Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Hauskaa Joulua!

Ah, the Feast of the Nativity.  Or as we in the trade call it, "Crunch Time."

Fr. A. has been working double duty for weeks, with no end in sight (funeral coming, then Sunday, then blessing some chalk on Epiphany).  We have been living on cookies and cold coffee for longer than we can recall.  We could really use a little Ordinary Time right now.

Still, something curious happened last night.  The cynical preacher's view of the Vigil of Christmas is that people come to hear the familiar story recapitulated, a touching fable or two, and then to light a few candles and sing "Silent Night."  Anything much different risks rebellion in the pews.

 Moved by heaven knows what imp of the perverse, we decided to take our sermon in a different direction.  It's all a blur now, but we recall sharing the semantic range of the Greek verb "symballo," digressing on the fact that "host" is the word of an army -- militia coelestibus -- and blathering on about the arrangement of Israelite forces at the Battle of Midian.  Oh, and some long-winded anecdote about providing emergency pastoral care at the DMV.

The faithful actually seemed to enjoy this -- quite a bit, apparently -- although Heaven only knows why.  A Christmas miracle!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Farewell, Furry Friend-With-Benefits

Apparently, Bigfoot porn is a real thing -- and just as we have discovered its existence, Amazon is taking it away from us.

This may be just as well.  Yes, it's a loss for freedom and diversity and all that -- but a victory for good taste.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hermits for Hire!

If you're lonely at Christmas, Science Daily proposes a forgotten remedy:  pay a religious zealot to live in your garden.

Apparently, back in the 1700s, this was all the rage.  Rich people would pay a hermit to live austerely on their property, moping about in the yard, growing long beards and presumably praying a little now and then.  It wasn't about company so much as, well, decoration:

In the 18th century, it was highly fashionable for owners of country estates to commission architectural follies for their landscape gardens, many of which included hermitages comprising of a small cottage, cave or contemplative gazebo.
Often, landowners would inhabit their hermitages with imaginary or, in some cases, real hermits.

(And yes, the imaginary ones are the origin of the humble garden gnome.)

The hermit might be engaged for a period of seven years, after which he would be paid enough money to ... retire.  Which isn't the sort of thing we imagine hermits doing, but whatevs, yo.

The expert here is Gordon Campbell, author of a nice little book on the King James Bible and also of a recent book on ornamental hermits.  Campbell explains that decoration wasn't the only motive; there was a sort of vicarious spirituality involved:
It meant that the busy CEO could outsource his melancholy, contemplative side, embodying it in a hermit for hire. The ideal of living frugally did not therefore inhibit the good life. It's a bit like bankers carving turkeys for the homeless on Christmas Day.

ELCA Bishop Resigns; Reason a Mystery

Bishop James Justman, of the ELCA's East-Central Wisconsin Synod, has resigned. (ELCA release here, Wausau Daily Herald here)  He was elected to a second term in 2012 and, following the meeting of the Conference of Bishops in October, has been on "sabbatical."  Bishop Justman cites "personal reasons" for his resignation, the sort of thing that inevitably raises the questions it refuses to answer.

In politics and big business, "personal reasons" or "to spend more time with family" are the customary whitewash for a scandal or a major screwup.  But is it the same in church circles?  We genuinely do not know.

Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down.  The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad.  You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority.  Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.

It is easy to imagine why one might want to quit a job like this.  But by the time most pastors are elected bishop, they have a pretty good idea what the job entails, and have declared themselves ready to take it on.  If they weren't ready to serve, they would have avoided election in the first place.  Although some, like Lower Susquehanna's Penrose Hoover, are said to accept only reluctantly, they accept nonetheless.

So why do ELCA bishops typically give up their posts?  Some, like Robert Rimbo, get a once-in-a lifetime offer to leave the blasted postapocalyptic wasteland of Detroit for Manhattan's Upper West Side.  (Likewise, Paul Stumme-Diers left Milwaukee for a parish on Puget Sound, and Craig Johnson left the Minneapolis bishop's office to serve a large congregation in the same city.)  Nothing especially scandalous there.  Some, like Paul Egertson of California, are asked to resign for principled actions which nonetheless violate church policy -- like Egertson's 1994 ordination of a partnered lesbian.  Depending upon your perspective, that's downright heroic.

But others, like Rimbo's successor Stephen Marsh, find that the stresses of their ministry make it impossible to keep their "addiction issues" -- Marsh's word -- in check.  In 2006, Michael Neils resigned as bishop of the Grand Canyon Synod and as an ELCA pastor after admitting to an adulterous liaison; other ELCA bishops -- Slovak Zion's Kenneth Zindle and South-Central Wisconsin's Lowell Mays among them -- have resigned after accusations of sexual misconduct.  And of course Mays' successor and Justman's Wisconsin neighbor Bruce Burnside, killed somebody while (allegedly) driving drunk.

The thing is that if you resign to accept a new call, you tell people about it.  Even if you resign for some pretty awful reason, like a relapse or an affair, the custom seems to be to make it public.  So what sort of reasons for a resignation are so dire that an ELCA bishop chooses not to disclose them?

Maybe we're way off base here.  Maybe these personal reasons have no moral or ethical element to them at all.  It could be that he has been diagnosed with some grave illness, or that a member of his family needs urgent attention, or some other genuinely private and personal thing.  Terrible as those may be to contemplate, forgive us for hoping that's it.

Meanwhile, we pray for Justman, his family and especially for his synod, and hope that when the story comes out it will do nothing to vindicate our worst fears.

