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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Luther Sells Out

This morning Last week, students at Luther Seminary learned that their dorms were going to be privatized.*

Well, sort of.  The seminary has arranged to sell two apartment buildings, which are currently used for student housing.  The purchasers have agreed to make some improvements to the property, and to allow current students to continue renting.  Their rent, students have been assured, will not increase by more than 10%.  In turn, the seminary will be able to pay off some or all of the money it borrowed from its endowment fund.

At least that's the plan.  Will the new owners turn out to be what in New York are called "Dracula Landlords," the kind who charge too much and offer too little, turning the neighborhood into a slum?  Will the improvements cost so much that, to recoup their losses, the landlords gradually edge out students in favor of some more monied class of renters?  Will they try to "flip" the building when the market turns, or begin the process of turning the buildings into co-ops?

Who knows?

We're told that there's a great deal of anxiety on the campus today, which is to be expected.  We'd be anxious, too.

To be honest, though, this could be a good thing for the seminary without being a particularly bad one for its students.  Schools, like churches, sometimes wind up in the landlord business without being particularly well-equipped for it.  It's not their core mission, and there's a pretty good argument that they shouldn't waste resources playing catch-up ball.  Since 1999, the Army has been privatizing its base housing -- getting out of residential real estate, which isn't its core mission either -- apparently with no ill effects.

We're generally cynical about maneuvers like this.  Many congregations have sold their parsonage to make a much-needed upfront buck, but then found themselves unable to compensate a new pastor for local housing.  But the situation here is different, if only because of the numbers.  Student bodies rise and shrink; maintenance costs on an apartment are relatively fixed.  A building that can house 50 people becomes a terrible strain on a school that needs housing for 25.

If congregations all over America are in a crisis, seminaries are in a worse one.  And compared to the the half-assed ideas that are being floated in the world of theological education these days -- dropping Greek and Hebrew, "terminal internships," cutting whole years out of the experience that should in theory prepare a pastor for a lifetime of ministry -- selling off a few buildings looks like genius.

_________________________________
* Thanks to Vicar Dan for the timeline correction; see his note below for information on the poor condition of the buildings at present.

Failed Politician Turns Sex Tourist in Africa

One former congressman has been arrested.  Shockingly, the others have not.

Mel Reynolds has been arrested in Zimbabwe.  He has been living there since November, apparently without filing the correct immigration paperwork.  In those four months, Reynolds has rung up a $25,000 unpaid hotel bill.

Reuters also mentions that he was found to possess pornography, which is a crime in Zimbabwe.  The report does not specify what kind of pornography we are talking about.  A few dog-eared Playboys, for example, would hardly shock most of Reynolds' erstwhile constituents.

But we don't think that's it.

Reynolds was, again per Reuters, "a rising star in the Democratic Party" until
... he was forced to resign in 1995 after being convicted of sexual assault, obstruction of justice and solicitation of child pornography.
Ah.  Now we get it.

Yesterday, we'd never heard of Congressman Reynolds, perhaps for the good reason that he only served one two-year term, in the early 90s.  He has spent more time in prison than he ever did in Congress, first following a conviction for statutory rape and then following a separate conviction for bank fraud.

Ick.  Just ... ick.

It almost seems cruel to add that, in 2004, Reynolds attempted to regain his seat, the Illinois 2nd, and was crushed by the incumbent -- Jesse Jackson, Jr.  When you can't beat Jesse Jr., it's time to get out of the game.

Anyway, we point out Rep. Reynolds' problems only to observe that there is somebody, somewhere, who has less integrity than we ourselves.  Small victories, people.

Monday, February 17, 2014

We Have No Integrity!

This just in:  Father Anonymous has no integrity!

Regular readers will no doubt find this unsurprising.  Way back in 2010, we expressed our willingness to blog for money -- to shamelessly promote any product for a fee, and the right products in exchange for samples.  We mentioned a particular interest in wristwatches, books and clerical haberdashery.  (Sinn, Continuum [which is now part of Bloomsbury] and Slabbinck came in for particular mention.  These days, we'd happily take a look at some fancy camping gear as well.  Are you listening, Arc'teryx?). To our great regret, no manufacturers or distributors have actually taken us up on this offer -- yet.

But the point remains: Father A. is  sellout by nature, sadly lacking in the ascetical rigor implicit in his vocation.  Miserere nobis, Domine!

