Thursday, August 29, 2013

MIley Cyrus!

Well, that should get us some click-throughs, shouldn't it?

The truth is that Father A. is getting so danged old that he isn't really sure who this Miley Cyrus person is, or what exactly she did wrong at the VMAs a few nights back.  Honestly, he's not even sure what a VMA is.  Virginia Medical Academy, maybe?  Much less this torching twerping twerking thing that everybody seems so goll-dinged unhappy about.

But we do have one question:  Why on earth would a pretty female pop star dance provocatively on stage?  The nerve of that attention-seeking young whippersnapper!

In related news:  Madonna's album Erotica, and the novelization, a coffee-table book called Sex, just celelbrated their twentieth anniversary.  Seems more like thirty, dunnit?

Good News!

The Egg's Dept. of Collegial Congratulations has just been informed that Pastor Joelle has been named Director of Evangelical Outreach for the ELCA's Northeastern Iowa Synod.

We commend her bishop and Synod Council for their excellent judgment, and condemn them for giving her even more excuses to avoid blogging.

Ad multos annos!

Where There is No Peace (Or Maybe Too Much)

The other day, we pointed to the re-purposing of the Pax as an example of ELW's strange use of liturgical sources.  A thoughtful reader (and fine photographer) wrote to question this; his comment, in the post below,  is too long to reprint or respond to item-by-item.  But let's take this opportunity to talk about the Pax, or, as we usually call it these days,  the Sharing of the Peace.

St. Paul and St. Peter both urge Christians to "greet each other with a holy kiss," and this appears to be the origin of the practice.  The Fathers generally identify this "kiss" with the characteristic Middle Eastern greeting, "Peace be with you." Justin Martyr alludes to the practice, although whether as part of Mass generally or specific to the baptismal rite is unclear.

 Historically, however, it is part of the Mass.   In form, it is by no means always, or even usually, a kiss.  Among the Syriac Orthodox of southern India, the celebrant claps his hands around those of the deacon, who turns and does likewise to the subdeacons, who turn to the laity, each of whom turns to the person behind them -- and so, in perhaps half a minute, the peace of the Lord has travelled like a wave through the entire assembly.  We've participated in this, and it is both warm and dignified.

In the West, the ceremony eventually shrank to a simple verbal exchange:  "The peace of the Lord be with you alway," and the response, "And with thy spirit."  No kiss, no hug, no handclasp.  This, at least, is how Lutherans in America normally experienced it prior to the LBW.

During the 1970s, a fuller practice was "recovered" by advocates of the so-called Liturgical Movement.   Basically, this meant shaking hands with the people around you.  It was met with intense resistance at first; our own seminary president (a Presbyterian) remembers being called at home by members threatening to leave the congregation and take their money with them if he insisted on this folly.  To his enduring credit, he responded, "Folks, forget the historic liturgy.  If we can't turn to our neighbors and offer God's peace, we have a much bigger problem."

Eventually, however, the practice caught on.  In many congregations, it became and remains an occasion of great physical activity, as people (often led by the clergy) race to and fro, shaking as many hands as they are able.  Depending upon one's setting and perspective, this may be undignified, or it may be the only way to break the ice among chilly Euro-Americans.  At the worst, however, it becomes a liturgical abuse, as people stop worshiping to talk about baseball or their dentures.  (This is what we meant about it becoming a pastoral problem).

The "recovery" of the Pax is best understood as part of a broader "re-patritic-ization" of the liturgy.  Where the Romantic liturgiologists had sought medieval models, their 20th-c. successors sought patristic ones. The problem is that patristic worship models are difficult to reconstruct, and are tied to a culture long vanished.  A good example is the immense importance attached to a particular Eucharistic prayer from the Apostolic Tradition, on the assumption that it offers Hippolytus' testimony to ancient Roman practice.  More recent scholarship doubts that Hippolytus was the author; and even if he had been, the guy was a schismatic anti-pope, which raises the question of just how much use we want to make of his model.

In some places, such as the rites of initiation, the 20th-century Liturgical Movement's appropriation of patristic models was an enormous success.  In others, it has given more mixed results.  Communions are certainly more frequent now than they were a century ago; it is by no means certain that they are celebrated with greater joy or received with greater reverence.  Roman Catholics are struggling particularly with this, and under Benedict XVI began to chart a path away from the some of the perceived excesses of the last fifty-odd years. Under Benedict, Latin Masses were made a little more readily available, and the English translation of the Ordinary Form was rendered far more literally.

All of which brings us to ELW.  As Rome began to track a course back toward historic practice, the compilers of ELW moved further away.  Among the various instances of this motion, the translation of the psalter is, as we have often said, the most troublesome. But let us mention two others.

One is the curious use of the Gloria Patri.  Traditionally, in the Daily Office, it is used to conclude each psalm as well as each of the canticles (with a couple of exceptions).  The 1978 LBW removed it from the psalms, preferring instead a different collect proper to each psalm.

ELW continues the psalm prayers, of which we think quite highly.  But its use of the Gloria is erratic.  In Matins, it has been removed from the Venite, Psalm 95, where LBW retained it.  The logic, we assume, is that the Venite is one of the psalms, and the psalms no longer require the Gloria.  But should the proper prayer not then have been printed?  It has also been removed from the Benedictus, for no apparent reason.  In Vespers, contrariwise, it has been retained in the adaptation of Psalm 141, Let my prayer.  Why is it left here, here, but not in Matins?  We have no idea. Nor have we any idea why it has been removed from the Magnificat.  Meanwhile in Compline, the Gloria has been retained in the responsory and removed from the canticle Nunc dimittis.

