29 November 2007

NYT 10 Best.

Know Bo Now.

Really fine piece by Micahel Weinreb on man, myth, legend Bo Jackson (drawn to our attention by Dr. Jackson - no relation):

For those of us who came of age in the 1980s, watching Bo take on both professional baseball and professional football at the same time, the myth and the man long ago became tangled. Bo hits a 600-foot home run! Bo tramples Ronnie Lott! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his knee! Bo snaps a Louisville Slugger over his head! Bo hits a batting-practice home run left-handed! Bo parts a major body of water! Bo cures lymphoma!

There have always been stories like this, passed on in a telephone game from one generation to the next -- about Babe Ruth, about Josh Gibson, about Red Grange, about Marion Motley and Jim Brown and Mickey Mantle -- and they seemed apocryphal, almost silly, in their exaggeration. The difference, of course, was that we actually saw Bo part the Red Sea on our televisions. We saw it with our own eyes; even those moments that weren't televised were documented and sometimes photographed. In 1986, in a minor-league ballpark in Charlotte, N.C., a young journalist named Joe Posnanski watched Jackson hit his first professional home run, and then realized Jackson had broken his bat. "Bo's destiny," Posnanski would write in The Kansas City Star, more than 20 years later, "was to become a comic-book hero."

Here's the whole thing.

28 November 2007

Solving Social Security.

The answer? Eat like a Scot.

Scotland, a beautiful small European country, is blissfully free of ageing populations. The Scots die young and don't cling on their pensions for decades like Japanese centenaires, sucking the blood of younger generations. What's their secret? The Scottish Diet, an age-old combination low in fresh fruits and vegetables and high in confectionery, fat enriched meat products, sweet and salty snacks accompanied by generous amounts of sugary drinks and alcohol.

The golden rule of the Scottish diet is that fat, sugar and alcohol should each account for at least 30% of your daily calorie intake. You may eat one serving of fruits per week, preferably as jams or preserves.

One of the best example of this wonderfully nutritious diet is Scotland's National Dish, the deep-fried Mars bar. The owner of Fish-and-chips «Café Piccante» in Edinburgh let me into his kitchen while he made one.

Here's the whole thing.

27 November 2007

Culture Of Death, China.

Life, or the lack thereof, in China:
And so it might surprise you that President Bush’s Department of Homeland Security now wants to hand over, to the world’s most systematically brutal government, scores of wholly innocent victims of political persecution, whose only crime was to have children and resist coercive population control programs.

DHS is seeking to reverse decades of U.S. policy and reinterpret a 1996 U.S. law in order to return Chinese fathers whose wives have fled forced sterilization or abortion by the Chinese government to Communist China, where they will be separated from their families and face certain retaliation for the crime of fathering an unapproved child. DHS has now convinced the Second Circuit Court of its position, creating a split among the circuits. The matter now rests in the hands of the attorney general, who has previously had discretion to grant asylum to those worthy.

Under China’s “one-child” policy (which sometimes permits two children), China requires sterilization for new mothers and forced abortions for women exceeding the limit. The State Department reports that in 2005, in just one province, 130,000 women were subjected to forced abortion or sterilization. According to congressional testimony by Chinese refugees and other interviews with Chinese citizens, women who go into hiding to avoid this routinely have their homes destroyed, or members of their family are imprisoned.

China’s population-control program also requires abortions for all unwed mothers. This is even more intrusive than it sounds, because another component of the 1979 population policy bans marriage for men under the age of 22 and women under the age of 20 — and in some provinces, the age requirement for marriage is as high as 25.

Because of the marriage ban, many young Chinese couples secretly get traditional marriages that are not sanctioned by the state. Yet this carries with it a risk — if the wife becomes pregnant, the state will frequently force her, as an “unwed” mother, to abort.

Here's the whole thing.

Calling Her Blessed (sort of).

