Friday, December 09, 2016

Rejoice ... and Repent

 Although Father Anonymous does not say much about public affairs from the pulpit, he knows that some of you may, and it seems very much to us as though St. James is having words with our president-elect.  Consider, if you like, the Epistle for Advent 3 A (Gaudete).

First, let us observe that several of Sunday's lessons offer images of a dramatic (and beautiful) change in the world.  In Isaiah 35:1-10, as a result of God's "coming," the desert blossoms, the weak are strong, the blind can see, and the wilderness becomes a safe lion-free travel zone.  A similar note is struck by Psalm 146 and the Magnificat, both of which are offered by the RCL:  the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, casts down the mighty from their thrones, and so forth.

Most of these images are what anthropologists classify as "the reversible world," a cross-cultural trope in which all our natural expectations are defied.  Think of the Roman Saturnalia, or those medieval celebrations of the Holy Innocents when a boy was chosen to serve as bishop-for-a-day.

But the particular changes envisioned by the Biblical texts are not played for comedy.  The weak, the damaged and the poor are made special objects of God's blessing.  These texts are more than a mere folkloric device; they are expressions of what liberal theology likes to call "social justice," or even "a preferential option for the poor."

Which brings us to James 5:7-10.  The passage at hand was no doubt chosen because it speaks twice of "the Coming of the Lord," parousia tou Kuriou or adventus Domini.  It also declares that the Judge is at the door.  The passage encourages Christians to wait with patience and good behavior until that Coming, a very useful message -- but also one which can be the cause of considerable mischief.  How many beaten wives have been told to stick with their abusers, to be humble and faithful and let Christ do the judging?  How many slaves have been given similar messages?  And how often have verses like these been recruited to that evil task?

The problem is that the lectionary gives us these verses in isolation. The passage just before them is quite different in tone:
1Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.5You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. [or "as in a day of feasting"] 6You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you. [NIV]
It is, in rather bald terms, a prophetic oracle against the rich. In the face of the Lord's Advent, it is they who have not waited patiently and graciously, but who have hoarded their money and defrauded their workers.  (And lived luxurious lives, which -- by the way -- Jesus seems to suggest was what Herod did, in contrast to the faithful rigor of John the Baptist, in our Gospel for the week.)  James goes so far as to accuse the wealthy of murder -- quite possibly even the murder of Jesus, if we read v. 6 as "the Innocent One."

It is a striking passage, and deserves to be held up for our congregations to hear.  The Lord's Advent is not an excuse for tolerating injustice, but a call to lives of justice and charity.

A preacher seeking examples of the rich and powerful who oppress the poor and powerless never has far to go. But we are struck by the image of "the wages you have failed to pay your workers," a phrase the NRSV, following the KJV, translates more accurately as "the wages ... which you kept back by fraud [apostereo]."  Because although cheating workers is an old custom ("I owe my soul to the company store"), there is one particular figure in our public consciousness who is notorious for this practice.

Years ago, when we consorted with artists rather more than we do now, a friend-of-a-friend was asked to apply a vast quantity of gold leaf to the entrance of a rich New Yorker's office.  This is a time-consuming and laborious process, which involves working with tremendous delicacy and uses terribly expensive materials.  Our friend himself used gold leaf often, and we watched him many nights, hunched over a small picture frame, using tweezers and feathers and whatever other exotic tools it required, to move shreds of precious metal far thinner than a piece of paper and stick them to a bit of wood.  We were both stunned by the cost and sheer labor required to gild an entire doorway.

The artist worked for months, going out of pocket for the materials.  And at the end, once the doorway was gilded, the wealthy New Yorker looked at it and said, in effect, "Nah.  Not what I wanted.  So I'm not going to pay you." The artist was not just upset; he was ruined.

Not having been there, we cannot vouch for the details of that particular story.  We do not even know the artist's name.  But the names of many other workers who have sued Donald Trump for breach of contract are matters of public record.  From drapiers and chandelier-makers to real-estate-consultant -and-reality-TV-personality Barbara Corcoran, Trump seems to have stiffed a vast range of artisans, employees, contractors and partners. Here is a Wall Street Journal article on it.  Here's one from Fox News.  And USA Today.