So, to sum up:  the ELW Daily Office uses the Gloria Patri for the first psalm at Vespers but not Matins, and removes it from the three New Testament canticles.  We are aware of no reason for any of this; a friend who asked one of the drafters was politely given no answer.

As for the Pax, which is our real point in this absurdly long post:  ELW seems to insert it everywhere.  We expect it, historically, in the service of Holy Communion; since baptism and anointings in the ELW are clearly meant to take place in the Communion service, we are not surprised to see it there as well.  But ELW also adds it to individual confession (where the LWB also placed it) and as an optional conclusion to Matins, Vespers and Compline.

Basically, the only ELW services where the Pax isn't proposed or implied are Good Friday and Suffrages.  For Pete's sake (and we mean that literally)!  From a humble seed in the 1960s, it has grown like an invasive weed, finding a place in every corner of the garden.

All these things, of course, are not merely adiaphora, but truly petty.  Many a beautiful service has included no Gloria Patri, and it is hard to say that there may be too many expressions of peace among Christians.  And yet we cannot shake the sense that the decision-making process has been shoddy -- that the Gloria has been added or omitted because a particular composer felt it would make his tune prettier, or that the Pax has been added because the drafters were just desperate to make church seem friendly.

Maybe we're wrong.  Maybe there was a sober discussion, informed by history and theology, about which we are ignorant.  We invite those who worked on the book to explain it all to us.  Until then, however, we will retain both our suspicions and our discontent.  And our LBWs.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Their Novus Ordo and Ours

Over at NLM today, Gregory DiPippo continues his litany of complaints about the Roman Catholic liturgical revisions of the 20th century in excruciating detail.  We don't usually bother with these, but today's entry, on the "Baptism of the Bells," is worth a  look even for people who have no particular interest in the ceremony.

The practice in question is not, obviously, a baptism.  It is a blessing of bells for church use.  The particular ceremony is said to be 1200 years old, but -- like so much else -- it was extensively revised in the twentieth century.  In this case, it was the 1961 pontifical -- on the eve of Vatican II, but well prior to the creation of the Novus Ordo properly so called.  (Thanks, Mikael, for the correction!)

DiPippo's main point is that the comments of revisers, Annibale Bugnini and Carlo Braga, were either ignorant or deceptive, or perhaps both.  Bugnini and Braga wrote:
The rite has undergone no essential variants. … The seven penitential psalms, which opened the function, have been omitted. The washing of the bells, which was suggested by the medieval concern to structure the consecration of a bell like a baptismal rite, has also been abolished. There remains, on the other hand, the sprinkling of the bells, accompanied by the singing of Psalm 28 [i.e., 29], which is done responsorially.
DiPippo considers virtually every statement in that paragraph to be false.  Only five of the original psalms were actually penitential; the consecration lacked any of the distinctive features of a baptism; the sprinkling does not "remain" because it was added in the new ceremony.  Whether because they do not know or because they do not care, the authors make no mention of why or how Ps. 29 and its antiphon, Vox Domini, are supposed to figure in.  DiPippo adds that, "Unfortunately, the practice of mangling the source materials like this when revising liturgical books would become even more common in future years."

To all of which, a Protestant may answer:  Who cares? 

Honestly, the endless combat within Roman Catholicism regarding the precise details of comparatively obscure ceremonies hardly registers among us.  Our challenges are generally more basic:  to see that the Eucharist is celebrated without making a total hash of it.  To fend off little cups and self-intinction, to be sure the Blood of Christ is not poured into the septic tank, to keep our full-communion partners from feeding the Lord's Body to dogs.  We will get to the matter of anointing the new bells ... well, someday.  Just before Jesus gets back.  If then.

If we listen, however, it is possible that we will hear in DiPippo's lament some things which may be applicable to our own situation.  Along with the other NO dissenters, he argues that Bugnini & Co. were ham-fisted revisers of the traditional liturgy, and that when they discussed their revisions, they were either ignorant or, far more likely, deceptive.

Among Lutherans, it would be hard to make an equivalent case for the revision process that created the 1978 LBW and its blue sister volume, Missouri's LW.  Whether one likes them or not, the dramatic changes to the Lutheran liturgy that occurred in the late 1970s were widely and publicly discussed.  They reflected what then seemed like an emerging ecumenical consensus.  (One problem, of course, is that the consensus had largely been shaped by the prior work of Bugnini and his companions.)

However, the process of "Renewing Worship" which created the ELW was somewhat less transparent, and the results have been considerably less satisfactory.  While Episcopalians retained their Rite I and Roman Catholics, reflecting upon their "new" rites, have chosen to provide a wider range of more traditional worship resources (more Latin, a more literal English), Lutherans have taken the opposite direction.  The shapers of our newest worship book have taken it upon themselves to make deep changes to the shape of the liturgy, while offering little by the way of rationale.

We wonder whether, in the "Renewing Worship" process, anybody actually asked for a paraphrased, inclusivized psalter.  And if they did, were any of the people who might resist it even consulted?  Likewise, did anybody ask to remove the Gloria Patri from the canticles in Daily Prayer?  We wonder, in particular, whose brilliant idea it was to take the Pax from Holy Communion and insert it, almost randomly, into other ceremonies as well?  (As though the post-70s Pax, described by one layman as "a seventh-inning stretch," were not already a significant problem in pastoral liturgics!)

The longer we use ELW, the more deeply we feel betrayed by its creators.  And with that sense of betrayal comes the question at the heart of DiPippo's post about Bugnini and Braga:  when liturgical revisers "mangle the source material," is it because they are ignorant of the traditions, or because they hate them?

Friday, August 23, 2013

What is Chelsea Thinking?

