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.]