Sunday, April 28, 2013

Carry Me Back

Break out the corn pone and Joel Chandler Harris.  Father Anonymous is moving down south.

He and Mother A. have been offered a call, together, at a wonderful congregation located somewhere between the Chesapeake Bay and the Blue Ridge.  It's an agricultural community, specializing in horses and wine.  Under the synod's guidelines, your humble blogger and his wife had thirty days to accept; it did not take them thirty seconds.

The champagne corks have been popping around the Rental Rectory tonight, at least metaphorically.  (In non-metaphorical fact, Mother A. went to a conference meeting while Father A. fed the kid a corn dog.  But there was a glass of seltzer involved:  both celebratory and digestive.)  After a gut-wrenching nine months of unemployment, and a depression-inducing seven call processes of one sort or another, this news is balm in Gilead.

We invite you to join us in offering fervent prayers of thanksgiving.

Now for the hard part:  imagining ourselves Down South.

Our Dutch ancestors settled Nieuw Amsterdam.  We have long proposed that the Mason-Dixon Line runs through Staten Island, and that people who use the Outerbridge Crossing talk a little funny.  (We jest, of course:  everybody in Noo Yawk tawks a liddle funny.  You got a problem widdat?)  But, in all seriousness, we have lived our entire life (except for brief interludes) within a ninety-minute drive of Central Park, depending on traffic.  We have served our entire ministry in one synod.  Much of our free time, in recent years, has been spent researching and meditating on the history of Lutheranism in New York, a subject about which we know more than many other people, and one which will do us not a whit of good in the foreseeable future.

It is entirely possible that the remainder of our ministry will be carried out in Virginia.  It is unlikely that we will ever live in New York City again, and possible that we will never even live in New York State.  This exile will take some getting used to.

Not so much for Mother A. though.  She was born in New Orleans, raised in Mississippi and Texas.  She actually likes grits.  And before our Dutch ancestors ever set foot on Manhattan, her Anglo-Sephardic ancestors were settling Jamestown.  So she's practically a native.

Not to mention the fact that we fell in love in Virginia, watching a full moon rise over the mountains (and then heading back to the cabin for a Star Trek: Next Generation marathon.)

It is the beginning of an exciting new chapter in Father A.'s life.  He's already looking forward to his first Stuckey's Pecan Log.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Whosoever Desires

This time last year, we talked about the Athanasian Creed.  Specifically, we talked about ways to incorporate this extremely long piece of Christian history into one's worship service, should you so desire -- and we insisted, we think now too forcefully, that you should so desire.

The subject was raised again last night in an online chat among some colleagues.  It was a good chat, but one very specific thing that came up was confusion about the role of the Athanasian Creed in historic liturgies, whether Evangelical or otherwise.  We did a few minutes of research, and want to clear up some misconceptions on the subject.

Briefly, the liturgical history of the Athanasian Creed looks like this:


The Athanasian Creed seems to emerge in the 5th-6th centuries in southern Gaul.  It is a Latin document reflecting Augustinian theology (and, obviously, has nothing to do with Athanasius).  No matter what the Book of Concord says, it is not really an "ecumenical creed," since it was never accepted by any of the councils.  However, its structure suggests that it may have been intended from the beginning as a liturgical document.  Indeed, in documents from the 10th and 11th centuries, it is called "the Hymn of St. Athanasius on the Trinity" or "the Psalm Quicunque vult."

From at least 820, according to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, it occurred on Sundays at Prime in the Roman and Ambrosian breviaries (as well as derivatives, such as Sarum).  The Ambrosian rite also used it, sometimes, in the commendation of the dying.

Unsurprisingly, it has no formal role in Orthodox worship, but it is sometimes printed on the Horologion, as a text for private devotion.  As you would expect, it is printed without the filioque.


In his commentary on Joel, Luther says of the Athanasian Creed that, "I doubt if, since the days of the apostles, anything more important and more glorious has ever bee written in the Church of the New Testament."  This is hyperbolic, to be sure, but it shows that the Reformers had no plan to surrender their inheritance.

Among Evangelicals, the Athanasian Creed was used in two ways.  Some church orders (Wittenberg 1533; Braunschweig Wolfenbuettel 1543; Pomerania 1563; John Casimir of Saxony, 1626) used it as part of the Daily Office. In these cases, according to the 1899 Lutheran Cyclopedia article, it was typically sung at Matins on Saturday or Sunday, alternating in use with the Te Deum and Benedictus.  In practice, it was sung antiphonally, with the Gloria Patri added (because, obviously, it wasn't long enough already).

Timothy Wengert describes the use at Wittenberg, during Luther's lifetime, in detail:
It was to be sung at Matins on Sundays by the boys choir in Latin, alternating week by week with the Te Deum, after the sermon and a German hymn sung by the congregation. The same choir was to begin the Matins service reciting the catechism in Latin antiphonally.
A smaller number of orders used it as part of the Communion service, following the Gospel.  (Hesse 1574 and, specifically on Trinity Sunday, Schwaebisch Halle 1615).

The Pomeranian agenda also prescribed it for use "at the opening of synods, and once a month," at least according to an 1899 article by R. Morris Smith. It also seems to have been used at ordinations.

What must be added here is that, while some Evangelicals retained this creed in worship, others did not.  The Lutheran Reformation was liturgically diverse, and -- for all its conservatism -- sought to impose no common liturgy upon its adherents.

Anglicanism, of necessity, sought precisely that.  Each successive revision of the Prayer Book became, at least in theory, a legal document prescribing just what would be said, and when, at worship in each parish church.  In 1549, the BCP prescribed the Athanasian Creed for use after after the Benedictus at Matins on Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity.  The 1559 added seven saints' days, for a total of thirteen recitations.  This rubric was retained in the 1662 book, which remains the principal liturgical book of the Church of England.

Thirteen times per annum, the Anglican rubric (which remains in force to this day, at least on paper) seems like a lot.  It is worth remembering that the Pomeranians, and presumably some of the other German churches, sung it about as often.


Notwithstanding Fr. Zuhlsdorf's thing about red and black, we all know that rubrics are made to be ignored.  It seems pretty clear that, during the 17th and 18th centuries, the Athanasian Creed fell into disuse.  Evidence is that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA, when it developed its own version of the BCP, omitted the Athanasian Creed entirely.  A post at the Prayer Book Society blog avers that the minatory clauses were to blame, and this sounds likely.

We aren't sure just what the various Lutheran churches did during these years.  Perhaps, on paper, some retained the Athanasian Creed at Matins -- but then, it seems that the Daily Office dropped almost entirely out of use, which would moot the rubric without abolishing it.


In a curious 1875 essay, the Anglican writers Pebody and Kenny describe the gradual restoration of the Athanasian Creed in their own church.  They extol the frequency of its use in English churches, where it seems to have been sung to instrumental accompaniment.  They admit, however, that it has only returned to widespread use over the preceding 60 years, as BCP rubrics have been more carefully followed, and that even in their own time many of the English clergy refuse to obey the rubric, and they estimate that 3/5 would prefer it were removed.

They also mention that, in 1829, the Prussian church had given permission for the Athansian Creed to be used "in any churches where the use had lingered to that time."  This suggests that at least a few Lutherans had continued the practice through the liturgical lean years.

Nonetheless, such use must have been exceptional.  A 1906 LLA essay on the liturgical use of the creeds in Lutheran churches states flatly that it "is not used ... at this time."  It is not clear how the author knows this, or even whether he is correct.


In 1914, revisions to the Roman breviary reduced the use of the Athanasian Creed to Prime on Trinity Sunday.  (In the contemporary Liturgy of the Hours, it is used only on Trinity.)