Today, J.I. Packer supplies the ECT essay concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary (see below):
Also, I think I should announce here where I come from conventionally. I do not believe in Mary’s immaculate conception, nor her perpetual virginity, nor her assumption, nor the appropriateness of prayer to her. As an Anglican, I have been drilled in the liturgical use of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, and have long taught that we should notice how she celebrates God as her Savior and should think of her as head of the line of sinners, saved by the atoning death and resurrection of her own son.
Here's the whole thing. Two things as an immediate reaction. Nothing the Catholic Church teaches about St. Mary, including especially and explicitly her Immaculate Conception, precludes her celebration of God, and more precisely her Son, as her Savior, "saved by the atoning death and resurrection of her own son" (indeed, that is largely the point and predicate of the Immaculate Conception dogma, as Fr. Oakes makes clear in his essay). Secondly, it is interesting to note that Dr. Packer presents his essay as "a plain Bible study" - his only theological source - a source which leaves theology at the mercy of the theological/biblical studies guild.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Packer, a saint walking among us, a few years ago after he spoke at a conference in Nashville sponsored by Tennessee Anglican Council group. The theme was, of course, "Anglicans and the Authority of Scripture."

26 November 2007

Calling Her 'Blessed.'

This will be interesting and, one hopes, gratia plena:

The project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together is now in its thirteenth year—following its initial statement, “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” with much-discussed statements on salvation, Scripture, and the Communion of Saints.

The group is currently engaged in studying what can be said together about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a number of participants were asked to prepare preliminary papers. Though these are only first thoughts and not final positions, we thought our readers would find them interesting. With the permission of the authors, we will be posting five of these papers over the next five days—papers by Edward T. Oakes, J.I. Packer, T.M. Moore, Matthew Levering, and Cornelius Plantinga.—eds.

First off today comes Fr. Oakes' paper:

In other words, Mary is the perfect example of sola gratia at work: Everything she later did and was given came from this first grace of predestination, won for her purely and entirely by the merits of Christ, not her own; and even those “merits” she “earned” came from the graces given her aboriginally, in view of her predestined status as the chosen Mother of the Savior. As Pius IX clearly asserts, by a venerable exegetical tradition dating from patristic times, she was predestined to be sinless when God spoke thus to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden after our first parents’ first sin: “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He shall bruise your dead, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

By placing the promise of Mary’s sinlessness in the Garden, Pius definitively altered the usual perspective on what predestination means. Unlike both Protestant and Catholic views of predestination in the Augustinian tradition (which tends to see predestination in terms of the fate of the individual soul at the end of time), recent Catholic mariological thought picks up on Pius IX’s salvation-historical perspective by interpreting Mary’s predestined status to be the mother of the Lord as part of God’s wider intentions for the world. For example, in his essay “The Sign of the Woman,” located in his book Mary: The Church at the Source (coauthored with Hans Urs von Balthasar), Cardinal Ratzinger speaks this way:

The Fathers saw God’s words of punishment to the serpent after the Fall as a first promise of the Redeemer—an allusion to the Descendent [Seed, Offspring] that bruises the serpent’s head. There has never been a moment in history without a gospel. At the very moment of the Fall, the promise also begins. The Fathers also attached importance to the fact that Christology and Mariology are inseparably interwoven already from this primordial beginning. The first promise of Christ, which stands in a chiaroscuro and which only the light to come finally deciphers, is a promise to and through the woman. (emphases added)

In other words, Mary is wholly enclosed within the biblical narrative of God’s dispensation to his people, an insight deftly caught by Dante when he places on the lips of St. Bernard of Clairvaux this address to Mary: “Virgin Mother, daughter of your Son” (Paradiso), a coinage that forms a nice chiasmus to another of her titles, “Mother of God.”

. . .

But if, as part of its logic, the cross itself is made possible only through Mary’s consent at the Annunciation (which Luke clearly holds), then the implications of the denial of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception should become clear. For such a denial would then make our very salvation dependent on Mary’s free will operating independent of grace. Her Yes to God would have had to have been made, even if ever so slightly, under her own power, which would have the intolerable implication of making the entire drama of salvation hinge on a human work—the very apogee of Pelagianism.

Here's the whole thing.

Stephen Colbert, Liturgical Dancer.

As yesterday was the feast of Christ the King, it is necessary to watch this.

25 November 2007

Killing The Fatted Monkey.

When cultures collide:
NEW YORK (AP) -- From her baptism in Liberia to Christmas years later in her adopted New York City, Mamie Manneh never lost the longing to celebrate religious rituals by eating monkey meat.
Here's the whole thing.

21 November 2007

The Nature Boy Endorsement.

Now I know how to vote. Whoooa!!

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) – In the race for presidential endorsements, Mike Huckabee has the kitschy pop culture celebrity vote on lockdown.

First it was martial arts hero and "Walker, Texas Ranger" star Chuck Norris, who appears with Huckabee in his first TV ad.