It seems to us that the message in our Epistle for the week only makes sense if it is read alongside the preceding verses -- and that those verses are in direct conversation with modern society, and Time's Man of the Year.  The Advent of the Lord means, specifically, that we cannot tolerate shady business dealings, especially those by which the wealthy defraud their workers.  If we are serious about Advent, we will call out this sort of behavior wherever we see it -- and if not, we should remember that the Judge is at the door.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Team Adultery Goes Big

So the president-elect, having been scared away from TV dad Mitt Romney by a public tongue-lashing from his loose-cannon campaign manager, is now considering David Petraeus for Secretary of State.

Petraeus isn't an absurd choice. Generals, even disgraced former ones, do a lot of work that is or approaches diplomacy. And to be honest, we are always a little worried by the way Secretaries of State seem hawkish by comparison to their peers at Defense; a military professional might bring a better sense of why the big stick is a dangerous negotiating tool.

But let's get back to those key words "former" and "disgraced," because they are highly relevant. Lest anyone forget, Bloomberg News reminds us that Petraeus
... left government under a cloud for sharing classified documents during an extramarital affair....
These are grave offenses, and they are not in dispute. Although Trump the campaigner made it sound as though Petraeus had done little by comparison to the putative security breaches of Secretary Clinton, a more objective conclusion is just the reverse. FBI Director James Comey, no friend to Clinton, described Petraeus as prosecutable where Clinton was not:
 Comey, who oversaw both the Petraeus and Clinton investigations [said in] a July 7 hearing, he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that Petraeus’s behavior was worse than Clinton’s, saying that he deliberately “lied” when first questioned by investigators.
“So you have obstruction of justice, you have intentional misconduct and a vast quantity of information” that was highly classified, Comey said. “He admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do. That is a perfect illustration of the kind of cases that get prosecuted.”
Well. That says a great deal. "No reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton, where Petraeus committed precisely the sort of crimes that should have been prosecuted. (Petraeus copped a plea and, as Bloomberg notes, would be the rare Cabinet member to serve the President while still on probation.)

Moreover, there is the adultery question. Like Trump and his cronies Giuliani and Gingrich, Petraeus has betrayed his marriage vows. As we pointed out at the time, this alone is a prosecutable crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and not without good reason. An adulterer makes himself (or herself) susceptible to influence and blackmail. Had the general's paramour been a foreign agent, agent, the classified information he revealed to her might well have led directly to the death of American soldiers, or a compromise of American interests.

This is not, to say the least, a stirring recommendation for a top diplomat.

Now, here is the thing. People inclined to dismiss adultery as Giuliani has -- "everybody does it," and to privatize it by saying "I confess that to my priest" -- don't see the Petraeus case as anything especially grave. That is because they fail to grasp the central point of Christian moral philosophy, which is that we do not exist merely as individuals, but as a community. One person's sin does not merely harm himself and his relationship to God, but harms all of society.  This is true even of occult sins, but more demonstrably so of gross public ones.
The early penitential tradition was far more concerned with the latter than with the former; our earliest records indicate a very public process of confession before, dismissal from, and restoration to, the Christian community.  Well into the Middle Ages (and beyond), Church leaders distinguished themselves for holding political figures accountable to the community for their moral lapses.  Think of Ambrose demanding penance from Theodosius or, with a bit more moral ambiguity but no less drama, the German king standing prayerfully in the snow at Canossa.

Let's not push the moral point too far.  Petraeus is not asking to be admitted to Holy Communion; he is asking for another government job.  The question before Mr. Trump, and the rest of us, is not whether Petraeus is repentant, but whether he is competent.  We have little doubt that Petraeus is intellectually competent -- he is by most reports brilliant.  But competence extends to more than mere intellect.  A figure who, when trusted with enormously high office, has criminally abused the public trust in ways that have exposed himself to potential blackmail and those under his command to far worse is not, by our old-fashioned way of thinking, a great candidate for still-higher office.

But that line of reasoning only makes sense if you understand just why adultery is bad, and we are not convinced that Mr. Trump, or many of those around him, do understand this.

Friday, November 18, 2016

An Uncertain Collect for Christ the King

For Christ the King, at least in Year C, the collect of the day prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship reads:

O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

It is a lovely prayer.  What interests us is its origin.

Gail Ramshaw, in a very helpful index to ELW, identifies it as the work of St. Augustine, as found in The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, edited by Dorothy M. Stewart.  She adds two asterisks, her shorthand for prayers that have been altered significantly for republication, as well as the warning that all the prayers have a long textual history.

