Friday, June 06, 2014

Alain Resnais, RIP

The most memorably bad date of my collegiate life went like this:

A friend's girlfriend had arranged a blind date for me.  Given that this girlfriend was herself a difficult character -- pageant queen gone to terrifying seed -- a wiser man would have politely demurred.  But hey, I was looking for love.

We met at the student center, and it was clear in an instant that we were ill-matched.  I studied English, she studied Chem.  She had no evident interest in art or politics, I couldn't for the life of me remember what chelation and reagents were.  Apart from the aforementioned friend's girlfriend, we seemed not to have a single acquaintance in common -- and this on a very small campus.

But that was okay, because I had an ace in the hole:  the campus film club.  Every week, in one of the lecture halls, they screened a movie classic.  That was where I became acquainted with Fassbinder, Antonioni, and all the other highbrow moviemakers that college kids love.  But this particular night, they had scheduled one of those perfect date movies -- a screwball comedy from the 1930s or 40s.

I forget what it was, exactly.  My Man Godfrey?  Holiday?  Bringing Up Baby?  Anyway, it was a guaranteed good time, 100 minutes of laughter followed by a glamorous big-screen kiss.  Hard to resist.

So off we went to Blodgett Hall, where we sat in the uncomfortable seats normally reserved for Anthropology 101.  We make awkward small talk, and waited for the lights to dim.

Then disaster struck.

"I'm sorry," said the president of the club, walking in front of the screen and holding a round steel film canister.  "The company that we rent these things from seems to have screwed up.  Instead of [Godfrey/Holiday/Baby], they seem to have sent us a French at film called Hiroshima, Mon Amour."

Ah, yes.  Hiroshima, Mon Amour.  For those who have never had the pleasure, it is Alain Resnais' 1959non-linear meditation on memory and war, which launched the Nouvelle Vague.  A French actress and a Japanese architect are ending their affair, and ... talking about it. He remembers being in Hisrohima when the bomb fell, she remembers being shaved bald as punishment for a fling with a German soldier.  There are pictures of people dying and disfigured by the effects of atomic warfare.

"So," I said cautiously when the lights came up afterward.  "You want to, maybe, get a beer?"

"I don't drink" she said.  This might have been true, or might not.  For all I know, she might have taken the pledge that very moment.  It was probably just as well.

Anyway, I did not get lucky that night, and have always blamed Alain Resnais.  He was a good director -- I like L'Annee Derniere a Marienbad as much as you can like that sort of thing -- and haven't let this particular disaster interfere with a lifetime of snobby Francophilia.  But the guy did cost me a night of amorous fun, which is a serious offense.  Yes, it was thirty-odd years ago -- but I have neither forgotten nor forgiven

Anyway, Resnais is dead at 91.  The rest of the world mourns; I hereby declare victory.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Anne B. Davis, RIP

Years ago, I stood uncomfortably in a Brooklyn apartment full of 20-somethings, holding a cocktail, making the sort of small talk that gets progressively more difficult as each succeeding salvo falls flat.  It was a Christmas party thrown by (if I recall) a friend's ex-girlfriend.  Or something like that.  The crowd was a mix of artists, journalists and -- mostly -- youngsters trying to find their way in life.  I was about a year away from discovering my own vocation, some college pals were about the same distance from law school.  One guy was twenty years out from his bestseller and a couple more from his suicide.

For whatever reason, the party was failing.  That indefinable chemistry that creates a good time simply was not there.  We were all shuffling our feet, checking our watches, wondering whether there weren't some place else we could go to have the kind of fun we wanted.

And then Ann B. Davis came to save us.

She had help:  Robert Reed, Florence Henderson, a bunch of youngish adults including the pulchritudinous Eve Plumb.  Because, yes, somebody had done the unthinkable:  turned on the television at a party.  And what happened to be on television that night (probably 18 December 1988) was a holiday special reuniting the Brady Bunch.

It was, evaluated as either comedy or drama, simply godawful.  (Can Mike and Carol get their kids together for Christmas?  No, because Peter is schtupping his boss and Jan is getting a divorce).  But about half of us drifted silently toward the TV, finding comfortable spots to sit or to recline, laughing at the jokes.  We laughed at the jokes, we followed the plot, we relaxed and enjoyed ourselves.  A room full of modestly sophisticated New Yorkers, tense and insecure, was turned ad break by ad break into one full of snorting, giggling children.  The mood softened and we all relaxed.

And at the center of all this, of course -- literally the center of the Brady family, as depicted on the famous opening credits -- was Ann B. Davis, the actress who played Alice the housekeeper.  She was a wry, materterine presence, the voice of wisdom and experience holding the strangely blended family together.  She died last week, age 88, following a fall.

Davis was already a celebrated TV actress when she got to the Bradys, having won two best-supporting Emmy awards for her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show.  This was news to me when I saw the obit, never having heard of Bob Cummings or his show.  What I had heard, over the years, were veiled references to Davis having hooked up with "a religious group" of some sort, even going so far as to "give it her money."  In context, this was always made to sound as though she had joined a cult.

Well, she had.  The Episcopal cult.

Davis was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, and lived out her final years in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.  She lived her last years in the home of the Rev. William C. Frey, who is indeed a bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.  He is the former bishop of Colorado and a former dean of the Trinity Episcopal School of MInistry in Ambridge, which Davis attended for a while.

Trinity is a seminary representing the low-church and theologically conservative wing of PECUSA, which opens its doors eagerly to future leaders of non-Episcopalian Anglican churches and which has in recent years dropped the word "Episcopal" from its own publicity, although retaining it as part of the legal name.  (Just as PECUSA has dropped/retained the word "Protestant.")

Frey does sound like an odd duck.

In 1971, he was deported from Guatemala for "interfering the political affairs" of that country, of which he was the Episcopal bishop.  It appears that his interference consisted of nothing more than calling for an end to political violence and asking that all citizens be guaranteed their constutional protections, which is never a bad thing to do and, in the midst of Guatemala's brutal civil war, was probably a very good one. Reading between the lines, the guy sounds like something of a lefty -- in those days.

Davis seems to have met him in 1974, when she was playing summer stock theater in  Denver and he was the (apparently newish) Bishop of Colorado. She experienced some sort of adult conversion experience, and in her own words, "decided to sell my house in L.A. and yield my life to the Lord."  This involved moving, with Frey's family and some others, into a converted Victorian in the Mile-High City.

In 1978, Frey's wife explained to a local newspaper that their home was not -- contrary to what you may have heard -- a commune.  It was rather, she said, "an ecclesiastical Waltons," a large house in which 18 people lived together, rose each morning to read the Lectionary, and were supported by three incomes -- those of Bishop Frey, of an unnamed aerospace engineer, and of Ann B. Davis.

It is not hard to guess which of those incomes was largest, four years after a run on one of America's most beloved sitcoms. but ... so what?  if she wanted to support Denver's own Little Gidding, why shouldn't she?

The same local newspaper identifies Frey as a leader in "the Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship," which is, more than anything, a reminder of what the 1970s were like.  (As recently as the 2000s, Lutheran pastors were asked, when filling out forms, for their opinion of "the charismatic renewal among us."  Many of us scratched our heads about that one; it would have been easier to answer a question about the renewal of Scholasticism or monothelitism among us.)

In any case, a key thing to remember about Frey is that he remained an Episcopalian, even as his church splintered.  In 2009, he was assisting the Diocese of the Rio Grande, and a separatist website took umbrage at how much satisfaction he expressed at the PECUSA's ability to retain legal title to its parishes.  He may be an odd duck, but he's a loyal one.