Then hard-rocking hunting enthusiast Ted Nugent jumped on the Huckabee bandwagon, citing the Republican's support for second amendment rights.

Now, Huckabee is getting ready to rumble: wrestler Ric Flair, a.k.a. The Nature Boy, is supporting the former Arkansas governor in his bid for the White House.

CNN has learned the WWE wrestler is on board with Huckabee, and will co-host a campaign tailgate with the candidate at the South Carolina vs. Clemson football game on Saturday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina. More details are forthcoming.


(Im)Morality Keeps Up With Technology.

I noted Jonah Goldberg's post re "necessity is the mother of invention and the father of immorality below. Today, Jim Manzi extends the thought, noting that the same dynamic can work in reverse:

On the other hand, many restrictions on behavior that once served to avoid obvious negative personal outcomes suddenly lose their moral force for many people once technology changes the balance of (apparent) costs and benefits. The introduction of The Pill, to take an obvious example, almost certainly had a much larger effect on female sexual mores than all the sweet talk and chocolates on earth. What was seen as immoral becomes seen as moral.

As advances in technology and wealth proceed at a faster pace, the rate at which these kinds of moral changes occur increases. Because those societies that have high rates of technical and economic advance tend to be open societies in which greater latitude in personal behavior is legally and socially acceptable, this effect is even more exaggerated in places like contemporary America. This leads many people to ask the obvious question: is anything really moral or immoral?

Not to be utilitarian, but that parenthetical "apparent" in the first paragraph quoted is vital.
Here's the whole thing.

Another Poping Bishop.

Bishop Lipscomb of S.W. Florida. This one surprises me somewhat:
I have communicated to the Presiding Bishop my request to be released from my ordination vows and the obligations and responsibilities of a member of the House of Bishops. I have taken this step in order to be received into the Catholic Church. Through a long season of prayer and reflection Marcie and I have come to believe this is the leading of the Holy Spirit and God’s call to us for the next chapter of our lives. We are grateful to our brother in Christ, the Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch, the Bishop of St. Petersburg, for his openness to our request and for his prayerful support.

I was blessed to grow up in a Christian home where I was given the gift of a deep love for the Lord Jesus Christ and a reverence for God’s revelation of his love and redemptive purpose in the Word written, as well as the Word made Flesh. I was blessed to be brought into the family of the Episcopal Church 40 years ago. I have a deep love for the sacramental life, most especially the Eucharistic sacrifice through which God continues to pour his grace into our lives in the Word that needs no words.

I will be forever grateful for the opportunities I had to serve this faith community as a deacon and priest. I am most grateful for the opportunity you, the people of the Diocese of Southwest Florida, gave me to serve as your bishop and to participate in the life of the Anglican Communion. You made it possible for me to share in the mission of God that can never be bound by geographical or political barriers.

I believe God is now calling us to continue our ministry to serve in the healing of the visible Body of Christ in the world. I am convinced our Lord’s deepest desire is for the unity of the Church.

Here's the whole thing.
Via TitusOneNine.

20 November 2007

The Stem Cell Story.

Much interesting commentary today about the good news regarding research in pluripotent stem cells, which has obviated the "need" to destroy human embryos as a source for those stem cells. To wit,

  • Fr. Thomas Berg: It’s called “reprogramming.”
    Another technical term for it is “somatic cell dedifferentiation.” Just get those terms into your vocabulary because they’ll be around for the foreseeable future. As reported in two scientific papers published today, reprogramming is now the future of stem cell research and renders ethically controversial therapeutic cloning obsolete.

    Ever since the debate of embryo-destructive stem-cell research began in earnest in 1998 when researchers at the University of Wisconsin first isolated human embryonic stem cells, we’ve known that the best overall answer to the ethical impasse would be a solution that both allows the search for stem-cell related cures to go foreword, while doing so without harming or destroying embryonic human life in the process.

    We now have that solution. (The whole thing.)
  • Jody Bottum: In other words, scientists may now be able to have the embryonic stem cells we’ve been told they need for research—without creating and destroying embryos to get them. If so, the argument is over.

    Or, maybe, the argument is just beginning, for this news turns on its head everything in what the nation’s newspapers have delivered to us as a story of blinkered pro-lifers vs. courageous scientists.