A bit of detective work -- okay, googling -- suggests that the attribution to Augustine, while centuries old, is likely mistaken.

The prayer in question appears in a devotional book by George Stanhope, entitled Pious Beathings:  Being the Meditations of St. Augustine, His Treatise of the Love of God, Soliloquies and Manual (London, 1728).  Chapter 31 of the Meditations includes this passage:
O God, the true Life, of, and by, and in whom all things live, the common Source of all Good! Our Faith in thee excites, our Hope exalts, our Love unites us. Thou commandest us to seek thee, and art ready to be found; thou biddest us knock, and openest when we do so. To turn from thee, is to fall into Ruin and Death. To turn to thee, is to rise to Life and Glory. To abide in thee, is to stand fast and secure from Danger. No Man loses thee, who does not suffer himself to be deceived; no Man seeks thee, who does not submit to Instruction and Reproof; no Man finds thee, who docs not seek after thee with a clean Heart and purifyd Affections. To know thee is Life, to serve thee is Freedom, to enjoy thee is a Kingdom, to praise thee is the Joy and Happiness of the Soul. I praise, and bless, and adore thee, with Heart, and Voice, and every Faculty. I worship thee, I glorify thee, I give Thanks to thee for thy great Glory, for thy great Goodness, for thy innumerable and inestimable Mercies, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.
That is certainly our prayer, in a rich, full form.  But it is not by any means certain to be Augustine's work.  The interpolation of lines form the Gloria in excelsis should raise a red flag at once:  in Augustine's time, this canticle would have been used in the Greek church, but not (as widely, at least) the Latin one.

In fact, the so-called Meditations of St. Augustine are mostly taken from another work, the Libellus, of Jean de Fecamp, an 11th-century abbot.  Here's the Latin text of the Meditations (Chapter 32, in Migne).

It appears that Stanhope took at least one modest liberty with his text.  The single phrase, cui servire regnare est, literally "to serve whom is to rule," he has divided into two thoughts:  "to serve thee is freedom, to enjoy thee is a kingdom." Our modern version "to serve you is freedom," seems unfairly democratized by the replacement of rule with freedom, which is a rather different idea, both in politics and in personal spirituality.  To rule, even if one rules only oneself, may indeed be a kind of freedom; but it is not the kind suggested by the word freedom in post-Enlightenment discourse.  Not to mention that the loss of "kingdom" is ironic in a prayer designated for Christ the King.

But we digress.  Again.  Here's the point:  We're not sure who wrote this prayer, but -- however much we like it -- it does seem unlikely to have been the Doctor of Grace.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Most Political of Church Feasts

As we approach the end of the liturgical year, many churches will observe the solemnity of Christ the King.

Christ the King is, at this point in history, a reasonably ecumenical event. We are assured by our new Presbyterian neighbor that even his congregation -- so poorly catechized in matters of worship that he is required to teach them what the Epiphany is! -- recognizes it.

However, it was not ever thus.  Unlike those many ancient festivals which are the shared inheritance of the whole Church, or at least its Western portion, Christ the King is distinctively modern, and rooted in the modern experience not merely of Catholicism but of Roman Catholicism.  Those of us among the separated brethren who plan to preach upon it may do well to reflect upon the similarities and differences which condition our own communities of faith, and especially upon how our churches think of their relationship to the civil realm or, bluntly put, to politics.

In 1925, troubled by the rise of secularism and anticlericalism, Pope Pius XI issued his encyclical Quas primas, which established the feast of Christ the King.  These movements are closely connected to the liberalism inspired by the Enlightenment, as well as the nationalism which in its most destructive form gave rise to Fascism in the 20th century.

So, for example, we find that in France, Napoleon's 1801 Concordat made the Church a servant of the State, and the 1901 "Law of Associations" suppressed religious orders and confiscated their property.  The popes had opposed Italian unification, and after it was accomplished found their power quickly reduced; they lost their land holdings, civil marriage was approved, and university theological faculties were suppressed.  Parallel developments took in Germany, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela.  And these were -- excepting perhaps Germany -- "Catholic countries," in which Rome was accustomed to exercising vast influence.