Among Lutherans, recitation on Trinity Sunday seems to have been common enough by the mid-20th century.  The Athanasian Creed was not included in the 1917 Common Service Book, or the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal, but it was in The Lutheran Hymnal (1941).   In 1967, Catholic World noted in passing that Lutherans and Roman Catholics were "almost" the only American churches to use the Athanasian Creed in worship.

In a 1965 article, Arthur Carl Piepkorn prescribes thusly for TLH users:
On Trinity Sunday, at Matins, the Athanasian Creed may be used instead of the Psalmody. The Lutheran Liturgy [a manual for TLH] authorizes you to use the Athanasian Creed in place of part of the Psalmody. When you use the Athanasian Creed, render it like a Psalm or Canticle; use Gloria Patri at the end and, if you wish, use an appropriate Antiphon at the beginning and the end. The Athanasian Creed should never be substituted for the Nicene (or the Apostles') Creed.
It was printed in the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, and although we recall no rubrics concerning its use, we have neither our desk edition nor Pfatteicher's Manual on the Liturgy available to us just now.  The latter, we assume, had at least some suggestions.

Meanwhile, Episcopalians added it to the back pages of their 1979 BCP, as "an historical document" like the 39 Articles or the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, rather than a liturgical text.   Evangelical Lutheran Worship omits it entirely.

This, so far as we know, covers the field.  At the moment, Lutherans (at least users of LBW, ELW or the new Missouri book) have no rubric prescribing the Athanasian Creed, but a fair number of congregations are accustomed to its use, at least on rare occasions.  This use, while by no means obligatory, is deeply rooted in the history of the Evangelical movement, and deserves to be remembered, whether or not it is continued.

He Would Cease Being God

Here is Clement of Alexandria on the Fourth Commandment:
Thus the Lord Himself is called “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end,” “by whom all things were made, and without whom not even one thing was made.” God’s resting is not, then, as some conceive, that God ceased from doing. For, being good, if He should ever cease from doing good, then would He cease from being God, which it is sacrilege even to say. The resting is, therefore, the ordering that the order of created things should be preserved inviolate, and that each of the creatures should cease from the ancient disorder.
(Stromata, Bk 6, Ch. 16) 

From here, Clement continues on with an argument for the "orders of creation."  This is a theological construct which troubles us at the Egg.  For one thing, it was beloved of the Nazis; but even in Clement, it posits that some created things are less "worthy" to their Creator than others.  This may be true, but -- if so -- it does not seem to us to flow necessarily from the days of creation.  (On the other had, watch a real theologian deal with the matter.)

But that sentence in red is worth remembering.

Sacraments and Secularism

Paul Tillich, of all people:

The classical combination "word and sacrament" means, in the first place, "the word as well as the sacrament." Next it signifies, "the sacrament through the word." And it has often been used, especially in Protestantism, as "word without sacrament." ...
The phenomenal growth of secularism in Protestant countries can be explained partly as a result of the weakening of the sacramental power within Protestantism. For this reason the solution of the problem of "nature and sacrament" is today a task on which the very destiny of Protestantism depends. 
From Shaking of the Foundations.

His actual argument is far more ... Tillichian ... than these excerpts.  Still, though, it is worth thinking about.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Pastors, Not Functionaries"

That is the line that Rocco Palmo pulled out of a sermon by Pope Francis, delivered at a recent service of ordination.  The sermon is posted at Whispers in the Loggia, and well worth a read.

Tow sections grab our attention.  In the first, Francis briefly distinguishes the general from the particular priesthood:

It is true that God has made his entire holy people a royal priesthood in Christ. Nevertheless, our great Priest himself, Jesus Christ, chose certain disciples to carry out publicly in his name, and on behalf of mankind, a priestly office in the Church. For Christ was sent by the Father and he in turn sent the Apostles into the world, so that through them and their successors, the Bishops, he might continue to exercise his office of Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd. ...
After mature deliberation and prayer, these, our brothers, are now to be ordained to the priesthood in the Order of the presbyterate so as to serve Christ the Teacher, Priest, and Shepherd, by whose ministry his body, that is, the Church, is built and grows into the people of God, a holy temple.
In being configured to Christ the eternal High Priest and joined to the priesthood of the Bishops, they will be consecrated as true priests of the New Testament, to preach the Gospel, to shepherd God’s people, and to celebrate the sacred Liturgy, especially the Lord’s sacrifice.

This is a lucid statement of something we have long tried to communicate to our fellow Evangelicals.  The "priesthood of all believers" -- a phrase not to be found in Luther -- is built, in the Confessions, on just the passage to which Francis refers here, 1 Peter 2:9.  Some Lutherans like to imagine that our Confessions establish the Evangelical priesthood on a basis quite distinct from the Catholic one, but it has never been clear to us that they are correct.

Rather the opposite; the various theories (one cannot call them doctrines) concerning the office of ministry abroad in the Lutheran churches are surpassed in their inadequacy only by our myriad and conflicting ecclesiologies.  One of the much-remarked-upon ironies of Lutheran life is that we have sustained a generally competent and traditional priestly practice despite a dismal supporting theology.

A shocking number of Lutherans are taught to believe that, since all the baptized are priests, there are no essential differences in their ministries.  At its most extreme, this leads to lay presidency at the Eucharist, pastors ordained without bishops, and congregations reciting the Collect en masse, as if to spite the millennia.  (Some days, we do not know which of these abuses is worst.)  But even without these gross abuses, the simplistic understanding of the general priesthood has led to many smaller failures.  How many congregations treat their pastor with barely suppressed contempt, the result of an anxiety about the office that leads to inadvertent anticlericalism?  How many treat the pastor as an employee, a subordinate rather than a leader?  And how many pastors let them?

It seems to us that the Confessions permit a more traditional reading, and that indeed the hermeneutic of Apology 14:1 practically demands it.  The general priesthood is a Biblical reality; but so long as it cannot be proven to overthrow the particular priesthood, we must assume that both institutions continue, as they have throughout the history of the Church, distinct and complementary.

And Francis describes the duties of the particular priesthood in language that Lutherans will recognize:  to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments, and to shepherd -- to pastor, to lead -- God's people. No matter how confused, contradictory and inadequate our theories have been, our practice has almost always recognized that these are duties peculiar to the people set aside and blessed for them.

He then goes on to talk about something Lutherans have buried like pirate's treasure, keeping it as far from our everyday conversationas we can:  the rites of confession and forgiveness.  We at the Egg are constantly astonished by the umber of lifelong Lutherans who can recall from memory which page of the LBW or SBH or TLH their favorite hymn was on, but who do not even know that those books contain an order for individual confession.  How many recall, with varying degrees of affection, a confirmation class in which they were asked to memorize the Catechism -- and yet never seem to have stumbled across Chapter 5?

Anyway, it is in this context that Francis offers wise advice to the whole  clergy, and especially to those newly ordained, or soon to be ordained:
Today I ask you in the name of Christ and the Church, never tire of being merciful. You will comfort the sick and the elderly with holy oil: do not hesitate to show tenderness towards the elderly. When you celebrate the sacred rites, when you offer prayers of praise and thanks to God throughout the hours of the day, not only for the people of God but for the world—remember then that you are taken from among men and appointed on their behalf for those things that pertain to God. Therefore, carry out the ministry of Christ the Priest with constant joy and genuine love, attending not to your own concerns but to those of Jesus Christ. You are pastors, not functionaries. Be mediators, not intermediaries.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Principia Phantasmatica

For what it's worth, we at the Egg believe in ghosts.  Not necessarily ectoplasmic ghoulies clanking chains, the existence of which seems improbable at best, but certainly in what the Bowen theory people call "spooks in the system," patterns of action and reaction that can carry over from one generation to another, shaping the lives of people who do not understand them, and which can only be driven out when they are identified clearly --  called, as it were, by name.  History, especially the history of a family or of an institution, is all about being haunted and exorcised.

