Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pray for Ethan

If you have not already, please pray for Ethan.  He is the 5-year-old boy with Asperger's syndrome and attention deficit disorder who is being held captive in Alabama.

His mother calls him "Love Bug."

Ethan was pulled off his school bus by a man with a rifle, and is being held in an underground bunker by a severely deranged man.  News reports say that he is "unharmed," meaning that he has apparently not been shot, which is a very good thing.  But let us be clear that the boy is not, cannot possibly be, unharmed.  The psychological toll of this captivity will be immense and long-lasting.

Please pray for the repose of the soul of Charles Albert Poland Jr., the bus driver who refused to give an armed intruder two hostages, and was killed for his resistance.  He may very well have saved another child from suffering like Ethan.

And, while you're at it, pray for the success of the police negotiators, and for the criminal, Jimmy Lee Dykes, that God will keep him from doing any worse evil than he has already done.

As we go to bed on Thursday, this terrible story continues.  We hope to wake up and hear some good news.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tyranny! Dearmer and Milton on Ex Corde Prayer

In his Everyman's History of the Prayer Book, Percy Dearmer takes up the question of extemporaneous prayer.

As he observes, there was at the time of the Reformation, and and we may add that there remains today, a significant minority of Protestants who believe that this is the only form of prayer.  To a certain sectarian mindset, a prayer written in advance, much less inherited from tradition, is not a prayer at all; it is an unding, a nullity, a pretense worthy of the hypocrites.

Dearmer takes a very sensible approach.  He begins eirenically:
Now, there is very much to be said for extemporaneous worship in church; it is often a most useful instrument in mission work, it is an indispensable way of bringing the idea of worship to the ignorant, it secures the necessary element of freedom ; further more, it may bring spontaneity and vitality into a service, and be a good corrective to formalism....
Then he mentions Milton, among the most admired of English poets -- and, of course, a Puritan:
Now Milton objected to a liturgy because he thought it a slur upon the extemporary powers of the minister : " Well may men of eminent gifts," he wrote, " set forth as many forms and helps to prayer as they please ; but to impose them on ministers lawfully called and sufficiently tried ... is a supercilious tyranny, impropriating the Spirit of God to themselves."
If only, Dearmer says, John Milton had turned himself the the writing of prayers for the church!  "What matchless collects he might have added to the Prayer Book at the Restoration!"  It is a delightful fantasy, albeit one that is hard to sustain for anybody familiar with Milton's distinctive vocabulary and syntax.

But then Dearmer lowers the boom:

Milton's mistake, was, in fact, a very simple one. He thought that every minister would be a Milton. He did not realize what a deadly thing average custom can be, what a deadly bore an average man can make of himself when compelled to do continually a thing for which he has no natural gift. He did not foresee the insidious danger of unreality and cant. 
We should all, of course, flock to hear Milton praying extempore, if he were to come to life again ; but there are many mute, inglorious ministers whom we would rather not hear.
Er, yes.  Thank you, Father.  Why are you ... looking at me that way?

At last, he comes to the real point, one familiar to the liturgical reformers of the nineteenth century:

To put the prayers as well as the sermon in the hands of the officiating minister is indeed a form of sacerdotalism which the Church most wisely rejected many centuries ago. 
We know what a joy and help it would be to hear an inspired saint, with a genius for rapid prose composition, make up prayers as he went along ; and opportunities for extemporization do exist outside the appointed services. 
But the Church has to provide for the average man, and has to guard against that form of clerical absolutism which would put a congregation at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of one person. For extempore services, which should be a safeguard for freedom, can easily degenerate into a tyranny.

Hah!  Milton can complain all he wants about the supposed tyranny of a fixed liturgy, says Dearmer, but the real tyranny is letting a single minister impose his personal preferences, styles and idees-fixes upon the congregation, week after week until Jesus comes.

We agree heartily, with one small caveat.  Dearmer was writing about the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical formulary which is changed seldom and reluctantly.  The "fixed liturgies" to which many of us are subjected these days often reflect the particular preferences of a cabal at the church publishing house, promoting its own (sometimes very distinctive) view of what the service ought to be, at the expense of what it has always been.

The sad fact is that Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the New Century Hymnal, and similar books do sneak in the sort of tyranny that Milton feared.  Contemporary worship leaders, therefore, find themselves between a rock and a hard place, tyrannically speaking.  They do not want to impose their own will upon the people, but neither do they want to let the publishing cabal impose its will.  What then are they to do?

There's no easy answer to this.  But, on a related note, does anybody know where we can obtain 200 copies of the Common Service Book at a reasonable price?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

In Praise of Hunting

We've been spending a lot of our time mulling over the question of gun violence lately.  (You've probably noticed, and are hankering for your dose of ecclesiastical antiquarianism; don't worry, it's coming). But readers may notice that, although we have called loud and clear for a level of regulation that may never be politically practical in America, we haven't actually talked about, well, taking away people's guns.

Oh, don't get us wrong.  If we had our way, there would be a lot fewer guns, and a lot fewer gun owners, in this country.  That would be a natural effect of laws that required a demonstration of competence and concern for safety on the part of owners, as well as the modest rise in price associated with, say, RFID tags. For that matter, we think it is perfectly reasonable for municipalities, especially large ones, to devise regulations so strict that, basically, only law-enforcement professionals wind up able to own guns legally.

But that's not the same as rounding up all the guns and throwing them away.  We actually wouldn't like that at all, and for a good reason.  It's called hunting.  And hunting is important.

Anybody who has ever lived in a wooded area understands why hunting is a good thing.  Deer are the most widely hunted animals in North America, and when they are not hunted their populations explode.  It is sad to see their dead bodies littering country highways, where they are killed by (and pose a grave danger to) motorists.  It is even more sad, if you like animals, to hike through overpopulated areas and see deer in the wild.  Too often, the lean and muscular creatures we remember from childhood have been replaced by scrawny, knock-kneed, malnourished little things that look lime they belong to some other species.

We've wiped out most of their natural predators, and moved into much of their habitat.  Culling the herd is now our duty, and failing to cull deer is as inhumane as beating a dog or kicking a cat. Hunting isn't the only way to do it, but it is an old, traditional and deeply beloved way.