Shortly after his sentence was delivered, the Army's Private Bradley Manning issued a public statement, explaining that he is in fact a woman, and wishes to be known as Chelsea.  Manning hopes to begin "transitioning" from male to female right away, and even to receive hormone treatments -- in a military prison.


We have a lot of sympathy for the lives and challenges of transgendered people.  It must be hard, unspeakably hard, to go through life feeling that you are in the wrong body.  And if you are bold enough, or privileged enough, to actually do something about it, life doesn't get all that much easier.  Both cross-dressers and transsexuals are often the objects of ridicule, discrimination and ultimately violence.  We desperately wish that it were otherwise.  Someday, it probably will be -- but that day is still far off.

And prison makes everything worse.  Let's be blunt:  prison is one of the places where a man is most likely to be raped.  He doesn't have to be young and cute, but it helps; he doesn't have to be effeminate*, much less actually gay, but those things probably help too.  We're just betting that a self-declared woman in a man's body, much less one with a super-high media profile, is going to be like candy to the depraved and violent.

So why the hell did Chelsea set herself up for this?  The wisest course of action, by far, would be to gut it out for seven years (or however many it takes), seek parole, and then quietly transition when you are safely on the outside.  Sure, it means denying your inmost self-understanding; but it could also save your life. So why declare now, on the eve of your imprisonment?

If Manning were to be imprisoned with women, of course, the likelihood of violence would be much lower.  In that case, this public declaration might be a sort of self-protective Hail Mary pass, a last ditch effort to avoid the worst of what is coming.  The problem is that the military, as perhaps you've heard, isn't really up to date on the whole gay thing, much less the transgendered one.  (Honestly, they still haven't got the "no raping women" business down.)  We've heard that there are state prisons in which TG inmates may be placed among other prisoners of their preferred sex, and given hormones and other medical interventions.  If the Army provides this for Manning, however, it will mark a major (and we think improbable) change of policy.

Because of Manning's high profile, it is likely that there will be voices pushing hard for the Army to bend.  Maybe that's the real point of the announcement:  to make sure that there is a public movement keeping an eye on things, and encouraging the officials to make Manning's imprisonment no more wretched than it must be.

However, there is another side to all this, and one that we find quite dark indeed.  Although a hero to some, Manning is also a criminal, convicted of extremely serious crimes against the US.  Hostile observers, those already inclined to distrust the transgendered, will make a connection here.  They are wrong, of course; being transgendered certainly does not lead to this sort of crime, any more than being gay led to the crimes of Anthony Blunt. But just as, in the deacdes after Blunt, it was harder to get a security clearance if you were gay, so it is entirely possible that Manning will harden the hostility of the armed services, if not the entire national security apparatus, toward transgendered people.

In other words, we are afraid for Manning's life and safety.  But we are even more afraid that Manning will now manage to set back the cause of justice for transgendered people in America.

*What the hell does "effeminate" even mean?  Can somebody tell us, please?  Not lexically, but as a matter of practice.  Does it mean a man is beardless?  LIkes dresses?  or just that he goes to the opera (which, by the way, we ourselves have occasionally done)? We still use the word, occasionally, but with less conviction each time. Sometimes we think it means something, and sometimes we don't.

Two Mountains, One Range

The second lesson for Sunday, Hebrews 12:18-29, is worth looking at.  So is Erik Heen's brief commentary at the Working Preacher website.  Heen's remarks are thoughtful and well-informed; nonethless, we regret very much to say, they manage to offer a sharp demonstration of what happens when Lutherans go wrong.

The Hebrews passage is the last in a four-week series, and it is probably the most difficult of the four selections.  We have already heard the familiar definition of fath as the confidence in things unseen, as well as some praise for the faith displayed by that 'great cloud of winesses," beginning with Abel and Abraham.

Now comes a description of what we are promised by faith:  an unshakeable kingdom.  Unlike the kingdoms we know on earth, this one cannot be shaken because it is not "created."  God has removed created things; our new kingdom "cannot be touched."  This is a striking and challenging idea, particularly for those of us who envision God's work as a hallowing of material things -- a pool of water, a bite of bread and a sip of wine; above all, human flesh in the person of the Christ.  It sounds hyperspiritual, docetic, overly Greek at the expense of Hebrew, or whatever else have you.  But there it is in black and white, and we need to deal with it.

Hebrews identifies this unshakeable kingdom with Mt Zion, and contrasts it with Mt Sinai.  When God appeared on Sina and gave the Law to Moses, the affair was heavy with danger.  The earth was shaken.  The people were wanred not to approach, on threat of death; Moses himself was afraid.  Now, though, here at Zion, things are different.  We are all invited, surrounded by saints and angels, in the presence of Jesus.  This time, both heaven and earth will be shaken -- but only once, eschatologically, as the new kingdom comes.

Lutherans will instantly seize upon a Law/Gospel dialectic here, and not wrongly so.  Sinai/Zion could not be much clearer.  There is even a nervous-making subordination of Law to Gospel:  Under the old covenant, Abel's blood cries out for justice; under the new covenant, the blood of Jesus cries out for reconciliation -- "a better word."

Despite this, the author of Hebrews seems to lack our well-cultivated contempt for God's Law.  The Gospel is a better and even a more enduring word, to be sure.  But both words, both mountains, are accompanied by danger and must be encountered with fear and trembling.  Sinai was a frightening place, but Zion is even more frightening, because, when the final shaking of earth and heaven takes place, those who refuse the gifts of God have even less chance of escaping punishment (death?  Hell?  alienation from God?  The details are left to the imagination).  Therefore our proper thanksgiving is "worship with reverence and awe."