So far as we can tell, David lived out her life as part of the Frey housegold, both in Denver and in Ambridge.  It seems likely that her money helped support the household, and probably the seminary.  She was, it seems, an Episcopalian of Charismatic tendencies and a communitarian lifestyle.  Rare enough in her profession, and kind of neat.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

In Die Ascensionis Domini

Artist unknown; from
Surely, most Egg readers are too busy preparing their Ascension services to read a blog.  But if you have found a few moments to relax between Matins and the Communion service, welcome.

We ourselves, we confess with a blush, have no service of public worship planned today.  But one of the Bible study groups here at Paradise in the Piedmont has planned a potluck, at which we will remind them that today is one of the great feasts of the Christian year.  Perhaps, God willing, some pious conversation will ensue, between the second casserole and the Jello salad.

As you know, it was a sermon on the Ascension that provoked oen of St. Augustine's most memorable images:

The Devil exulted when Christ died, and in the death of Christ itself is the Devil conquered.  The mousetrap for the Devil is the Cross of the Lord; the bait that is taken, the Lord's death.

Occasionally, in art, one sees St. Joseph working in his woodshop.  And there in the corner, sometimes -- as in the famous Campin altarpiece housed at the Cloisters -- is a mousetrap.  It's a reference to this particular sermon.

Of the Ascension itself, Augustine says that Christ "rose again, that he might show us an example of the general resurrection; ... he ascended, that he might protect us from above."

Perhaps more usefully, he adds that Christ "paid the price for us, when he hung upon the tree; and he gathers what he purchased, now that he sits in heaven."

In addition to paintings of mousetraps and disappearing feet (the latter being our favorite image evah), the Ascension has prompted some people to write poetry.

Read, if you must, John Keble's piece on it in The Christian Year; it will remind you why Keble is neither taught in schools nor sung in churches.

More to our taste is John Donne's sonnet, from the cycle La Corona:

O strong Ram which hast battered heaven for me,
Mild lamb, which with thy blood, hast marked the path;
Bright Torch, which shin'st, that I the way may see,
Oh, with thy own blood quench thy own just wrath.
But to be honest, what we really love most are those disappearing feet.  Here are a few examples.

A medieval church:

Stained glass, 1480, Norfolk (
A beautiful modern take by Sarah Drescher Braswell:

And from the Shrine of Our lady of Walsingham, courtesy of Mr Gog:

This picture, like the Ascension itself, is a little out of focus, but still fascinating.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Aitch Ee Double Hockey-Sticks

PART 1:  Astersisks, Inferos and Infernus

When Lutherans  recite the Creed, they are faced with an asterisk.  We do not know how many other churches put footnotes in their service books, but ours has for a while now.

In the 1958 Service Book and Hymnal, asterisks stood in both the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds, over the word "catholic."  Many Lutherans were accustomed to saying "Christian" here, in imitation of a German rendering of the Creeds which, surprisingly, predated the Reformation.  The SBH permitted this, but observed in a note that "catholic" was "the original and generally accepted" reading.

In a more ecumenical era, the 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship let "catholic" stand sans notation, but added a new asterisk in the Apostles' Creed.  Although the main text said that Jesus "descended into hell," a footnote offered the variant reading that "he descended to the dead."

The 2006 abomination of desolation Evangelical Lutheran Worship has returned us to the two-asterisk situation.  One, in the Nicene Creed, is the sign of still more ecumenical advancement:  a reminder that the filioque is not original to the text, with permission to omit it.  (We are told that this is LWF policy when praying in community with the Orthodox.)  The second asterisk is in the Apostles' Creed, and reverses the LBW reading:  now the main text says that Jesus descended "to the dead," and the note permits us to swap in "into hell."

So ... did the Lord go to Hell or didn't he?  And why do Lutherans get so fussy about it?

Part of the answer to that second question is purely Lutheran.  We accepted "Christian" because it was Christliche in the German version of the Book of Concord, and likewise some of us have argued that we should insist on "hell" because the BoC's German version of the Creed says Hoelle.  This reflects a simple line of reasoning made popular during the confessional revival of the 19th century and perpetuated, in particular, by the LC-MS:  locutus confessio, causa est.

But the Ecumenical Liturgical Language Consultation and others prefer "to the dead," which puts some pressure on Lutherans to at least consider that reading.  And it is certainly not a bad reading.  Some of our friends have gone so far as to propose that it is a superior rendering of the Biblical message, on the grounds that "the word 'hell' does not appear in the Bible."  (Whether this is true or not is the question we shall consider in Part 2.)

The underlying Latin is ad inferos in most versions, ad inferna in the BoC.  Both words have the root meaning of "down, below," and are used in pagan sources to describe both the regions inhabited by the dead and the shades of the dead themselves.  Inferos has many more general uses, infernus (of which inferna seems to be the neuter accusative) is  more likely to be used with reference to the dead, whence it it the obvious root, via Dante, of the English word "inferno."

(But please note that what infernus does not mean is a fire or a place where things are burning.  Indeed, the OED doesn't even define infernal or inferno in terms of fire, but rather in terms of Hell and devils.  Only in the case of "infernal machine," an old expression for a bomb, does fire even enter into the matter.  Moreover, the OED definitions for words in this category all speak explicitly of Hell and devils.)

So it seems clear that the Apostles' Creed means to tell us that Jesus went down to the dead, or perhaps to the land of the dead.  In this it echoes Ephesians 4:9, about going down to the lower regions of the earth, and perhaps 1 Peter 3:19, in which the Spirit sent the revivified Jesus to "preach to the souls that were in prison."

PART 2:  So What is this "Hell" of Which You Speak?

Two questions follow logically here:

  • Can the Latin terms inferos and infernus can legitimately be translated as Hell?
  • Which translation better captures the Biblical sense of Christ's descent?

The answer to the first question seems to be a comparatively easy "yes."  Although "hell" is a Germanic word and "inferno" a Latinate one, we have already seen that the OED can't even define the latter without reference to the former.  The earliest translators of the Latin liturgy into English saw this as a perfectly natural correlation.

But there is one valid reason to hesitate.  "Hell" is a richly evocative word in English.  It conjures up images of fire and demons, of eternal torment, of God's absence and the Devil's presence.  Its meaning, to our ears, is rather more than merely a holding pen for dead souls.  Meanwhile, we are told in seminary that the Hebrew cosmology contains just such a holding pen -- Sheol, "the Pit" -- and a quick look at the Aeneid's depiction of the shades suggests that the Classical realm of Hades or Pluto was something similar.  Does the word "Hell" overstate the case, and insert into the Biblical narrative a cosmological proposition which belongs rather to the realms of Northern Europe?

Maybe.  But maybe not.

Is "hell" in the Bible?  Yes, about 65 times in the KJV (including Apocrypha).  The NRSV uses it as well, although more sparingly and only in the New Testament.  The NRSV eschews hell as a translation of Sheol in the OT (which it simply calls "the Pit") or Hades in the NT (where "Hades" translates Ps. 16:10's Sheol, or in Revelation where it is paired symbolically with Death).  In the NRSV, the word "hell" is restricted to translations of Gehenna (in the Gospels), and Tartaros (in 2 Peter 2:4).

So there is a certain syncretism as work in the Bible itself, as locations in Hebrew cosmology are paired with locations in Greek cosmology.  It may help to review the terms.

Hades, as everyone knows, was both the Greek god of the dead and his domain.  Homer places it at the western  end of the earth, and peoples it with dull and listless shades of the dead.  In later literature, it becomes a more complicated and diverse locale.  For what it's worth, the LXX uses "Hades" quite freely as a translation of "Sheol."