    The people who turn out actually to have believed in the power of science are the pro-lifers—the ones who said that a moral roadblock is not, in point of fact, an outrageous hindrance, for scientists will always find another, less-objectionable way to achieve their goals. President Bush’s refusal of federal funding for new embryonic stem cell lines didn’t halt major stem-cell advances, any more than the prohibition against life-threatening research on human subjects, such as the infamous Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male, stopped the advance of medical treatments.

    For those who attacked the pro-lifers in the name of science, however, things look a little different. As Maureen L. Condic explained to First Things readers this year in her careful survey, “What We Know About Embryonic Stem Cells,” the promises of medical breakthroughs were massively overblown by the media.

    But there were reasons for all the hype. I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America’s religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion. After all, if our very health depends on the death of embryos, and we live in a culture that routinely destroys early human life in the laboratory, no grounds could exist for objecting to abortion.

    With these purposes now severed by the Japanese de-differentiation technique, which way will it break? (The whole thing.)

  • President Bush: President Bush is very pleased to see the important advances in ethical stem cell research reported in scientific journals today. By avoiding techniques that destroy life, while vigorously supporting alternative approaches, President Bush is encouraging scientific advancement within ethical boundaries. President Bush was the first president to make federal funds available for human embryonic stem cell research — and his policy did this in ways that would not encourage the destruction of embryos. In July 2006, the President highlighted research into the possibility of reprogramming adult skin cells into pluripotent stem cells without intruding on human embryos or eggs. The President’s Executive Order issued in June 2007 was intended to accelerate precisely the kind of research being reported today. One of the studies announced today was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health operating under the President’s stem cell policy. The President believes medical problems can be solved without compromising either the high aims of science or the sanctity of human life. We will continue to encourage scientists to expand the frontiers of stem cell research and continue to advance the understanding of human biology in an ethically responsible way.
And Jonah Goldberg of the National Review posts provocative thoughts (which I'll quote in full) about the effect of perceived need on our moral vision:

I defer to the expertise of others that this is the big deal scientifically it appears to be. What I find fascinating about this — indeed, what I find fascinating about the role of technology generally (I've long wanted to write a big think piece on this) — is how necessity is not only the mother of invention, it's the father of immorality.

Because President Bush wisely placed limitations on one scientific path, scientists needed to come up with another route to the same goal. It now sounds like they found it. Huzzahs to everyone (Memo to the Communications Director: Bush should give a speech on this taking his share of the credit).

So now let's assume the best case scenario. Let's assume that creating embryos to destroy them is no longer "necessary" for the relevant science to proceed. As this truth sinks in, suddenly a lot more people are going to concede that there's something immoral or at least icky about creating embryos just to cannibalize their parts. Of course, because of the abortion debate, we won't get anything like unanimity on this point (some pro-choicers will never concede that there's much moral worth to embryos). But, since it's not necessary to create the embryos in order to proceed with stem cell research, most people will be much more likely to condemn the very idea of creating big eugenicky labs full of embryos. Imagine what a pro-life Hollywood could do with such dystopian fodder.

Or to change the example, look at child labor. America banned child labor only after mechanization, industrialization and education had progressed to a point where most people didn't need to put their kids to work. Once the necessity was gone for most Americans — particularly urban Americans — the ability to condemn the last vestiges of the practice as immoral increased enormously (which is why it was banned only when the practice had almost died out). As a philosophical point, if child labor is evil, it should have been more evil when, say, 95% of kids worked in dangerous conditions. And yet, socially and politically, the opposite was the case. Only when a mere 5% worked in dangerous conditions did the public suddenly become shocked that it was happening at all. In other words, only when kids don't need to work does it seem wrong to put them to work. Similarly, only when you don't need to create embryos to poach stem cells can a consensus form around the proposition that it is evil to create them to poach stem cells.

This is a very Whiggish point I'm making here about the nature of moral progress — or the perception of it — but I think it's really just a fascinating topic (with implications for everything from war to torture to even gay marriage) even if I'm not explaining it as well as I'd like. Perhaps some day.

My Sunday school class this past week was on our strategies of self-deception and rationalization to excuse our sin; I think I'll revisit the topic with Goldberg's post in hand.

19 November 2007

Diseased Are The Meek.

From a review by Frederick C. Crews in the
New York Review of Books:

During the summer of 2002, The Oprah Winfrey Show was graced by a visit from Ricky Williams, the Heisman Trophy holder and running back extraordinaire of the Miami Dolphins. Williams was there to confess that he suffered from painful and chronic shyness. Oprah and her audience were, of course, sympathetic. If Williams, who had been anything but shy on the football field, was in private a wilting violet, how many anonymous citizens would say the same if they could only overcome their inhibition long enough to do so?

