Thursday, October 31, 2013

What If Theology Were in English?

This morning at breakfast, young First-Grader Anonymous (who had been up all night vomiting) asked his Father (who had been up all night cleaning vomit off of sheets, books and stuffed toys) what he was reading.

"It's the Book of Concord," we muttered groggily.

"What's it about?"

"Well, this part is called the Epitome of the Formula, and it's about the doctrine of election."

"They have doctors just for voting?"

"Umm.  No.  Not that kind of election, exactly."

What followed was a brief discursus on the verb eligo, "I choose," and the various instrument of choice available to human beings as opposed to the instruments available to God.  The youngster seemed to take it all in stride, especially so for somebody whose main consideration was whether he would be able to hold down a handful of dry Cheerios.

Afterward, though, it occurred to us that we might have saved time by saying that Epitome XI concerned "teaching about choice" or something like that.  Perhaps, for clarity, "the Church's teaching about how God chooses people."

The point is that there is no necessary reason for theology to be couched, as it generally is, in Latinate words when Anglo-Saxon ones will do.  Indeed, as our ninth-grade English teacher pointed out, this is true of most writing in English.  She delighted in pointing out (often to the children of IBM managers) the folly of business writers who preferred "utilize" to "use" and "finalize" to "end."

Theologians, like people in so many other lines of work, often seem to hide simple ideas behind needlessly long and strange words.  We talk about "eschatology" when we mean "about last things," and "ecclesiological" when we mean "churchy." (Father A. himself remembers well the first time he heard a professor use the adjective "salvific" -- his snort of contempt would have made that old English teacher proud. ) Life would probably be much easier for the people around us if we used more straightforward words.  They might even be able to take us a little bit more seriously.

Two qualifications must be noted at once.  First is the fact that theological jargon, like the jargon of any other profession, does have a practical side.  It is a sort of code which makes communication faster and more efficient among those who use it every day.  "Soteriology" may be a stupid-sounding word, but it is genuinely easier to say than "doctrine, study or language for talking about salvation."  This becomes even more true when one is attempting to read theological works written in a foreign language -- the fact that so many languages employ cognate words with Greek and Latin roots makes skimming and translation much easier than they might otherwise be.

This is most true in certain kinds of liturgical and historical study, in which familiar foreign words are customarily used in their original form, often as proper nouns.  It is far easier to speak of the Kyrie and Gloria in excelsis, of capax and simul iustus, than to stop and translate these every time we use them.

The second qualification is that many of the people who write theology are well aware that their cultic language is an obstacle for the common reader, and have tried to help.  Witness the frequent replacement of the word "theology" itself with the good Anglo-Saxon compound "God-talk."  This is not a matter of dumbing down, either.  Some writers (Gordon Lathrop comes to mind) work hard to avoid jargon, and yet are still required by the nature of their ideas to adopt a style that requires great attention from the reader.  Attention -- but not a glossary.

Still, qualifications noted, we could do better.  Many of the things that Christians believe about God are indeed complicated and difficult to describe in ordinary language.  Some -- notably the teaching of the Trinity -- seem to elude clear description.  But many others are simple enough:  God made us, God loves us, God saves us.  We don't need to hide them behind complicated expressions, and may serve both God and the Church better if we don't.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Random Gleanings

Herewith a few phrases that have comer to our attention recently, in no special order, with a bit of context.

1.  Burke's "Chivalry"

In a wide-randing lecture on the uses of "gothic" and medieval" in English culture, Michael Alexander discusses the fact that the Middles Ages have been appropriated, at different times, by both the left and the right.  When the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt by Pugin, it was because the high Gothic was associated with democracy and public discourse.  Conversely, Edmund Burke famously remarked of Marie Antoinette's death that
I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. 
Of this remark, Alexander curtly observes,
"Chivalry" is a code word for "a stratified society."
Take that, conservative Romantics.

2.  Cushing's Bacon

At the Second Vatican Council, Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing gave a powerful speech in which he called for an end to Catholic anti-Semitism, and a new relationship with the Jewish people.  This speech, controversial at the time, helped move the Council toward its breakthrough in Nostra Aetate.