Tartaros, in Homer and the archaic poets, is a distinct place -- a massive pit located below (but distinct from) Hades itself.  In later poetry, as well as Plato and Aristophanes, the two merged, along with a variety of other places, so that the Greek afterlife developed a busy topography.  Some of the shades were in Tartaros for punishment, some in Elysium or the White Islands for blessing.   Those who had just arrived were in Erebus, and the great majority in the Fields of Asphodel.  All of this was, at least by the end, said to be contained in Hades.

Gehenna, of course, was an actual place where human sacrifices (by fire) were performed, and which was so condemned by Jewish tradition that in the intertestamental period it became a byword for punishment after death.  The implication of the NRSV's translation strategy is to argue that, by the time of Jesus, Hellenistic Jewish cosmology thought of the Sheol / Hades as the domain of the dead in general, and of Gehenna / Tartaros as a distinct location reserved for punishment of the wicked. Hence the first pair of words are "the pit" or simply "death," and the second properly "hell."

We're not entirely convinced of this.

First and most obviously, the New Testament is concerned, from beginning to end, with God's announced intention to open up to human beings the "Kingdom of the Heavens." While there is much textual support for the idea that Christians enter this kingdom through baptism and faith, meaning that we live in it here and now, there is also support for the idea that we continue to inhabit it, or even do so more fully, after our death.  In other words, the New Testament sets forth a bifurcated afterlife, one part of which is located, or at least named for, God's traditional home in many cultures: the sky.

This does not by itself bifurcate the land of the dead, for the important reason that Christians who have "died" in this world are understood to still be alive.  The popular imagination might say that the "good dead people are in Heaven and the bad dead people are in Hell," but a more strenuous reading of the New Testament says that "the saved live in the kingdom of the skies, while the un-saved are dead in the pit below."

This is a fair reading, but creates a problem for our discussion:  it demands that Hell exist, and opens the door to Limbo.  A simple bifurcation means that to "the heavens" is opposed everything else. Elysium is gone, because there are no more blessed dead; those blessed by the grace of God now live forever. But Sheol/Hades and Gehanna/Tartaros are all basically neighborhoods in the same city, the common home of all those who can truly be called dead.

This logic requires us to imagine that the land of the dead contains a distinct section in which the wicked are punished.  Yet since this is not the whole of the land, we are compelled to imagine that Sheol/Hades also contains many people who are not being punished, but who have not received eternal life, either.

And indeed, Christianity has experimented with various permutations of this idea, most famously the idea that unbaptized infants and the heroes of the Old Testament have been deprived of eternal life, but are nonetheless rewarded with a pleasant afterlife in areas on "the edge" (limbus) of Hell.  Limbo is out of fashion these days, though.  Protestants generally incline to a broader view of salvation, while Roman Catholics have gradually recast their philosophical positions in non-topological language, meaning that they are disinclined to speak of Limbo as a place.

In any case, it seems clear that the Biblical testimony recognizes two fates for human souls:  eternal life and eternal death.  And, using both Hebrew and Greek imagery, it assigns the living to one place, and the dead to another.

PART 3:  So Whaddaya Call It?

If it makes Biblical sense to speak first of an afterlife divided between life and death, and second of death divided into mere death and active punishment, it finally falls upon pastors and theologians to think about how to speak of these things.  What names do we give them?

In a technical discussion of the Biblical texts, it is wisest to leave the proper names untranslated.  Let us simply say, and write, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and (in one single instance) Tartaros.  This will give our conversation the greatest degree of clarity.

Unfortunately, this strategy will also confuse anybody lacking at least a basic grasp of Classical literature -- meaning not only most laypeople, but much of the modern clergy.  If we want to communicate quickly and easily about these things, we need to use familiar words.

That is where "Hell" comes in.  It is a good English word, defined by the OED as "the abode of the dead, the place of departed spirits."  This is fair enough, as a catchall term for the condition of the dead in general.  Etymologically, the OED relates "Hell" to a variety of other words in Germanic languages, with the root sense of "to cover up or hide," as things are hidden in a pit.

Among those related words, although other sources suggest the connection may be uncertain, is "the proper name of the goddess of the infernal regions, 'the ogress Hel, the Proserpine of Scandinavian mythology.' "  Like Hades and Pluto, Hel also gave her name to her domain.  it is a dark, misty land, sometimes identifiable with Niflheim, populated by quite a variety of supernatural creatures -- hel-maidens, dragons, Scandihoovian zombies called Uppvakningar.  Obviously, using the name of a pagan goddess and her realm to identify a Christian theological concept raises some difficulties; but we can plead that St. John the Revelator has given us his own good example, since he did not hesitate to do likewise.  Nor did the translators of the Septuagint.

The chief danger, and no doubt the reluctance of some translators, comes from the fact that the word "Hell" now evokes a range of images in the popular imagination, many of them foreign to the Biblical imagination.  Yes, 2 Peter puts the fallen angels there; and yes, Jesus preached to the souls in prison there.  And there are definitely references in Matthew and Mark to fire.  But the great medieval apparatus of Hell -- the demons with their pitchforks and devious tortures -- are not to be found in the Bible, at least outside the fable of Lazarus and Dives.  Those tortures are, in fact, part of the Classical inheritance, extrapolated from the fates of Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion.

Perversely enough, then, it is possible that the syncretistic elements in the popular vision of Hell are actually implicit in the Greek vocabulary of the LXX and 2 Peter - implicit, indeed, in the very choice of Greek as a vehicle for Christian revelation.  To avoid them, we would need to make up new words, which would simply lead to more confusion.

On balance, we do not see that there is much to be gained by avoiding the word "Hell" when talking about the state of souls after death.  The word has been used this way in English as long as English has existed, and largely to the exclusion of anything else.  It does indeed carry some connotations which are extrinsic to the Christian account of eternity, but so do the alternatives.

Now, as to that "Heaven" people always talk about ....

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The Gay Divorcé

After single-handedly destroying the Anglican Communion, Gene Robinson -- retired [D&FMS of the] PECUSA Bishop of New Hampshire -- has announced that he is getting divorced.

The nerve of that guy!  Does he care nothing for the blood, tears and ink that have been spilled in defense of his marriage?  Does he not understand that his marriage is the single most important thing to happen in Anglicanism since Keble's Assize Sermon?  That, indeed, it may be the most important thing to happen in Christendom since there actually was a Christendom?

In other news:  Gay people -- they're just like other people.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Free to a Good Home

Our favorite remark on preaching, to print and post in your own office:

"I am saddened that my tongue cannot satisfy my heart."  In other words, I know that the deep truths are in me, somewhere, and I can almost grasp them.  But my poor mortal brain simply cannot put them into words well enough to make them understood.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hawkeye? Yes, Hawkeye!

For some time, now, we have been hearing friendly murmurs about Marvel's ongoing Hawkeye series.  People said it was good -- very good, even great.

Frankly, this seemed unlikely.

Hawkeye is, and we are putting this charitably, the lamest of the classic Avengers roster.  He suffers from what you could call "the Batman syndrome," meaning that on a team filled with Norse gods, super soldiers, witches and robots, Hawkeye is ... just a guy.  He doesn't even have Batman's bazillion dollars, fast car and psychologically intense backstory.  All he has is a longbow and a quiver full of trick arrows, mostly borrowed from Green Arrow.