Which brings us to Rebecca Stott's novel Ghostwalk.  We picked the book up a few months ago, and last week, while all hell was breaking loose nationwide, we read it -- taking advantage of an opportunity to immerse ourself in the alternate realities of geneticists and alchemists, Cambridge University, and Sir Isaac Newton's lifelong fascination with the color red.

As you might guess from the title, this is a ghost story.  A specter is haunting Cambridge, and a series of mysterious deaths in the 1660s seems connected to an ongoing series in the early 2000s.  An historian, writing a study of Newton's alchemical work, has drowned.  Her son, a research geneticist, hires his sometime lover to complete the book.  Meanwhile, the town is troubled by outbreaks of vandalism and violence that appear to be the work of an animal-rights group, which has made the geneticist its particular target.

It sounds complicated, but it isn't really.  The cast of characters is small, and the story is not hard to follow.  It takes her a while, but Stott manages to build some genuine suspense, as we try to discern what is real and what is unreal, and of real things, which are natural and which supernatural.

It would be easier to follow if the prose were less affected.  The narrator, Lydia Brook, speaks in the first person, addressing her lover Cameron Brown in the second; on a few occasions she drops into the third for no evident reason.  This is annoying enough.  She rambles a bit, indulges in unnecessarily florid descriptions and unimpressive bits of wordplay.  This is a first novel, and here is where it shows.  Nonetheless, the story is plotted well enough, and the characters are drawn sharply enough, to keep things from getting too boggy.

As for whether you like the story or not, it will depend (we imagine) on how you feel about ghost stories and/or about Newton.

Ghostwalk is part of a distinctive sub-genre, the so-called "antiquarian ghost story" associated with M.R. James -- himself a Cambridge don.  Stories like this generally involve academicians on holiday, doing some sort of ordinary historical research.  They are, by nature, full of dusty documents and obscure details about dead people, not infrequently accompanied by maps, footnotes and appendices.  Ghostwalk provides all of the above; better yet is the fact that the dead people are ones who really lived.  Needless to say, we at the Egg are the sort of people who like everything better with footnotes, up to and including our ice cream.

As for Newton, well, he was in his own lifetime, and remains to this day, one of the most celebrated of all Englishmen, "a national hero" as one of Stott's characters calls him.  This has made him an attractive character for deconstruction:  back in the 1960s, John Barth portrayed him as a pederast, Dan Brown put him in the Priory of Sion, and a Rob Cohen detective adventure movie is said to be in the works. (Of these, weirdly, Brown's version seems likeliest.)  A pioneer in mathematics and physics, and therefore one of the creators of what we mean today by "science," he was at the same time greatly preoccupied with things that we do not today consider scientific at all.  His interest in alchemy, perhaps under the influence of secret societies such as the Rosicrucians, has moved one historian to call him "the last sorcerer."  This is the heart of Stott's story.

And yet, strangely, she makes no mention of his other related interest, which was Christian theology.  Newton wrote a great deal of highly speculative (read:  heterodox) theology, dealing with Biblical hermeneutics and eschatology.  None of it was published in his lifetime, but modern scholars are well aware of it.  Since Stott is concerned with events of the 1650s and 60s, and Newton wrote his theological tracts after 1670, it is possible that she doesn't find them germane.  But it is hard to imagine that her characters, obsessed as they are with climbing into Newton's mind, would simply set this aside.

It is ironic that one of Stott's images for human relationships, whether those of separated lovers or of haunter and haunted, is quantum entanglement, "spooky action at a distance."  This idea comes not from Newtonian physics but from the quantum mechanics that partially supplanted it.  But of course science -- whether the science of light or of inheritance -- is not what Stott is trying to talk about.  neither, for that matter, is the dubious mixture of physics and metaphysics known as alchemy.  These are just metaphors for the interplay of love, ambition and rage that hold people together down through the years.

Ghostwalk is not for everybody.  But if you are interested Cambridge or Newton, and especially if you are interested in the past and how it haunts the present -- sometimes ruinously -- then this is worth a look.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oh, Yeah. Here It Is.

It seems we have readers at Camden College.  A few of them were up late the other night, absolutely 100% not (so they assure us) doing anything that would make the angels weep, when they came across a copy of Ballantine's 1971 Ramba re-issue.

Camden's Hampden Library counts among its various special collections a shelf or three dedicated to junk paperbacks, from the 1940s onward.  Spoiled rich kids have all the fun.

Anyway, is it just us, or does Ramba (or her gladiatrix companion?  Anyway, the one on the left) bear a powerful resemblance to Pam Grier?

A powerful resemblance.

Okay.  Play time's over.  Next time we post, it will be something about the 17th century, next week's pericopes, or the hideous undead creature that calls itself Dick Cheney.

Friday, April 19, 2013

God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater

This was, apparently, the best-selling novel of 1936.  The funny thing is that, although in those days nobody thought it was possible, the current thinking is that there may actually have been female gladiators.  Who knew?

The beat-up copy here, which lived on a shelf at Grandma's beach house and was abused by decades' worth of houseguests, dates from the mid-40s.

Eunice Rosewater was a New England novelist, a chess champion, and married to a senator.  Her prose style has been described, charitably, as "Lyttonesque."

We've heard that there was a paperback re-issue in the early 60s, which didn't sell.  Copies are said to be very, very rare.

In completely unrelated news, they got Suspect #2.

Live and Learn

Huh.  Apparently, this guy had a copy of Ludwig Prinn's treatise, On the Mysteries of the Worm, sitting around in his attic.

We're not sure how he came by such an oddity, but we're very impressed.  Perhaps through his association with Campus Crusade for Cthulhu, back in the 1970s?

In any case, an impressive find for a certain sort of antiquarian.

And it certainly saved us a lot of time, as we sit here at our desk trying desperately not to think about Boston and Watertown.

Back In Print?

Has Aaron Klopstein's collection Twenty Inches of Monkey actually been brought back into print after all these years?

It seems strikingly unlikely.

And if it has been re-issued by a new publisher, don't you think the cheap SOBs could have paid for cover art that wasn't an obvious mash-up of a Planet of the Apes publicity still and that widely-internetted wallpaper of a sexy Japanese nurse riding a motorcycle and shooting a gun?

Still, Klopstein -- whose suicide by blow-gun at the Christlike age of 33 is still an open wound among historians of American literature -- deserves attention.

We ourselves treasure our dog-eared copy of Klopstein's Once More the Cicatrice.  As we recall, it gave us quite a thrill in our adolescence, although it would no doubt be tame by today's standards.

Stranger Than Fiction

Turns out there really is an Anglo-American Encyclopedia, 1917 edition.  

However, the volume containing an entry for "Uqbar" is said to be missing from most libraries.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Damn I Love That Movie

Sadly, this is not one of those books we'll ever scrounge up in a used bookstore or on the half-price table at a church rummage sale.  Like the 1917 edition of the Anglo-American Encyclopedia, or Aaron Klopstein's Twenty Inches of Monkey, it does not exist, and never did.

Still, we keep looking.  Because we're that kind of people.

Jingle Bells, Iron Man Smells

We've been waiting since 1968 to direct that kindergarten barb against somebody else's favorite superhero, and at last our long and lonely vigil has come to an end.  Shellhead stinks!

Per Wired, the film Iron Man 3 will be released in smell-o-vision, at least in Japan.  Of course, it's not called that anymore -- "that's so last century" -- but you get the idea.  Apparently, there is a new wave of "fourth dimension" theaters emerging worldwide, which offer such dubious pleasures as fog, tilting seats and, well, odor enhancements.  (As if our typical multiplex weren't already stinky enough.)