Speaking at Boston College, Rabbi James Rudin mentions a remark attributed to Cushing, for which he can find no credible attestation.  Before he got on the plane, Cushing is rumored to have said:
If I don't bring home the bacon for the Jews, I can't ever show my face in Boston again.
3.  Wright Stuff

N. T. Wright, in the opening pages his slim book entitled Paul in Fresh Perspective, discusses the tension between scholars who see in the apostle's writing the pure exposition of a systematic theology, and those who see rather individualized responses to the problems of particular communities.

To this, Wright offers words of wisdom for all parish pastors:
Anyone who has preached to different congregations, and engaged in pastoral ministry with different kinds of people, will know only too well that the moment when a particular situation presents itself is precisely the moment when you need to draw deeply on something very central and non-negotiable.   
One might almost formulate a general rule that the more specific the situation, the more what is needed is a return to core truth, however freshly stated.
Amen, brother Wright.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

More Freedom

We're still thinking about Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian," as we prepare for Sunday.  It has, truly, been a long time since we read the essay; we were quite different ourselves in those days, and so we looked to Luther for different things.  Now in wizened old age, we are delighted to stumble across treasures which were hidden from our callow youth.

For example, here is a beautiful illustration of Luther on the froehlich Wechsel, or "joyful exchange" model of salvation:
Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation; the soul is full of sin, death, and condemnation. Let faith step in, and then sin, death, and hell will belong to Christ, and grace, life, and salvation to the soul. 
For, if [Christ] is a husband, he must needs take to himself that which is his wife's, and, at the same time, impart to his wife that which is his. For, in giving her his own body and himself, how can he but give her all that is his? And, in taking to himself the body of his wife, how can he but take to himself all that is hers?
We may steal this outright on Sunday.

Beneath this image lies, of all things, Song of Songs 6:3 and related passages.  It takes the Biblical image of the Church as a the Bride of Christ and personalizes it, applying it to the spiritual life of each individual Christian.

This is a sharp contrast to the "commercial" model many of us (including Fr. A.) have been taught.  In that model, human sin creates a debt to God, which is paid for each of us by the merits of Christ.  The only real difference between Luther and his opponents, in this view, is whether the Church has the power to move these merits around like so much cash in a counting-house, or whether that power is exercised exclusively in Heaven.

As Paul Hinlicky pointed out at our last synod assembly, the "commercial" model is, like the "forensic" or legal model beloved of the Gnesio-Lutherans, profoundly impersonal.  The movement of merits, like the judicial judgment, takes place somewhere else, far from us.  We are saved or damned in absentia.  But to speak of salvation as a marriage, albeit between parties of vastly different stature, is inherently personal.  Our exchange of wedding gifts can only take place only as the result of an intimate personal encounter -- indeed, the most intimate and most personal encounter.  (Insert here your own giggly allusion to Bernini's Santa Teresa).

One might not want to go too very far with this language.  Marriage, as it was known either in antiquity or in the Middle Ages, had a side that may seem sordid to us moderns.  Brides, in particular, did not always enter into it of their own will.  Within marriage, women lost some of their identity and, not infrequently, claim to much of their property.  Love was an ancillary consideration, especially among the upper classes.

Still, we are enchanted by this idea, and plan to run with it for a good long while.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Bishop of Bling" is Busted

How much does it cost to renovate a medieval bishop's palace in modern Germany?  What's a fair cost for that sort of thing?  How do you even go about getting an estimate?

Well, in Limburg, Bishop Franz-Peter Trebatrz-von Elst did get estimates, for something in the neighborhood of 5.5 million euros.  That's a big wad of cash, the sort that could probably make a significant dent in -- we're just making this up, now -- the lives of poor people in Limburg.  But the bishop went ahead with his renovations.

Which cost a whopping 31 million euros.  About $42 million in real Fahrenheit money.