Locutus Roma ... sed non Latine

Pope Francis has provoked a great deal of discussion with his Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangeliii Gaudium.

We were amused to learn recently that, despite its Latin title, the document has not yet been translated into the Latin language.  Apparently popes no longer write in the official language of their kingdom, which is a disappointment but certainly no shock.  We assume that this exhortation was composed in Spanish, making its "real" title La alegria del Evangelio.

We should point out that, thanks to the late Alex Comfort, the English title -- The Joy of the Gospel -- invites a certain adolescent giggle.  (Specifically, it makes us think of naked people with lots and lots of hair.  We wish it were otherwise, but there you are.)

That's every thing we have to say about Evangeliii Gaudium today.  But while we're on the subject ....

We notice that the exhortation has, with its mild criticism of trickle-down economics, aroused the ire both of Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, with Anne Coulter no doubt waiting in the wings.

The first thing one must say, of course, is that conservative critics expressing shock at Catholic social teaching are simply ignorant.  They don't know what they are talking about.  One takes this for granted, of course, in a buffoon like Limbaugh; Noonan is a special case.  She is not so much ignorant as wilfully blind.

So impressed was she, and so impressed were many of her contemporaries, with what they perceived as John Paul II's spiritual support for Saint Ronald's Holy War on Communism -- not to mention the whole abortion thing! -- that they decided that the Roman magisterium must be on their own side in all matters political.  Crazy, right?  Yet the history of the Neoconservative movement, when it is written competently, will doubtless list the many Roman Catholics who switched their allegiance from the Democratic Party to the Republican one; it will also show a modest number of politically conservative converts to Catholicism.

Such was the enthusiasm for Rome among 80s-era conservatives that they seem to have skipped the drudgery of actually, well, reading things.  Had they read just a little bit, they would have discovered the strangely dichotomous presence of Roman Catholicism in 19th- and 20th-century public affairs

On one hand, it retained the instinctive royalism of the preceding eras, and so was happy enough to align itself not only with actual kings but also with rightist strongmen like Francisco Franco.  And, like Franco, Rome certainly did not care for Communism, with its materialistic and atheistic bent.

But on the other hand, Catholicism felt just as threatened by the emerging democratic and capitalist order of the West.  Until very late in the day, it routinely expressed doubts about democracy and religious freedom, and it is still no real friend of sexual egalitarianism.  Rightly or wrongly, the magisterium assumed that movements like this undermined its own authority, and led inexorably to the establishment of a materialism no less toxic than the Marxist-Stalinist-Maoist variety.

And why not?  Capitalism, when you think about it, emerged in the Renaissance -- just like Protestantism and, for that matter, modern forms of democracy.  They aren't the same thing, but they share a certain constituency, and nowhere (around 1900) was that constituency so concentrated as in the United States.  Thus we get Leo XIII warning about the supposed heresy of "Americanism."

But here's the money point:  for all its panicked fear of modernity, the Roman Catholic church never lost sight of the needs of the poor.  In fact, it seems to have believed that both the emerging economic regimes -- Communism and capitalism -- would hurt the poor.  (Not that the church had anything better to offer, mind you; nostalgia for the Middle Ages wasn't going to bring them back, and in any case the Middle Ages hadn't been a notoriously good time for the peasants.)

The key fact, though, is that in 1891, Leo issued one of the most important papal documents of the modern age.  Rerum novarum served as a thoughtful Christian response to the industrial age, and especially to the cutthroat capitalism of the Gilded Age.  While supporting the rights of property owners to use their belongings as they saw fit, it also said:
Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. 
If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.
In other words, living wages are a matter of natural law -- the very idea that, even today, Wal-Mart and the service economy in general are trying to argue against.  More than that, employers who do not offer a living wage are abusing their workers, subjecting them to "force and injustice."  Although Leo does not like strikes and wants to avoid them for the sake of the common good, he supports labor unions, worker safety, collective bargaining, and other causes then labeled "progressive."

A century later, celebrating the downfall of the Soviet Union and its satellites, John Paul II reflected on Rerum novarum in his encyclical Centesimus annus.  It's a comparatively conservative document.  The Peggy Noonans of the world no doubt read it and hear the strong condemnation of Communism and, in particular, atheism.  But we hope they also catch this:
[I]t is unacceptable to say that the defeat of [socialism] leaves capitalism as the only model of economic organization.
And this:
[P]rofitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order, and yet for the people — who make up the firm's most valuable asset — to be humiliated and their dignity offended. Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. 
In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society.
Get it?  A company's job isn't just to generate shareholder value; it is to provide for the basic needs of its employees, and to serve society.  If it isn't doing all those things, it is a failure.

Centesiums annus displays a particular concern for the people of the Third World -- the encyclical's own, now somewhat old-fashioned phrase.  John Paul is concerned that people in these nations are excluded from the material benefits of the more developed economies.  This concern informs the broader "economics of exclusion" of which Francis writes.

John Paul goes on to warn against the "irrational destruction of the natural environment," a form of "tyranny" which leads to destruction.  This doesn't necessarily mean he would have opposed pipelines, offshore oil rigs or fracking, but it certainly does raise the question of whether those things are compatible with the Catholic social vision.