And there's the problem.  American hunting has been in decline for decades.  Although there has been a modest nationwide uptick over the last few years, the number of hunting licenses sold in Massachusetts is down 50% over 20 years; Pennsylvania is down 20%, and Michigan 301%.   This is especially bad because hunting licenses often generate income for state conservation work. Worse than that, as a report by the National Shooting Sports Foundation summarizes it:

The national hunting base is aging, with fewer young hunters filling the gaps that older hunters create when they no longer hunt.
Non-resident hunters, who generate more income for states and businesses, are older still.

Hunters are getting older and not replacing themselves, just like ... well, like churchgoers, coincidentally enough.  Per the NSSF, in-state hunters average 41.2 years old, and men outnumber women by 9 to 1.  Most churches would love to be this young, and at least a little more male than they are at the moment, but the problem is the same.  We expect that it is shared with labor unions

But hunters have a bigger problem.  To our surprise, it turns out that there are only about 3.5 million American hunters.  This is truly shocking -- it's less than 1% of our population, and far fewer than the  number of regular churchgoers.  Hunters, all told, only make up a moderate-sized denomination.

We're not joking, here.  Although we don't hunt personally (Dad didn't, so we never learned), we support the sport strongly, at least in principle.  We sincerely hope that any future regulation on guns will be strict and wide-ranging -- but will also find ways to encourage the training and equipping of a new generation of hunters.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One More Thing

A few lines down the page, we mentioned the case of a Pennsylvania father who accidentally shot and killed his 7-year-old son last December.  It is a heartbreaking story, and goes a long way toward shaping our conviction that gun owners must be trained and licensed and held accountable, at the very least, to the degree that car owners are.

We're not sure that the district attorney in the case sees things the same way.  He declined to press charges against the father, which is a good decision on purely humanitarian grounds.  The law has absolutely no punishment as harsh as this man's life must now be. We get that, and feel an immense pity for him.

What concerns us is the statement issued by DA Robert Kochems, at least as reported by the Daily Mail (we can't find the original online; also, fair warning the story has some absolutely heartbreaking Facebook photos, which probably do not belong in the press).  He says that the father did indeed commit a misdemeanor because of his evident "lack of understanding, practice and/or training" with firearms safety.  Kochems says that he wants "the community to learn" from this, rather than to go through "a polarizing case."  So ... not enforcing the law is for our own good? It's a stretch, but maybe it will work.  We'll give him a pass on this idea.

Our real problem, though, is this:

Kochems declined to comment beyond his statement, which stressed his belief in a constitutional right to own firearms. 
'I own a number myself,' the statement said. 'Further, with the reduction of public safety forces firearms ownership may be becoming more necessary. 
'Persons who make the decision to own a firearm for personal protection must realize that their primary purpose in owning the firearm is to kill someone or something. They have an obligation to know how the firearm works not just on the day they purchase it but on every occasion that they touch it and always remembering its purpose.'
Holy crap.  His argument, at some level, is that he won't press charges because of the 2nd Amendment, and because the police can't do their jobs, so therefore ... people need to train to kill each other?  First off, that's as dystopian a worldview as we've heard this week.  And secondly, those, in our opinion, are the reasons to make an example out of this poor S.O.B. of a father -- since he exercised his right to keep arms in a manner that was, as Kochems says, so profoundly irresponsible.

Sometimes, Conspiracy is No Theory

You've probably read the bad news from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.  If not, brace yourself.

Documents disclosed recently demonstrate clearly that Roger Cardinal Mahony and his assistant, Father Thomas Curry (now Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese), actively conspired to protect pedophile priests from prosecution.  As late as 1987, they were shuffling from parish to parish and diocese to diocese priests whom they knew to be abusive felons; in one case, they discussed sending one to a psychiatrist who was also an attorney, specifically to use attorney-client privilege as a way around the reporting required of health-care professionals.

The story is sickening.  (Read it here, or anywhere else on the net).  Perhaps the most frustrating parts of it are the public apologies that both men have offered.  As Catholic Culture reports:
 “I wish to acknowledge and apologize for those instances when I made decisions regarding the treatment and disposition of clergy accused of sexual abuse that in retrospect appear inadequate or mistaken,” said Bishop Curry. “Most especially, I wish to express my sympathy to all the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. Like many others, I have come to a clearer understanding over the years of the causes and treatment of sexual abuse.” 
What is this nonsense?  Does this man seriously expect us to believe that, as late as the 1980s, he didn't have a "clear understanding" that sexually abusing minors was not just bad pastoral care but a serious crime?  That it had the potential -- indeed, the likelihood -- to do permanent and lasting psychological damage?  Because if he didn't understand those things, then it is simply because he wasn't paying attention.  The rest of us sure as hell did.

And even if he didn't understand, well, so what? The criminal code was clear as Waterford crystal.  All he had to do was obey the freaking law, and see to it that priests who couldn't do likewise were properly punished.  His "understanding" wasn't relevant then and it isn't relevant now.

Mahony does no better.  He says he is sorry, and that he prays for the victims.  That is, literally, the least he can do.  Granted, the archdiocese has reached a record $660 million settlement with victims, which counts for more -- but may still not be enough.  The fact is that Roman Catholicism in America, and by extension Christianity in America, may never recover from the damage that that these men and others like them did to its credibility.

We'd point out that these scandals simply demonstrate that, underneath the truly scabrous polemical attacks leveled against Roman Catholicism by Protestants and atheists over the centuries, there was at least a grain of terrible, painful truth.  We would point that out, we repeat, if only our last story hadn't been about a Methodist minister who beat his wives to death, and if Stalin hadn't been an atheist.

"The Sinister Minister"

That's a song by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  It's also the nom de press of the Rev. Arthur Schirmer, a parish pastor in the United Methodist Church who (per the LA Times) has just been convicted of killing his wife Betty in 2008.  It also seems likely that he killed his first wife, Jewel, years earlier.  And yes, he was cheating on them when he did it -- which led an embittered husband to commit suicide in Schirmer's office.

He beat Betty to death, and then faked a car accident.

Need we say that the word "reverend" is here used in its least literal sense?  In this case, it means that somebody, long ago, had the poor judgment to ordain him.  It does not mean that he should be held in reverence.  Quite the contrary.

The guy is obviously a fiend from hell.  We rejoice in his mandatory sentence of life without parole.