There are stories of a $20,000 bathtub and a conference table that cost ... well, never mind.  Plus the first-class flights to visit poor people in India, and so forth.  A lot of freaking Deustchmarks, if Deutshmarks were still a thing.

It all smells like a steaming pile of -- and you knew this was coming, didn't you? -- Limburger cheese.  Needless to say, this wasn't going to play well with a pope who has named himself after the Poverello, the Little Poor Man.  And it didn't.

Bishop Trebartz-von Elst has been suspended by the Vatican pending the findings of an official inquiry.  Word is that, on his way to get smacked down by the Pope, he flew on a discount airline.

Preaching on Mary and Free Love

Perhaps, for Reformation Day this year, we will preach on the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Rightly or wrongly -- and the answer is wrongly -- the lectionary provides a single rather drab set of readings for Reformation Day.  Year in and year out, it is Jeremiah, Romans, and John.

And yet it was Galatians that Luther compared to his own wife, and Genesis upon which he taught some of his longest lessons in the classroom. (Remember the "sacristy prayer"?  That's where it comes from.)  Surely these books have something to offer us by way of insight into what people began talking about on Halloween in 1517.  (And the Common Service did prescribe Gal. 2:16-21 for Reformation, a text that is positively pregnant with opportunity for a teacher interested in the relationship of pistis to theosis.)

One of these years, by gosh, we will muster the courage (and the advance planning) to throw out those idiotic bulletin inserts, set aside the lectionary, and choose our own readings for Reformation Day.  But this year, we regret to say, it will be Jeremiah, Romans and John.

Most of our attention will probably go to the last of these, and the promise of Christ that "the truth shall make you free."  The text is almost certainly chosen to refer us back to Luther's famous essay on Christian freedom, written in 1521, and so we have been reviewing our battered paperback copy this afternoon.  This essay lacks the wild ambition of Babylonian Captivity -- in which Luther re-imagines the sacramental system -- but may have more lasting relevance.  It is an astonishingly deep piece of writing, so deep that its meaning may sometimes be difficult to discern.

Here, fairly early on, we begin to sense the complex relationship that Evangelical theology will have to the Law.  In places, as when he cites 1 Timothy to the effect that "the law is not made for a righteous man," Luther does start to sound like the antinomian some have tried to make him.  He is not, by any means, and no sustained reading of the treatise will support that idea.  But as Leonard Klein often remarked, during his days as editor of Lutheran Forum, "At its best, Lutheran theology does come very close to antinomianism."  Close, but never ... quite ... there.

For Luther, no matter what drivel you have heard to the contrary, faith and works are inextricably linked.  Indeed, we believe these days that the real hermeneutical key to Luther is to grasp that faith and works are not, really, ontologically, separate things.  "Faith" is a word which expresses a condition of the soul in response to divine grace; this condition is manifested in obedience to the Law.  It is not that faith inspires works, or expresses them, but that where faith in the specific sense Luther intends is present, so too is obedience.

All of which leads us to this illustration, which we had long since forgotten:
The Blessed Virgin, beyond all others, affords us an example of the same faith, in that she was purified according to the law of Moses, and like all other women, though she was bound by no such law, and had no need of purification. Still she submitted to the law voluntarily and of free love, making herself like the rest of women, that she might not offend or throw contempt on them. She was not justified by doing this; but, being already justified, she did it freely and gratuitously. Thus ought our works too to be done, and not in order to be justified by them; for, being first justified by faith, we ought to do all our works freely and cheerfully for the sake of others.
Ah.  There it is.  (And no, we don't think the translator meant "free love" in that sense.  Get your mind out of the gutter, this is the BVM we're talking about.)

We do not know about Mary's faith from any verbal affirmation (here), but from the fact of her obedience to the Law -- and at that, the ceremonial law, the covenant law, which most Protestant theology dismisses out of hand.