And this is where Heen goes off the rails.  He correctly identifies the rhetorical device at work, which is called minore ad maius, an argument from lesser to greater.  (That is:  If Sinai was awesome, then how much more awesome is Zion?)  But he simply cannot stand this reading.  Instrad, he goes off on a final tangent:
What if God’s revelation on Zion is not so simply to be compared with that on Sinai as interpreted through the mechanism of a minore ad maius? What if God’s “way” of speaking in Christ actually bridges the terrifying gap between the all-powerful, transcendent God of fire (and darkness and gloom) and does not widen it? 
What if God’s way of speaking in Christ crucified and risen does not lead to the stoning of animals (and people) who are a threat to God holy purity, but is rather “proof” (11:1) of the legitimate faith [in a God of justice, compassion, hospitality, and favor]? .... 
What if the Word that God speaks from the cross is such that it is truly heard only when it responds to human need? What if God’s Word simply falls silent when all it is perceived to contain is the threat of holy, transcendent judgment upon all that is impure, unholy, and profane?
This is an attractive proposition, even to us.  But it is simply not what the text says here.  It is, in fact, something close to the opposite of the text.  God's Word does not fall silent (cg. Is. 55:11); it is "strong and active," it "stands forever."  And there is, very clearly in this passage, a grave danger for those who reject that Word.

Heen is not just dividing the Law from the Gospel; he is hinting that the Law is wrong.  Or rather, he is hinting that all that Old Testament "fear and trembling" stuff is a lot of hooey, and that the real Word of God, the one we are called to hear and enact, is a matter of love toward our neighbors.

Some of our friends (notably Fr. Nedward and Fr. Tuck, to the latter of whom we wish a speedy recovery btw) can go on at glorious length about "American Lutheran Antinomianism," a deeply ingrained tendency to declare the Law null and void.  Perversely, this tendency actually grows from our obsessive cultic parsing of the two.  As Leonard Klein used to observe, back when he was a Lutheran, our theology at its best does look a little antinomian.

But it's not.  Lutheran theology, when it parses correctly, always steps back from the brink.  The word on Sinai was a true word; it was, in fact, the same Word that became incarnate in Jesus, albeit then still unfulfilled.  The Law and the Gospel may be separable as a theological exercise, but God's will is indivisible, immutable and eternal.

In any case, Heen's mistake isn't even good antinomianism.  It is legalism of the hippy-love variety. He turns (or almost turns) the Word that saves our souls into a matter of human good works, inspired by God. "Forget Sinai, but remember that Jesus said to be nice." This is the old Pietist deathrap, of course.  Good Pietism knows perfectly well that our impurity is subject to judgment, from which we are saved only by a gift for which we must be ever thankful; degenerate Pietism starts to suggest that our thankfulness is a sign and guarantor of the gift.

In fairness, Heen never quite says the things of which we are accusing him.  His key phrase -- "when all it is perceived to contain" -- is redeemed by the word "all."  He leaves the hospitality and compassion as God's work, merely hinting that we should do likewise.  We couldn't make a case in court, and it may well be that he is purposely playing as close to the line as he can go, without quite transgressing.  But the implications seem pretty clear to us, and they are wrong.

There are many historic strands within Lutheranism (and without) which seek to make Jesus cuddly and unthreatening.  Antinomians, Pietists, Rationalists, Victorian sentimentalists and straight-up liberals all prefer their Lord  a little less lordly.  They want a domesticated Jesus, the kindly face of that scary Yahweh fellow.  But it is passages like this one in Hebrews that give them all the lie.  God shakes the foundations of earth and heaven; God's Word is not only comfort and balm, but also danger and warning.  Sinai and Zion may be two different mountains, but they are part of the same range.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Generals Are Revolting, Part II

Thinking of Egypt leads us -- via the worst segue ever -- to the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly.

We have been assured by the US government, and more forcefully by the present Egyptian one, that the military-led ouster of an elected president is not a coup d'etat.  We have no idea why not, but Brutus is an honorable man.  So are they all, honorable men.

Meanwhile, the election of a new presiding bishop seems, on its face, as far from the Egytian situation as East is from West.  It was peaceful and democratic; there were multiple candidates, and the electors were coerced with nothing more severe than Jello salad.  Hanson embraced his successor and said some very kind words about her.  Surely this was no coup d'etat.

And yet, curiously, one of our friends used just those words to describe it in conversation the other night.  The friend, whom for the purpose of this post we shall call Father Lovelace (as in "Deep Throat"), is a well-connected and sharp-eyed observer of church affairs, although also one prone to idiosyncratic interpretations of what he sees.

As Fr. L. sees, it this is what happened:  well in advance of the assembly, Bishop Hanson sought the counsel of his fellow-bishops.  They suggested that he was "tired" -- a likely-sounding thing.  Being the bishop of the ELCA must be obscenely difficult, emotionally and spiritually.  Beyond that, he has family concerns which no doubt weigh heavily upon his heart.  So at least some of his peers felt that he ought to step down gracefully.

Obviously, he did not take their advice.  And so, as Fr. L. sees it, the Conference of Bishops rebelled, and arranged things so that Bp. Hanson would get the rest it felt he needed.  Fr. L. offers no substantiation for this idea, nor even any real picture of how such a thing could be stage-managed, apart from his observation that "every one of these people has already been elected bishop of something.  They know how it is done.  They are the most politically astute people in the church."

If we were very cynical, we would add (as our friend emphatically did not) that stage-managing the election of a woman may have been just a teensy bit easier than a man, as the frequently left-leaning Churchwide Assembly may have been excited by the idea.  Three of the final four candidates were women.

It is also worth noting that the new ELCA Secretary -- arguably the other most influential person in the ELCA's national structure -- is a member of the Conference of Bishops.  He is the first bishop to serve in that role.