Because Hawkeye was created by Stan Lee, he does have one useful possession: a seething cauldron of anxiety, ready to overwhelm him at any moment.  This includes a difficult relationship with his father-figure, a one-time criminal called the Swordsman, which probably explains his early hostility toward Captain America.  He's also had some bad luck in love.  First he fell for the Black Widow, who led him into a life of crime, and then for the Scarlet Witch, who preferred to date an intangible android.

Oh, it's not that bad.  Compared to the psychological profiles of Bruce Wayne, Matt Murdock or even Tony Stark, Clint Barton is a model of mental health.  He could get by with a low dose of Lexapro, while those guys probably would shrug off electroshock.  Still, his angst gives writers something to work with.

And as it turns out, Matt Fraction is the sort of writer who can make the most of what you give him.

We'd seen this in Fraction's work on Iron Man a couple of years ago.  He wrote a Tony Stark who was brilliant and flawed -- the Stan Lee inheritance, with the Robert Downey bad attitude  -- but also somber, self-aware, and a little sad.  ("You can bring me back to life," Fraction's Stark told his friends in a recorded message.  "But before you do, I want you to ask yourselves whether that's something you really want."  They seemed conflicted.) It was a brilliant run, one of our very favorite recent comics arcs.

But we figured maybe it was a one-off.  Maybe Fraction just has an eye for Tony Stark.  Maybe he's just good at science fiction heroes, the way Frank Miller is good at ninjas.  That's what we were thinking.

Nope.  Fraction's Hawkeye is a funny, sweet, human guy, vulnerable both physically and emotionally.  He depends on his partner Kate Bishop, who may be a better archer and is certainly smarter.  He lives in a slum apartment building and tries to watch out for his neighbors, which somehow entails getting shot at, thrown through windows and generally beaten up. He is, in other words a classic noir hero, kinder than Spade and humbler than Spenser.  A classic noir hero who happens to use a bow and arrow and, occasionally, hang out with gods, robots and super-soldiers.

We're just digging into this series, but we can already recommend it highly.  The writing is clever and touching, the art (by David Aja and a variety of other talented people) shows a deliberate simplicity, a la Alex Toth, that rebukes the current fad for over-production exemplified by Jim Lee's many imitators.

If you like comics, buy Hawkeye.

The Skeptic's Decalogue

There is much to be said about the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre.  Before the Second World War, he was in the upper ranks of historians; his work during and after the war gave him a level of celebrity that few mere academics ever achieve; his "authentication" of some fake Hitler diaries cost him much of his credibility.

American high school students, few of whom have ever heard his name, are almost universally familiar with one of his theses.  It was Trevor-Roper, after all, who first attempted to explain the European witch hunts of the 1700s by analogy to the Red-baiting of the 1950s -- without him, there could be no Crucible, and students would still be stuck reading Longfellow for their bad literary interpretation of New England history.

Still, say what you like about Trevor-Roper, one thing is hard to deny:  the man's prose style.

We are perpetually stuck in the middle of his biography of Archbishop Laud, which is a comically spiteful splenetic expulsion.  Trevor-Roper makes it clear from the very outset that he dislikes his subject, not merely as a politician but as a human being.  He further makes it clear that he finds Laud's religious views -- or nearly any religious views at all -- contemptible.  This might be the basis for an entertaining biographical sketch, but it is a shaky foundation upon which to build a long and detail-heavy treatment.  The book turns sour well before the archbishop reaches his comeuppance.

But by gosh, the prose is good.

So we were delighted to discover Trever-Roper's "Ten Commandments of Good Writing," from a 1988 letter reprinted at Standpoint.  Here they are; we have taken the liberty of marking our favorite bits in red:

1. Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.  
2. Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commended by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon; for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shall keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflexions given to us for this purpose. 
3. Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, "clarté prime, longueur secondaire." To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself; for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity. 
4. Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity. 
5. Thou shalt preserve the unities of time and place, as commended by the High Priest Nicolas Boileau, placing thyself, in imagination, in one time and one place, and distinguishing all others to which thou mayest refer by a proper use of tenses and other forms of speech devised for this purpose; for unless we exploit the distinction between past and pluperfect tenses, and between imperfect and future conditional, we cannot attain perfect limpidity of style and argument. 

6. Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood, blessed by Erasmus and venerated by George Moore, though cursed and anathematized by the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook. 
7. Thou shalt always proceed in an orderly fashion, according to the rules of right reason: as, from the general to the particular when a generality is to be illustrated, but from the particular to the general when a generality is to be proved. 
8. Thou shalt see what thou writest; and therefore thou shalt not mix thy metaphors. For a mixed metaphor is proof that the image therein contained has not been seen with the inner eye, and therefore such a metaphor is not a true metaphor, created by the active eye of imagination, but stale jargon idly drawn up from the stagnant sump of commonplace. 
9. Thou shalt also hear what thy writest, with thine inner ear, so that no outer ear may be offended by jarring syllables or unmelodious rhythm; remembering herein with piety, though not striving to imitate, the rotundities of Sir Thomas Browne and the clausulae of Cicero. 
10. Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age. 

While we prefer God's commandments both for brevity and for sanctity, these are good, too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Insert [Church Name] Here

Edward Perronet, author of the beloved hymn All Hail the Power of Jesu's Name,* once wrote:

I was born and I am like to die in the tottering communion of the Church of England; but I despise her nonsense.

Pretty much says it all, dunnit?  Sub in "Lutheran" or "Roman Catholic" or "Methodist" as appropriate, and tell us it doesn't describe your own experience.

Or maybe that's what Perronet said.  That's certainly how it is quoted in Albert Bailey's classic The Gospel in Hymns, in Tyerman's 1872 biography of John Wesley, and widely on the net.

But the Dictionary of National Biography traces it to a 1756 booklet by Perronet, called The Mitre: A Sacred Poem, which it calls "a dull and virulent attack on the Church of England."  The DNB gives the quotation differently:  "... a member of the Church of England."  No tottering.  Sadly, Google Books does not make The Mitre available, even in snippet view, so we cannnot confirm the original language.

We prefer tottering.  It has more flair.

*Yes, that's where the apostrophe went when he wrote it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Smart Pope, Dumb Journalism

"The Pope in the Attic" is a long article in the current Atlantic Monthly, exploring the supposed weirdness of having the Pope Emeritus living a few hundred yards from a ... well, the real Pope.  It's one of the worst pieces of religious journalism we have ever seen in a reputable publication.

Paul Elie is trying, we think, to explore the confusion he imagines is created by having two living popes, each with his own style and each with his own supporters.  The problem is that, so far, this is a kind of non-story.

Oh, the Ratzinger Fan Club has made a lot of noise this past year, worrying publicly that Bergoglio's "humility" is a kind of arrogance that casts aside capital-T Tradition.  And Francis has certainly made a name for himself, not least with the fawning press, to the extent that Elie calls him a "rock star" on par with JPII.  But the Traddies are a fringe bunch, and even casual observers of the religious scene know better than to take the newspaper headlines -- including those making Francis a secular saint -- without many grains of salt.  At the end of the day, it is an odd situation, but it has yet to prove odd in any way that imperils or even affects the normal operation of the Vatican or the ongoing life of the Roman Church.  So ... there's no real story.

And even if there were, Elie doesn't report it, for the very good reason that he seems to have no sources.  There is no evidence that anybody of any significance was willing to speak to him about this, with the sole exception of the seemingly voluble Walter Cardinal Kasper.  Other than that a few polite remarks from Kasper, Elie seems to have nothing more than press-corps scuttlebutt and one Friday night drive through the Vatican City, during which he saw neither Francis nor Benedict.