So what then does it mean that she was not "bound" by the Law?  Here is that Augustinian thing, about the meaning of the Law in the life of the converted.  She was not bound to it by the threat of punishment, since she had been delivered from that punishment by grace.  But this does not mean that she was "free" from it, in the sense that modern people might hear those words -- she was not free to disobey it.  That was not the effect of God's grace or Mary's faith.  The effect was that she obeyed "freely and gratuitously," or in a more modern translation "out of a free and willing love."

All this, of course, is summed up by the simple preacher's shorthand "Not freed from the Law, but freed for the Law."  You've said those words a million times, and so have we.

And come Sunday, we'll say them again.  But next year, Galatians.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Our Secret Life

Here's our confession:  there is more to Father Anonymous than sex, religion and politics.  Not a lot more, frankly, but a little.

Like cartoons.

And the desire to make the world a better place, using cartoons.

One way to do this, as a friend pointed out years ago, is to make cartoons that inspire kids to do things they didn't think they could do.  For instance, letting little boys know that they can grow up to be peaceful and nurturing men -- not something you pick up easily from the mass media.

Or letting little girls know that they can grow up to excel at science and technology, and that they can use these tools to keep on making the world a better place.  That is the idea behind Gangly Sister.  We aren't ready to spill all the beans about this yet, but you can get some ideas from following the link.  Which you should.  Then like us on Facebook.  And support our Kickstarter.

Because, come on, don't you want the world to be better?

Friday, October 18, 2013

GOP Push to Repeal 19th Amendment

Well, not exactly.  But close.

Having worked overtime to disenfranchise poor and black voters in 2012, and lost the White House anyway, the Republican Party is trying to figure out who else it can prevent from voting in the future.

The answer is easy:  women.

And the place is urgent:  Texas, where pro-choice heroine Wendy Davis stands a reasonable chance of success in her run for governor.

The strategy is simple:  adjust voting laws so that votes must produce a photo ID with their current leal name.  This reasonable-sounding rule in fact disenfranchises a surprising number of women -- as many as 34% of them.  Young women, apparently, don't rush to update their driver's licenses after they are married.

Jean Anne Esselink, writing at The New Civil Rights Movement, sums it up:
You have to hand it to Texas. Abortion politics threaten to drive the election for governor, so they have figured out a way to discourage a large group of women who are likely have a personal interest in the issue of choice: married women of child-bearing age. Women who might favor Wendy Davis.
Yeah.  We actually think it's that simple.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wishful Thinking

The great majority of Christians take very little interest in the Revelation of St. John because it seems so obscure and mysterious and very difficult to understand. It is probably the least read book in the Bible.
So writes R.L. Weidner of the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary, in his 1898 commentary on Revelation.  (At Google books). This seems terribly unfair to Nahum, Habbakkuk, and the Song of Songs

Perhaps the culture of American Christianity has taken a more apocalyptic turn since then, or perhaps Prof. Weidner was simply mistaken.

In any case, we're bracing ourselves to lead a parish Bible study on this book, which -- however strangely popular it may be -- remains "obscure, mysterious and very difficult to understand."  Wish us well.

Republicans Getting High, Having Bunny Sex

"Are you high," Anderson Cooper recently asked GOP strategist Alex Castellanos.

"I wish I were," Castellanos replied, with surprising frankness.  Who in the political world, and especially the Republican hemisphere, has not recently wished for the sweet Coleridgean release of some drowsy syrup?

Nonetheless, the apparently sober Castellanos went on to provide a unique theory explaining the recent, and seemingly self-destructive, behavior of Senator Ted Cruz.

He's having bunny sex.

As Castellanos said:
[T]he snowshoe hare — I thought it’s a marvelous explanation — every ten years, multiplies six fold. Bunnies like sex apparently. But the boom produces a bust. They press their food supply, they invite predators. Right now, Ted Cruz, what’s he’s doing, feels good; he’s growing his supporters. It’s leading the Republican Party, I think, into a bust.
Well.  Now we know.

Saturday, October 12, 2013


Among Evangelicals of the Lutheran persuasion, there is a ratty old saying which regularly makes the rounds: Nihil est adiaphoron in casu confessionis et scandali.  That's the long form, attributed to Matthias Flacius Ilyricus.  More commonly, we are prone to look daggers at one another and mutter "In statu confessionis," letting the rest trail off ominously.