Our only comfort was the thought that this abject moral poverty was a somewhat private affair, known only to ourselves and to the minuscule coterie of regular Egg-beaters.  Imagine, then, the shame - the Kristevan horreur -- that we felt when we were called to account by no less august a community than the Facebook  ELCA Pastors' Group.

A group member offered for consideration a paragraph from our first reflection on l'affaire Justman.  It was a rather good paragraph, although we had forgotten writing it.  (Perhaps, indeed, we stole it -- that's how little integrity we have!)  Here it is:

Now, it is easy to imagine reasons that a bishop might choose to step down.  The job, especially as it has been practiced by the ELCA, is almost comically bad.  You are given great symbolic status and virtually no executive authority; you are called to manage dwindling resources in an atmosphere of panic and distrust of institutions; you are an authority among people who largely distrust authority.  Although your job title calls you to teach doctrine and administer discipline in the tradition of the apostles, your church feels more comfortable if you serve as a middle manager, giving mildly inspirational pep talks and telling a few jokes, but otherwise deferring to the halfwits they elect to lesser offices.

We will stand by those remarks.  They describe, to our mind, the extraordinarily challenging position in which ELCA bishops find themselves.  The office of bishop in the ELCA is poorly defined, and it is frankly miraculous that any of the people who hold it manage to get anything done.  By the same token,  the only real surprise when a bishop resigns is that ten others haven't resigned as well.

The same thing can be said, incidentally, of pastors.  A glance at the ELCA Model Constitution shows why.  Article 9, concerning the office of the pastor, seems to go on forever, much of its length spent assigning the pastor duties without granting any corresponding executive authority, and even more of it spent on just how to get rid of him (or her).  Lutherans have a long and complex history of interpreting the offices of pastor and bsihop, from nearly idolatrous worship of Herr Pastor to the undisguised anticlericalism of the Pietists; both constitution and parish practice reflect this history.  We are divided between our need for strong pastoral leadership and our fear of pastoral tyranny, and act on that division by both loving our pastors and seeking to destroy them.

Somebody once told us that the best example of passive aggressive behavior is the dog who jumps up to lick your face while simultaneously peeing on your leg.  There, in a nutshell, is the Lutheran approach to pastors and, except even more so, to bishops.

However, the Facebook group sees it differently.  Members read the offending paragraph as a criticism not of the office and how it is defined, but of the people who hold it.  The very first commenter claimed to have known every ELCA bishop ever, and to have seen in them models of solid leadership -- two claims that are difficult to reconcile, given what we know about the catastrophic failure of a few bishops.  Others chimed in accordingly.  The instinct to defend one's bishop, as well as one's friend, is a very good one, displaying just the sort of integrity that the Egg so prominently lacks.  We applaud it, however completely beside the point in question it may be.

Another commenter sniffed that "leadership is hard," an observation which is ... sort of what we were trying to say.

We'll say this more clearly, in case you missed it:  there are many fine bishops in the ELCA, as there are many fine pastors.  We've been privileged to know some of them.  Their presence is proof, however, of God's providence rather than of any human wisdom, because their church has given them a ridiculous job, one which could scarcely be better designed if its goal were to drive them to booze, broads, or bigger parishes -- the three customary causes of an episcopal dimission.

Anyway, back to our integrity -- or lack thereof.

The Facebook ELCA Clergy Group has a number of distinguishing characteristics.  One is that its participants are generally on the young side, and seem not to have fully integrated all the lessons of their priestly formation.  Rather than consult a book, or -- one hopes -- their own memory of the relevant course, they seem to instinctively crowdsource every question.  Some questions are quite naturally resolved this way (e.g., "Where to buy black shirts cheap?"); others are not ("Why can't we make up our own creeds?"  "What is that poncho thing some pastors wear at the Eucharist?" "Does anybody really use Greek?")  It is a little dispiriting to watch.  Older pastors try to dispense such theological learning and practical wisdom as they are able, but generally despair quickly.  (Our biretta is permanently off to Frs. Murphy and Stoffregen, who are tireless dispensers of all that is good and true and beautiful.)

Another characteristic, common to many online discussions, is that threads often meander.  The question of where to buy shirts, for example, can easily turn into a  pissing match among those who insist on black clericals, those who champion the multicolored, and those who dismiss the whole subject as reeking of potpourri -- sorry, we meant popery.  This particular topic, which comes up every couple of months, is as theologically neutral as one can imagine, and yet it predictably preciptates a nasty exchange of self-righteous truisms.