So thinly sourced is the story, in fact, that Elie is reduced to simply making stuff up.  Several hundred words consist of nothing more than his own imagined version of Benedict's private prayers -- in the form of  monologue which politely criticizes his successor's much-ballyhooed reluctance to judge gay people. Need it even be aid that inventing from whole cloth the private prayers of anybody -- much less a priest, much less a pope, much less a man of Ratzinger's piercing intellect -- marks a new frontier in presumption.  Elie replaces journalism with speculative fiction.  And it isn't even informed speculation.

Anyway, the good news is that Terry Mattingly plans to handle this tomorrow at GetReligion.  He will no doubt do a better job than we can of explaining just why this story is so incredibly bad. [UPDATE:  Here's Terry's take. ]

For the Study Wall

Here's the key phrase from that remark of Augustine's that we quoted the other day:

[C]ontristor linguam meam cordi meo non potuisse sufficere

I am sad that my tongue is not equal to my heart.  We may have that written out by a calligrapher, framed and mounted near our desk.  Nothing so beautifully sums up what we take to be the ordinary dilemma of the conscientious preacher.

There are other phrases that we'd like to see mounted on our office wall.  One, surprisingly, comes from Oliver Cromwell:

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

Mind you, we despite the source of that remark.  It is from Cromwell's 3 August 1650 letter to the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, seeking to dissuade them from their adherence to Charles II.  We don't love Charles, but our hatred for Cromwell is nearly boundless.  Still, that is neither here nor there; preachers, and pastors generally, are well advised to always consider the possibility that they are mistaken.

Susan Howatch gets at the same idea, in one of her bodice-rippers, with a phrase less burdened by history.  Something along the lines of "every priest in the Church of england should have these words tattooed on his forehead ...," although that can't be right since one can't read what is on one's own head.  Sadly, we can't recall it correctly or find the source.  (Any readers able to help?)

We who sometimes feel that preaching is a lot of work are naturally admonished by George Herbert's famous remark:

The Countrey Parson preacheth constantly, the pulpit is his joy and his throne
And perhaps more of us ought to be admonished by his closing comment in the same chapter:

The Parson exceeds not an hour in preaching, because all ages have thought that a competency, and he that profits not in that time, will lesse afterwards, the same affection which made him not profit before, making him then weary, and so he grows from not relishing, to loathing.

Although a bit confusing to some people, we think some pastors and many congregations might benefit from the admonition of our hish school physics teacher:

More lab, less oratory.

"Lab," here, needs to be read (correctly) as shorthand for "labor."

Anyway, those are some of the non-Biblical phrases it strikes us that a parson might do well to keep posted in a visible spot.  Do you have any suggestions?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Augustine on Preaching

If, like us, you've been churning out the sermons lately and feeling the sharp edge of your own inadequacy, take heart.  St. Augustine, our brother and friend, writes:
[My] own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start brining it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.  [On Teaching the Unlearned, 2:3, quoted in P. Brown, Augustine, 256].
That's about it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Jealous Angels

It your Maundy Thursday sermon will treat Holy Communion (as many do), you might consider this remark by Fr. Maximilian Kolbe:
If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason:  Holy Communion.
Note that Kolbe does not say "the Mass."  This is an important nuance, since he elsewhere said that the Mass reaches its culmination not in the Consecration but in the Communion (March 10, 1940).  He is talking about what we Lutherans generally call the Distribution.

And if you're wondering, he really did say this, albeit in the equivalent of his Table-Talk.  Jerzy Domanski translates the remark from the Ascetical Conferences of Father Maximilian Kolbe, from the Notes of those Who Heard Him (Niepolkalanow, 1976) where it is dated Dec. 18, 1938.

Bernard of Clairvaux Kicks Schismatic Tail, With Help from Jesus

If your Maundy Thursday sermon will treat Holy Communion (as many do), you might want to consider this anecdote from the life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:

[Bernard was called to Guienne], where William, the powerful and haughty duke of that province, violently persecuted those who adhered to the true pope, and had on that account expelled the bishops of Poitiers and Limoges. Gerard, bishop of Angouleme, an abetter of the schism, encouraged him in these excesses. This William ... was a prince of high birth, immense wealth, a gigantic stature and strength of body, and extraordinary abilities in worldly affairs; but was in his youth impious, haughty, and impatient of the least control. ... 

... The duke listened to [Bernard] with great respect during seven days, and appeared to be much affected by his discourses on the last things, and on the fear of God. Nevertheless, he was not yet converted.
St. Bernard, who had learned never to despair of the most obstinate sinners, redoubled his tears, prayers, and pious endeavours ... but could not prevail upon him to restore the two bishops whom he had unjustly deprived of their sees. At length he had recourse to more powerful arms.
He went to say mass, the duke and other schismatics staying without the door, as being excommunicated persons. After the consecration, and the giving of the peace before the communion, the holy abbot put the host upon the paten, and carrying it out, with his eyes sparkling with zeal, charity, and devotion, and his countenance all on fire, spoke to the duke no longer as a suppliant, but with a voice of authority, as follows:
“Hitherto we have entreated you and prayed you, and you have always slighted us. Several servants of God have joined their entreaties with ours, and you have never regarded them. Now, therefore, the Son of the Virgin, the Lord and head of that church which you persecute, comes in person to see if you will repent. He is your judge, at whose name every knee bends, both in heaven, earth, and hell. He is the just revenger of your crimes, into whose hands this your obstinate soul will one day fall. Will you despise him? Will you be able to slight him as you have done his servants? Will you?”
Here the duke, not being able to hear any more, fell down in a swoon. St. Bernard lifted him up, and bade him salute the bishop of Poitiers, who was present. The astonished prince was not able to speak, but went to the bishop, and led him by the hand to his seat in the church; expressing by that action that he renounced the schism, and restored the bishop to his see. After this, the saint returned to the altar and finished the sacrifice.

It's from Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, and God only knows how much truth there may be to it.  Still, it's a cool story.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Jim DeMint is a Blithering Imbecile

Jim DeMint, a former legislator turned think-tank president, may or may not be the most hated man in Washington.  (The competition is fierce.) He is, however, an embarrassment to Christ Church Episcopal School, Wade Hampton High, the University of Tennessee and Clemson University.  DeMint has studied at all those doubtlessly fine institutions, holds degrees from at least three of them, and nonetheless lacks the most fundamental grasp of American history.

Or, if we are mistaken about that, he is a big fat liar whose pants are perpetually on fire.

DeMint recently displayed his ignorance -- or mendacity -- on a radio program hosted by one Jerry Newcombe, in which this exchange took place:

Newcombe: What if somebody, let’s say you’re talking with a liberal person and they were to turn around and say, ‘that Founding Fathers thing worked out really well, look at that Civil War we had eighty years later.’

DeMint: Well the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution, it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. 
But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people, it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.
(Quoted at Right Wing Watch

Well.  Let's think about this, shall we?

Obviously, DeMint is mistaken.  The important question is why he makes this particular mistake.

Let's start with how bad DeMint's history is.   As even a schoolboy can tell you (assuming he went to a public school and not, let us say, the Jimmie Hokey Christian Academy of Jesus), the federal government was precisely what freed the slaves.  Southern secession was a reaction against what the Confederacy saw, correctly, as Washington's plan to limit and ultimately eliminate the "peculiar institution."  Lincoln was reviled as a "tyrant" in much the way Obama is reviled as a "Socialist."  But the actual liberation of slaves, when it occurred, took place first at the hands of the United States Army acting under the authorization of a presidential proclamation, then under the direct supervision of the executive branch -- "Presidential Reconstruction" -- and ultimately in the form of a Constitutional amendment ratified in part by Reconstruction-mandated state legislatures.