To such developments, Pius responded with Quas primas.  Drafted (it seems) by a French Thomist named Edouard Hugon, this document did more than establish a feast.  It asserted the absolute supremacy of Jesus not merely in spiritual matters, but in political ones:
It has long been a common custom to give to Christ the metaphorical title of "King," because of the high degree of perfection whereby he excels all creatures. So he is said to reign "in the hearts of men" .... But if we ponder this matter more deeply, we cannot but see that the title and the power of King belongs to Christ as man in the strict and proper sense too. For it is only as man that he may be said to have received from the Father "power and glory and a kingdom," since the Word of God, as consubstantial with the Father, has all things in common with him, and therefore has necessarily supreme and absolute dominion over all things created.
This meant that no civil government had the right to interfere with the Lord's earthly community, by which Pius specifically means the Roman church.  In other words, parliaments and presidents and so forth have no right to suppress the Jesuits, or to take away ecclesiastical property.

The point was not, however, that Church and State should rightly be separated, in the American fashion.  On the contrary, Pius retained for the Church a role in civil affairs, calling it "a grave error" to say otherwise.  And then he made a curious move, saying that virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in [Christ's] power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. 
In other words, Jesus own your stuff, but chooses not to take it away -- meaning that you retain an effective right to own property, no matter what the Communists say.  This raises a red flag (as it were) for some readers, signaling a preference for one sort of modern statism over another.  And indeed, Quas primas was issued during the early years of Mussolini's reign (which had begun in 1922), when hostility to the Church was a vigorous part of the Fascist program.  By 1929, Il Duce chose to be re-baptized, and enlisted the Catholic faithful as a phalanx in his battle against Communism.

There is another red flag, although we aren't sure what to make of it.  Pius reminds us that Christ exercises a "threefold power which is essential to lordship."  He identifies this as Law-giver, Priest and King, with considerable attention to the first part.

This framing is ... unusual.  We are accustomed to the threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King, first laid out in the patristic era but made much of by Calvin and his successors, including the Lutheran Scholastics.  Now, it is not too very much of a jump to argue that the Biblical prophet was, kinda sorta, a law-giver.  Moses certainly was.  But for the most part, the roles are separate.  Prophets critique unjust rulers, but they do not generally rule.

This reframing is especially problematic for Lutherans, whose confession of faith specifically denies that Christ is a law-giver, and that to claim otherwise diminishes his work as a sacrificial propitiator of the divine law. (Apology 4:15-16, 392).  It is possible to argue that Melanchthon is denying that Christ has given a new moral law, while Pius is asserting that Christ does give a new civil law, and so the two claims refer to different categories and can be thus reconciled.  Such an argument is naturally very technical and, in our opinion, a little dubious.

None of this will keep us from observing Christ the King, nor should it keep anybody else.  But while celebrating, it may be fruitful to recall that the very existence of this most modern feast represents a strong position in several modern controversies -- and not necessarily the position to which preachers are most congenial.  To call Christ "King," in this context, is to assert his primacy not merely in personal morality, but in civil affairs; it is to resist the past three centuries of Enlightenment-driven liberalism, and claim an expansive role for the Church in the political realm.  it is to claim that the Church may judge kings, but not vice-versa.

We're okay with this ... but only if it's our Church.  Those other guys teach some weird stuff that we don't want enshrined in our laws, no-sir, no-how. And therein lies the problem, dunnit?

Friday, November 11, 2016

More Music for the End of Time

A longtime friend of the Egg, Father James of the Tonsure, responded to our post about the Dies irae.  He observes that, as the song progresses, it develops what he calls "a more evangelical tone." This is discernible in three stanzas especially:
Preces meæ non sunt dignæ;
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.
Inter oves locum præsta.
Et ab hædis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.
Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis,
Voca me cum benedictis.

That is to say:
Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
Yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
Rescue me from fires undying.
With Thy sheep a place provide me,
From the goats afar divide me,
To Thy right hand do Thou guide me.
When the wicked are confounded,
Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
Call me with Thy saints surrounded.

Another colleague points us to  Es ist gewißlich an der Zeit, AKA "The Day is Surely Drawing Near," a Lutheran hymn of the 17th century in a 19th century translation.  It works over some of the same material in a more strictly Biblical fashion.  You can read it here, and hear a MIDI of the (unimaginative and stodgy) tune. 