All this leads Fr. L. to conclude that this is the first ELCA Churchwide Assembly to be dominated, quietly but decisively, not by Chicago but by the bishops.  We have absolutely no idea whether he is correct or not; those of you who were there may be better judges.  But we do know that he has floated his interpretation past two of the most experienced national leaders of the church, and -- while neither embraced it at once -- neither rejected it out of hand.

So.  Did the generals revolt?  We may never even know -- which is itself a sign of astute maneuvering.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Generals Are Revolting, Part I

America's problem in the Middle East, as in so much of the rest of the world, is that our nominal friends don't share our values -- and the people who share our values are so rarely our friends.

At least on paper, our core values are individual liberty, democracy and the rule of law.  But -- because we have historically also valued things like stability, security, the oil industry and a bulwark against Communism (or latterly Islamism) -- we have often made friends with regimes that emphatically reject our core values.

There is a cost to this. The CIA has recently declassified documents which detail just how it organized the overthrow of a democratically-elected regime in Iran, and replaced it with a friendly dictator.  This meant that when our cores values manifested themselves -- when the people of Iran actually demanded democracy for themselves -- the party that came to power was and remains deeply suspicious of America's intentions.  Perhaps you've noticed.

The present turmoil in Egypt provides a brutal example.  For decades, we supported the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.  In exchange for billions of dollars of weapons, Mubarak suppressed the Islamists and provided a safe southern border for Israel.  We got safety and stability at the cost of liberty and democracy.

The election of Mohammad Morsi, a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood, reversed the situation.  It was an expression of our core values, but came at the cost of stability and security.  Morsi's overthrow removal by the army, in a move that the US has not yet agreed to call a coup d'etat, appears to have been an attempt to regain stability at the cost of democracy.

The attempt has failed; Egypt is a mess.  Today's reports include a thousand dead, and Christian churches attacked and burned by enraged mobs.  The army can hunt down terrorists in Sinai all it wants, but there is no way that this shambolic disaster can be associated with either stability or security.

Strangely, the US is at the moment doing something wise -- largely by doing very little.  The law would not permit us to provide foreign aid if the Egyptian regime had come to power in a coup.  Therefore, we have not legally declared this coup to be a coup.  In theory, we could still cough up some money -- and in theory, we are going to.  But at the same time, both Congress and the administration have started dropping hints that we may not.  The generals, if they are paying any attention at all, are on warning.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE have stepped up their financial commitments to the new and counter-democratic rulers of Egypt.  You could argue that their support for the new order will weaken America's clout; but for our part, we can live with a little less clout if it keeps us from surrendering our core values once again.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Bad Neighbors

It appears that the pastor of a local NALC congregation is methodically going through the membership roster of our own ELCA congregation and calling people up to offer them membership.  Virtually every member to whom we have spoken reports this; some have been reduced to tears by this guy's persistence.  Apparently, he keeps calling until you yell at him.

This is a shocking breach of pastoral ethics.  While we ourselves are committed, by our subscription to the Smalcald Articles, to the view that the office of the papacy is anti-christ, we do not for that reason cold call Roman Catholics and attempt to lead them away from their church.  While we have grave doubts about the Wesleyan doctrine of perfection, we do not keep a dog-eared copy of the Methodist church's membership directory on our desk, taking the occasional break from our recitation of the Daily Office to call some strangers and explain why Lutheranism is a better choice.  (And don't get us started on all those Baptists who insist on denying the means of grace to people just because of their age and intellectual limitations.)

Why not, you may ask.  After all, if we really believe that what we offer is a better theological option, why don't we just work the phones, pound on doors, move whatever mountains are necessary to drag the sheep from the jaws of the wolf?  Why, in other words, don't we build our flock by rustling from others?  Hey, it works great for the Jehovah's Witnesses.

There are two reasons.  The first is that that we all need to live together.  American society has a deep commitment to religious pluralism.  This requires, on the part of the different religious communities, a corresponding commitment to mutual toleration and public respect.  We may disagree, deeply and viscerally, but we attempt to do so in the most civil way possible.  This means, among other things, resisting the temptation to meddle in the internal affairs of another church or faith community.

The second reason is that "mission" is not about reaching the happily churched.  It is about reaching those who have not heard the Gospel, or who do not believe it, or who have heard and believe but have no community in which to celebrate its gift.  To reduce this noble calling to common poaching is, if not outright sacrilege, a personal embarrassment for any minister with a lick of pride.

It seems that our neighbor lacks both toleration for others and pride in his own vocation.  This does not bode well for the community.

While we have certainly heard reports of this sort of thing (as well as even more unethical behavior) by representatives of the NALC, we had not known how much credence to give them.  After all, we thought, most of the pastors who formed the NALC were ordained in the ELCA.  They went to the same seminaries, and were formed by the same standards of theological and professional ethics.  They were our friends and colleagues.  Surely, we imagined, they have not taken to cold-calling the members of other congregations, much less to spreading transparent lies about their own former church body.

Apparently, and to both our sorrow and our anger, we were mistaken.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Condolences to the New Bishop

The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Bishop of the ELCA's North East Ohio Synod, has been elected presiding bishop on the fifth ballot.  She will replace the Rev. Mark Hanson, who has served in that capacity for twelve years, and who was one of the candidates this year as well.  Eaton will be the first woman to hold the post.

Many readers will know more about the events of the day than does poor Father Anonymous, who has been busy unpacking boxes in the Specus Pecuniarum.  It was surely an exciting election.  The day that Stephen Bouman unseated James Sudbrock for the episcopacy of metropolitan New York remains one of the most memorable, and harrowing, experiences of our ecclesiastical life.  This will no doubt be as memorable for many of you.