License Guns Like Cars

Police in Trinidad and Tobago were recently sent to investigate the sound of gunshots.  They found a security guard sitting in his car, doubled over in pain, having just shot off his own penis by accident.  With an unregistered handgun.  (Via Gawker).

This is just one among the dozens of ugly gun-related stories that have been in the news lately.  It is not, so far as we can tell, that mass shootings, murders, accidents and stupid failures of basic gun safety are actually on the increase, so much as that, post-Sandy Hook, we are all a little more interested in talking about them.  So many, after all, would have been prevented if guns were harder to obtain, and so few actually involve a guns actually being sued to prevent a crime.

The recent observance of Gun Appreciation Day in the US has made for all sorts of giddy headlines. David Waldman, at The Daily Kos, came up with a list of "104 separate incidents" in the course of the day, "killing 39 people and wounding 69 more."  He doesn't pretend the list is all-inclusive.

Ardent gun-lovers are quick to point out that, while gun-related violence is higher in the US than in any other prosperous nation, guns still do not kill nearly as many Americans as heart disease, car accidents or even the flu.  They are correct, which is one more reason to take the subway, go vegan, and wash your hands a lot.  On the other hand, guns have the distinction of being among the only consumer items made for the express purpose of killing. (They are easily the most efficient of such items; even a highly skilled crossbowman can't do as much damage as a kid with his mother's Bushmaster.)  Sure, you can kill somebody with a can-opener; but a gun is designed to do it fast and more efficiently, and not to do anything else.  This alone is a reason to separate them out for particular legal scrutiny.

What is more striking to us, though, is how many of these incidents reflect sheer stupidity and incompetence on the part of the gun owners.  Three people were wounded at a gun show, when security asked an attendee to remove his shotgun from its case, and it discharged accidentally -- because, in other words, its owner was carrying around a loaded shotgun.  At another show, a man bought himself a new automatic pistol, and "accidentally pulled the trigger," putting a bullet into the guy next to him.  How did this happen?  Because the moron didn't check the chamber.

We are still not over the boy in Pennsylvania who was killed last month, climbing into the booster seat in his family's truck, because Dad was closing the door with one hand, while with the other he placed a handgun on the console.  The handgun "accidentally went off," a dubious proposition with modern handguns, but which wouldn't have been a problem except that, again, the moron hadn't checked the chamber.  And now his son is dead.

These are not the skilled, responsible sportsmen of NRA propaganda.  These are idiots, playing with with dangerous toys.

Now, these displays of ineptitude are not, on their own, arguments against the sale, much less the existence, of  these firearms.  But they do argue, very strongly, for some regulation. There is no reason that gun owners should not be required to pass a safety course, as drivers are, and to periodically renew their licenses.  There is no good reason that guns -- all guns, not just those styled after military weapons -- should not be registered, just as cars are registered, with careful records kept when they are sold or traded.  There are many good reasons that manufacturers should be required to place RFID tags in all new weapons, as the state of Connecticut once proposed (and as Italian manufacturers now do), and these should not just be used for inventory control, but for identification by the police.

Of course, many gun owners object to these ideas.  Their objections need to be considered carefully, not because they are sensible (they are not), but because of what they reveal about the minds of the owners.  A person whose only interest in in hunting has no reason to object to these things, except perhaps for the extra red tape; a collector has every reason to support them, since they will simplify theft recovery and insurance claims.   Who has the greatest reason to object to the idea of licensing owners and tracking guns?  Two classes of person:  first, the career criminal, whose work is made easier by the ready availability of untraceable guns.  And second, the person who nourishes, whether actively or in the secret recesses of his heart, secret dreams of taking up arms against the government.  Neither person's life should be made easier.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Hitler Lie

The pro-gun forces in this country are, understandably, in a near-frenzy of late.  Fear of gun regulation has become so intense that they are using all their tropes at once:  the claim that President Obama is legally unfit for office because he is a foreigner/a secret Muslim/a Socialist; the threat to start an armed rebellion against the American government if they don't get their way; the specious claim that the 2nd Amendment is mean to empower such a rebellion; and -- most predictably of all -- the story that any gummint that regulates our guns is just like Hitler.

The Hitler claim is fairly straightforward.  For about 20 years, NRA mouthpiece Wayne LaPierre has been claiming that "In Germany, Jewish extermination began with the the Nazi Weapon Act of 1938, signed by Adolf Hitler."  The idea idea is simple:  a totalitarian government restricted gun ownership; ergo, any government that restricts gun ownership is totalitarian.

There are two things that must be said about this story.

First, it calls for an immediate application of Godwin's Rule, which says that as any online discussion [or here, we might say "heated argument among people uninhibited by either facts or mutual respect," which is the same thing] grows longer, the probability of a comparison to Nazis grows stronger.  In other words, unless there is a grownup in the room, somebody will always wind up saying "Your side is just like Hitler, nanny-nanny-foo-foo."

Now, that doesn't mean the accusation is always wrong.  If you're arguing against, say, somebody who wants to kill Jews, gypsies and gay people, then the comparison is pretty damned apt.  But it does mean that, for the most part, dubious comparisons to the Third Reich are an inevitable component of public discourse in our morally and intellectually debased society, and that therefore they should be taken with a massive grain of salt.

The second thing, though, is this:  the claims made about the Nazis and gun control are demonstrably false.  In fact, the control of personal firearms was much tighter under Weimar than under the Reich.  (Read an excellent article in Salon here; scholarly details here).  Private weapons had been banned and confiscated after World War I; later, they were permitted, but permits were required to own, sell or carry them.  The effect of Hitler's law was to overthrow this fairly strict regime, and to deregulate long guns, ease handgun restrictions, lower the age limits, and lengthen permits.

Basically, Hitler gave people access to more guns -- at least as long as those people were not Jews.

There remains, of course, the argument that if the Jews had enjoyed the same gun-ownership rights that other German citizens did, they would have been able to defend themselves against the Holocaust.  This is specious.  As Salon says:
Proponents of the theory sometimes point to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as evidence that, as Fox News’ Judge Andrew Napolitano put it, “those able to hold onto their arms and their basic right to self-defense were much more successful in resisting the Nazi genocide.” But as the Tablet’s Michael Moynihan points out, Napolitano’s history (curiously based on a citation of work by French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson) is a bit off. In reality, only about 20 Germans were killed, while some 13,000 Jews were massacred. The remaining 50,000 who survived were promptly sent off to concentration camps.
So, yeah, the Hitler story is a load of malarkey.