It is obvious that the most debated sections of Evangeliii gaudium (parapgraphs 53-60) are in line with these two predecessor documents.  Like Leo and John Paul, Francis has his doubts about capitalism; like Leo and John Paul, Francis is concerned that some people are excluded from the benefit of the emerging global economy.  Like them both, he is concerned that a purely materialistic economic theory damages the social fabric and leads, ultimately, to violence.  We defy anyone to argue convincingly that all three of these men are mistaken.

And we ask that political conservatives, especially those who make much of their own Roman Catholic faith, would pay more attention to their church's now-long-standing critique of their pet economic theories.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Megyn Kelly, St Augustine, and the Gay Sasquatch

We were sitting down to translate Augustine's Sermon 184, as a pre-Christmas gift to ourselves, when we found that it has already been done, and decently.  So much the better.

Here is the text in Latin.  Here is the English translation.  The latter comes from a website devoted to "proving" that Jesus was born on December 25.  How this sermon could do such a thing is anybody's guess, as -- unfortunately -- is the original source of the translation.

Our favorite part, by far, is the second section.  It contains two passages which we may steal for our own Christmas sermon, and you may consider as well.

It begins:
Proinde Natalem Domini frequentia et festivitate debita celebremus. Exsultent viri, exsultent feminae: Christus vir est natus, ex femina est natus; et uterque sexus est honoratus. Iam ergo ad secundum hominem transeat, qui in primo fuerat ante damnatus. Mortem nobis persuaserat femina: vitam nobis peperit femina. Nata est similitudo carnis peccati, qua mundaretur caro peccati. Non itaque caro culpetur, sed ut natura vivat, culpa moriatur; quia sine culpa natus est, in quo is qui in culpa fuerat, renascatur. 
Hence, let us celebrate the birthday of the Lord with a joyous gathering and appropriate festivity. Let men and women alike rejoice, for Christ, the Man, was born and He was born of a woman; thus, each sex was honored. Now let the honor accorded to the first man before his condemnation pass over to this second Man.   (1 Cor. 15:49)  A woman brought death upon us; a woman has now brought forth life. The likeness of our sinful flesh (Cf. Rom. 8:3) was born so that this sinful flesh might be cleansed. Let not the flesh be blamed, but let it die to sin so that it may live by its real nature; let him who was in sin be born again in Him who was born without sin. 

This may speak to our own time more deeply than it did to Augustine's.  The culture of the fourth century was not awash in identity politics, as ours has been for some decades now.  One did not feel the need to defend one's sex, skin color, or sexual preference, much less to define oneself by them.  Although tribe and nation mattered very much indeed, even these had lost some of their weight within the Christian church.

Evidence for this may be found in the person of Augustine himself.  Was he a Berber?  The descendant of white people from Europe or black ones from southern Africa?  Although guesses abound, there is no certainty about his descent -- because it did not matter enough for anybody to talk about.

But our time is different.  In the past week, we have seen a national "news" broadcaster insist, on air, that she knows for a certainty the skin color of both Santa Claus and Jesus.  This is, no doubt, part of her network's annual attempt to make Christmas a bone of sociopolitical contention.  Still, these remarks are especially weird.  They're a little like trying to argue that Sasquatch is gay and John Henry Newman is straight.  Bigfoot is about as well-documented as the pole-dwelling elf.  As for Newman, well, he may have liked the ladies, but it seems improbable, we just don't know, and it hardly matters.

So to our identity-obsessed age, with its theologies splintered and divided into "conservative" or "liberal," "mujerista" or "traditionalist," Augustine speaks a sober word.  By the Incarnation of God, both sexes were honored.  Men and women, all flesh alike -- and all flesh, alike, is redeemed.  We are not divided against each other by the birth of Christ, but united and washed clean.

The sermon continues with a series of imperatives, which may conceivably mirror by design the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil:*
Exsultate, pueri sancti, qui Christum praecipue sequendum elegistis, qui coniugia non quaesistis.  .... Exsultate, virgines sanctae: Virgo vobis peperit, cui sine corruptione nubatis; quae nec concipiendo, nec pariendo potestis perdere quod amatis. Exsultate, iusti: Natalis est Iustificatoris. Exsultate, debiles et aegroti: Natalis est Salvatoris. Exsultate, captivi: Natalis est Redemptoris. Exsultate servi: Natalis est Dominantis. Exsultate liberi: Natalis est Liberantis. Exsultate omnes Christiani: Natalis est Christi.
Let's make that easier for you to preach:

  • Exult, you holy youths, who, having chosen Christ as a model eminently worthy of imitation, have not sought marriage. .... 
  • Exult, you holy virgins. A Virgin has brought forth for you One whom you may wed without defilement, and you can lose the One whom you love neither by conceiving nor by bringing forth children. 
  • Exult, you who are just; it is the birthday of the Justifier. 
  • Exult, you who are weak and ill; it is the birthday of the Saviour. 
  • Exult, you who are captives; it is the birthday of the Redeemer. Exult, you who are slaves; it is the birthday of the Ruler. 
  • Exult, you who are free; it is the birthday of the Liberator. 
  • Exult, all Christians; it is the birthday of Christ! 

For what it's worth, Salvator might here be translated as "Healer."  Buy you get the idea, and could ring whatever changes seemed best in your own sermon.

As usual, Augustine is our contemporary here, offering us two things we are obliged to share with the faithful at Christmas:  a vision of the Gospel as a universal message, and palpable excitement about the content of that message.

*Although if St. Augustine were here alluding to the Exsultet, it would push back somewhat our evidence for when that hymn of blessing and encouragement was introduced.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Et Tu, Carole?