We know little about Bishop Eaton.  Months ago, we very seriously considered a call to a splendid congregation in her synod, and although her name came up rarely, it was then spoken with warmth.  We came away with the sense that she was popular and distinctly liberal.

Truth be told, we know little enough about Bishop Hanson.  We met him once, for about five minutes, in his office.  He was wearing a gray striped suit that looked ghastly with his clericals.  He seemed earnest and distracted.  Come to think of it, that is how his tenure as PB has impressed us:  earnest but distracted.  He has stood up for all the things his church wants him to stand up for, especially the left-leaning ones.  He has given sober sermons and seemed like a decent fellow.

To our way of thinking, however, Hanson's signature achievement is the restructuring of the ELCA's churchwide organization.  Managing decline is neither sexy nor popular, but it is what mainline leaders are often called to do lately, and when the time came, Hanson was forthright about it.  Not everybody would have been.

And if it seems to you that we are removed from all this, not just geographically but emotionally, then you are correct.  A turn of events that would once have excited us very much indeed, and provoked days of armchair analysis, seems at present mildly interesting.  Less pressing, certainly, than the young mother struggling with cancer in our congregation, or even the nice couple wooed away by the  predatory NALC pastor down the street.  Always local, we seem to be entering a stage of life that is truly and deeply parochial.

Still, we can't help noticing this sort of dumb paragraph in a news report by Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who writes for RNS and GetReligion, and really should know better:
Eaton joins Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who in 2006 became the first woman to lead a church in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The two churches share a full communion agreement that allows shared clergy and joint ministry.
It's not wrong, mind you.  But it certainly is strange; Anglicans and Episcopalians have nothing to do with this.  A better paragraph might have read:
Eaton joins Church of Norway Presiding Bishop Helga Haugland Byfuglien [EDIT:  and Canadian National Bishop Susan Johnson] on the very short list of Lutheran national primates who are women.  Bishop Margot Kaessman, leader of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) resigned her post in 2010 after a DUI arrest.  Although Lutherans began to ordain women in the mid-20th century (1948 in Denmark, 1958 in Sweden, 1961 in Norway, 1970 in the US), it was only in 1992 that Maria Jepsen was chosen to be the first female Lutheran bishop, serving the see of Hamburg in the North Elbian Landeskirche.
Anyway.  We extend our deepest sympathies to Bishop Eaton and her family, and assure them all of our fervent prayers in the coming six years.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Shakespeare's Editor

John Florio is the sort of historical figure you don't hear much about as an undergraduate, but who is well-known to graduate students in English.  Of English birth and an Italian family, played a modest but footnote-worthy role in the Elizabethan literary world.  Florio wrote and translated a great deal of minor work -- Italian phrasebooks, for example -- but is best known for his rendering of the Decameron and of Montaigne's Essaies, which was still in print a few years ago.

He also had a ... questionable ... relationship with the writer who stands at the top of any Eng Ren Lit syllabus, William Shakespeare.   It is possible that Shakespeare mocked Florio with a minor character in Hamlet, as well as more important characters including Twelfth Night's Malvolio.  They shared a patron, and may have shared a still-more-intimate connection; it has been proposed that the Dark Lady of the sonnets is Florio's wife.

All of which makes more striking the suggestion, brought forth by Eleanor Prosser and laid out by Saul Framtom in The Guardian, that Florio was Shakespeare's editor.

This is not one of those who-really-wrote-Shakespeare snipe hunts.  On the contrary, the suggestion is that precisely because Shakespeare was a real person, and died the way real people do, it was necessary for the actors Hemminges and Condell to find a capable literary editor when they brought out an edition of his collected plays.  The assorted samizdat quartos and preserved scripts in circulation needed not only to be collated, but to be tweaked for style -- lines of verse made regular, rough sentences cleared up, that sort of thing.  Florio, who did a lot of editing work including some for the publisher of the First Folio, would have been a natural candidate.

Most compelling, though, is the linguistic evidence.  In places where the language of the First Folio varies from the at of the published quartos, the revisions often adopt language preferred by Florio:

In Henry V, Exeter presents the French king with a copy of Henry's family tree, describing it as "In every branch truly demonstrated". The Folio changes "demonstrated" to "demonstratiue", a word never used elsewhere by Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson. However, while Florio used "demonstrated" only once, he uses "demonstratiue" 20 times. 
In Henry IV, Part One, "intemperence" is replaced by "intemperature", again never used by Shakespeare, Marlowe or Jonson, but again familiar to Florio. 
And in Henry VI, Part Two, the Folio version has the King enter "on the Tarras", a somewhat redundant elaboration on the King's entrance in the quarto. But whereas Shakespeare was never to use the word again, Florio used it 13 times in his translation of the Decameron, published three years before.

Nothing conclusive, but not impossible.

There isn't a shred of documentary evidence here; all is circumstantial, inferred, guessed.  But it does add up.  And it makes for a good story, too -- a much better one than the silliness of the movie Anonymous.  Think of it:  the brilliant young playwright, who first competes with the hard-working old man of letters for a patron's favor, who makes mockery of the other man's work, personality and even features a running gag in his plays -- and then piles Ossa atop Pelion by seducing the man's wife.  It is a miracle no duel took place.  And then, years later, Florio, the abused fop, is given a rare chance:  effective control of the great man's literary legacy.

He cleans them up, like a good editor.  He takes out, or at least blunts, the mockery of himself.  But he does not destroy the work; indeed, it seems that he tries to make it more beautiful.  It is because he is a conscientious editor, or is there more to it?  Is it that, however much he might have disliked Shakespeare the man, he knows enough to admire Shakespeare the writer?