Wired proposes that Tont Stark, being a billionarire, probably smells pretty good, what with all the expensive cologne.  We're thinking it's more about sweat and engine grease, though.  Sounds ... ducky. (But maybe he'll just smell like the official fragrance from IM2.  There actually was one.)

In Rome last summer, we took our kid to a tourist trap that offered a special "history" of the city, with some of these features.  The seats rocked and at some point, for reasons that made sense at the time,  water was sprayed in our faces.  Huzzah. He liked it, but he was five years old.

For our own part, we dislike 3-D movies with a passion, and can only imagine that adding aromas will make the whole thing worse.  Not to mention more expensive.

All of which is why we are sticking to Netflix.

Roosevelt on Sheep and Shepherds

we saw this years ago, in Edwin Morris' magnificent The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.  The blog Mountain & Prairie sources it to TR's 1885 Hunting Trips of a Ranch Man, p. 121:
Cattle-men hate sheep, because they eat the grass so close that cattle cannot live on the same ground. The sheep-herders are a morose, melancholy set of men, generally afoot, and with no companionship except that of the bleating idiots they are hired to guard. No man can associate with sheep and retain his self-respect. Intellectually a sheep is about on the lowest level of the brute creation; why the early Christians admired it, whether young or old, is to a good cattle-man always a profound mystery.
Try not to think of it as you write your Sunday sermon.  Stick to Austin Farrer, for mercy's sake.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

How Are People Murdered in America?

The short answer is guns.  The long answer is handguns.

Among the loony claims floating around the Internet, you occasionally come across some variation on this one:  "More people are murdered by hands and feet [or knives, or pressure cookers] than by guns!  Check the statistics!"

We did, and that particular claim is false.

However, we can see where it comes from, and what rhetorical purpose it serves.  According to the FBI's tally of murders in the US from 2007-2011, numbers vary from year to year but the rough outline remains the same.*  In 2011, there were 12,664 murders.  Of those, 8,583 -- almost 68% -- were committed using guns.  In comparison, knives or other cutting instruments accounted for 13%, and "personal weapons" -- hands and feet, perhaps the occasional savage head-butt -- for about 6%.  (Explosives murdered 12 people in 2011, a huge increase from the previous years but still less than a tenth of a percent).

So what's going on?  The false claims start with inflammatory articles like this one, posted at the Daily Caller.  Here's the headline:
You are more likely to be killed by hands and feet than by a shotgun or rifle
It claims, more or less correctly,** that
Total murders by hands and feet in 2011 exceed the total number of murders by shotgun and rifle. Does that mean gloves and shoes need regulation because they are concealing deadly weapons? No, but it does mean that there is no need for any further regulation of long arms
You can see what happened.  The article is about long guns -- rifles, shot guns, and the much-ballyhooed "assault weapons."  And strictly on its own terms, it is accurate.  But excitable readers may fail to ask "What about handguns?"  Then they click all over the web, spreading their own misinterpretation of the story -- a misinterpretation which is all too easily come by, since the Caller article never mentions handguns.  

Here's the fact:  of those 8,583 gun murders in 2011, 6,220 -- 72% -- were committed with handguns.  In 2011, 49% of all murders in the US were committed with a single class of weapon:  handguns.  This is an extremely important fact, of which nobody should lose sight in the current debate over gun laws.  Handguns kill 8-10 times as many Americans as do rifles and shotguns.

Which means that while a ban on automatic rifles might very well make it more difficult for killers seeking mass casualties to commit their crimes, the place to begin, if we are serious about reducing the overall number of murders in our country, is with a dramatic reduction in the number of handguns.

*Note that the FBI reports murders, not deaths.  This means that cases in which a death is ruled "accidental" -- father's loaded pistol kills boy in truck; toddler shoots woman at household party, and so forth -- are not included.   
** We say "more or less" because the FBI's numbers also include several hundred "other guns" murders, and over a 1500 "firearms, type not stated."  If as few as 50 of those murders were committed with long guns, the Caller is mistaken.


Here is Austin Farrer, on the image of the Good Shepherd in John 10:
CHRIST'S parable of the shepherd escapes us not by being obscure, but by being so plain.  The meaning is so familiar that we overlook it.  
What does he say?  A man cares naturally for his own things.  He does not have to make himself care.  The shepherd who has bought the ground and fenced the fold and tended the lambs, whose own the sheep are to keep or to sell, cares for them.  He would run some risk, rather than see them mauled; if he had only a heavy stick in his hand, he would beat off the wolf.  
Christ does not boast, as a man among men, that he loves mankind more than any other man, through a higher refinement of virtue.  He says that he cares for us as no one else can, because we are his.  We do not belong to any other man; we belong to him.  His dying for us in this world is the natural effect of his unique care.  It is the act of our Creator.
Technically, he is commenting on the passage in the old lectionary (John 10:11-16), but it applies almost as well to the RCL pericope.  From LectionaryCentral.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Report, Don't Guess

In Eastern Europe and the Levant, conspiracy theories are the very stuff of life.  Although we Americans certainly have our share -- did you hear about the time Roy Cohn took Elvis for a ride in his UFO and they shot Kennedy together? -- our natural tendency is more manichaean.  We like our white hats and our black hats, our easily-identified enemies, and even though the world stubbornly refuses to conform to our vision, we keep looking out the window and seeing what we want to see.

So it is that, less than a day after the Boston Marathon bombings, a fair number of Americans began speculating on just which of the usual suspects to blame.  We heard a guest commentator on NPR hinting darkly about the right-wing "patriot" groups that have, apparently, been multiplying in recent years.  To the credit of WBUR and On Point's listeners, a caller quickly shut her up, with a reminder that it is irresponsible to speculate in the absence of evidence.

That scolding carried no weight with the people at Tea Party Nation (an actual website!), where Judson Philips writes:

Unfortunately the sad truth is we will be hit again.  It will happen sooner or later.  It will probably be sooner than later. 
There are two reasons why we will be hit again.  First, we have a determined enemy who hates us.  Second, we have a government that is not committed to protecting America.
It is a pretty safe bet right now that this attack was carried out by an Islamist.  It was a well-coordinated attack.  In its publication, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called for just this kind of attack.
While the government and media have fallen all over themselves to downplay this fact, there is a twenty-year-old Saudi student being detained as a “person of interest.”   Person of interest in a nice police term that is used for someone who is not under arrest and therefore does not have to be read his Miranda rights and who hopefully will not lawyer up.
Case closed, right?

For the record, this was posted at 7:08 this morning.  As of the 9:40 press conference, there was nobody in custody.  That "Saudi national" you keep hearing about, and whose rights Philips is so eager to set aside, appears to just be some student who got tackled by a patriotic bystander when he did what everybody else was doing, which was to run away from the explosion.  (That's per John Miller, the John L. Allen Jr. of crime reporting).

Gawker has a guide to even more of this paranoid twittery.

But the one who really frustrates us here is in another (and higher) class altogether: Terry Mattingly, at GetReligion.  In a rambling and self-referential post, Mattingly "waits for the religion shoe to drop in Boston," and gives fellow reporters instructions on how to handle the seemingly-inevitable.  He reminds them to help readers understand the different forms of Islam, and makes suitable comparisons to Christian terrorists such as Anders Beivik and Paul Hill.  All wise and appropriate.

And yet we are left, as so often in Terry's posts, with a nagging suspicion.  Why jump in with this piece now -- unless you are assuming that there will be a religion angle to the story as it develops?  Why drop the word "Islam" five times and "Muslim" three, if you are not trying to play up a little to the inevitable speculation about just what that religious angle may prove to be?  To hint, just a tiny bit, at what you think happened?

The problem is that times like this call restraint, for caution, and for patience.