Thus proving that the Pope is in fact the Antichrist almost as bad as Luther said, we have recently discovered this  damning evidence of John Paul II's liturgical fallibility:

Pope celebrates Mass
If the evidence picture does not display, follow link to NOLA Times-Picayune

A watch?  Oh, your holiness, say it ain't so.

Of course, compared to Bp. Jefferts Schori's vestments, this is a small matter.  We aren't sure how it ranks in comparison to Abp. Welby's collar tabs.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Crank Upon Crank

Yes, we do indeed realize that the post below this one is the single crankiest thing we have ever written.  These days, Father Anonymous could not be more of a grumpy old man if he tried.  He spends half his time muttering darkly about Roosevelt and Freemasonry, and the other half telling kids to get off his lawn.

Still, lest readers imagine that our assault on wristwatches reflects a merely personal prejudice, we submit the Master of Liturgical Harrumph, Aidan Kavanagh.  In his indispensable Elements of Rite, -- which you must purchase now if you do not already own a copy -- Kavanagh notes that "the wearing of jewelry by liturgical ministers is severely restricted in Roman canon law," apparently meaning Can, 284, for both ascetical and liturgical reasons.

He goes on to say:
Austerity in altar appointments and vestments [i.e., the "soberness and sense" of the Roman rite] is made a mockery when the liturgical minister displays prsonal jewelry of apparent expense on hand, wrist and chest.  If the minister's identity needs such supports, they should be worn apart from the liturgy.  In the liturgy, they should be taken off.  This includes wrist watches ... which become distractingly visible at crucial moments, such as elevations, hand layings and blessings.
Or, as a priest friend, trained at Rome, put it many yeas ago, "God forbid that, at the moment I raise the chalice, a stray beam of sunlight should reflect off the crystal of my watch and keep a worshiper from seeing the cup of Precious Blood."

The Little Things

Bracing ourselves for the trek home from Thanksgiving dinner -- twelve hours of driving with a carsick kid -- we felt the need for some spiritual refreshment.  So it was that we dropped into a little Anglo-Catholic church in the North Country last Sunday.

It's a lovely little nave, decorated in excellent taste -- as simple as Anglo-Catholicism allows, with dark wood furniture highlit by plain white walls and ceilings, small and lovely stained-glass windows, a few decently-written icons, and the cloying brasswork kept to a bare minimum.

On our last visit, many years ago, the rector had been a stuffy old man who preached a sermon the mediocrity of which was mitigated only by occasional interjections of intense social conservatism.  During coffee hour, we overheard the old duffer sharing some historical tidbits with the altar boy, all about dogs and cats sleeping in the roofs of thatched medieval cottages -- a series of utter falsehoods which we recognized from one of those asinine chain emails that right-winger share with each other and believe because they trust each other, regardless of the facts.

We hadn't felt the need to return.  We've got a church up that way, at least in the summer time.

But we're glad we went back on an early-winter Sunday.  The new rector is a conspicuously young man, no less genial than his predecessor and seemingly less prone to sharing either political opinions or false history.  Although the shade of Austin Farrer need not look to its homiletic laurels just yet, his sermon was earnest and sincere.  We liked the guy, and pray that he will enjoy many happy years in his post.

This being the start of Advent, the liturgy had been adapted nicely.  The Great Litany was sung in place of the Introit, Kyrie and Gloria.  (We enjoy singing the Litany, and wish that it were more common.)  The clutter on the altar had been reduced, although it was still more than ample. A brief Marian devotion followed the dismissal.  The paraments and vestment were a simple and elegant matched set, hand-stitched by a member, indigo trimmed with violet.  Because the chasuble was quite full, our pew-companion did not even see the maniple, but we certainly did.  We notice the little things.

And indeed, we couldn't help but notice a couple of very,very little things.  Minuscule things -- and just the sort you aren't supposed to notice in worship, because they distract you.

The rector was wearing gray slacks.  Or maybe brown.  Anyway, they contrasted sharply with the cassock that was hanging down under his alb, and we couldn't help staring at them.  And that, friends, is why your cassock should hang to the tops of your shoes -- and if you don't wear a cassock, then your alb should reach the shoe-tops.  So that you can wear any damn pants you want, or no pants at all, and nonetheless attract no attention whatsoever to yourself.

The rector was also wearing a wristwatch.  And not one of those dinky jobs that they used to call watches during the 20th century, with their 35 millimeter cases and 16 millimeter straps.  No, Father was wearing a typical contemporary sports watch, roughly half a pound of stainless steel, 47 mm or more across, with a solid-link bracelet.  You couldn't help but notice it; they probably noticed it on Mars, too.

Which is why, dear brothers and sisters, there is a loooong-standing custom of removing your jewelry when you lead worship.  Unless it is a bishop's cross or a wedding ring or some other testimony of a particular religious vocation, your watch (or ring, or necklace, or earring) cannot help but  draw attention to your person, and therefore away from your message.  (Cf. Kavanagh, Elements, p. 62.  Luther D. Reed made a particular point about removing expensive fountain-pens, something which has always confused us a little.  Did mid-century surplices have pen pockets?)

Anyway, we don't mean to rag on our new friend.  He sings beautifully, preaches ably, and presides with grace and elegance.  We're just surprised that somebody with such a clear commitment to highly, even self-consciously, traditional worship would miss these basic preparations.  Doesn't Nashotah House teach these things?  

Then again, it is a dismal reflection upon our own spiritual life that, long after we have forgotten the guy's sermon, we will remember his pants.