What we mean when we say this is, "No," to whatever has been proposed, with the implication that "If you try to make me do anything, then I am required by my faith to disagree with you about everything."   It is an incredibly stubborn position, one which virtually shuts down conversation.  And yes, it is written into our confessions of faith (e.g., SD 10).

Properly, this principle only applies in times of genuine persecution, when violence is used or threatened as a tool to suppress the Gospel.  In practice, it is thrown around somewhat more freely.  Episcopalians make the historic succession of bishops a condition of full communion?  Status confessionis!  The ELCA recognizes same-sex unions?  Status confessionis!  It is an easy knee-jerk reaction, just one of the many that earn us our reputation for stubbornness.

In statu confessionis.  These are fighting words among our tribe.  They go back to the 1540s, when -- in a somewhat quixotic effort to reunite the broken Church -- Melanchthon and some other Lutherans agreed to permit any number of ceremonies which had been cast aside by the Reformation.  They argued that, so long as the central teaching of salvation by grace was allowed to stand, ceremonies instituted by human beings ought not be allowed to divide the Church.

This seemingly reasonable position aroused immense resistance from other Evangelicals.  The resistance was, we suspect, largely emotional.  Every pastor has at some point attempted to introduce a widespread ecumenical practice into the congregation's worship, only to be told "That's too Catholic."  That's what it boils down to.

Melanchthon was abused mercilessly, as were his followers.  To this day, Lutheran folk history accuses him of "weakness" or "indecision."  In fact, he was among the finest Patristic scholars of his age, and also among the most passionate ecumenists.  Her struggled mightily to do something that Protestantism still struggles with:  articulate the role of the redeemed person's will in living a godly life.  Had he been given the respect and support he deserved, it is entirely possible that the main Reformation schisms -- not only German, but Swiss and English -- might have been healed.  But he was not.

Melanchthon's vitriolic opponents, called the Gnesio-Lutherans, may have been driven by emotion, but they also had a point.  The tentative agreements of the 1540s, called the Interims, were made under threat of violence.  If the Evangelicals did not capitulate, the result was likely to be war.  So although the Evangelical party had professed (from the preface of the Augsburg Confession forward) its deep desire to keep Western Christianity united, as well as its desire to retain the ancient polity and practices so far as they were consonant with the Gospel, it is easy to argue that the negotiations which resulted in the Interims were not made in good faith.  They were the result of coercion.

So one part of the Gnesio-Lutheran argument was that you can't negotiate with a sword pointed at you. Sound familiar?  Of course it does; this is just what President Obama said at the beginning of the present political crisis.  And it's the truth.

In that specific sense, Obama's position does echo Flacius.  And conservative critics are doing their best to argue that, like the Gnesio-Lutherans at their worst, it is the Democrats who are being needlessly stubborn.  After all, they aren't "negotiating."  Never mind that "negotiation" here means capitulation under coercion -- to an electoral minority, at that.

The ACA is a reasonably popular law -- nobody's first choice of solutions, either on the left or the right, but at least a viable compromise.  Shutting down the government is wildly unreasonable, an act of wanton destruction growing from a refusal to compromise.  Insisting that a good law be put into abeyance is bad government; shutting down the government if you don't get your way is somewhere between childish and insane.

So in fact, it is the Republicans who are acting like the dumbed-down modern version of Gnesio-Lutherans:  stubborn asses who want things their way, and will not be moved by any amount of reason.  Their fight, especially as they scale back their demands, is about preserving their image, both among themselves and among the voters.  They're like a congregation saying, "Well, chasubles are okay, but if you light incense, we'll burn the church down."

And the Democrats are like Philippists:  smarter, milder, more pragmatic.  Only this time, the Philippists are not caving.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Vatican Misspells "Jesus"

Stolen from The Telegraph
On Tuesday, the Vatican released, and hours later withdrew, a medal intended to celebrate the present pope's first year.