Maybe we're being unfair.  But we wish that he had held back a little, and either refrained from publishing anything at all or simply written a short paragraph, reminding the pros that, if there does turn out to be a religious angle here, they have a duty to their readers to be as clear and specific about the details as they can be.  Which he did say, of course.

Or, as John L. Allen, Jr. said in the post below, "Getting the story right means you have to respect the complexity of reality."

Now For A Real Journalist

We have been reading a lot, lately, by John L. Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter.  He is easily the most respected journalist covering the Vatican.  In an interview with Nicholas Hahn at Real Clear Religion, Allen talks about what to expect from the Bergoglio papacy, and -- more interesting still -- about his work as a journalist.  Here are some highlights.

I think this was clearly, and self-consciously, the most anti-establishment conclave of the last 150 years. I think you'd probably have to go back to the election of Leo XIII in 1878 to find a conclave where the Cardinals understood themselves so clearly to be voting for a change. In this case it wasn't a rejection of the substance of Benedict XVI's papacy, but it was a rejection of the methods of management and governance. ... 
RCR: There has been some concern from conservatives that this Pope won't be friendly to their issues. Are those concerns valid? 
JA: I wouldn't worry about him rejecting them. I would worry that it's not what he's going to be thinking about when he gets out of bed in the morning. I mean, I don't see him abrogating Summorum Pontificum. However, I don't think you're going to get what you got under Benedict XVI who self-consciously tried to set an example of a more reverent and sober liturgical style. To the extent that the reform of the reform in the liturgical life of the Church goes on, it's probably going to be led less from Rome. I don't think the Pope is going to get in the way of it, but I don't think he's going to be the agent of it in the same way Benedict XVI was.


RCR: Newsweek's Ken Woodward once wrote that outside of North Korea, "no bureaucracy is harder for a journalist to crack than the Vatican's." Do you agree with him? 
JA: I'm not 100 percent sure that's true. The problem with the Vatican isn't so much secrecy, because this isn't like the Pentagon where they have troop movements they're trying to conceal. There aren't really state secrets in that sense. There aren't spy satellites orbiting. 
RCR: No drones either? 
JA: [Laughter] No. The problem with the Vatican is that it's unique. It is unlike any other institution so you have to learn how to crack the codes. Now, it's not rocket science, but you have to spend enough time doing it that you learn to speak the languages.
(That "cracking the code" and "learning the languages" is true for any sort of journalism -- and also, incidentally, for rpaish ministry).  
Hahn observes that Allen does not necessarily support the positions taken by the NCR's editors, who sometimes dissent from church teaching.  Allen responds:
JA: I'm a reporter and an analyst, so I'm trying to give people tools to think about issues in the Church. I'm not trying to tell them what to think about these issues. 
RCR: Your kind of objectivity has been described as "maddening." Does it ever drive you mad? 
JA: I take it as a compliment, if it's true. I have never in my life set out in an effort to write an objective story. I'm just trying to get the story right. That's it. Getting the story right means you have to respect the complexity of reality. There's always more than one view of what's going on in the Church or anything else.
You try to assemble the facts as best you can, then you try talk to a bunch of different people representing different points of view about those facts, and then you try to lay it all out there in a way that's engaging to people who don't have a Ph.D in ecclesiology. More than that, I'm very nervous of any journalist who has a loftier notion of what our calling is. Any journalist who goes into a story with an idea of who the good guys and bad guys are makes me nervous.
The aim should always be getting the story right and objectivity is a byproduct.

There's more where that came from, and it's fascinating.

Monday, April 15, 2013

"I Truly Despise the Episcopal Church"

Here is television host and noted bow-tie wearer Tucker Carlson, describing his faith in an interview with Marvin Olasky:

We still go to the Episcopal Church for all kinds of complicated reasons, but I truly despise the Episcopal Church in a lot of ways. They’re for gay marriage because it’s trendy. It’s another way to express how hip they are. They don’t care at all what God thinks of it, because they actually don’t believe in God. And then the fact that they sanction abortion. Are you joking? A church is for abortion? What?
Q:  You said you and your family go to an Episcopal church for all kinds of complicated reasons. Could you un-complicate that for us?  
A:  Part of it’s inertia. Part is we really like the people. Part is that’s the world I grew up in. I love the liturgy. I can recite it without looking at it. Dumb stuff like that. Am I going to defend that? No. It’s totally indefensible. I’m a shallow guy! That’s why I still go to the Episcopal Church. But I like it! I just don’t want to think too hard about my money going to these pompous, blowhard, pagan creeps who run the church!

Well, at least he's honest.


Please pray for the people hurt by the explosions -- now said to be bombs -- at the Boston Marathon.  You have probably prayed for them already; please don't stop.

George W. Bush Can Read

He mentions this surprising fact in an interview with the Dallas Morning News, which has been picked up by Politico.

In addition to being surprised that he can read, Mr Bush says, many people are surprised that he has some talent as a painter, which he describes with a little self-deprecating humor.  He makes it sound like a kind of sissy-sounding hobby that he took up in retirement only because Winston Churchill said it was okay.  (That said, we really do like his paintings of his dog).

In other news, recent polls suggest that his administration is still better-loved than Nixon's.  However, its popularity appears to be dropping retroactively.  James Buchanan had better look to his laurels.

Picking the Pope

Well-informed writing about religious matters is rare enough that, when you stumble across an example, the angels start to sing.  Or Maybe Mother A. is rocking out while she does her Pilates; whatever.

In any case, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent article called Fifteen Days in Rome:  How the Pope Was Picked, by Stacy Meichtry and Allessandra Galloni, that is worth reading.  Its general subject has, of course, received immense attention; the article does a nifty job of pulling together the facts and turning them into an atmospheric narrative.

Meichtry and Galloni sketch out some of the factions, or perhaps we should call them "schools of thought," among the cardinals, and make a surprisingly strong case for the power of the English-speakers.  But most impressive is that they tell the story without falling back on the easy and inaccurate language of "liberals" and "conservatives," words that -- as we never tire of saying -- mean almost nothing in this context.

The description of Bergoglio's speech to the General Congregation, and especially the reflection by Peru's Cipriani Cardinal Thorne, is very revealing. Bergoglio appears to have turned the conversation in an important direction -- toward what in Italian s called the periferia, meaning the edge either of a city or of a society, or what we might call the margins and the marginalized.  But he did this in a way that gave no ground to the liberation theology of the 70s.  The importance of this cannot be understated.  It is easy to imagine Roman Catholicism as though it were divided between reactionary fat cats and rag tag revolutionaries, and that the former have in recent years all but suppressed the latter.  This is wildly inaccurate, and the effect of Bergoglio's speech is proof of that.  The people at the very center of the church's power structure heard an authentic call to concern for the margins, and responded at once.  Because, whatever their personal flaws and failures, they know that they are the living symbols of a powerful tradition.  Or, simply, the sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd.

Apparently, this an excerpt from a book.  We will probably buy it, once we have money.  You might not want to wait.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Opposing View

We don't really know what the website Opposing Views is or means to be, but it has run a series of brief and badly-written essays on Lutheranism.  They keep showing up in our Google news feed, and we keep ignoring them.  But enough is enough.

In a comparison of Lutheranism and Methodism, OV writer Brian Gabriel wrote:
In keeping with traditional Catholic belief, Lutherans have a literal interpretation of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, or communion. They believe that the sacrament of baptism in itself forgives people's sins and, like Catholics, they believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation – the literal transformation of the bread into Christ's body during the Eucharist. Methodists view baptism and the Eucharist as symbols of inner spiritual experience.
Given the times, we suspect that a lot of state-school  undergraduates will wind up wishing that they had plagiarized from some other source, as this is the kind of boner that will cost them a full letter grade on their Intro to World Civ paper.