If your mood this week is positively apocalyptic, we recommend an album by Anonymous 4 entitled 1000: A Mass for the End of Time.  (Learn more here.) It attempts to reconstruct an Ascension Day service from the end of the first Christian millennium, and imbue it with a sense of dread.  We have owned the album since its 1999 release, and while we do not listen to it often, there are times -- notably those when we have been deliberately drinking ourselves into a stupor -- when it simply works

Or, for those with an addiction to the music written in the most recent few centuries, consider Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time.  Few pieces of music have a more compelling backstory.  Inspired by a passage from Revelation, it was written and performed in 1941, when the composer was imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a German POW camp in Poland. He wrote on smuggled paper with a broken pencil, and the piece premiered outdoors, in the rain, to a an audience of prisoners and guards.  Messiaen recalled later that, "Never was I listened to with such rapt attention."

Here's a YouTube presentation:

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Day of Wrath

Like just over 50% of his fellow Americans, Father Anonymous arose this morning in a bitter mood, ashes on his tongue and sulfur on his breath.  No doubt like a few of them, he also had a scrap of Latin running through his brain:
Die irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla;
Teste David cum Sibylla
This is, as readers will surely know, one of the most famous hymns of the medieval church.  Likely written in the 13th century by Friar Thomas of Celano, a friend of St Francis, it seems to have been used first as a hymn for Advent and then, more commonly, as the Sequence for All Souls' Day, and sometimes in Masses for the dead.

The Dies irae speaks to the eschatological dread common to the Middle Ages.  In a common English translation, it begins:
The day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall the whole world in ashes lay
As David and the Sibyl say.
This misses the beauty of solvet, a word with two meanings -- to end, and to break up -- and naturally the source of our words dissolve and resolve. Sir Walter Scott's "when Heaven and Earth shall pass away" is better, but our gut tells us that a superior translation is still waiting to be made.

Another quirk of the opening lines is that some people (apparently the French) didn't want the pagan Sibyl to share equal billing with King David, so they altered the verse to read Crucis expandens vexilla, "spreading out banners of the Cross," or something like that.   This leads to translations such as:
Day of wrath, o day of mourning,See once more the Cross returning -- Heav'n and earth in ashes burning!
Anyway, the song continues in the same vein.  The sinner lives in fear of his returning Judge, and asks the one who absolved the Magdalene to forgive him too, yada-yadda-yadda. Whether or not it is good poetry may be a matter of opinion (we don't think so), but it has certainly been popular through the years. The rhythm is strong, the imagery is vivid, and -- Samhain be damned -- it was work like this that helped create our beloved Halloween.

It is also, from a Lutheran perspective, theologically dubious.  This is the sort of preaching that does more to torment souls than comfort them, the sort of popular Christianity that seeks obedience through fear.  Mind you, we have a conundrum here, since there is nothing wrong with encouraging repentance -- indeed, the First Thesis is that a Christian's whole life should be one of repentance.

In any case, we are rambling now.  Suffice it to say that these last hours have been difficult ones, and it does indeed seem to us as to many Americans that the end is nigh.  It seemed that way in the 13th century, too. And indeed, those were terrible times, as these are terrible times.  But the world survived, the Church survived, and will continue to survive until God is good and ready.  We can sing about the End Times all we want, but they are ultimately a product not of our sin but of God's grace.

And here's the song, for those who really want to enter into the day's mood of depression and anxiety:

Friday, November 04, 2016

Alas, Babylon

America is doomed.

We at the Egg know as well as anybody that this is an ancient refrain, as old as the Republic or even older.  From the very beginning of our national experiment, we Americans have worried that we were past our prime.  From the later 1600s, the "jeremiad," a lament that the present generation did not live up to the piety and goodness of its predecessors, was a distinctive style of New England sermon.

Oswald Spengler's 1918 Decline of the West was translated into English in the late 1920s, and set off a new explosion of American self-doubt.  John Lardas, in a study of Beat spirituality called The Bob Apocalypse, briefly traces Spengler's influence, and the development of what Alfred Kazin called "an aristocratic pessimism" among intellectuals.  Ezra Pound read Spengler, and famously denounced Western civilization as "an old bitch gone at the teeth."  A generation later, Kerouac and Ginsberg read him, and came to similar conclusions.

In 1987, British historian Paul Kennedy made a neo-Spenglerian argument in The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, predicting that the United States would soon go the way of the British Empire. He garnered a great deal of attention (and criticism).

And of course, Donald Trump has spent much of the past two years inviting his followers to "make America great again," a proposition sensible only if we accept that America has declined from its former greatness.