Around its periphery, the medal was mean to show the words of a sermon by the Venerable Bede, on St. Matthew's Gospel (9:9-13):
Vidit ergo Iesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi "Sequere me."
It means, roughly,
Therefore, Jesus saw the tax collector, and because he saw by having mercy and by choosing, said to him, "Follow me."  
This is the source of Pope Francis's personal motto, "Miserando atque Eligendo."  The official translation is "Lowly but chosen."

Sadly, the medal actually read "Vidit ergo Lesus."  With an L.

Lesus, needless to say, is not the name of our Lord and Savior.

Is the GOP Shutting Down?

Time has not permitted us to blog about the current clusterboff in the nation's capital (and, specifically, its capitol).  This does not mean we aren't following it all with interest.

We serve a congregation filled with government employees and contractors, many of them directly and personally affected by the shutdown.  We also serve in what is said to be one of the most deeply Republican counties in the state -- although a party leader has confessed to some concern that the Democrats are gaining ground recently.  We can only imagine that this trend is about to accelerate.

Because who, being in their right mind and not obsessed by ideology, would ever vote for a Republican again?

The GOP has long been perceived to be running out of time, as its core constituency of old, white men gradually loses its hegemony in American culture.  Periodic efforts to broaden its base have been half-hearted and unsuccessful.

Now, Republicans in the House have allowed themselves to be driven by their extreme fringe -- driven, that is, right over a cliff.  A month before an election, the party and its leaders have made themselves immensely unpopular. Their poll numbers have never been lower, while the President's are up ever so slightly.  Although it appears that the extremists themselves are largely safe from re-election challenges, it is hard to imagine that the party will not lose some of its clout next month, and more in the Novembers to come.

Losing favor with the electorate is bad.  What may be worse for Republicans is the possibility of losing favor with their sugar daddies in the world of business.  A recent BusinessWeek article described the growing distance between the fiery ideologues and the practical minds of the business world:
If Republican lawmakers were as responsive to business concerns as they once were, the chance of a prolonged shutdown would be slim. But that’s no longer the case. “Republicans are not the party of business anymore,” says Robert Shapiro, chairman of the economic advisory firm Sonecon. “They’re the party of antigovernment.”
 A Times article yesterday revealed just how angry the business lobby is about the shutdown.  They are losing money, and lots of it, with no end in sight.  This is, to put it cynically, not the government they paid for.

And they do put it cynically.  Here's the money quote:
“We ask them to carry our water all the time,” said one corporate sector lobbyist, who demanded anonymity in order to speak frankly about the relationship with Republicans. “But we don’t necessarily support them 100 percent of the time. And what has happened is the rise of an ideological wing that is now willing to stand up to business interests.”
It is hard to know whom to hate more in a situation like this one:  the corporate fat cats or their Congressional water-boys, who chose the wrong time to show a rebellious streak.

In a sense, America's corporate oligarchs are a little like the House of Saud.  They have sponsored the raving of ideological extremists (Tea Party, Wahabists, whatever) as a way to distract the masses from their own corruption -- and now they have to face the fact that these radicals may actually believe their own nutty rhetoric.  Worse, they are willing to act on their belief in ways that threaten to bring down their masters' cushy palaces -- along with the rest of a the country.

The GOP is divided against itself, and in danger of losing its connection to both mainstream voters and corporate money.  Meanwhile, its core constituency continues to dwindle.  How long can this go on?

The New Republic is fantasizing when it offers up a headline about "the death throes of the Republican Party."  Outright collapse, represented by a prolonged period of political impotence, seems as unlikely as Karl Rove's dream of a "durable Republican majority" ever did.  For better or worse, America is deeply in love with its two-party system, even if it does not love the parties themselves.  Voters will simply switch back and forth until they arrive at the balance that they want.  These two parties have dominated the landscape for 150 years, and it is hard to imagine they they will stop dominating it any time soon.

Of course, somebody might have said that about the dinosaurs.