To simply have said that we share with Roman Catholics an abiding faith in the reality of Christ's Eucharistic presence would have been accurate; it would have been natural for anyone acquainted with the subject to have added that, unlike our Papist cousins, we take no position on the means by which that presence is achieved.

Oh, well.  At least these morons aren't filling anybody's head with that nonsense about a Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation.  That one makes steam come out of our ears.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Drunk-Driving Bishop Update

Maureen Mangelt's funeral was today, at St. Albert the Great Catholic Church, in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.  Please remember her and her family in your own prayers.

Meanwhile, the story of her death remains a little fuzzy.'s Doug Erickson is keeping tabs, and we're going to rely on him. 

Bruce Burnside, the ELCA bishop who struck her with his car, has been arrested and charged with three felonies -- "homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run causing death" -- and a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge.  He is accused of striking another car after he hit Mangelt.   Burnside has entered a residential treatment program.

Surveillance video from a nearby bar is said to show the accident; in addition, there are five eyewitnesses.  Video and witnesses all agree that Burnside was moving fast, and did not stop after he hit Mangelt.

At his hearing, Burnside agreed to surrender his passport, to convince the judge that he is not a flight risk. While in jail, he was kept separated from the general population, because of concerns for his safety.

Now, here is where the fuzziness comes in.

First, there is the question of why Burnside tried to keep going after he hit Mangelt.  Was he trying to escape completely?  Simply to get off the exit ramp where the accident occurred, to prevent a pileup?  Or was he so impaired, and traveling so fast, that he could not stop his car?

Second, there is the fact that he lied to the police, and told them that he had not been drinking. The police have revealed that his preliminary blood alcohol count was .128.  The legal limit is .08.  You can punch the numbers into this BAC calculator yourself, but it basically suggests that, depending on his weight and how long he had been drinking, Burnside had put away the equivalent of four to six glasses of wine.

This raises the question of what Burnside had been up to that day -- of how, exactly, a bishop gets drunk on Sunday.

At the hearing, his attorney declined to say where Burnside was coming from.  Erickson reports that
At the time of the crash, Burnside was headed from Madison to Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie, where he was to preside over a 3 p.m. church ceremony,
But in another story, he also says:

Burnside was [scheduled] to be the guest speaker at an informal talk session between Sunday services at Peace Lutheran Church [in Waunkaee] .... [but an] announcement was made during the second church service that Burnside had called to say he was unable to attend due to being sick....

For the record, Sunday services at Peace are 8 and 10:30.  So, sometime in the morning, Burnside felt -- or said he felt -- unable to get out; and yet five hours later, he was racing to Sun Prairie.  Drunk.

Assuming that all this is true, it is hard to imagine what Burnside's day was like.

Our first, and most charitable, assumption was that he had been at worship somewhere, shared a little fellowship with the congregation afterward, and found himself just a smidge over the limit.  That is emphatically not the case.  He was drunker than that, and had bailed on his commitment to at least one congregation.

Frankly, the other possibilities range from bad to awful.  We won't actually type any of them out, because we don't want to prejudice anybody with our fertile imagination.  But they're ugly.

Among Lutheran pastors, this story has created a lot of noise, as you wold expect.  We'll write more about that later.  For now, though, we are hoping for more and clearer information, and we believe that Mr. Erickson is our best bet for that.

"Only Two?"

You know the way we get about the unsourced anecdotes that preachers use in sermons?  Eric Naiman gets that way, too, but he is a thousand times more dogged in his pursuit of the truth.

Some years ago, a biography of Dickens included a fascinating anecdote.  The great English writer was visited by no less than Dostoevsky, to whom he opened his creative soul.  Dickens confessed that, in his many novels, all the heroes and heroines were the people he wished that he had been, and all the villains were the person he felt he truly was.  There were two people inside him, from whom all his characters had grown.  To which Dostoevsky responded, in a murmur, "Only two people?"  The implication is that a truly great writer contains multitudes.

Great story, right?  It never happened.

Oh, you'll find it in books, published by scholars and properly footnoted.  But it never happened.

Naiman describes the effort of other suspicious scholars, who track this story to its apparent source, a short and comparatively recent essay by an otherwise unknown writer named Stephanie Harvey.  But Harvey cannot be contacted; an editor trying to ask her some questions gets a note from her sister, explaining that she has been in a terrible car accident and suffered brain damage.

Naiman tries to check Harvey;s putative source for the anecdote, which proves to be a Soviet-era journal published in Kazakhstan.  One of which no Slavic scholar has ever heard, and of which Kazakh librarians can find not trace.  And this is only the beginng

Exploring the mystery of Stephanie Harvey, Naiman enters a bizarre funhouse, filled with mirrors which reflect each other.  One unknown writer after another appears, all copying from each other and reviewing each other's books -- sometimes to praise them, sometimes to damn them.  One can only imagine that, back of it all, John Barth is laughing in his beer.

And there's lots of sex in the story, too, including a great deal about nipples and aureloae.

The whole bizarre story of a hoax -- if the story is not itself a hoax! -- appears in TLS.  It's long, but absolutely delightful.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Multiple Choice Tests Are Good For Everyone

In high school, young Longhair Anonymous volunteered to take part in a classroom debate.  The topic was simple:  apartheid, pro or con.  Students were allowed to choose which side they would argue and yours truly, ever the contrarian, chose to argue in favor of apartheid.

He lost, and was happy to lose.  It meant that his classmates, who judged the debate and voted, were not idiots.  Ot, if they were idiots, that they were at least decent and humane ones.

We remember this, when we hear about a situation in an Albany, New York, high school this week.  Per the Times, a teacher assigned students to write an essay, using the classical rhetorical forms of pathos, ethos or logos to argue persuasively in favor of an unpopular idea:

The students were instructed to imagine that their teacher was a Nazi and to construct an argument that Jews were “the source of our problems” using historical propaganda and, of course, a traditional high school essay structure.
“Your essay must be five paragraphs long, with an introduction, three body paragraphs containing your strongest arguments, and a conclusion,” the assignment read. “You do not have a choice in your position: you must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

This was a mistake.

The teacher is going to face discipline, which may include termination.  The principal spent what were no doubt some unhappy hours meeting with leaders of the capital district's Jewish community.  The Times quotes a number of very reasonable voices, students, parents and community leaders alike, all basically saying "the teacher isn't an anti-semite, just a dope."  This seems very likely to us.

Hint for next time:  give the kids a choice.  If you want to put defending Nazis on the table, okay, but give your students some other options, like pretending they are Churchill denouncing Neville Chamberlain, or FDR making the case against American isolationism.  Or, hell, throw some Commies into the mix:  it is 1940, and you are trying to convince anybody that an alliance with Stalin is the most morally defensible route.

Yes, trying to defend the indefensible can be a valuable learning experience.  We've done it.  But for some students, it can be just as valuable a lesson in rhetoric, philosophy and life to practice defending the good, the true and the beautiful.

Lots More Naked Ladies

The Atlantic has posted many pictures of Femen-associated protesters in Europe, walking the streets topless in solidarity with Aminah Tyler.  Big, glamorous pictures.

The comments posted below the pictures are also worth a quick read.  One reader, man, points out rather angrily that many women feel liberated by Islam, rather than oppressed.  This is absolutely true, and the reasons are pretty well known.  Modest dress, for example, makes objectification more difficult.  But the follow-up comments poke holes in his argument, pointing out that nobody objects to a woman wearing a veil if she chooses.  The problem is that some women are not given any choice in this or in many more serious matters.