So we know that this is old news.  America has been in decline, at least rhetorically, since a century before the Revolution.  America was in decline, rhetorically, when it won its freedom from Britain; in decline when it set free its slaves; in decline when it swung the course to of two world wars; in decline when it rebuilt Europe and Japan; in decline when it stared down the Soviets.

But this time it's serious.

Not because our gridlocked Congress or hobbled Supreme Court, nor of Trump and Clinton, dismal candidates as they may both be, but rather because of the forces at work around them.

The unembarrassed, all-but-overt efforts of Putin's Russia to influence the election are one problem. We do not doubt that Russia has tried to influence our elections in the past, but its role has always been shadowy, secretive, easily dismissed.  Now, between the appearances of ranking Trump advisor Michael Flynn on RT (the modern equivalent of Pravda), the Russian Bears both Fancy and Cozy who have been hacking Democratic data and providing it to Wikileaks, and the mysterious servers in Trump Tower and Moscow's Alfa Bank, the Russians are barely bothering to maintain the pretense that they are not pulling dirty tricks on behalf of their favored candidate.

Russia is, in other words, treating America much as America is accustomed to treating other nations.  And this, rather than Trump's racism, sexism, boorishness or difficulty with impulse control, is the sign of a real problem.  Another nation's security apparatus is treating us the way we treat the second- and third-rate powers of the world, a clear suggestion that we have descended to those ranks.

A second problem is the FBI. In the past week or so, it has begun to appear that director James Comey's inflammatory letter to Congress about Clinton-related emails found on a porn addict's computer was not in itself an aggression, so much as a bumbling effort to pre-empt leaks from a militantly anti-Clinton faction of the Bureau's New York field field office.  It has failed, since those leaks (and a curiously-timed reminder of the Marc Rich fiasco) continue.

But Comey's failure is not merely a matter of bumbled bureaucratic infighting.  It is a failure to control rogue elements with America's premier law-enforcement agency, and to prevent them from meddling in the outcome of an election.

Think about that.  For years, as we have waged an unsuccessful war against Central Asian jihadists, we have heard that Pakistan is an unreliable partner because, whatever good intentions its elected officials may have, they cannot control the schemers in the intelligence service.  And now our FBI, for all the professionalism it has reclaimed since the bad old Hoover years, seems little better than Pakistan's ISI. Both appear to be controlled by partisans who place their own ideology above the chain of command, or even the law.

In other words, the Russians are treating us like a third-rate power because in some ways we have become a third-rate power.  One by one, the central institutions of our government are failing.  Should this election result in another Bush v. Gore, our crippled Supreme Court will be unable to decide it.  A difficult Election Day outcome is made more likely both by one candidate's declared doubt about the legitimacy of the electoral system, and by the partisan meddling of our most respected security service.

Most terrifying of all is the prospect of where this sort of dysfunction leads in a truly third-rate power.

A relatively stable second-rate nation, such as Italy, can withstand the messiness of, say, a Berlusconi administration.  It comes through the experience having lost much of its international stature and its economic security, but with most of its civic institutions intact.  But a less stable nation, one teetering into third-raterdom, will often throw all its eggs into a single basket, and rely for stability on a single trusted institution:  the military.

In Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, and Argentina -- as well as many other countries, to greater or lesser degrees -- the military has long been the authority of final appeal, vested both by its own self-esteem and by the esteem, however grudging, of the people with the maintenance of the state in times of extreme distress. That is to say that when the government simply can't handle its tasks, the military steps in.

How long do you think, dear reader, before the American military does likewise?  At a certain point, some generals will surely see it as their duty to to "protect" us both from enemies without (Russia, China, even ISIS) and from enemies within (political parties that prize ideological purity above actual function).  It will be hard for them to maneuver so vast and diverse an organism as the US military, so perhaps they will find a workaround.  Could they do it with just the Army?  Or just the infantry?  Surely they will find political cover from handful of desperate elected leaders.  They could even install a nominal civilian as president, "elected" in voting supervised by soldiers because the state systems have proven untrustworthy.  That pitiful figurehead might even be allowed to name a cabinet, just for old times' sake, while the generals make the trains run on time.