In any case, let's be clear about what the pro-gun extremists are really proposing.  They envision taking up arms against a democratically-elected government because they do not approve of its policies.  This is not even secession, a movement against which the nation has already defended itself decisively.  No, there is another name for what these people are proposing:  domestic terrorism.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Sad But True

James Alan Fox is a criminology professor at Northeastern, so we assume he has data to back up the statements in his brief article, "Top Ten Myths About mass Shootings," posted at the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It's well worth reading, and depressing as hell.

We've been hearing, post-Sandy Hook, a fair amount of panicky talk about how to keep things like this from happening.  At its worst,* this boils down to partisan boilerplate, in which one side blames guns and the other blames crazy people.  (Ironically, the side that blames crazy people has also been deeply engaged in slashing government mental-health expenditures, but that's another story).

Fox points out that a lot of what we've been hearing is nonsense.  Mass shooters are typically turned so completely inward on themselves that they would never seek psychiatric care, for example; they are so mentally prepared and emotionally committed to their mission that panicky and underprepared armed guards are likely to harm innocents without stopping the guilty; a new assault weapons ban is unlikely to affect automatic pistols, which are the preferred weapon used in these killings.

And on and on, because he packs a lot of bad news into a few paragraphs.

The most depressing thing is that Fox offers no prescription.  He does not seem to think that there is much we can do, really -- at best, we might shave a few degrees of lethality off the top.  Stronger gun laws and better mental-health services may save a few lives, but ... don't get your hopes up.

*Actually, partisan bickering is not the very worst level of public debate.  The very worst is the despicable "Sandy Hook Truther" movement, which claims the shootings are a hoax.  We expect these people are also Holocaust deniers and child molesters.

Augustine on the Wedding at Cana, and Miracles in General

If you're preaching Sunday, you might take a look at Augustine's treatment of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11, obviously) in his Tractate 8, available here in the usual wretched NPNF translation.

Among other things, Augustine joins other Church Fathers, such as Tertullian, in reading the story as a refutation of the Docetics.  Jesus is not the semblance of a man, not a disembodied spirit who looks like a man.  He is a man, as fleshy and bloody and any other.  As for the heretics, "their faith is corrupted who prefer a lie to the truth. For these men, who appear to honor Christ in such wise as to deny that He had flesh, do nothing short of proclaiming Him a liar."

There's a lot of good Church-as-Bride-of-Christ stuff here, if (inspired by the Isaiah passage) that's the way you are leaning.  For instance:
Who will make such offerings [as his own life] to his bride? Men may offer to a bride every sort of earthly ornament,—gold, silver, precious stones, houses, slaves, estates, farms,—but will any give his own blood? For if one should give his own blood to his bride, he would not live to take her for his wife. 
But the Lord, dying without fear, gave His own blood for her, whom rising again He was to have, whom He had already united to Himself in the Virgin’s womb. For the Word was the Bridegroom, and human flesh the bride; and both one, the Son of God, the same also being Son of man. The womb of the Virgin Mary, in which He became head of the Church, was His bridal chamber: thence He came forth, as a bridegroom from his chamber, 
Augustine also wrestles with the Lord's brusque treatment of his own mother:

What is this?  Did He come to the marriage for the purpose of teaching men to treat their mothers with contempt?

It is, frankly, good to know that the ancients worried about that sort of thing.

It takes Augustine a long time to deal with this question, which is a bad sign in any writer.  He finally concludes that Jesus does not seem to acknowledge Mary in this scene as a way of raising the question of when "his hour" would come, and emphasizing his acknowledgment of her at the Crucifixion:
For then did He recognize her, when that to which she gave birth was a-dying. That by which Mary was made did not die, but that which was made of Mary; not the eternity of the divine nature, but the weakness of the flesh, was dying. .... 
 For while He was God and the Lord of heaven and earth, He came by a mother who was a woman. In that He was Lord of the world, Lord of heaven and earth, He was, of course, the Lord of Mary also; but in that wherein it is said, “Made of a woman, made under the law,” He was Mary’s son. The same both the Lord of Mary and the son of Mary; the same both the Creator of Mary and created from Mary. 
But our favorite part, by far, comes right at the beginning, when he talks about miracles:

The "miracle" indeed of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby He made the water into wine, is not marvellous to those who know that it was God’s doing. 
For He who made wine on that day at the marriage feast, in those six water-pots, which He commanded to be filled with water, the self-same does this every year in vines. For even as that which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. 
But we do not wonder at the latter, because it happens every year: it has lost its marvellousness by its constant recurrence. And yet it suggests a greater consideration than that which was done in the water-pots. For who is there that considers the works of God, whereby this whole world is governed and regulated, who is not amazed and overwhelmed with miracles? 
If he considers the vigorous power of a single grain of any seed whatever, it is a mighty thing, it inspires him with awe. But since men, intent on a different matter, have lost the consideration of the works of God, by which they should daily praise Him as the Creator, God has, as it were, reserved to Himself the doing of certain extraordinary actions, that, by striking them with wonder, He might rouse men as from sleep to worship Him. 
A dead man has risen again; men marvel: so many are born daily, and none marvels. If we reflect more considerately, it is a matter of greater wonder for one to be who was not before, than for one who was to come to life again. Yet the same God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, doeth by His word all these things; and it is He who created that governs also.
In other words:  we are surrounded by miracles.  The pity is that, because there are so many and they take place so often, we do not recognize them.  So God occasionally works another one, one that we cannot miss, just to inspire our faith.  But, really, seeds are miracles, the rain is a miracle, babies are miracles, all just as much as the hocus-pocus with the water or that business with Lazarus.

Lutheran Ordinariate?

Will Pope Benedict XVI establish a "personal ordinariate" for Lutherans seeking to enroll in the Roman Catholic Church?  It was never impossible, and a Vatican bigwig just dropped a hint that it may be coming.

Archbishop Gerhard Muller is Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith.  He is also, among other things, the author of a new book on the the Pope's thought.  And, speaking at a Rome bookstore recently, he suggested that there might be room for a such an institution.

That's about all there is to the story.  Is this a trial balloon, or just an off-the-cuff remark by a guy trying to sell some books?  We don't know, but time will probably tell.