Only about half the plays in the First Folio are known to us in earlier editions.  In them, we can see the evidence of an editorial hand -- whether or not it was Florio's.  But what about the other plays?  If we had them, how much mockery of John Florio might we find?  And, comparing them to the Folio edition, how much of John Florio himself might we find added in?

Why You Wear Your Collar

Father A. was standing on line outside the DMV today, waiting to re-title his truck.  The sun was hot, the line was long, and the hour marked on the door had come and gone.  The crowd was restless.

Eventually, two women came out, looking visibly shaken.  One of them, dressed in manager's clothing, announced that a DMV worker had been killed in a car accident, and that the staff was too shaken to do business.  The office would not be opening that day.

She spoke in a low, quiet voice and it took the message some time to penetrate the outdoor crowd.  We ourselves had to repeat it several times to the deaf old man behind us.  Some of the people headed back to their cars; others stood in silence, absorbing the news.

And one woman started shouting.

"This is a government office," she shouted at the manager.  "You have no right to close it!  Did you get permission?"  You have no right!"  The manager, a much smaller woman -- and one who looked absolutely frail at that moment -- answered quietly, in controlled tones.  She was obviously used to irate customers; after all, she works for the DMV.  Yes, she had spoken to the people upstairs; yes, she had permission.  But the angry woman, hovering over the manager's head, wasn't done yelling.  She was loud and aggressive.

A little reluctantly, Father A. slipped in his collar tab and came forward.  To the second DMV woman, the one wearing a safety vest, he quietly said, "I'm a member of the clergy.  Can I help out?"  A minute or two later, he was shown into the kitchenette, where the rest of the morning crew sat -- four or five women, most of them sobbing loudly, one or two frozen with grief.  The woman who had been killed was very young, very popular, and had only just achieved her full-time status with the department.  Her friends were in shock.

Father A. did what you do in those circumstances.  It took a while.  But here's the thing:  he never introduced himself to anyone except the manager (and even that was only after ten or fifteen minutes). To the rest, he was just the priest who showed up in the moment of crisis, to pray with them and help them focus their grief.  They didn't know his name, and that was just fine because -- for that little while -- they didn't need a person, an I-thou relationship.  They needed a symbol, a sign of God's presence and concern.

Sure, this might all have unfolded the same way without a black shirt and a strip of cheap plastic at the neck.  But more explanations would have been needed, more introductions -- more time spent on Fr. A instead of the important things.  And it is quite possible that, if he had been in civvies, he'd never have had the chance to help.

As Jesus said only yesterday, "Be dressed for action and keep your lamps lit."

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Damning Brooks

Here at the Egg, we have often mocked David Brooks, a mysteriously-still-employed op-ed writer at the Times.  Our mockery has usually been restricted to snarky side comments and the observation that he is the sort of talking head who wears bowties.

If you've ever wondered just what makes Brooks so bad -- worse than Tom Friedman, not quite so heinous as Peggy Noonan -- read Tim Marchman's takedown at Deadspin.  It's mean-spirited, and therefore appropriate to the task.  

To be honest, our main objection to Brooks is that he is, as Marchman says, "a propaganzizer of discredited ideas," namely neonconservatism.  Marchman, however, goes deeper, picking on the contrast between Brooks' obvious rich-boy sense of privilege and his carefully-erected facade of modesty (he teaches a course in "humility" at Yale, for crying out loud).

Here's the best paragraph:
Brooks was a sheltered twit from his earliest years. He attended a fancy day school in New York, a fancy high school in the wealthy Philadelphia suburbs, and the University of Chicago. From there he moved on to comfortable sinecures at propaganda mills like National Review, the Hoover Institution, and the Washington Times. After a stint at the Wall Street Journal, he moved on to the Weekly Standard, where he worked under editor William Kristol, who damaged whatever chances Brooks had of becoming a normal human being.
Nice, huh?  There's more where that came from.

Neither New Nor True

... But still worth a look.

By now, you've surely seen the video clip of a Fox News talking head who can't seem to grasp why scholars write books in their field of expertise.  She talks to Reza Aslan about Zealot, his new book on Jesus. Sadly, rather than discuss the content of the book itself, she concerns herself with its origin.  Why, she asks -- over and over -- does Aslan want to write a book about Jesus, even though he's ... a Muslim?*

The clip displays the combination of ignorance and bigotry that is Fox's stock in trade, and little more need be said about it.  But perhaps you are wondering about the book itself.  For you, there is a thoughtful and informative review by Peter Monaghan at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Briefly, Aslan's premise is that Jesus must be understood principally as a political revolutionary.  This challenges the interpretations customary both in Christianity (Messiah) and Islam (prophet).  Still, it is hardly novel; as both Monaghan and Aslan himself point out, the case has been argued for decades, by scholars such as SGF Brandon and Geza Vermes. We imagine it can be heard occasionally in the pulpits of some churches.

Monaghan also speaks to several scholars in the field, who make the case that, while this interpretation of Jesus is not new, neither is it widely accepted.  Like many "historical Jesus" arguments, it draws heavily (and selectively) on the Gospels, but scants Paul's letters, which are likely earlier and certainly propose a different Christology.  Some historians take the fact that the first disciples were not hunted down by Roman authorities as evidence that the Empire did not perceive in the "Jesus movement" any threat to its power or insult to its dignity.

Aslan's appearance on Fox will help him to sell many books about Jesus, and that is no bad thing.  Zealot sounds like a thoughtful, well-written volume.  But it also sounds like one which should be read with a grain of salt at the ready.