In the case at hand, for example, the question of how Lutherans have defined the episcopal office never really got talked about, even when the OP herself tried to raise it again.  People seemed more interested in talking about how well the bishops of their acquaintance had performed -- and how evil Fr. A. was. for suggesting otherwise, even though he hadn't.

Their gravest objection seemed to be that Father Anonymous was ... anonymous.  It was this that seems to have raised the question of his integrity, although just how anonymity and integrity are connected was never made clear.

A few people muttered politely that anonymity has a long history in journalism.  (Paging Xavier Rynne! Not to mention the only newsmagazine that's actually any good.  Oh, and that gutless wonder Thomas Paine). We thank them, but the Egg is hardly journalism.  It's the periodic ramble of a prematurely senile minister, more concerned with John Donne's mystagogy, John Mason Neale's hymnody and Dick Cheney's predilection for sexual congress with billy goats than with any matters of present-day concern.

Likewise, a few faithful readers rose to our defense, and their kind words are music to our tone-deaf ears.  (Literally tone-deaf.  Can't chant a freaking note, despite the weekly attempt.)  But the truth is that our critics are right:  we have no integrity.  Our critics are right, because how could so intellectually sophisticated a group possibly be wrong?

We offer no defense; it would be pointless.  We will only observe, as we have before, that our "anonymity" is pretty thin stuff.  We adopted it, back in the innocent days of 2005, to prevent our private ramblings about sex and politics from disturbing the peace of the parish.  But over time, it has grown ever more notional.  Most regular readers know pretty much exactly who "Father Anonymous" is; quite a number have entertained him in their homes, served with him on a parish council, chatted with him over brewskis or via the Internet, prayed his eccentric version of the Daily Office.  According to the Egg's Dept. of Statistics, fully one-tenth of our readers actually gave birth to us.  (And btw, thanks for doing that, Mom.)

While it is possible to learn the notorious little cleric's secret identity with two mouse clicks, navigating from this very page, that may be too much work for kids nowadays.  (Durn entitled Millennials -- get offa my lawn!) Still, there's a com-box on every page, and we're busy but by no means bashful.  So if you want to know a guy's name, there's one tried-and-true-method, which is to ask.

But really, why bother?  This blog has no integrity.  It's certainly not a labor of love, nor an expression of care for the church and its theology.  On the contrary, we're just in it for the swag.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

News from the Lessons

If you're preaching this week, here are a couple of tidbits you might use.

1)  We are now in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an event often observed principally in the breach by American churches.

In Romania, touchingly, it was a pretty big deal.  Churches that genuinely hated each other, and had a long tradition of doing dirt to one another whenever possible, would do their best to suck it up on this one week and try to imagine what it would be like to live the way Jesus wanted them to.

Anyway, the theme of this year's Week of Prayer, "Is Christ Divided?", is taken directly from Sunday's Epistle.

2) "I will make you fish for people," the NRSV translation of Matthew 4:19, is grammatically misleading.  Jesus promises to make the fishermen into something.  And what he promises to make them is a noun, not a verb -- fishers (haliei).

This may very well matter to a preacher.  The word Jesus uses for "make" is poieso, from poiein.  It is the root of our English word "poetry," for which page Sir Philip Sidney and his dubious argument that poets make a new world which is actually better than nature's.  And when we confess in the Nicene Creed that the Father is the "maker" of Heaven and Earth, the underlying Greek is poieten.  One interpretation, then, is that when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, he offers to make them anew -- with the implication that his mission is in fact a new creation for the whole world.

Another, less cosmic, interpretation is simply that Jesus is giving these two people a new identity.  But this is where the grammar comes in, because he is not giving them a new skill.  He is not, in other words, teaching them to evangelize; he is making them evangelists.  Spreading the Gospel, in other words, is not a thing we do; it is an expression of who are.  "Evangelist" does not describe a skill set, but an identity.  (Better yet, it describes a renewed form of human nature.  But that may be too abstract for most people.)

That said, "of people" is a better translation into modern English than "of men," since anthropos can refer to either or both sexes.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Wrong Again!