[UPDATE:  A couple of months back, Archbishop Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, made similar remarks.]

Monday, January 14, 2013

Garbo Speaks

Justice Clarence Thomas has broken his seven-year silence in Supreme Court arguments.  More exciting yet, it was to disagree with the ventriloquist who controls him his friend and colleague, Justice Scalia.

Was it to ask some sharp question of an overreaching attorney?  To argue some fine point of law, or to shed light upon an obscure corner of the matter at hand?  Sadly, no.  It was to bash his alma mater.

In the course of an argument about whether a particular person had received adequate representation at his trial, Scalia proposed that, since one of the the fellow's attorneys had gone to Harvard and another to Yale , his representation must have been good enough.  And then, per the Wall Street Journal,
Amid crosstalk among the justices — all of whom attended either Harvard or Yale — Justice Thomas made a remark to the effect that if the lawyer went to Yale, the defendant must not have received competent counsel, according to several people present.
Oh, Clarence.  You really don't get this clubhouse jocularity thing, do you?  The idea is to poke fun at the other guy's school.

Thomas, the Journal reminds us, has long been publicly and viscerally hostile to the place that trained him for his profession.  In that sense, this was just a predictable jibe from an unpleasant and unhappy man.

On the other hand, however, this is a bit like the paradox of Epimenides, adverted to in Titus 1:12, about prevaricating Cretans.  If, that is, lawyers trained at Yale are good for nothing, and if Clarence Thomas was trained at Yale, then logically ....

Thomas has raised an interesting question here.  perhaps he will address it further the next time he opens his mouth.  On the current schedule, this should be about January, 2020.

True Story

When 5-year-old Kindergartener Anonymous came out of school today, he saw Fr. A. reading something on a Kindle.  The following exchange ensued:

"Hi, Daddy!  What are you reading on your reading machine?" 
"The Parson's Handbook, by Percy Dearmer."
"What's that?"
"It's a book about how to do the things that pastors do."
Long pause.
"Hmmm.  Maybe I should hear that ... when I'm 13."

The randomly-chosen high number is Kindergartener A.'s way of putting a thing off indefinitely.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Father Dearmer Explains It All For You

We've been skimming through Percy Dearmer's Parson's Handbook, a truly beautiful mixture of sage wisdom, genteel wackiness, and excessive research.

Or so the research seems to a Lutheran; for Anglicans of Dearmer's age and persuasion, on the contrary, it seemed imperative to discover and describe, with as much precision as possible, the history of English ceremonial.  One could not very well enforce the Ornaments Rubric, for example, if there was no general agreement about the vestments and paraments in use during the second year of the reign of Edward VI.  In the same way, Dearmer often cites church inventories and visitation articles from the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries, trying to marshal evidence of a distinctive and coherent English church use.  

That such evidence is elusive will surprise nobody; what is hard for Lutherans, especially, to grasp is the ... well, the glamor that the effort had for Anglicans from, say, the Ecclesiological Society to the Second World War  As a movement that was international from the beginning, and which from the beginning asserted that church unity was expressed by doctrine rather than worship, it is hard for us to grasp just how existentially important the quest for a definitive Anglican liturgical style became during the period of the Romantic revival in liturgics.

While it retains considerable practical value, Dearmer's vademecum for the parish priest may be read for purely aesthetic pleasure, at least if one is also inclined to enjoy, say, the ghost stories of M.R. James.  We imagine ourselves sitting in a comfortable chair while chatty old Father Percy shares his opinions on liturgical colors (white linen for Lent, yellow for confessors), the proper dimensions of a corporal or why it is now so important to schedule worship so that young people have adequate time for bicycling on Sundays.  Of course, we get a bit fuzzy as the afternoon winds down.  Did he say rochet or chimere?  Perhaps a cup of oolong will clear our head.

But there are timeless gems, such as his advice on banners:
If churches had half as many banners, and those banners had twice as much spent on them, it would be far better.
Sing it, Percy.

However, we are most struck by Dearmer's immensely detailed description of what the vestry ought to be -- or rather vestries, since he believes that each church should have three of them.  (We are talking about the room, not the organization,  Repress your shudder, ecumenical colleagues).   He knows that most do not, of course, but he goes on to describe a nearly impossible ideal.  There are cabinets and presses and drawers for everything; a knee-hole desk for the churchwardens; a hook for each choirboy's cassock and another for his surplice.  On the wall where the priest will vest is the hymn Come Holy Ghost, and the 43rd psalm. Dearmer has built a castle in his dreams.

The discussion of vestries reaches this otherworldly climax:
It is obvious that many churches have not room for all the various cupboards which I have suggested. But, whatever arrangements are made, care should be taken that there is really a place for everything, even if cupboards and chests have to be put up in the church itself, which, indeed, was the usual ancient practice, and helps to furnish the church if the cupboards are properly designed. Even the cheapest cupboard in the most out-of-the-way vestry should be painted a pleasant colour, or stained green. Varnished pitch-pine and imitation-wood stains are almost as destructive of beauty and warmth of effect as is the oldfashioned oak-graining.
This is magnificent.  Do you know why?  Because it is entirely out of touch with any even modestly realistic aspect of parish ministry, in Deamer's time or our own.  Nothing here about the poor begging at the preacher's door, about the late-night visits to the dying, nor even about the dreadful work of repairing leaky roofs and moldy parish halls.  Nothing about the abuse heaped upon one by the cultured despisers, or the doglike devotion of the old woman who wants somebody to bury her.  A bare nod to the reality that so many churches are small and poor -- and then on to beauty!  Give us our green-stained cupboards, so that we may have a moment of beauty as we go about our work.

Sometimes, it is daydreams like this that make the difficulties of clerical life bearable, at least until the greater joys manifest themselves.  We have ourselves never actually seen a green-painted vestry cupboard, but by golly we shall dream of them tonight.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

So -- two inaugurations, two potential chaplains forced to withdraw.  Rick Warren then, Louie Giglio now.  What are you going to conclude from this?

You could, we suppose, conclude that there is a vigilant homosexual lobby that watches your every move, and pounces when it doesn't get its way.  That being the case, you'd have two choices:  defy them or placate them.  So far, you've done neither very well.

