* This is how the case is summarized -- but it is a tricky case indeed.  Other states, such as Egypt and Iran, are at least nominally democratic as well.  Of course, we all understand that their "democracies" are limited, whether by the power of the army or that of the religious establishment.  But how great a stretch is it to make the same claim about Israel (or, we suppose, many other democratic nations)?

Monday, October 01, 2012

The Horrors of Waco

The part of our family which did not go to Vassar went, by and large, to Baylor.  To this day, we have a great many relations, both by blood and marriage, in Baylor's hometown of Waco, Texas.  Including our mother-in-law.

If this weren't reason enough to avoid Waco at all costs, we must now consider the possibility that this otherwise pleasant suburban college town has been struck by a Pharaonic plague.  According to NPR, Waco is overrun by crickets -- so many that the stink of their crunchy little corpses now fills the streets like a satanic miasma.

If that weren't enough, the brilliant Jess Nevins (in a must-read article on early science fiction by African and African-American authors) has recently revealed that Waco was once home to a mysterious secret society determined to conquer Texas and provoke a race war in America.

At least in was in an 1899 novel, Imperium in Imperio, by "an author, social activist and Baptist minister" named Sutton E. Griggs.  You can read the book online here, although we haven't.  We may yet, though, if only to pester our relations with it.