Friday, November 22, 2013

John Boehner Enrolled in Obamacare

Yes, that's right.  Speaker of the House John Boehner, who personally and single-handedly shut down the government (by refusing to bring a clean CR up for a vote) in an effort to sabotage the Obamacare has now signed up for ... Obamacare.

Apparently, Boehner -- who actually has a government health plan, and didn't really need to take up any bandwidth on this -- went shopping for on the DC exchange in order to demonstrate that it would be a difficult and frustrating experience.  (Speaking of which, let's talk about switching plans with Portico recently, a difficult and frustrating experience in its own way.)

He thought that he had succeeded in, um, failing to enroll, and blogged about it.

And then he discovered that he had in fact enrolled.  Meaning that he failed to fail, which seems about like the way Boehner's year is going.

Per the guy at Salon, Boehner probably got a pretty good deal, too.  Probably not as good as his government plan, but still pretty good for private insurance.

This is Why Reid Pushed the Button

Let's be serious.  A Senate filibuster is no longer the heroic personal campaign of Mr Smith having come to Washington.  It has become a mere bureaucratic exercise, requiring no all-night speechmaking, no special nutrition or wariness of bathroom needs.  Since the 1990s, as the Atlantic's Garrett Epps says, "either debate or a final vote can be prevented by one senator filing a piece of paper on the way to lunch at the Monocle."

And it has been used with an historically unprecendented frequency by Senate Republicans in the Obama era, not merely to block the appointment of federal judges but simply as a form of protest against other matters, often unrelated to the appointment under review.  It has become absurd, and the smooth function of our national judiciary has been impaired by it.

Not Just Kennedy

Today marks the 50th anniversary not only of John Kennedy's assassination, but also of the more peaceful deaths of two other well-known figures:  C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley.

The Guardian has bookend articles on both.  The one on Lewis includes something very nice -- snippets from old reviews, including early ones that didn't seem very impressed by Narnia, and Philip Pullman's later diatribe against what had become a cultural phenomenon.

We at the Egg must confess that C.S. Lewis has never quite done it for us.  At various points in our life, we have read the Narnia books and the Screwtape Letters and the Silent Planet trilogy; we expect to read them all again sooner or later.  But each leaves us a little cold.  Narnia is, for lack of a better word, too syncretistic.  Those little fauns running around in a Northern European fairyland seem so out of place.  Screwtape is clever but a little trite; it lacks the vitriol that a master ironist, a Mark Twain or an Ambrose Bierce, might have injected into its veins.  The space books -- our favorite by a good margin -- are delightfully creepy reimaginings of salvation history, but they also abuse the tropes of science fiction for an altogether unscientific purpose.

Somewhere, we believe we own or once owned a copy of his textbook on English literature -- his day job, remember -- and that it is pretty good.  Not great, but good.

As for his "theology," well, we haven't read much.  We're sure it's very good, something we must say lest his defenders flame us unto eternity.  Maybe after we finally wade through the City of God and the Loci Communes.

Turning to Aldous Huxley, the Guardian does propose that he is "the prophet of our brave new digital dystopia."  They then go on to make a far stronger case for George Orwell as claimant to the title; we would add William Gibson as a rival.  Worse yet, one might get the idea that Huxley had never written another book.  The Guardian is more excited about his pedigree -- grandson of Darwin's Bulldog, grandnephew of Matthew Arnold, went to Eton with Orwell -- than his remarkable number of novels, short stories, essays and screenplays.  No mention is made of his interest in Hinduism or, outside of Brave New World, psychedelic drugs.

Fair enough.  After fifty years, most of us will be lucky to be remembered for any one work of our hands or of our minds.  Lewis gets the fairy tales, Huxley gets the dystopia.  To be brutally honest, either of these seems better, to our minds, than Kennedy's signature achievement, provoking and then bargaining his way out of the greatly-misrepresented Cuban Missile Crisis.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Did Sartre Kill JFK?

The answer, alas, is no.

But because the French philosopher sat on a committee, in his own land, which questioned the lone-gunman theory -- and because J. Edgar Hoover was deeply committed to that theory -- it appears that the FBI spent a bit of time investigating a writer whose works its agents could not actually read in their original language.

We picked this up from a wonderful short essay by Andy Martin, published at Prospect.  Martin has looked at the FBI's still-redacted files on both Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (whom Hoover instructed his agents to investigate under the name of "Canus," presumably a homonym for our favorite watercraft).

In the funniest bit of historical journalism we have read since ... well, ever, Martin discovers in these files the traces of an emerging inter-service rivalry, between the FBI and its more worldly competitor, the CIA.  While Hoover's men were suspicious of anyone who had been in the Resistance, on the grounds that they might be Communists, the ex-OSS guys actually knew some Frenchmen and Reds.

But Martin's best bits come from his conclusion that the agents investigating the philosophers were forced, in the end, to philosophize themselves:
The FBI emerge from these files as neo-existentialists in the classic early Sartrian mould. ...  They don’t like meaning—they are on the look-out for it, especially secret coded meanings, but they don’t like it. They certainly subscribe to the “hell is other people” school of thought. And Hoover, in particular, would be greatly relieved if only everyone across the whole of the USA was an angst-ridden, anomic, introverted loner. In short, an Outsider. What they fear and object to is meaning, and finally, the plot—or narrative. They are anti-narrativists.
Of course!

We look forward to Thanksgiving, when we share some turkey with our favorite current  G-Men.  We plan to ask them whether it is still Bureau policy to refute teleological narrative.