It is a terrifying proposition, and one that seems laughably improbable.  But so, a year or two ago, was the current state of affairs.  And if some or even any of the modern-day jeremiads are on target -- if we really are in the sort of imperial decline our intellectuals have so long prophesied and which now our most strident anti-intellectuals declare to be realized -- then a military  coup is not merely the next logical step, it is all but inevitable.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Unspeakable Joys

The collect for All Saints Day prescribed by Evangelical Lutheran Worship is adapted, with mercifully few changes, from Cranmer's original in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer.

The original reads:

Almightie God, whiche haste knitte together thy electe in one Communion and felowship, in the misticall body of thy sonne Christe our Lord; graunt us grace so to folow thy holy Saynctes in all virtues, and godly livyng, that we maye come to those inspeakeable joyes, whiche thou hast prepared for all them that unfaynedly love thee; through Jesus Christe. 
ELW's version is:
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Such changes as may be found here are probably for the best.  "Thy elect," to many modern ears, dredges up images of a specifically Calvinist doctrine of election -- it ought not, but it does.  We really would prefer "virtues and godly living" to "lives of faith and commitment," but recognize that some of our colleagues might find it off-puttingly moralistic.

And of course, "inexpressible" is a good modern word for the joys of Heaven.  "Unspeakable joys," while titillating in the extreme, are probably off-limits to the faithful.

If you are curious, the Roman Rite prescribes this collect, in two forms:

(prior to 2011) Almighty and eternal God, through Your grace we honor the merits of all Your saints in the one solemn feast of today. Grant us the abundant mercy we ask of You through this army of heavenly intercessors. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ . . . 
(since 2011) Almighty ever-living God, by whose gift we venerate in one celebration the merits of all the Saints, bestow on us, we pray, through the prayers of so many intercessors, an abundance of the reconciliation with you for which we earnestly long. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. 
To be honest, we think it's kind of weak. The translations are awkward -- "the one solemn feast of today"? "an abundance of the reconciliation"? Really? -- but more than that, the appeal for mercy strikes us routine, and a smidge less spiritually uplifting than Cranmer's desire for the unspeakable joys of the Beatific Vision.

The 1985 Roman Sacramentary offered a different prayer, also in two versions, which was perhaps a little better.  We especially like the "alternative" version:

God, our Father, source of all holiness, the work of your hands is manifest in your Saints, the beauty of your truth is reflected in their faith. May we who aspire to have part in their joy be filled with the Spirit that blessed their lives. May we also know their peace in your Kingdom. 
"The beauty of your truth" is a delightful phrase, and an idea which ought to be held up more frequently.  By somebody besides Keats, that is.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Team Adultery Fights Back

The Republican Party is having none of your pantywaist "family values" rhetoric.  Frankly, that whole "self-control" business, the old fatherly advice to "keep it in your pants" -- that stuff is just repression.  Haven't the Dems ever even heard of Sigmund Freud?

If it were not already clear, this morning's news offered proof positive that the GOP stands for a proud, masculine ethic of uninhibited and unembarrassed sexuality.  For men.  Women are still encouraged to smile demurely and pretend they don't know the naughty words.

You see, Newt Gingrich went on TV to defend the Republican nominee, and when Megyn Kelly asked him about the many recent claims of sexual harassment against Donald Trump, Gingrich accused her of being -- wait for it -- "fascinated with sex."

Savor the moment.  Here is Gingrich, a  serial adulterer, defending Trump, another serial adulterer, and accusing a reporter of being sexually compulsive.  Both men have repeatedly disregarded their vows and destroyed their marriages in pursuit of the next erotic thrill.  So has Trump's other most vocal surrogate these days, Rudolph "Divorced His Second Wife on TV" Giuliani.  All three present themselves as burly men's men, the kind who stand around in locker rooms bragging about how much women love their attention before they hit the courts (or links, or whatever).  Never mind that in reality they are fat balding senior citizens with prostate problems whose unreconstructed understanding of masculinity makes Don Draper look positively enlightened.

But Kelly is the one fascinated by sex.  because she does her job, and pursues relevant questions about the temperament, behavior and truthfulness of a presidential candidate.

Double-standard, anyone?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Pretty Good Collect

We complained recently about the translation of a certain medieval collect as it appears in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. In fairness, however, it must also be said that in some cases ELW's translations are pretty good.  One of the better ones is coming up soon.