However, a likelier conclusion is that you've got some bad instincts where religion is concerned.  This seems pretty likely; your Chicago pastor was ... an oddball, even within the most liberal of American church bodies.  Your party has grown so accustomed to fighting off the Religious Right that its leaders are prone to a defensive secularism.  Many don't seem to know what to do with the fact that millions of Americans vote Democratic for reasons that are inseparable from their faith.  Actually, sir, despite the faith that clearly informs your own life, you're also one of those uneasy leaders; we all remember your dumb remark about "clinging to guns and religion."

All this being the case, we applaud your effort to find common ground with Warren and with Giglio, who shares your determination to end human trafficking.  But, as you can see, his views on one of the most divisive moral questions of the hour puts him at odds with a lot of your constituency -- and with many of your own public statements.  Frankly, as far as most of your constituents are concerned, guys like Warren and Giglio are playing for the other team.

So let's make it simple for you.  If you want to honor a minister by asking him, or her, to bless your service to our nation, how about choosing somebody from your own team?

Heaven knows you have plenty of choices.  Roman Catholicism is the traditional backbone of the Democratic Party, and -- even after all these years, and after the death of Rembert Weakland -- there are still plenty of notably left-leaning bishops.  Of course, they're no help to you with the gay thing, and may well bring their own baggage, abuse-wise.

Which leaves mainline Protestantism.  Specifically, it leaves you the "liberal" side of the mainline -- ELCA rather than Missouri Synod Lutherans, American rather than Southern Baptists, and so forth.  We get a lot of abuse these days, for being "NPR at prayer," for being less influential than we were a few decades ago, and so forth.  But there are still tens of millions of us, all together; and even though we aren't, by any means, all Democrats, we certainly have a big Democratic membership.  It's especially big among our leadership; indeed, one of the problems we have failed to address is that our pastors and denominational executives frequently lean a good deal further to the left than the people in the pews.  For us, this is a problem -- for you, it is an opportunity.

You've got plenty of Democratic-voting, poverty-fighting, gun-control-supporting ministers to choose from.  A fair number of these will also marry or ordain gay people.  As a member (at least for many years) of the UCC, the first historic American denomination to marry and ordain gay people, you might very well invite Geoffrey Black, its General Minister and Church President.  Failing that, there are the presiding bishops of two other well-known churches, Katharine Jefferts Schori and your fellow Chicagoan, Mark Hanson.  And of course, there are an almost unlimited number of politically engaged lesser clergy, some with stellar good-works cred to impress your secularist cohort.

So, yes, reaching across the aisle is a display of good faith and leadership.  We get that.  But sometimes, Mr. President, it's wisest just to dance with them that brung you.

The Department of Homechurch Security

Prayer Request

St. Paul Lutheran Church, in the South Carolina town of Pomaria, has served God and its community since 1761.  This morning, it burned to the ground.

The pastor is D. Brent Nichols.  Please keep him, and the whole congregation, in your prayers today.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

It's Not Justice, But ....

According to the lawsuit, one former inmate said he was forced to drink water until he vomited blood. Other allegations include rape, beatings, being slammed into a wall, and one man alleged he was subject to a mock execution at gunpoint. Many reportedly said they were forced to stand naked for long periods.

Yeah, that was Abu Ghraib.  Remember the good old days of the Bush Administration?

Military contractor L-3 does, if only barely.  As this Danger Room post reveals, L-3 contract employees were an active part of the highest-profile torture scandal in American history.  Some of them were named in the eventual Pentagon report, right alongside the soldiers they worked with.  But, while 11 soldiers were court-martialed (and we assume there were consequences for others), no civilian contractors were fired, fined, arrested, imprisoned or otherwise punished.

Nor have they yet.  But, in rather than continue defending itself against continuing legal action by 71 former inmates of Abu Ghraib, L-3 has paid out $5.28 million.

It's not a lot of money, when you consider how much these guys earn.  And a payment by the company  is not a legal judgment -- much less a conviction of the criminals our government paid to torture people.

But it's something, and we're glad it is.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Luther on the Epiphany and Baptism of Our Lord

Today, some people are saying it is "plain water." The devil take them!  My dog Toelpel, a wild boar and a cow know that.  But what else is there?  Without doubt, in baptism we get God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- and all the angels!  So, it is no longer "plain water," but water in which the Son of God bathes, over which the Holy Spirit hovers, over which God the Father preaches.
... It is not I that baptize, but God and all the angels -- they show up on their own.
--Luther, in a sermon preached 6 January 1534

There's a lot more there, for those who are interested and have access to the ATLA database.  The sermon is translated by Frederick Gaiser, and appeared in Word & World, Winter 1996.

Briefly, Luther's sermon is highly, even archly Trinitarian; it makes good use of the Small Catechism's Augustinian distinction between plain water and water to which the Triune Name has come; and it goes out of its way to argue that baptism is not a human work but a divine one.

Spiritually, we are touched by the way Luther works the angels into his vision of baptism; we aren't sure they belong there, except of course that they are God's entourage.  Liturgically, it is worth noting that 6 January was in those days a celebration both of the appearance of and to the Magi, and of Jesus' own baptism.  Luther makes quite a point of saying that the baptismal story is the more important, and deserves to be celebrated independently.

There's a at least one typical "Oh, Uncle Marty" moment, which is a little hard to capture.  Distilled spirits were often called aqua vitae, the water of life  -- in other words, akvavit.  So, in Gaiser's rendering, Luther says:
[Baptismal water] becomes a precious ointment and medication because God has stirred himself into it.  That's why it is the genuine Aquavit.
By which he means:
... Whoever is in sin, stick them in the baptism[al water], and their sin will be extinguished.  Whoever is in death, stick them in the baptism[al water], and death will be swallowed up.  For baptism has divine power, the power to break sin and death.
Good stuff for Sunday, if you need a little inspiration.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Guns Don't Kill People

A friend has drawn our attention to a recent case in Georgia which, says our friend, needs more publicity.  To be brief:  a woman used her handgun to effectively deter a home invader, quite possibly saving herself and her children.  (Read stories hereherehere.)

The story is indeed gripping.  It takes place in the small city of Loganville, where a woman was at home with her two children when the doorbell rang.  She did not answer, and so the person who had rung it -- a career criminal named Paul Slater -- went to his car and returned with a crowbar.  He entered the house, and began a room-to-room search, presumably for things to steal.  The woman and her children retreated to an upstairs room.