The Constitution, in its original form, not only permitted slavery but rewarded it, by granting slave owners (or at least their states) extra representation in national affairs, according to the number of slaves they possessed.  Only a shocking display of leadership by two successive presidents was able to change that.

So what is DeMint up to here?

Obviously, he is trying to argue that "people of faith" -- he means Christians, although he might grudgingly admit some Jews as well -- were integral to the end of slavery.  This is incontestably true; the movement for abolition was largely an expression of Christian religious conviction.  Two things need to be added:  (1) Christianity was also invoked by the supporters of slavery, because this was the mid-19th century; and (2) it was not churches that actually freed the slaves.  It was the federal government.

DeMint's reference to William Wilberforce is telling.  Wilberforce is a "safe" abolitionist to speak about with DeMint's political base, both because he was a committed Evangelical and because he worked to free slaves through the legislative organs of another country.  Prominent American abolitionists, from the fanatical John Brown to the philandering Henry Ward Beecher, are less safe.  A few, like Brown, were what we would call today call domestic terrorists.  Many more held religious views of which American Evangelicals are suspicious -- Quaker, Unitarian, what have you.  And most, by a large margin, were what are in some circles still quaintly called "damn Yankees."  They lived in Pennsylvania, New York and New England, regions that remain deeply suspect in the minds of many Southerners.

So here is political calculation expressed as rhetoric.  DeMint's power base consists, in part, of a community in which the most enlightened and liberal members are those who can acknowledge that slavery was, indeed, wrong.  Even these bright lights are nonetheless possessed of a visceral distaste for  Northerners and the Federal government, as well as people whose religion does not closely resemble their own.  For them, DeMint has created -- or really subscribed to, since it is not original to him-- a mythology in which the abolition of slavery was not in fact driven by accomplished by just those forces.

Some people actually believe this codswallop.  We have also heard French people claim, in utter sincerity, that the Resistance was on the verge of defeating Hitler by itself.

Now, part of this phoney mythos -- in fact, its sacred writ -- is a phoney vision of the US Constitution.  Occasionally, America's Constitution-worshipping righties see it as Antonin Scalia claims to, as a comparatively narrow document which can be read only according to letter and in accord with the the worldview of its authors:
"Did the Eighth Amendment bar the death penalty?" [Scalia asked a crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music recently]. "Not a hard question." The people who wrote the Eighth Amendment practiced the death penalty, ergo its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments" could not possibly exclude capital punishment. 
Apply this argument to slavery and see what you get.  Whatever reservations Jefferson & Co. may have had about their slaves, they certainly bequeathed us a document which preserved slavery as a legal practice.  It is hard to argue that this document was the "conscience" of our nation before the Civil War.

No, DeMint and his audience have staked out a significantly crazier position than Scalia's.  They disregard both the bare text of the document and its history, preferring instead to see in it a Platonic ideal of American society, expressed not in the letter but in the supposed spirit of the Founders.  Note, for example, that DeMint attributes to the Constitution ideas about the general equality of human beings which are explicit rather in the Declaration of Independence.  It does not matter what the Constitution says to this crowd, but only what it means -- or what they chose to believe it means.

Slate's Jamelle Bouie has a good take on the "Constitutional conservatism" espoused by people like Michelle Bachmann and Jim DeMint.  He mistakenly resents it as a part of religious fundamentalism rather than a secular analogue, but he quite correctly observes that the heyday of small-government, states-rights philosophy came under the Articles of Confederation -- a rule of government so bad it was abolished by many of its own creators.

We will concede that DeMint may not be a blithering imbecile, nor even an ignoramus.  It is entirely possible that high public-school education included competent instruction in both history and civics.  If that that be the case, though, we must conclude that he is a sleazy opportunist, pandering to the ignorance and prejudice of the masses while cynically using them to gain power in the nation's capital.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Greek To Me

Caitlin Flanagan is our new hero, and not only for her prose style.  Here is the lede to her cover article in the current Atlantic:
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him — under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself — to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
The rest of the story is mordant, sometimes funny, and -- especially if you have a child in college, or who may yet go there -- absolutely terrifying. It is called "The Dark Side of Fraternities," which pretty much tells you what to expect.  But holy cow does Flanagan deliver.

One undergraduate in eight is part of the so-called Greek system.  Fraternities are, as Flanagan depicts them, distinctly dangerous places -- tumbledown hellholes devoid of adult supervision, devoted to binge drinking, bodily injury, sexual sadism and, of course, rape.  Worse yet, they are defended by aggressive and well-funded national organizations, and exist in an uneasy tension with the administrations of their host bodies universities.

We ourselves attended a college with neither football nor frats, and so know of these exotic subcultures only by reputation.  Animal House, one of our all-time favorite movies, certainly contains its share of drinking, drugs and sexual misconduct.  (And so, we hasten to admit, did our own frat-free undergraduate experience.)  Like most people, we figured this is what frats are all about:  the customary bad judgment  of youth, same as it ever was.  Risky, but also sort of innocent.

Flanagan paints a darker picture.  Her article describes injury after injury, death after death, rape after rape.  It describes the national organizations which defend tooth-and-nail the independence of their various houses from university supervision -- but which have also devised a diabolical system for abandoning  those houses to avoid legal liability.  Meanwhile, the universities are torn between responsibility for the welfare of their students and the funding that comes from their frat-affiliated alumni.  (Not to mention the fact that, without frat houses, some schools would have to build more dormitories).

Needless to say, we rushed to the Internet searching for colleges without fraternities, planning our own little boy's future.  They do exist; all of the Seven Sisters qualify (although of course our son is unlikely to matriculate at six of those).  So do many others, especially among small and highly selective liberal arts colleges.  On the other hand, Flanagan's article includes a long and detailed look at a deeply disturbing situation with a fraternity connected to Wesleyan in Connecticut, which she claims has finally become as exclusive as its students always used to insist it was.

Although Flanagan doesn't mention it, Egg readers may be interested to remember that fraternities are tax-exempt under 26 U.S.C. 501(c)7.  (So are country clubs, of all things.)  We mention this in the hope that the next time somebody with a hate-on for Christianity begins arguing in favor of taxing churches, you can steer the conversation toward the sleazy beer-soaked deathtrap that is apparently the typical college frat house.

Monday, April 07, 2014

And Heeeeere It Comes!

Is everybody enjoying Holy Week?

No, we aren't using some exotic kalendar, as perhaps of the Third-Order Antiochian Rite of St. Urho's Monastery.  It's just that, for us as for many people who lead worship, the sense of urgency connected to Holy Week begins very far in advance.  It comes speeding toward us like a freight train, visible from far off where it looks small and harmless, but seeming to gain speed just before it hits with annihilating force.

Like getting out of the way of a train, you need to be ready for Holy Week well in advance, or it will destroy you.

This year's schedule includes:

  • Vigil of Palm Sunday (Contemporary Style)
  • Palm Sunday 
  • Stations of the Cross (adapted for Youth Group)
  • Maundy Thursday (with First Communion)
  • Good Friday noon prayers
  • Good Friday tenebrae
  • Vigil of Easter (Contemporary)
  • Easter Matins (outdoors, at daybreak, in a contemporary idiom)
  • Easter Mass x2

It's actually a fairly mild schedule as these things go.  There is no public worship on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, for example.  (We interpret this as God's invitation to spend those days hot-tubbing with adult film stars or something.)  Many people have more worship services to organize than we do, and in any case our personal plan is to make Mother A. do all the work.