That is to say, Fr. A. has cruelly misjudged somebody, and hopes to rectify the mistake.  A few hours ago, we lumped together three accomplished scientists who were also amateur theologians -- Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, and Christoph Rothmann.  Although brilliant, we proposed that all three were, theologically speaking, crackpots.

The Egg's Department of Overreaching Claims has asked us to issue a formal apology.

Based on this paper by Miguel A. Granada, it appears that Christoph Rothmann, who had studied both theology and mathematics at Luther's own university in the 1570s, was not a crackpot at all.  In his correspondence with Tycho Brahe (also a Lutheran, of course), Rothmann defended the heliocentrism of Copernicus against Brahe's hybrid geo-heliocentric theory.  But beyond that, both men, along with Melanchthon's son-in-law Caspar Peucer, attempted a task that occupied many of the finest minds of the 17th century:  to reconcile the newly powerful (because newly available) Christian Scriptures with the emerging conclusions of the natural sciences.

Both Brahe and Rothmann took for granted the reliability of the Bible.  But they differed in their understanding of just what its "reliability" entailed.  Rothmann argued for what is sometimes called God's "accomodation" of the Bible to human understanding:

Authority of Sacred Scripture is no obstacle [to heliocentrism]. It is not written solely for me and for you, but for all men; and it speaks after their capacity of understanding, as all Theologians declare in the exposition of the first chapter of Genesis. Otherwise the moon would be, against all demonstrations of geometry, greater than all other stars.... God speaks accommodating Himself to the capacity of the Hebrews.

This does not mean that God dumbed it down for us mere mortals -- well, not exactly.  It means that the Bible isn't a science textbook, and was never meant to be one.  As Granada says:

Sustained by a long line of scholars stretching from Augustine to Rheticus and Calvin in the sixteenth century, the notion of divine accommodation to common knowledge also employed by Rothmann implied that the intention of the Bible was to teach mankind in matters pertaining to God’s will and his promise of human salvation, not to impart scientific knowledge on cosmological matters irrelevant to its principal end.

This seems obvious, really, to everyone except the Creationist whackjobs in Texas (and, as it happens, to Caspar Peucer -- but that's another story).  Brahe himself embraced a limited accomodationism.  But
... Rothmann went much further [than these other scholars] in conceiving of accommodation in the most absolute of terms; he therefore excluded the possibility of any relevance of Scripture whatsoever to cosmological matters. 
Now, this is indeed a radical stance by theological standards -- certainly by 17th-century standards, and to some degree even today.  It needs to be qualified somewhat; as Granada says, for Rothmann Scripture did speak to "metascientific [and] metatheoretical questions, such as the encouragement or promotion of the quest for a scientific cosmology." In plain words, the Bible teaches us to love all truth, even when the truths it teaches are not scientific ones.

Rothmann, it seems, offers a reconciliation of the natural and theological sciences (or, if you must, of nature and revelation) which would make sense to many thoughtful readers even in the present day.  He and his collocutors defy the popular caricature of Renaissance scientists struggling under the yoke of a superstitious religious establishment which denounced them all as witches.  On the contrary, they appear to have embraced their religious faith with zeal -- even if it was sometimes, as befits not only scientists but all Christians -- a critical zeal.

Good Science Is Good Religion

Everybody knows that Copernicus figured out that the earth moves around the sun, that Galieo proved him right by looking through a telescope, and that the Roman Catholic Church tried to shut Galileo down because it believed, for theological reasons, that Copernicus could not be correct.

Right?  Isn't that what everybody knows?

Probably, more or less -- but if so, this is one more instance in which what everybody "knows" is not true.

An article in the current Scientific American* neatly summarizes a much more complex story.  In fact, as Dennis Danielson and Christopher Graney show, the ideas that Copernicus proposed in his 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium -- although eventually proven to be true -- did not fit with the best experimental evidence available to the scientific community of his time.

In addition to the problem of how something as large as the Earth could move, a matter that would not be fully explicable before Newton's Laws of Motion, would-be Copernicans were troubled by the absence of a measurable annual stellar parallax, which suggested that the diameter of Earth's still-hypothetical orbit around the sun was, when compared to  its distance from the stars, far smaller than previously believed.  There was also serious question about the size of the stars in a Copernican system, since their (apparently, but not really) fixed width would make them vastly larger than anbody had reason to imagine.