Sunday of Doom

"Dr Doom Loves You" by ChibiCelina
Christ the King is coming up, with its annual rehearsal of the same familiar themes:  a king, but not the kind they expected; his throne is the Cross; rule not merely of Israel nor of the earth, but of the cosmos; a rule that, although we wait for its complete expression, has already begun.  For inclusive-language buffs, there is the wrestling with language -- "Reign of Christ"?  "Together with Christ"?  And so on.

Don't let this sound like complaining.  These are swell themes, especially as a lead-in to Advent, and Father A. looks forward to preaching on them.  Nor does he mind a little language-wrestling, so long as it does not overwhelm the central points.

But he just learned that the Church of Sweden never followed the suggestion of Pope Pius XI, in 1925, and instituted the feast of Christ the King.  Instead, since 1921 the Swedes have called the final Sunday of the church year Domssoendagen, or "The Sunday of Doom."  (Here are the propers.)

Say it again:  "The Sunday of Doom."

Of course, we savor the forbidding sound of it -- so forbidding that it is almost campy.  Think "Indiana Jones and the Sunday of Doom."  Or a holiday devoted to the greatest of all Fantastic Four villains.  But we also like the Germanic-ness of it; "doom" is a word that owes nothing to Latin.  Indeed, neither fatum nor iudicium, the most obvious translations, quite gets at the English sense.  In English, of course, "doom" also reminds us of a great historical treasure, the Domesday Book, a detailed census of England undertaken by its then-new Norman overlords.  It is as near as we can imagine to an earthly image of the Lamb's Book of Life.

"Doom" is a word that combines fate, destiny and judgment -- four letters that sum up, at least for English speakers, a bundle of related ideas.  By itself, it is a disturbing, even frightening word.  (That's why a supervillain uses it as his name, right?)  But when we add to it the name of the Lord's Day, the celebration of Christ's Resurrection which contains within it the promise of our own, then the scariness of doom is softened, even mooted, in the minds of the faithful.  Just as Easter turns death to life, so it turns doom from a curse to a blessing.

So maybe, as we preach on the threefold office of Our Lord, or on the radical redefinition of messianic expectation, or on the fulfillment of the Torah and the New Commandment -- whichever theme comes out of our mouth -- we will stop now and then to remind our friends that they are living in the last days, the last hours of a broken world -- and the first moments of a world which has been restored.  The good news is that, for us, Doomsday is the Lord's Day.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Women of the Ekklesia

We meant to post this tidbit last week, but time permits us very little these days.  Still, while preparing our exegetical notes for Sunday's sermon, we spent some profitable hours with one of the Lord's many annoying injunctions.

Speaking of what his followers will be called to endure as the end draws closer, Jesus offers them the dubious solace that this will be their chance to offer "testimony," a word that is of course cognate with "martyrdom."  And of this testimony, he says:
So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves. (St. Luke 21: 14)
This is, as we said, annoying, not least to those of us who spend much of our week preparing our own testimony of sorts, a "defense" or "apology" in the classical sense, not of ourselves but of Christ himself.  Is Jesus really demanding that we just wing it, week in and week out?  Some preachers think so, and perhaps they are correct.

In any case, this passage bears a little more attention.  In Greek, it reads:

The key words here -- promeletan apologethenai -- are, so a commentary told us, a technical expression from Athenian forensics, meaning specifically to memorize the speech with which one will defend a person in court or a proposition in debate.

Historically, memorization has been the mark of a skilled orator.  Cicero, we are told, spent many hours memorizing his speeches.  So have preachers through much of history, right up to the present.  (This was, for example, the custom of our own mentor Walter Kortrey).  For that matter, how many church members have been encouraged, in recent years, to memorize "an elevator speech," some sort of capsule account of their faith or the mission of their church.  (Nondenom here, Episcopal here, Orthodox here.  Oh, and atheist here). That Jesus recommends doing otherwise is noteworthy, but takes us into waters deeper than we choose to navigate just now.

Looking for an extra-Biblical use of this term, we were directed by our lexicon to a play we have not previously encountered, by a playwright we thought we knew better.  Aristophanes' Women of the Assembly appears to be a bookend to his more famous Lysistrata.  Both are about women taking charge and upsetting the social order.  In Lysistrata, they withhold sex until their menfolk end an onerous war.  In Women of the Assembly, they go further, and take over the government itself.  They wear false beards, make pompous speeches, and eventually institute a regime of equal distribution and more-or-less-free love, in which men are free to sleep around, provided they sleep with ugly women before pretty ones.  It is all, apparently, a satire upon the excesses of this then-still-new Athenian idea called "democracy."

The phrase in question occurs at line 117, rendered freely here by G. Theodoridis:
Praxagora:  We can make excellent speeches exactly because we are women!  Better than any man can.  They say that buggered youths make splendid orators, don’t they? Now, do we women know about fucking or don’t we?  We’re naturals, right? 
First Woman:  Oh, I don’t know, really.  Lack of experience is a dreadful thing, you know.  I mean about speeches. 
Praxagora: But that’s precisely why we’re here, darling; to get ourselves all prepared with what we’re going to say in there. [προμελετήσωμεν ἁκεῖ δεῖ λέγειν.]  Now, put your beards on quickly and, those of you who are ready to speak go ahead and speak!
First Woman:  Ha!  We’re all ready Praxagora! Who among us is not an absolute specialist in the art of talking, ey? Fucking and talking! We’re brilliant!
Well.  That's ... politically incorrect.