There are two complications:

(1) that this is our first year in a new parish.  This means putting a great deal of effort into figuring out just what sort of services are precious to the various sub-communities we serve.  Lutherans, the past masters of passive aggression, increase the challenge by saying things like, "Well, Pastor, what do you prefer?"  This, being translated from the original tongues, actually means, "I sure hope you plan to do this the way we like.  But we're not going to tell you what that is."

(2) juggling idioms.  The weekly worship at Paradise in the Piedmont Lutheran Church is divided between "traditional" and "contemporary" services.  Each idiom has its devotees, some of whom can be rather strident in their expression of preference. The challenge during the holy days is to show tokens of  liturgical respect to both sides, so as to prevent hurt feelings down the road.

The idiom-juggling is rendered comical by two facts:

(1) the fact that our "traditional" service is not particularly traditional at all. No choir robes, and a choir that only sings "anthems" rather than liturgical music.  Virtually no music composed before, say, 1650, and not much before 1850.  Heinously ugly paraments, especially during Lent.  Some nitwit taught them to say the Collect en masse.  No lavabo; no aumbry, tabernacle or even ciborium; certainly no crucifix anywhere near the free-standing altar.  And let's not even get started on the actual distribution of Communion, which involves self-intinction, small cups, grape juice, oversized ceramic chalices, and every other bad idea anybody has ever seen on vacation and come back to tell their long-suffering priest about with breathless enthusiasm.

Basically, the "traditions" expressed in this service -- as in so  many other Protestant worship gatherings each week -- are the traditions of the mid-20th century.  Whether these ahistorical practices are expressions of a dying form of Christianity or the instruments of its death is open for debate, but you can guess what we think.

(2) the fact that our "contemporary" service is really quite traditional.  It features a dedicated and well-rehearsed choir (they prefer to be called a "praise band," but we're not fooled), who are present every week; confession and forgiveness (unless Fr. A slips in an Introit); a weekly celebration of Holy Communion; use of the lectionary; standing for prayer; etc.  Throw in vestments and some incense, improve the distribution, and there really wouldn't be much to complain about.  It's certainly no less traditional than the other service, assuming one is able to take a long view of what constitutes tradition.

It may take the Anonymi a few years to sort all this out liturgically.  That's fine; we're in no hurry.  They're nice people, and it's a privilege to lead them in worship, even if they are a little confused about this "tradition" thing.  But you can imagine that we are approaching our first Holy Week -- one of the most tradition-steeped phases of the Christian year -- with a certain amount of pious trepidation.

How are things at your parish shaping up?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Need it Be Said?

Aprilis stulte dies, amici.

[UPDATE:  for those who missed it, here is our contribution to the Internet's favorite day of hijinks.  Readers who tuned in yesterday got to see an entirely different blog.  While it lacks the "gotcha" quality of Fr. Bosco's "ecumenical missal" spoof, we like to imagine that it compensated with belly laughs.]

Monday, March 31, 2014

Watch This Space!

Some changes are coming to the Egg, starting tomorrow.  A new direction, if you will.  Make sure you visit early in the day to see what we are up to!

You've been warned, people.

How NOT to Baptize

Sunday in southern California, three people were pulled into the surf during a baptism.  Two have been recovered, the Coast Guard has given up looking for the third, who is presumed dead.

Folks, there is a reason we have birdbaths and pouring shells.  Or big indoor tubs and pastoral waders.

Okay, look, this story is absolutely horrible.  We know it isn't funny.  And we know that there's a long history of outdoor baptisms, including that of our Lord. But there is also a long history of churches trying not to kill people during worship, and this is the tradition we'd like to see passed on to future generations.

Also:  maybe it's time to reconsider weddings on the beach.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In Which We Are Insulted By World Vision and Respond With Lamentably Uncharacteristic Charity

World Vision has just slapped our ELCA congregation in the face.  We are taking a deep breath and preparing to turn the other cheek.

As it happens, our congregation has a long history of participation in World Vision's fundraiser-slash-educational event, the 30-Hour Famine.  We are one of their largest contributors through this particular program, and are about to send them a check for almost $20,000.  That's a drop in the bucket compared to WV's billion-dollar annual budget, but represents sacrificial giving on the part of a small mainline church.  It is by far our largest single charitable donation for the year, the product of many hours of hard work by a large team consisting mostly of passionate teen-agers.

During the past week, World Vision has made big news for reasons that have little to do with its work among the world's poor people.  First, it announced with some fanfare that its hiring policies would no longer discriminate against people in same-sex marriages.  Their purpose, it seemed (according to this NPR story), was quite reasonable for an organization that works with many different churches:
 World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns explained the organization was not endorsing gay marriage. Instead, gay marriage would join a series of issues — like divorce, remarriage, [infant] baptism, female priests — that many Christian churches disagree on.
Well, that was very nice of them.  An organization that works across denominational boundaries is well-served by building the biggest possible tent, and taking no position on disputed questions.  Whether the Christian who feeds a hungry person is a strict predeterminist or has been sold on that free will business makes no difference to the person eating the sandwich, and should not make much to the one who paid for it.  Why, we ourselves (we blush to admit) once accepted the hospitality of a church that preached Nestorianism.

So, World Vision decided to build a bigger tent.  That lasted a couple of days.

Under what we can only assume was withering pressure from some of its donor churches, World Vision has reversed course, going so far as to ask forgiveness for ... its briefly-held policy of nondiscrimination.

Now, this puts us in an odd situation.  As an ELCA pastor, we are part of a church body that recognizes and performs same-sex marriages.  (Our particular congregation does not yet do so, but it has -- after an agonizing discussion -- chosen to remain faithful to a church that does.)  For a few days, in other words, World Vision accepted the practice of our church as a valid expression of Christianity.  Then it decided not to, and added insult to injury by asking other Christians to forgive it for ever having done so.

We have been, at least metaphorically, excommunicated.  That's a painful thing.  It is very much like being slapped.

If we were like the churches on the other side of this question, we would now be calling World Vision to ask whether they really wanted our check.  And indeed, that was our first impulse, until we remembered Whose church we are.

For years, we watched congregations offended by the discussion of sexuality hold back their synodical benevolence as a way to punish the denomination.  The irony was that, even though in those days we ourselves (and several of our parishes) disagreed with the existing practices of our church body, we remained faithful in our giving as in other kinds of service.  When the church finally embraced our position, we shrugged and continued on, basically unchanged.  Many of those who disagreed with us picked up their bat and ball and left, because they simply could not bear to be part of a community that disagreed with them -- even though we had been doing just that for many years.

Their behavior, we believe, is profoundly wrong.  We are saddened that Word Vision has copied it.

As it happens, long before this, we had begun to reconsider our parochial support for WV's 30-Hour Famine.  Friends in Africa had shared some reservations about the actual function of WV's charitable work -- a lot of money seemed to be going into showy SUVs and so forth.  Lutheran World Relief, a much smaller agency and one in both we and Charity Navigator have a lot of confidence, offers a similar fund-raising program.  We are Lutherans, and feel a certain obligation to support the home team -- even though our partners in its work, the LC-MS, disagree with us about ordaining women and marrying gay people.

So it is entirely possible that the big fat check we write to World Vision this year will be our last.  Or not; we are still discussing it.  But if so, it will not be because WV has chosen to embrace and then reject one of our church's theological positions.  It will not even be because we feel that they have insulted our church, and the churches that share this with us.  We are willing to work in Christian ministry with other Christians even when we disagree with them in details of faith and practice -- we earnestly desire to be part of a big-tent Christianity.