The heliocentric model of Copernicus was directly challenged by another brilliant and heavily-funded astronomer, Tycho Brahe.  Tycho proposed a"geoheliocentric" model, in which the sun, moon and stars orbit an immobile earth, while the planets circle the sun.  He attempted to reconcile the elegance of Copernicus' calculations with the other evidence, such as it was.

Galileo's subsequent observations, such as the existence of Jupiter's moons, disproved the Ptolemaic cosmology -- but were compatible with Brahe's system.  In other words, Galileo's oservations "were not  .. understood [by contemporary astronomers] as  proof that Earth revolves around the sun."

The upshot is that it took roughly 200 years for the question of heliocentrism to be settled among scientists.  In addition to Kepler and Newton, the contributions of Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis were required.  It was not until 1838 that Friedrich Bessel measured the annual stellar parallax and George Airy "produced the first full theoretical explanation for why stars appear to be wider than they are."  So, although by the late 17th century a growing majority of scientists accepted the Copernican model, they did so, as Danielson and Graney observe, "in the face of scientific difficulties."

Danielson and Graney are interested in the large historical question of how the scientific community is,  often and rightly, reluctant to embrace radically new ideas before a significant body of observational data can be adduced to support them:
Back in [Galileo's day], those opposed to Copernicanism had some quite respectable, coherent, observationally based science on their side.  They were eventually proved wrong, but that did not make them bad scientists.  In fact, rigorously disproving the strong arguments of other was part of the challenge, as well as part of the fun, of doing science.
True, by all means.  We at the Egg have another thread to pick at in this story, though, which is the oft-misrepresented role of religion in the history of cosmology.

We have often observed that, despite the weird mythologies of Fundamentalism and Dawkinsism alike, historic Christianity has never been profoundly hostile to the natural sciences.  More often than not, the Church has been deeply and seriously engaged in reading "the book of nature," seeing in it a revelation of God's will that is comparable in majesty to, if different in kind from, the revelation offered in the Bible.  Especially in the Renaissance, the Church was an active and generous patron of science.  Galileo himself worked for the pope, and popes up to the present day have continued to employ court astronomers.

So it is no surprise that, as the models of celestial motion were debated in the 16th and 17th centuries, churchmen would take an interest in the discussion.  And this is where Danielson and Graney observe an interesting irony:
Rather than give up their theory in the face of seemingly incontrovertible evidence, Copernicans were forced to appeal to divine omnipotence.
They cite a Copernican named Christoph Rothmann, writing to Brahe, and arguing that in fact stellar distances could be as large as the Copernicans estimated on the grounds that God was a great king who deserved a great palace.

(Side note:  Rothmann eventually visited Denmark, studied the stars and argued cosmology with Brahe, then disappeared to his hometown to publish some now-lost theological treatises.  [He had studied theology at Wittenberg.] Brahe's famous assistant, Johannes Kepler, seems to have viewed astronomy as a largely religious undertaking.  Clearly, Newton was not the only early astronomer to be an amateur theologian.  Sadly, we know that Newton was a crackpot, and are inclined to suspect the same of Rothmann and Kepler.  Perhaps not incidentally, they were all Protestants.)

In response to the Copernicans, it was Giovanni Battista Riccioli -- both an astronomer and a Jesuit priest -- who argued, in effect, that God should be left out of the cosmological question:  "Even if this falsehood [i.e., the claim that the stars were far away to satisfy God's dignity] cannot be refuted, it cannot satisfy the more prudent men."  Again, he was defending the wrong model -- but please note this representative of a zealous religious order, and younger contemporary of Galileo, attempting to ague that scientific questions should not be resolved by an appeal to theology.

Our point here, and it is one that can never be made too often by and among people with a commitment to traditional Christianity, is that the Church is not and never has been opposed to good science, because good science -- like good religion -- is an honest inquiry into the nature of reality.  No matter what anybody tells you, there is no war between science and religion, at least from the perspective of religion.  And while the story of Galileo is very complicated, taking place in the midst of tumultuous century, it is not fair to say that the Roman Catholic Church, much less all of Christianity, and far less "religion" in the abstract, is its villain.

_______________________________
*Dennis Danielson and Christopher M.Graney, "The Case Aginst Copernicus," in Scientific American, Jan. 2014, 72-77.  The web version is behind a paywall at this writing.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dept. of No Surprise: Tough-Guy Edition

Regular readers will recall that Father Anonymous is a great fan of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child.  (So are his wife, his mother and his father.)  Reacher is one of the great American tough-guy heroes, a comically tough ex-MP who travels the country by Greyhound, righting wrongs and moving on.  Lee Child is a Brit, but so was Raymond Chandler, to whom the books owe at least a small debt of gratitude.