When Slater entered their room, the woman shot him,  six times, emptying her weapon. Five of the bullets hit him.  She then told him to stay down, threatening to shoot him again, as she and the children escaped to a neighbor's house.

Slater, badly wounded, got up, left the house under his own power, and attempted to drive away.  He crashed his car, and was apprehended.  He is badly injured, and may still die.

So, yes, this is by any reasonable standard a case in which a handgun is used for legitimate self-defense.   Although laws vary, the so-called Castle Doctrine generally permits the use of deadly force for just this sort of situation, and one is hard pressed to argue that it should not.

Our friend's feeling is that this story should be considered as a counter-balance to the heavy media coverage of gun crimes.  Although he doesn't put it quite this way, he seems to believe that he story vindicates the logic behind DC v. Heller, and the general contention that guns in the home lead to safer homes.

Maybe it does, but we have a couple of reservations.  

The first is moral:  an armed woman shot an (apparently) unarmed man.  This is not to argue that he did not pose a mortal threat to her and to her children -- he could certainly have killed them barehanded, or with the crowbar, had that been his goal.  Still, she might have tried telling him to leave the house before she shot. We're not sure we would have, though, and we don't fault her for a moment.

Our second qualm is practical.  She shot him five times, at point blank, and yet he was able to leave the house and drive away.  This suggests that she needs marksmanship training and/or a bigger gun.  (Hit the sumbitch five times with a 9-mil, he ain't walking away, amiright?)

Unfortunately, Slater's survival also adds a bit of nuance to the pro-Heller argument.  If Slater had been carrying a gun of his own, it seems very likely that he would have been able to return fire, quite possibly killing the mother and children.

So why was Slater unarmed?  Even though he is a convicted felon, we doubt that it would have been difficult for him to obtain a gun in Georgia.  That, more or less, is what guns shows are for.  Or pawn brokers, or a guy in your neighborhood.  We expect that Slater carried no gun for fear of laws which provide more severe punishments for a crime committed with a weapon than for the same crime committed without one.  But it isn't logical to expect most hardened criminals to be so scrupulous about the law; they are criminals, after all.

In other words, this story does give some comfort to those who regard guns as defensive weapons, but only because the person who got shot had no gun of his own.  In its own way, this makes a good case for reducing the number of guns in circulation, and making it more difficult to buy them.

It certainly makes a case for training gun owners to shoot.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Somewhere on the Property

There we sat in church this morning, enjoying a perfectly lovely celebration of the Epiphany (and a fine sermon by a dear friend), when the Devil got his hooks into us again.

"Why," he asked, "does such a lovely little parish on a main street in an urban area not have more worshipers?"  Like many of you, we spend a lot of time on questions like this.  We have a number of pet theories, of which our personal favorite involves church bulletins -- those little explosions of loose paper that slide into your lap when you sit down, and which you then have to re-organize by separating, folding, inserting between the pages of a hymnal, and balancing upon your folded coat.

Church bulletins are, by and large, horrible things and enormous obstacles to the worship of God.

But sometimes it isn't as complicated as the Devil wants us to believe.  During the Hymn of the Day, Kindergartener Anonymous announced that he needed a drink of water, and we were assigned to accompany him down to the kitchen.

As we passed through the undercroft, we saw a table with perhaps twelve Sunday School students and two teachers.  While we thoroughly disapprove of holding classes during worship, we realize that for many parishes this heinous custom has become non-negotiable.  So no surprise there.

The surprise came when we turned toward the kitchen, and saw a cluster of perhaps ten teen-agers, all of post-confirmation age, standing around by the Christmas tree, having some sort of discussion.  What were they doing?  We don't know, and we don't really care.  They were not worshiping.

In fact, although we had seen most of them serving as acolytes on Christmas Eve, we had not otherwise -- in several months or regular attendance -- seen them in worship.

Why don't young adults come to worship as often as we might like?  Perhaps it is because, from the time they are small children, we encourage them to get up on Sunday morning, get dressed, be dragged over to the church building by earnest and hopeful parents -- and then stay the hell out of the nave.  And we, as a church, are just happy to have them somewhere on the property.

This is fine, really, if you want Christianity to die in your own lifetime.  But if you'd like to pass the traditions on to a future generation, then you really have no choice but to pass them on.  Which starts, at a minimum, by telling your kids to spend an hour or so singing hymns and listening to the Bible.

Butterflies and Flowers

Classical literature, heaven knows, is not for prudes.  It's not just that there's a lot of sex in it, but that there are so many kinds of sex.  Most are recognizable to us, whether we like them or not:  men and women, men and boys, slaves and owners, clients and professionals.  But other things are inscrutable to the modern mind.  Why, exactly, did the Athenians have all those great stone phalluses decorating their streets, so memorably defaced on the eve of the Peloponnesian War?

So it is that the esteemed classicist Mary Beard, reviewing a book about shopping in ancient Rome, naturally begins with an anecdote about shopping in ancient Greece -- shopping, to be specific, for dildoes.

Having as we do both a dirty mind and a zeal for original sources, we quickly looked into the Mimes (or Miniamboi) of Herodas, a little-known Alexandrian author of the 3rd century before Christ.  They're little playlets, each offering an acerbic and often raunchy slice-of-life. There are various translations on the Internet, but our favorite is this one, by M.S.Buck.  It's not an especially good translation, but it contains one almost perfect footnote, and we do so love footnotes.

In Mime 6, some women have gathered at the home of their friend Metro, and are admiring the firm scarlet dildo she has recently purchased.   The word they use of it is not the customary olisbos (meaning "slipper") but rather baubon.  Buck gives this word untranslated, and is then required to gloss it in a footnote.  Although other translators read the word as meaning "pacifier" or "sleep-aid," Buck identifies it with the various erotic statues of Baubo, an old woman who attempted to distract Demeter during her disastrous grieving over Persephone.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Exhortation to the Greeks, Book 2, tells the tale unsympathetically:
Baubo, having received Demeter as a guest, offers her a draught of wine and meal. She declines to take it, being unwilling to drink on account of her mourning. Baubo is deeply hurt, thinking she has been slighted, and thereupon uncovers her secret parts and exhibits them to the goddess. Demeter is pleased at the sight, and now at least receives the draught, – delighted by the spectacle! 
Please know that he is belittling the Orphic mysteries here, in a manner much like the pagans who accused Christians of cannibalism and incest.  The meaning of the story, to those who told it, may be difficult for us to retrieve.