*It is a point of minor interest that Aslan was raised Muslim, converted to Christianity, and has since apostatized.  He is now a Muslim again, of the Sufi school.  His academic resume is a mixed bag, but includes a BA in religion and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard.  He teaches creative writing.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Cogito, Ergo Sugo

A well-known philosopher named Colin McGinn has resigned his post at the University of Miami after being accused of sexual harassment by a female student.  He is reported to have defended himself with a string of big words, linked together in ways that ultimately translate into "But I was her teacher, and teachers get to do this."  Lovely fellow.

This is all remarkable, we suppose, only because McGinn got canned; it seems certain that most sexual harassment in the academic world goes unpunished; much, indeed, unreported; and quite a bit, we expect, unrecognized even by its victims.

The truth is that many people, both male and female, still have not wrapped their minds around sexual misconduct in a university setting.  When is it love and when is it abuse?  Under what circumstances is something unacceptable even between consenting adults?

The Church has historically given narrower answers to this than the secular world, and especially the academy.  But even so, several of our own seminary professors married their own students -- in one case, serially.  In another case, the professor actually sat on the student's dissertation committee.  The faculty and administration were barely troubled by this, although many students -- reflecting a clear generational difference -- found the situation shameful.

A Harper's symposium at the time found that, at a table of college presidents, only Bard's Leon Botstein found faculty-student romances to be a de facto abuse of power.  We expect that today, the table would be more evenly divided.  McGinn has had few serious defenders, except for a few other philosophers.

And why philosophers?

L'affaire McGinn has led to several interesting comments on the practice of philosophy as an academic discipline.  One is by philosopher Nathan Schneider, at Real Clear Religion.  Schneider writes that

While working on my ... history of philosophical arguments about the existence of God, it gradually became clear that my undertaking was in fact a study of masculinity, so shot through were these arguments with gendered assumptions and ideals. And, as a study of masculinity, it was also a study of patriarchy. ... 
Philosophy serves as a domain in which men can imagine a world made up only of themselves and what goes on in their minds. 
As anybody who has attended a philosophy conference or been in a philosophy department knows, it remains a severely male-dominated discipline. And, according to one of philosophy’s chief commentators, Brian Leiter, “Sexual harassment, from the mild to the severe, is widespread.”
More viscerally, an anonymous Gawker commentator, himself a career academic with some philosophers in the family, writes that

It is my considered opinion that to a man/woman, philosophy professors are pond scum. Or, at the very least, they enable the pond-scumming of their colleagues. They are wanking little boys and scared little girls who justify their unconscionable actions with a dizzying amount of bullshit. And the abuse is cyclical: you only get tenure/published if you fuck so-and-so, which means that once you establish yourself, you're not going to vote for anybody's tenure/book unless they fuck you. It's quid pro quo on ugly nerd steroids. 
It makes it really hard for everyone else in the humanities... and believe me, the other humanities profs are no picnic, either. 
Philosophers are the worst of the worst. I don't know a single academic who disagrees with me. Some just haven't noticed it yet, but if you ask them point blank, they immediately say, "Oh, well, yeah... now that you mention it, there was that one time my GA got roofied by Dr. X. Wow. Philosophers are pretty yucky, aren't they?"

This is a striking assessment of people who are, at least in theory, committed to seeking the good and the true as well as the beautiful.

The Money Pit

Awesome picture stolen from
It may need a little work, but at least it's not haunted.  And we can afford it, too, as long as we don't retire before 80.

Yes, friends, it's true:  Father A. and his family just bought a house.  The realtor called it an "older home," although we certainly wouldn't -- it's about our own vintage, so we're inclined to say it is middle-aged.  It is graying and could stand to lose a few pounds, but is still fit for duty.

This is the first house we have ever bought -- in fact, until last Wednesday, the most valuable thing we owned was a sofa.  (Literally:  it's worth more than our car.  Nice sofa, old car.)

Buying your first home is a big step for anybody -- it combines the wild exhilaration of achieving the American Dream with the vertiginous horror of unpayable debt and perpetual fear of changing real estate values.  In some ways, it may be a bigger step for the clergy, since (especially in the East) so many of us can get by without it.  Call it a rectory, manse or parsonage, older churches often have a home for their pastor.  For the last 23 years, we ourselves have lived in seminary dorms and and other church-owned housing.  Before that, we rented a series of typical New York apartments, each one fully the equal of your coat closet, if you happen to park your coat in an iffy neighborhood.  By comparison, the parsonages were often comically spacious, and -- with one memorable exception -- pleasant, well-maintained houses.

The truth is that we like parsonages.  Our Mom grew up in one, and we wouldn't mind if our kid grew up in one as well.  In high-rent areas (like the one from which we just moved, and as it happens the one in which we now live) a parsonage can be a real blessing to a congregation, enabling it to call and retain a pastor whom it could not otherwise pay enough to live in the neighborhood.  Not to mention that they make it easier for everybody if the pastor needs to move on quickly.

For the pastors themselves, the parsonage is a sketchier proposition.  It builds no equity, which means that after thirty or forty years of parsonage living, you can easily wind up with no place to live and no money to buy a place.  We have seen this happen, and it isn't pretty.  Both pastors and congregations are encouraged to create housing-equity accounts to prevent this, but ... well, sometimes that just doesn't happen.  This is probably why churches don't build them as often anymore.

We are excited about our new pad, and in the months to come, you'll probably hear more about it than you care to.  We don't know if it's a good investment or a bad one, whether it's a home we can fill with love and warmth or a pit that will suck our money, our time and ultimately our will to live.  We don't know whether a giant tree will blow down on the roof in the next storm, either (and there are some whoppers on the property).  But we move in on Wednesday, and your prayers will be gratefully appreciated.