Anyway, here are the women "getting themselves all prepared" as orators do.  Not to mention crossdressing and talking about sex, all of it funnier then than it might be now -- but it would still be pretty funny, if you played it right.  Aristophanes isn't especially nice to women, but then he isn't nice to men, either.  Or to Socrates.

One thing about this play that will resonate with readers now in a way it could not have with its original audience is the title.  In Greek it is Έκκλησιάζουσαι -- "Ekklesiazusae."  The word ekklesia, assembly, has been so taken over by the Christian community that it is a challenge for us now to read it any other way.  If we did not know that this was a play about women in government, we would translate its title as "The Church Ladies."

This, in turn, adds an interesting element to the scene in which the women practice their speeches.  When one of them swears "by Demeter and Persephone," the ringleader berates her for using the names of goddesses, which will give away their identities.  She corrects herself, and swears by Apollo instead.  The implication is that men default to a masculine image of the divine, women to a feminine one.

Is this true?  Probably not, in our time any more than in ancient Greece.  Yet it is not entirely untrue, either.  From the 1970s through the 1990s, there was a lively discussion within American Christianity about how we would speak of God.  This went far beyond merely changing a few pronouns and saying "Lord" less often.  Although it is hard to believe in retrospect, there were serious voices advocating, with some success, a radical restatement of the Trinitarian name -- formulations like "Mother, Lover and Friend" were thrown around freely.  Perhaps we lead a sheltered life, but it seems to us that the dust has largely settled.  If the textual editing of hymnals like ELW and The New Century Hymnal seems heavy-handed, it is worth reflecting that things might well have gone much further.

Not coincidentally, the decades during which God's gender was put up for grabs in the theological community were also the decades during which ordained women came to take a larger role in Protestant church life, and the pressure to ordain women in Roman Catholicism began to mount (at least in America).

We're not sure where to go with all this, except to point out that an ancient pagan playwright neatly predicted a curious development in modern Christianity.  We aren't sure how, if at all, we might bring this insight to bear on the passage from Luke 21.  On the other hand, three years will pass before that one comes around again on the guitar, so we have plenty of time.  Let us know if you think of anything.

"One Last Hour of Serenity"

Unsurprisingly, JFK was a member of the Mile-High Club.  Also unsurprisingly, it appears very likely that he and Jackie exercised their membership during his ill-starred flight to Dallas.

So, yes, John Kennedy had sex on a plane the day before he died.

We're not quite sure why, amidst all the reflection which accompanies the fiftieth anniversary of the president's assassination, this particular fact has garnered so much attention.  Perhaps because the biographer William Manchester felt a need to report it through a gauze lens in his 1967 book The Death of a President, because you didn't talk about those things back then the way we do now.

Except, of course, that you did:  it was 1967, for pity's sake.  The Summer of Love, and "Love" is a euphemism here.  LSD, Janis Joplin and Allan Ginsburg at the Avalon Ballroom, Loving v. Virginia.  The National Organization for Women was a year old.  If you weren't talking about drugs or Viet Nam that year, you were talking about sex.

Plus, we've seen Mad Men.  So we know what it was really like.

The real reason that Manchester soft-pedaled this, as well as various other tidbits about Kennedy's sex life, is that Jackie had sued him before the book was published.  She sat for ten hours of interviews, revealing inter alia what Manchester would obliquely call "one last hour of serenity" onboard Air Force One, and then cried foul.  Manchester was ordered by the court to throw a fig leaf over his research, which cannot be removed legally until 2067.  We only know about this little incident because Manchester, now dead, spilled the beans to another biographer, Philip Nobile -- who chose this month to publish it in an appropriate venue, the New York Post.

To be honest, we aren't trying to criticize Jacqueline Kennedy for clutching at any last bit of privacy, but whatever means were available to her.  Nor do we judge Manchester, either for trying to include the racy tidbit or for passing it on to somebody else.  Anybody who has ever done serious research knows how natural it is to fall in love with your own facts, and how eager you are to show them off.

We just think it's a weird reflection both on the lasting Kennedy mystique and on American society's love-hate relationship with sex.  Is it, after all, in any way surprising that a young married couple had intimate relations?  Or that they did it on a plane, when they had the chance?  Of course not.  It would have been surprising if they hadn't.  The only surprise is that, fifty years later, there is still a hint of scandal attached to the fact.

Friday, November 08, 2013


Marvel Comics has introduced a new superheroine, and the interwebs are all a-buzz. But about the wrong thing, as usual.

The new character is an angsty teen-ager who wakes up with a superpower, and uses it to fight bad guys.  This is the formula that worked magically for Marvel 50+ years back, with Spiderman, and which they have tried sporadically to reproduce ever since.  But where Spidey was a lonely outsider because he was a skinny science nerd in a school dominated by jocks, the new Ms. Marvel (whose name is borrowed from an older character) is an outsider because she is a Muslim.

That's where the news comes from:  she's a Muslim.  And some people, at least, find the very thought of a Muslim superhero unbearable.  We just skimmed the reader comments to a [surprisingly not-hateful] story at Breitbart, and came away with these not-at-all-bigoted pearls of wisdom:

Kevin Vetrone 

And she will be fighting republicans and their war on women.

  • While not driving or leaving the house alone, and while wearing a burka?