But, be that as it may, Buck observes that some scholars simply cannot stand to admit that the object in question is what it is, so they come up with ludicrous alternatives:
Rutherford suggested the meaning ‘bodice’ or ‘head-dress’; Reinach ‘shoe.’ This is puris omnia pura with a vengeance. It is to be hoped that these scholars, realizing the grave danger lurking in references of this sort, have long since turned their attention to butterflies and flowers.

it only remains to observe that church people, even more than classicists, are inclined to prudishness, as though Jesus had somehow commanded us to look away from the nitty-gritty facts of life, and most especially from the realities of sex.  Such Christians ought best be deferred from serious matters of theology or moral discourse, and directed toward butterflies and flowers.

Friday, January 04, 2013

News from Blighty

Our cousins across the pond are having all sorts of ecclesiastical fun this week.

First comes the Church of England, which, having been forbidden by civil authority from even voting on whether or not it would perform the same-sex marriages now available (in theory) to other churches, has decided that it will accept bishops who are openly gay, and even living in covenanted relationships.

It will accept them, that is, with two rather challenging provisos:  first, that they agree to remain celibate; and second, that they formally repent of all previous "homosexual activity."  (This last, we take it, means sex per se, rather than, say, dressing stylishly, shopping for groceries, or doing any of the various other things one might reasonably do while homosexual).

The situation is heavy with irony.  Most obviously, the CofE is making room for gay men to become bishops shortly after having failed to permit women, however sexually conventional.  That's gotta hurt.

Beyond that, the celibacy and repentance requirements point to a very particular understanding of sexuality (homo or, by extension, hetero) as a matter of discrete acts, rather than an ontological condition.  This is no more inherently absurd than the modern effort to divide the human race into separate sexual camps -- homo, hetero and bi -- as though the behavior of the heart and loins could be so easily epitomized.  It is no more absurd to imagine that one's sexuality is merely a series of actions, disconnected from one's character and even being, but it is surely no less so.

The argument between these two theories is old and futile.  Generally, theological conservatives have preferred the "discrete actions" theory, and felt threatened by the idea that homosexuality, much less "gayness," can be claimed as an identity .  The first theory  allows an infinite sequence of lapses and confessions, which is after all a natural part of Christian living.  Unfortunately for them, it is the second theory -- in which one's sexual preferences are an intrinsic part of one's being, and those which harm nobody may be acted upon in good conscience, and even regarded as gifts of God -- which has more or less won the day in the contemporary West.

So it seems that the Anglicans have put themselves in an awkward position here.  They have embraced a theory beloved by their conservative wing, but to an end which may make many conservatives deeply uncomfortable.  Meanwhile, they have done so in a way which liberals will find preposterous, and which simply slaps feminists across the face.  Good show, chaps.

Second, of course, is the Ordinariate of O.L. of Walsingham, which after typing it so many times we now wish were called the Alcuin Club.  Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, has given the Ordinariate (shall we call it O.o.O.L.o.W.?) the use of a lovely 18th-century church in London.  The awkward bit is that, until just recently, that building -- Our Lady of the Assumption, Warwick Street -- was in use by a quite different group.

The Soho Masses community has, for many years, brought together Catholics who identify as "LGBT/queer."  One cannot readily imagine such a community sharing space with a group which has fled Anglicanism, in large part, because of the wrangling over sex.  (It would no doubt do both clans much good to be forced together, but still ....)  So Abp. Nichols has evicted them from Assumption, and they will shortly take up residence with the Jesuits, at Immaculate Conception, Farm Street.

We aren't sure what to make of this.  The Soho Masses website (and the personal blog of its organizer) is quite cheery about the whole thing.  Their community has been growing, and the coffee-hour space at Warwick Street was getting tight, not to mention that the bathrooms were a bit dingy.  The most awkward bit, they say, is that the Soho Masses will now be held in Mayfair.  Publicly, in other words, they treat the affair as a sign of the archbishop's pastoral care.  And so it may be, although we do note that the Jesuits, who stepped in to help, are not under Nichols' authority.

Anyway, it sounds like everybody is having a jolly time over there.

Je T'Adore, Jill Lepore

We have already hinted at our unwholesome admiration for Jill Lepore, the Harvard professor and New Yorker columnist.  Her essays combine erudition, depth and wit in a way that is rare even among our other favorites.  She goes deeper than, say, Adam Gopnik and yet carries it off more lightly than Marilynne Robinson.

So, naturally, we are smitten.  Please don't tell Mother Anonymous, or this could turn ugly.

Dr. Lepore -- may we call you Jill?  No?  How awkward -- has further endeared herself to us by publishing her New Yorker essays in a single volume, called The Story of America.  (Her conceit is that they are held together by the common theme of storytelling, or really self-representation, in American history.)  Her subjects range from Jamestown and Plymouth to Obama's inaugural address, but they also range widely: the history of "American Studies" as a discipline, Edgar Allan Poe's almost compulsive lying, the real detective behind Charlie Chan.

She has actually improved upon these pieces here, by arranging them not in the order they were published, but in the order of the events they describe -- and improved upon them even more by adding a solid index and better-than-solid footnotes.  (Her publishers, Princeton University Press, deserve great praise; notes and indices are too often omitted these days, especially in books intended for a general audience).

Now, we had previously imagined that anyone with Jill Lepore's smarts must be a sixty-something bluestocking, birdlike from a life of scholarly asceticism, gray hair pulled back in a severe bun, and most hampered in conversation by her dubious social skills.  We loved her this way.  To our shock, the dust-jacket photo reveals her to be young and pretty with a playful hint of affability in her smile.  We love her just as much, with a love so much more than love that it practically demands a kingdom by the sea.  (Forgive us; she spends a lot of time on Poe and Dickens.)

But it was this simile, near the beginning, that made us Jill Lepore's love-slave forever.  About the author of Common Sense, she writes:
Thomas Paine is, at best, a lesser Founder.  In the comic book version of history that serves as America's national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like  the Hanna-Barbera SuperFriends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington's Superman and Jefferson's Batman; we never find out how he got his super powers, and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim.
Take me, Dr. Lepore.  Take me now.