For non-Muslims trying to understand this particular argument, it may be helpful to consider analogies to the Hebrew scriptures.  Much of what we find there, when read against the prevailing legal codes of the ancient Near East, marks a significant advance for the dignity and autonomy of women.  For example, Moses permits the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit and own property, a subject that remained iffy in Western law right into the modern era.  Even the less obviously appealing purity legislation, such as the command to leave the camp when you are menstruating, may be subjected to this sort of re-interpretation.  (For that matter, so may the Christian practice of "churching" women after childbirth.  Some people regard it as an unpleasant suggestion that parturition has somehow defiled a new mother; others see it as a loving ritual of welcome back into the community after a life-changing personal transition.)

Among the problems, of course, is that we no longer live in the ancient Near East, nor in medieval Europe nor 17th-century Persia.  Times have changed.  It is no longer particularly radical to "allow" women to own property.  In matters of dress, there is a new understanding that not judging women (or harassing them) because of their appearance is a man's responsibility, no matter what they may or may not be wearing.  And so forth, through a long list of questions, as small as the right to wear a scarf and as large as the right to leave the house without being raped.

Traditional religions are wise and right and often justified when they excavate the "liberationist" elements of their teaching.  The mistake is to insist upon the letter at the expense of the spirit.  Ultimately, the decision to bare one's breast or cover one's head must rest with the owner of the breast and head.  Society may have a legitimate interest in the matter -- no public nudity, San Franciscans! -- but it does not have the final say.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Headline of the Week

Texas political consultant -- Republican political consultant -- Dan Rasmussen has just posted a brief and readable piece at the Blaze, although the title says as much as the article:

Dear Fellow Atheists:  Stop Being Jerks!

Great header, and there's more where that came from.

Let's make a bargain with Dan:  if he can get his fellow atheists to stop being jerks, can we do likewise with our fellow Christians?

Under a Bushel

Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger is promoting a book called Contagious:  Why Things Catch On.  Here's a morsel that we heard him share on NPR, and now at HuffPo:

New York City is a tough place to open a bar. Competition is fierce and it's hard to cut through the clutter. ...
But a few years ago Brian Shebairo launched a place that's been packed since the day it opened. In fact, it's one of the most sought after drink reservations in the city. Bookings are only available day-of and people frantically hit redial again and again hoping to snag a spot. Yet he's never advertised the bar. Never spent a dollar on marketing.
How did Shebairo do it?
He hid his bar inside a hot dog restaurant.
Walk into Crif Dogs in the East Village, and you'll find the most amazing hot dog menu you've ever seen. ...
In one corner off to the side is an old-school phone booth. One of those rectangular numbers that Clark Kent used to morph into Superman. Walk inside and you'll see a rotary dial phone on the wall. Pick up the phone, and just for fun, dial the number 1. Someone will pick-up the other line and ask you if you have a reservation. And if you do, the back of the phone booth will open and you'll be let into a secret bar called, of all things, Please Don't Tell.
Has Please Don't Tell violated traditional "laws of marketing?" Sure. There is no sign on the street and no mention of it in the hot dog place. In fact, they've worked hard to make themselves a secret.

If it were that simple, the ELCA would be the hottest, hippest, fastest-growingest church body in America, if not the world.  Because no group of human beings on earth is better at keeping itself a secret than we are.  Compared to Lutherans, the Illuminati are as zealous for fame as the Kardashians.

We build ugly churches on out-of-the-way streets; we greet visitors with a handshake (maybe) and a "bulletin" full of paper that falls all over their laps and confuses more than it clarifies; we offer serious inquirers a confusing mishmash of doctrine and worship, usually filtered through the accumulated mini-traditions of the particular congregation or, worse yet, through the personal sensibilities of the pastor.  Nobody knows who we are or what we are, much less where to find us.

Sadly, mere self-effacement is not the whole of Berger's strategy for spreading the word.  The real secret, he says, is something called Social Currency, and which sounds a lot like old-fashioned bragging rights:

People talk about things that make them look good. Sharp and in-the-know. Smart and funny rather than behind the times. If people go to a place like Please Don't Tell ... they tell others because it gives them status.
Social Currency isn't just about hidden bars. It's why people brag about their thousands of Twitter followers or their kids' SAT scores. Why golfers boast about their handicaps and frequent fliers tell others when they get upgraded. ... 

Ouch.  That's a big problem for the ELCA, and for many of our sister churches:  we don't like to brag.  It isn't merely a matter of Scandinavian reserve, either.  We are wary, theologically, of the pride that goeth before a fall, and of the hypocrites who pray to be seen by others.  The thought that we should ourselves be something about which our members boast is problematic, both culturally and doctrinally.

Of course, there have always been churches that manage to make members feel special because they are members, while still maintaining at least a semblance of personal humility.   Episcopalians used to be geniuses at it, although in recent years they have seemed showier and correspondingly more desperate.  Likewise Presbyterians.

The worst case scenario, of course, is that you create a cult:  a community which makes its members feel special because they are not like Them -- not, in other words, like the aliens, the outsiders, the impure, however broadly or narrowly defined.  In the form of exaggerated claims to doctrinal purity over against the rest of world Lutheranism, this has been the Missouri Synod's strategy from the beginning.  It worked well enough, up until recently, but has certainly left them with few friends outside the kraal.

We in the ELCA, however, have no gift for this.  Making, or even allowing, people to feel special is unsettling to us.  The closest we can come, and this on our best day, is to offer them coffee and some green jello after an otherwise unremarkable hour of worship.  Coffee and jello are lovely things, but they offer no cachet, no bragging rights, no sense of having discovered a rare and marvelous treasure.

Most painful of all is this:  we at the Egg believe that Lutheranism, particularly as represented by the ELCA and its LWF partners, is indeed a rare and marvelous treasure.  It holds, deep inside, gems both spiritual and intellectual, tools which, properly understood, can critique modernity without denying it, and lead the soul toward God without compelling it.  But, at least if Berger is right, we have no real hope of ever going viral.

Maybe we should ask the Methodists if they have a phone booth we can hide behind.

Fishing at the End of the World

St Augustine's exegesis of John 21:1-11 is well known, and yet for some reason TextWeek does not link to it.  You can find it (miserably translated) at CCEL.

Briefly, it goes like this.  Augustine reads the story from John as an eschatological "mystery," so important that it has been saved for the final chapter of the book:
[I]nasmuch as there were seven disciples taking part in that fishing, Peter, and Thomas, and Nathaneal [sic], and the two sons of Zebedee, and two others whose names are withheld, they point, by their septenary number, to the end of time. For there is a revolution of all time in seven days. To this also pertains the statement, that when the morning was come, Jesus stood on the shore; for the shore likewise is the limit of the sea, and signifies therefore the end of the world. ...
The story in Luke, he concludes, is of an earlier event.  But both fishing trips are symbolic descriptions of the Church itself:
[J]ust as in [John] the Lord indicated by an outward action the kind of character the Church would have in the end of the world, so in the same way, by that other fishing [in Luke], He indicated its present character. In doing the one at the commencement of His preaching and this latter after His resurrection, He showed thereby in the former case that the capture of fishes signified the good and bad presently existing in the Church; but in the latter, the good only, whom it will contain everlastingly, when the resurrection of the dead shall have been completed in the end of this world. 
... By these signs, and any others that may be found, [we see that in Luke]  the Church was prefigured as it exists in this world, and [in John], as it shall be in the end of the world: the one accordingly took place before, and the other subsequently to the resurrection of the Lord; because there we were signified by Christ as called, and here as raised from the dead. 
The fish are Christians, the net is the Church itself.  He contrasts the details of the two stories.  In Luke, the net contains both saints and sinners.  In John, it is saints alone:
[In Luke], the nets are not let down on the right side, that the good [people within the Church] alone might not be signified, nor on the left, lest the application should be limited to the bad; but without any reference to either side, He says, “Let down your nets for a draught,” that we may understand the good and bad as mingled together. 
[But in John] He says, “Cast the net on the right side of the ship,” to signify those who stood on the right hand, the good alone. There the net was broken on account of the schisms that were meant to be signified; but here, as then there will be no more schisms in that supreme peace of the saints, the evangelist was entitled to say, “And for all they were so great,” that is, so large, “yet was not the net broken” .... 
You get the idea:  the Church Militant is "by schisms torn asunder," the result of its catholicity. It includes the saved and the damned, heretics and troublemakers:
[In Luke], the multitude of fishes caught was so great, that the two vessels were filled and began to sink .... For whence exist in the Church the great evils under which we groan, save from the impossibility of withstanding the enormous multitude that, almost to the entire subversion of discipline, gain an entrance, with their morals so utterly at variance with the pathway of the saints
But the Church Triumphant is a different matter.  There, the net is not torn apart, the Church is not divided, because only the elect are included:
[In John], however, they cast the net on the right side, “and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.” 
What is meant by the words, “Now they were not able to draw it,” but this, that those who belong to the resurrection of life, that is to say, to the right hand, and depart this life within the nets of the Christian name, will be made manifest only on the shore, in other words, when they shall rise from the dead at the end of the world? 
He goes on to add that St. John has specified the number of fish -- 153 -- because the number of the chosen is finite, and smaller than the total number of those who have been called.  (There's quite a bit more about symbolic numbers, if you like that sort of thing; we don't.)