It's too bad Word Vision doesn't share this desire.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Sermons, Integrity and Richard Nixon

If you google "sermon illustrations" and "love your enemies," you will pretty quickly come across this anecdote:
Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”*

Great story, right?  Turns out it may be almost true.

We weren't sure at first.

We found the story repeated verbatim herehere and here.  The verbatim part makes us suspicious, since preachers are notorious for passing around the same old stories, with little concertn for pesky old factuality.The last source is Maxie Dunnam's Irresistible Invitation, published in 2010; further research finds that Dunnam has been telling this story at least since his 1998 This is Christianity.  So ... did Dunnam clip this little tidbit out of a newsmagazine, or find it somewhere else?  The question is made harder to answer by the fact that  Newsweek's archives are owned by The Daily Beast, but have not been digitized or made available to anybody except Beast employees.

There is an alternate version of the story that is easy to trace.  Remember that Humphrey and Nixon were political rivals, and the 1968 election was one of the closest and hardest fought in history.  After Watergate, Nixon's reputation was at an ebb so low it may be hard for young people to imagine.  He was hated, reviled, shunned by virtually the whole of the Establishment.  And then, in 1977, his old rival developed urinary cancer.

Then-Senator Dave Durenberger tells the rest of the story, in the Congressional Record (2 May 1994):

When my predecessor in this office -- the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey -- was dying of cancer in Lake Waverly, MN, he called former President Nixon and asked him to attend his -- Humphrey's -- funeral. 
Humphrey knew that the funeral was not going to be long in coming -- and he arranged that Richard Nixon be received at that ceremony with the full honor due to a former President. Young people who watched the TV coverage of President Nixon's death and funeral -- coverage that I understand was generally positive in tone -- might find nothing remarkable in this. But back in 1977, the scars of the Watergate scandal were far from healed. Many of Senator Humphrey's liberal colleagues -- and even a substantial number of moderates and conservatives -- viewed Nixon as deserving a state of permanent disgrace.
Hubert Humphrey demonstrated true nobility of character by making his historic gesture to President Nixon. He realized that whether you share Nixon's views or no,you have to recognize his value to public life. Humphrey had known Nixon for decades -- and knew that ostracizing Nixon would hurt America's future more than it would help.
Today, let us continue in the tradition of my distinguished predecessor. Let us join Hubert Humphrey in recognizing that all public-spirited Americans, whatever their ideology, have a constructive role to play in building our country's future.

Ah.  Now that is a beautiful story, and -- when you subtract the political blather -- a better preaching illustration as well.

Larry King tells a shorter but compatible version in his 2009 memoir, My Remarkable Journey.  In King's version, which he says he heard from Humphrey, it was Nixon who called Humphrey, in the hospital, on Christmas Eve.  (With a rope?)

But in neither Durenberger's version nor King's is there any mention of Jimmy Carter.  For a while, we thought that the homiletic version was a fabrication.  But then we found a 1994 article in The New York Review of Books, which tells the story of how Nixon fought his way back from ignominy.  And lo and behold, it cites Newsweek's 19 May 1986 issue, on the cover of which a victorious Nixon appeared, under the proud headline "He's Back!"  The Newsweek story begins:

Suddenly he [Nixon] was in the room, and the conversation died. As Howard Baker tells it, Richard Nixon “looked like he was four feet tall, all shrunk up in himself and gray as a ghost.” It was January 1978, in Baker’s Senate office, where the notables were mustering for Hubert Humphrey’s memorial service in the Capitol Rotunda. “Nobody would get near him. Nobody would talk to him. The hush lasted until President Jimmy Carter walked over, shook Nixon’s hand and welcomed him.
If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, that was it.

This version was shortened for use in a 1999 sermon by Arthur Ferry.  Ferry glosses a little, saying that Carter welcomed Nixon "back to Washington."  Ferry also adds the words "humanity and compassion," attributing them -- wrongly -- to Newsweek.  The supposed quotation, "Welcome home, Mr. President," occurs in neither Newsweek nor Ferry. 

The version published by Maxie Dunnam and often copied by other preachers is less faithful to Newsweek than the one in Ferry's sermon.  Dunnam turns "humanity" to "love," and adds the "Welcome home, Mr. President." We thought at first that Dunnam had copied from Ferry, but perhaps he has simply strayed further from a common source.  Still, if Newsweek is to be trusted, the Dunnam/Ferry version is largely accurate, apart from some dialogue and editorial moralizing.  The dialogue seems likely to be Dunnam's creation.

We prefer Durenberger's version, with its emphasis upon Humphrey's kindness rather than Carter's. In any case, the earliest telling -- Newsweek's -- comes almost a decade after the fact, and should be treated with some caution.

We shouldn't care about this.  As readers now know, we at the Egg have no more integrity than Nixon himself.  But still, we do think it is better for everyone, and especially for the credibility of the Gospel, when the stories in sermons are demonstrably true.

"The Vicar of Snark"

GetReligion has a droll piece on Pope Francis, arguing that the press has wrongly painted him as a nice guy, when in fact he sometimes says mean things.  In contrast, the piece argues, Benedict actually was a nice guy.

The lede is sheer genius.  It offers this example of Papa F. denouncing journalists:

Sometimes negative news does come out, but it is often exaggerated and manipulated to spread scandal. Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia, which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.

"Oh, my, my," shouts GR in the voice of the SNL Church Lady. " Did the Pope just call journalists a bunch of shit-loving shit-eaters?  Or was it somebody else?  Like maybe ... Satan?"

They go on to argue that Bergoglio is really just a meanie who says these terrible things, unlike that kindly old Dr. Ratzinger.  But the argument fails from the outset, because GR misses the obvious fact, which its article then goes on to prove with further examples:  Francis is a funny man.

Acerbic, sure.  But funny.  The Week, from which our title is borrowed, says he is "practically an insult comic," and offers some jolly examples.  When annoyed, Francis has referred to people as "querulous and disillusioned pessimists," "museum mummies," "priest-tycoons".  They don't mention the most famous, the reference in Evangelii Gaudium to "self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism."  (Zuhlsdorf will sell you a mug with those words printed on it.) Best of all, Francis has called the Vatican hierarchy "the leprosy of the papacy."

No, it's not vintage Don Rickles.  But in context, it's all pretty good.

Perhaps it is because we spend so much time reading Reformation-era polemical writing.  Or perhaps it is that we secretly prefer Dorothy Parker to Dorothy Day.  But we find this sort of stuff refreshing.

Of course, we also thought that Benedict's much-derided Regensburg lecture on the use of force in religion was a delightful, if poorly timed, example of donnish provocation.  Maybe we're just soft on popes in general.

Anyway, GR is trying to counteract what it perceives as a lefty effort to soften Bergoglio's image, by arguing that he says unkind things about people he doesn't like -- including (heaven forbid!) journalists.  Because the article insists on contrasting him to his predecessor, this winds up looking like a gentler form of the Bergoglio-bashing we have already seen from Rorate Caeli & Co.  This misses the point somewhat.

We will be greatly relieved when people on both sides stop treating these two elderly celibate men, chosen as leaders of the same organization by basically the same group of their own friends and associates, as though they stood in radical opposition to one another.  They don't.  While they may have differences of personal style and even some theological substance, they are both self-evidently committed to the perpetuation and prolongation of  the same institution.  It's just that one is funnier than the other.  There's nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by acting as though they were enemies, or opposites, or whatever.

So grow up, people.  Relax and enjoy the show.  He'll be here all week, and we hear the veal is good.