    • Mikeyh0  NoCommieCrats 

      And then having her father try an honor beheading if she wants to date as happened in Phoenix. Two daughters were killed by their Muslim father in the name of their faith. Makes me puke

    • m2  NoCommieCrats 

      and while always walking at least ten feet behind the stinky male in a dirty nightshirt with a second grade education, a camel, and maybe an AK-47?
Chill, white Christian dudes.  This is bad, all right, but not for the reasons that you may be thinking.

There are a couple of things about this story which may not be instantly apparent to non-comics people, so we'll try to run them down quickly.  Then we'll get to the real outrage.

First, the industry has spent decades trying to interest people in characters who weren't WASP ubermesnschen (or thinly-disguised Jews passing as WASP ubermenschen).  From guys with prep-school names like Clark Kent, Jay Garrick and Reed Richards, the superhero world has gradually broadened to include a significant number of popular black characters (Luke Cage is getting his own show on Netflix!), as well as Asians and Latinos.  The most successful effort was probably the "New X-Men" of the 1970s, a group which included angsty teens from Africa, Russia and Japan.  (Although the most popular member, by far, proved to be a Canadian).  In recent years, the pace has stepped up; the old Blue Beetle, a generic WASP millionaire inventor, was killed off and replaced by an angsty Mexican-American teen; the old white Nick Fury has been replaced by his own African-American son.

On one hand, a lot of this is crass marketing, as a faltering industry tries to widen its readership.  There are only so many 40sh white guys with no girlfriend running around at any one time.  On the other hand, that's what a popular medium is supposed to do:  change with the times.

Second, religion has historically played a marginal role in comics.  This is a good thing.  The religions most frequently encountered are either defunct (Norse and Greek paganism) or invented (the Vishanti, or any of a hundred evil cults dedicated to racial supremacy, government overthrow, or ushering in the End Times).  Religion, in this sense, is a plot device, largely interchangeable with the high tech that confers powers or psychopathology that creates villains.

Even "real" religions function this way.  The Spectre is a ghost, sent back to earth by God; but he could just as easily have been sent back by Rama Kushna, the Himalayan spirit responsible for Deadman, another ghostly hero.  And this is why it is just as well that mainstream superhero comics have not spent much time on the widely-practiced religions dear to the hearts of millions.  They don't exactly explore the unique nuances or the deep spirituality of these subjects.

There certainly have been characters who participate, at least to some degree, in the world's major faith communities. has an exhaustive list, but you shouldn't take it too seriously; a lot of these "affiliations" are pretty speculative.  Still, the Huntress is not only Catholic, but wears a big old cross as part of her costume.  And the Punisher is a seminary drop-out.  (Like Al Gore, but with bigger guns).  Kitty Pryde is Jewish, as is the Thing, although in the latter case this was a late-in-the-day addition to the story of a familiar character.

For a few comics characters, though, religion has been a major part of their storyline.  During Frank Miller's run, Daredevil spent quite a bit of time wrestling with his Catholicism.  So does the X-Men's Nightcrawler.  Both DC and Marvel have done series about the Golem.  The DC version, called Monolith, was superb; created by a rabbi in the 1930s to protect a Jewish ghetto, the revivified creature attaches himself to the rabbi's great-granddaughter, an angsty teenage girl, and her Asian roommate.

Independent comics, meaning broadly the ones not published by Marvel or DC, have produced a number of heroes who are overtly religious:  Areala the Warrior Nun, Battle Pope, and so forth.

Third, there are plenty of superheroes whose religion isn't fake or defunct, but isn't Christianity or Judaism, either.  One of our personal favorites is Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu.  Like most martial-arts characters in comics, he's at least nominally a Taoist.  Green Arrow's adult son, Connor Hawke, was a Buddhist monk.

All of which brings us to:

Fourth, Muslim superheroes aren't entirely new.  As early as 1991, Marvel experimented with an all-Muslim super-team based in Iraq, called, Desert Sword.  DC has done the same sort of thing, with the same lack of success.  But for a few years now, an independent publisher called Teshkeel Comics has run the adventures of a Muslim super-team called The 99 (as in the number of names ascribed to Allah).  They're not completely obscure, either; The 99 have actually teamed up with the Justice League.

So ... what's really new about Kamala Khan, the Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel?  No single thing.  But she does bring together into one easily-publicized package a lot of the things happening in the comics world.  Unless we are mistaken, she is the first Muslim superhero from a major company to get a major marketing push -- and a major "name."

For some of us, the name is the most controversial thing going on here.  The original Captain Marvel, an utterly unangsty orphan named Billy Batson, was published by Fawcett Comics in the 1940s and 50s; he was taken off the stands after a lawsuit, and then reintroduced by DC in the 70s.  But during the 60s, when Timely/Atlas rebranded itself as Marvel, the publishers introduced their own Captain Marvel, a completely different guy.  Today, the first Captain Marvel has been officially renamed"Shazam," the second one is dead, and the character named Linda Danvers, who since the 70s has called herself Ms Marvel, has taken over the captaincy.

And that's why we side with the Breitbart boys.

Stubborn old conservatives like Father A. are outraged -- outraged, we tell you! -- that little Billy Batson has been deprived of his name.  Carol should give it back to him, at which time birds would sing and all would be right with the world.

Still, Marvel has legal rights to a valuable and historic name, which they have bestowed on this new character.  We hope the stories are good and the character thrives.

As for the religious angle, well, all we can say is that we hope comics treat Islam with a little more respect for detail and history than they have typically accorded Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, Buddhism, paganism, and most of their own made-up religions.