There is much to dislike about Augustine's interpretation.  There is no room here for universal salvation,  and scarcely any for grace.  At least on the surface, it seems to presume double predestination, and even to admit a touch of works righteousness.  God has called many and chosen a few; the reprobate -- those who are not chosen for salvation -- are distinguished both by their numbers and their "bad morals."

Frankly, those are not the hermeneutical maneuvers that we Lutherans, at least, so treasure about Augustine.  It is Calvinist at best and Pelagian at worst.

But if we strip away the comparison with Luke, it is possible to find in Augustine a very useable interpretation of the Miraculous Draught in John.  The image of the Church as a net, holding together a strange variety of individuals and yet not breaking, is quite beautiful.  So too is the idea that it cannot be "drawn" -- not merely counted, but in a broader sense manipulated, swayed, pulled -- short of Heaven.  (Needless to say, both of these are ideals; they do, inevitably, contrast with the Church as we know it.)

For a fine example of a modern sermon that draws heavily on Augustine's exegesis, we recommend Travis Poling's "Every Time the World Ends," in Brethren Life and Thought for Fall, 2006.  If you're logged into ATLA, you can read it here.

A Reminder

If you are preaching Sunday, it may be helpful to remember that (as is so often the case), the place where some of our Biblical story occurs is today the site of a terrifying and bloody war.

Although the two-year battle for Syria has largely been kept out of Damascus, bombings are common enough and over the last week rebel artillery has succeeded in striking the city.

There are no simple answers here.  The government is tyrannical and unpopular; the Islamist insurgents are not likely to be much better, at least over time.  Just ask the Iranians, or anybody who has lived under the Taliban.

The Syrian government provides some protection for the Christian minority, a fact that hardly justifies its continued rule but which may at least give us pause.  Long before Damascus was a Muslim city, it was a Christian one.  Even today, the city is full of churches, not merely signs of an ancient heritage but also homes to living and faithful Christians.  But that heritage is not insignificant, either.  We still sing songs by St. John Damascene.    And it is, of course, the place where Saul became Paul, and the course of Christian history began its epochal shift from Messianic Judaism to a universal, Gentile-inclusive, community.

There may not be much that we can do for Damascus on Sunday, either as Americans or as Christians. But we can, at the very least, remember its importance, and pray for its people.

Simple English Propers

If you haven't heard any of these, take a minute.  Here's this Sunday:

There are many more where that came from.  Just go to YouTube and search for "Simple English Propers."  They are advertisements for The Vatican II Hymnal, which we have never seen, much less used, but which might be helpful to some congregations.

Even if the book is not for your flock, the promotional videos may inspire creative music directors.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Lesbian Nuns Puking Nails"

A Renaissance bishop casting out demons.  Image stolen from Al Mohler, of all people.
That is the least forgettable image in a Prospect review of Brian Levack's new book, The Devil Within, a history of demonic possession, and exorcism therefrom, in the Christian West.

The real takeaway, however, is this thought:
Like witch-burning, demonic possession feels “medieval” in our contemporary imagination but it didn’t actually happen with any regularity in the medieval period. Rather, Levack shows how demonology persisted into the era of Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, when one thinks of science and rationality beginning to shine light on the darkness.
Just so.  We're well acquainted with the history of witch trials, which were in fact discouraged by Church law from antiquity through the late Middle Ages, and only came into their own during the period of the Renaissance and Reformation.   (Much of our time in college was taken up with this stuff, which helps to explain why we are unemployed today).

The natural conclusion, and one much in vogue among witchcraft scholars in the 1980s, is that witch trials arose out of a pervasive anxiety connected to destabilizing social change.  This change is not merely the rise of Humanism and Protestantism, although those were indeed destabilizing, but also changes in the age of marriage and the number of unmarried women, as well as changes resulting from the first hints of capitalism and a rising middle class.  Like fundamentalism today, it was a reactionary movement passing itself off as a conservative one, even though it did not seek to conserve a genuine heritage.

To extend the study beyond witchcraft (about which Levack has written a previous book) to possession and exorcism is one of those brilliant ideas that seems obvious after somebody else thinks of it.  One principal difference appears to be that, while witch trials were spread fairly evenly over Roman Catholics and Protestants on the continent -- having been rare in Britain -- exorcism is said to have been principally a Roman Catholic affair.

As reported in the review, Levack takes a different tack, less sociological and more anthropological.  He describes possession and exorcism as public rituals that express the needs and beliefs of the surrounding culture, in the same sense that a coronation does or, more aptly, a modern politician's drama of sin and repentance.  This sounds extremely promising.

We are a little uncertain about some of the specifics, however -- but this may have less to do with Levack's scholarship than with the limitations of the reviewer, a grad student named Josephine Livingstone.  At one point, having described the public, practically festival, exorcisms typical of the 17th century, she says blithely, "But we all know what goes on in a Catholic exorcism," and lists as her authorities a string of Hollywood movies.  It is not clear whether Levack imagines that movies are a good guide to historical practices or Livingstone does, but in either case the idea is mistaken.

Indeed, Livingstone has a great deal to say about horror movies.  She believes that Levack has handed her the key to understanding, say, Children of the Corn and other "psychological dramas that go heavy on the religion and that feature supernatural children."  This seems unlikely.

More problematic still is this paragraph:
Levack explains [the rise of exorcism in the 16th and 17th centuries] by highlighting the rise of nominalism in the early 15th century, the view that “an inscrutable, arbitrary God might give the devil great latitude in the world for reasons unknown to humankind.” Popular apocalyptic thought—the strong suspicion that the final battle between good and evil was under way—made possession seem reasonable, even expected. The devil (or his attendant demons) taking control of your body was like the forces of evil saving seats at the cinema by putting coats on them.
Really?  Is that what nominalism was?  Because we were fairly convinced that it was, and remains, the philosophical rejection of Platonic universals, pioneered in the fourteenth century by William of Ockham.  While we do not doubt that somebody with a New Historicist bent might capably bring together nominalism, theodicy, and apocalypticism, they are not related in any immediately obvious or intuitive fashion.  As it stands, this paragraph is gibberish.

Nonetheless, this book sounds extremely interesting, not only to medievalists and but to anybody with an interest in the ways that a society in turmoil creates public rituals.