The first of two collects offered for Reformation Day (ELW #215) comes to us from the 1539 Saxon church order, where it is prescribed for Wednesday at Vespers.  (And how wonderful must it have been to serve a church that needed collects for each day's Office!)  It reads:
Herr gott himlischer vater: wir bitten dich, du woltest deinen heiligen geist in unsere herzen geben, uns in deiner gnade ewig zu erhalten, und in aller anfechtung zu behüten, wöllest auch allen feinden worts umb [sic] deines namens ehre willen wehren und deine arme christenheit allenthalben gnedig [sic] befrieden, durch Jesum Christum deinen lieben son unsern herrn.
A very literal English translation, courtesy of Father Fritz von der Brick-Gothic, is:
Lord God, Heavenly Father, we ask that You would put Your Holy Spirit into our hearts, so that we will remain in Your [grace and] mercy and be safe in all temptation. [We also ask] that for the sake of Your [Holy] Name You would strengthen us against the words of our enemies, and graciously give peace to Your beleaguered Christians everywhere, through Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, our Lord.
The prayer is not found in the 1917 Common Service Book, but does appear in both The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and the Service Book and Hymnal (1962), in this form:

O Lord God, heavenly Father, pour out, we beseech thee, thy Holy Spirit upon thy faithful people, keep them steadfast in thy grace and truth, protect and comfort them in all temptation, defend them against all enemies of thy Word, and bestow upon Christ’s Church militant thy saving peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth …
A few key changes appear to have taken place at this stage.  Chiefly, the language for those calling upon God has been rendered less idiosyncratic. The intimacy of "our hearts" has been replaced by a more generic appeal on behalf of God's "faithful people," and the somewhat plaintive call to help "your poor Christendom" by a more generic reference to "Christ's Church Militant."  One might call this a "de-pietizing" of the base text, if that were a word.

In addition, the reference to God's Name disappears, and does not return in the successor versions.  Why?  We cannot even hazard a guess; prayers that God will act "for thy name's sake" are not uncommon, and have plenty of Biblical precedent.

The collect was modernized for the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) thus:

Almighty God, gracious Lord, pour out your Holy Spirit upon your faithful people.  Keep them steadfast in your Word, protect and comfort them in all temptations, defend them against all their enemies, and bestow on the Church your saving peace; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Clause by clause, this is the TLH version shorn of its Jacobean trappings, with only two exceptions.  We ask God to keep us steadfast not in "grace and truth" but in his "Word," no doubt in order to remind us of Luther's famous hymn.  This is effective rhetorically, but does have the sad effect of removing from the prayer the word "grace," which is essential to Luther's theology.  And "Christ's Church Militant" is now simply "the Church" -- a reasonable rendering, but sadly without the claim that this church belongs to God.

ELW takes a few more liberties with the underlying text:

Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
It's not a bad rendering.  "Enemies of the gospel" is an improvement over LBW's mere "enemies," which left open the possibility that we wanted God to help us in our sporting events or international affairs.  We still don't know whose church it is, but perhaps we are expected to infer from context.

One clause sticks out.  We do not now merely call for the Spirit to be given us, we are first reminded that this Spirit continually renews the church.  Why is that idea added?  

The most obvious reason is to direct our thoughts to the Reformation itself. If so, this is a better choice than adding, for example, "You gave us Luther, Melanchthon and Chemnitz to purify the doctrine of your hitherto corrupted church," or something just as Missourian.  

Another, less appealing, possibility is that the ELW editors are captive to the proposition that collects have a definite form, and must by nature begin with a recollection of God's mighty deeds.  This proposition is widely promoted by liturgical handbooks, but is a matter of observation rather than prescription.  A quick glance at the medieval sacramentaries reveals that a great many collects do not in fact so begin.

In either case, the added clause demonstrates a singular characteristic of ELW, namely its steadfast refusal to settle for fewer words and images when more will suffice.  In every case we have bothered to examine, the ELW prayers add to their base texts, rather than taking away from them.  (Even Reed's fine Eucharistic Prayer has a mysterium fidei added, Romanizing a text inspired by the East.)  One wonders sometimes whether the editors were closet Mozarabs, so little do they seem interested in Edmund Bishop's "sobreness and sense."

Still. All told, ELW Prayer 215 is neither more nor less apt a rendering of its 1539 original than the parallels in other modern service books.  What they all lack, in our opinion, is the personal and emotive touch of the Reformation original -- our hearts, our beleaguered (or "poor") condition, our sense of belonging to God.