Child is a great thriller writer, one of the best.  He's not a great novelist, especially -- Tolstoy need not look to his laurels.  Judged on prose style and narrative canniness, Child is better than Ian Fleming, but falls well short of Chandler.  His dialogue is good, his ploys are repetitive but often clever.  But where Lee Child excels -- where he is unsurpassed -- is at actually thrilling people.  Nobody makes our adrenaline flow like Reacher.  Hell, real danger doesn't make our adrenaline flow like Reacher

Those same regular readers will recall that, before Tom Cruise appeared as the cinematic Reacher, we expressed some doubts about how that was going to go.  Reacher is big and deadpan; Cruise is small and cocky.  He's a fine actor, but this was really a part for Nick Nolte circa 1985.

Despite our reservations, we averred that we would probably see the film.  And last night, finding ourselves between Netflix series to binge-watch, we did.

Don't make this mistake.

The Reacher movie is ... not good.

It is bad in a million different ways, some large and some small.  It seems as though the female lead, Rosamund Pike, is trying to channel a little bit of classic noir dame, maybe some early Bacall.  It's not a bad idea, but it fails; her eyes seem to pop out in every scene, and roll around in their sockets.  The real villain, one of Child's more interesting creations, is not given enough screen time.

There are some good things about the movie.  Child's original dialogue and set pieces, when they can be preserved, are still clever.  Robert Duvall hams it up magnificently as a grizzled gunnery sergeant.  There is one sequence, in which Reacher is attacked by the Three Stooges, that is some of the best comic relief we have seen in a lifetime of watching thrillers.

Cruise is, as we exppected, the wrong actor for the part.  he tries hard, but his interpretation of jack Reacher just doesn't ring true.  Reacher is cocky in his own way -- he's smarter and stronger than virtually anybody he meets, and this shapes his world.  But Reacher's version of cockiness is laconic, almost lazy.  Think of vintage Robert Mitchum.  Cruise, in contrast, is energetic, feisty, visibly cerebral.  Think of vintage Tom Cruise.

Still, he's not that bad.  A world that can imagine Roger Moore as James Bond should have no trouble with Tom Cruise as Reacher.

The problems with this movie are not the actors; they are its script and its direction.  Together, they achieve dreary drabness of the picture, devoid of suspense and heavy with routine.

The most grindingly awful example -- SPOILER ALERT! -- comes about 3/4 through.  The damsel is in distress; Reacher has launched a rescue operation which is also intended to punish the villains.  He finds himself unarmed, taking on a team of professional killers with assault rifles. Needless to say, he kills most of them easily.  But then comes the most dangerous of the crew, a man Reacher especially hates.  Reacher sneaks up, puts a captured gun to the bad guy's ear and then says "Drop it."

At this point, Mother A. started screaming.  The mission isn't complete yet!  Reacher hasn't rescued the girl.  But, still, he disarms his enemy, throws down his own gun, and decides to fight hand-to-hand.  This is colossally stupid and out of character; of course Reacher can kill the guy bare-handed, but he can't control what happens to hostage in the minute it takes him to do so.  Yes, he's got a mean streak, but he's also a professional:  he focuses on the mission.

Worse yet is the fight itself.  Oh, it's choreographed well-enough.  The two heavies slug it out in a nighttime rainstorm, mud and testosterone splashing everywhere.  It should have been exciting, but it felt lifeless, dull, even familiar.

"It feels like I've seen this already," said Father A.  And then the light bulb went off over his cartoony head, and he exclaimed:  "BECAUSE I HAVE."

Yup.  This was, basically, the fight from the climax of Lethal Weapon.  Good guy throws down his gun and, in defiance of any logic whatsoever, settles score with bad guy the manly way.  Hand to hand.  In the mud.

it was stupid then, but at least it was exciting.  This time it is just dumb.  And at least Mel Gibson's Riggs was supposed to be borderline psychotic.  Reacher is eccentric but, at least in theory, coldly rational about combat.

Anyway, this movie stinks.  Not in a cool, campy way that will make it more fun in 25 years.  It stinks in a dull, uninspired way that will sink a potentially great franchise right out of dry dock.