To expose one's shyness to what Thoreau once called the broad, flapping American ear would itself count, one might think, as disproof of its actual sway over oneself. But football fans knew that Ricky Williams was no voluble Joe Namath. Nevertheless, there he was before the cameras, evidently risking an anxiety attack for the greater good—namely, the cause of encouraging fellow sufferers from shyness to come out of the closet, seek one another's support, and muster hope that a cure for their disability might soon be found.

Little of what we see on television, however, is quite what it seems. Williams had an incentive—the usual one in our republic, money—for overmastering his bashfulness on that occasion. The pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), through its public relations firm, Cohn & Wolfe, was paying him a still undisclosed sum, not to tout its antidepressant Paxil but simply to declare, to both Oprah and the press, "I've always been a shy person."

To understand why this was considered a worthwhile outlay, we need to know that the drug makers earn their enormous profits from a very few market-leading products for which new applications are continually sought. If those uses don't turn up through experimentation or serendipity, they can be conjured by means of "condition branding"—that is, coaching the masses to believe that one of their usual if stressful states actually partakes of a disorder requiring medication. A closely related term is more poetical: "astroturfing," or the priming of a faux-grassroots movement from which a spontaneous-looking demand for the company's miracle cure will emanate.

In this instance Cohn & Wolfe, whose other clients have included Coca-Cola, Chevron Texaco, and Taco Bell, was using an athlete to help create a belief that shyness, a common trait that some societies associate with good manners and virtue, constitutes a deplorably neglected illness. Given the altruistic aura of the occasion, it would have been tasteless to have Ricky Williams display a vial of Paxil on the spot. But later (before he was suspended from the football league for ingesting quite different drugs), a GSK press release placed his name beneath this boilerplate declaration:

As someone who has suffered from social anxiety disorder, I am so happy that new treatment options, like Paxil CR, are available today to help people with this condition.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in this episode, but that is just why it bears mentioning. Most of us naively regard mental disturbances, like physical ones, as timeless realities that our doctors address according to up-to-date research, employing medicines whose appropriateness and safety have been tested and approved by a benignly vigilant government. Here, however, we catch a glimpse of a different world in which convictions, perceived needs, and choices regarding health care are manufactured along with the products that will match them.

Here's the whole thing.


The Church of Dunder-Mifflin.

In the course of an essay about Episcopal Church divisions, Andrew Goddard quotes the following from a biography of Gene Robinson:
[Bishop Theuner] told an amusing story from his early days as a bishop, when a group of bishops were invited to spend time with the American Management Association in New York over a period of several months. The AMA had never worked with a group of religious leaders before, and the man in charge finally told them, "We’ve tried to tailor a program specifically for you, and we’ve tried to match it up with our normal experience in the business world, and we’ve determined that the category you come closest to, in terms of what we’ve done before, is "regional managers of a small corporation."
Explains a lot.
Here's the whole thing.
Via TitusOneNine.

17 November 2007

Meanwhile, On The Road To Damascus...

On Opinion Journal, Christine Rosen very briefly compares and contrasts some conversion narratives:

The most persuasive conversion narratives recount not merely emotional surrenders to faith but also intellectual grapplings with it. Although devout atheists would vehemently disagree, the conversions of men like Mr. Lewis, Dr. Collins and even, perhaps, Mr. Flew reveal that intelligent people--trained in rigorous fields such as philosophy and the hard sciences--can embrace faith and tell persuasive stories without extremes of emotional flagellation. The Road to Damascus is paved with theology not therapy.


15 November 2007

Best Books.

Amazon's Best of 2007.

After a quick brain rummage, I think Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows is the only 2007 book I've read (not the only book I've read in 2007). Well, there was Jesus & the Eyewitnesses, which I read a lot of.

Rockin' In The Free World.

President and Mrs. Bush today presented the National Medals for the Arts & Humanities. Among those honored:
Les Paul. (Applause.) The 2007 National Medal of Arts to Les Paul for his innovation as a musician, his pioneering designs of the electric guitar, and his groundbreaking recording techniques that have influenced the development of American jazz, blues, and pop music, and inspired generations of guitarists. (Applause.)
Here's the whole thing.

12 November 2007

The 7 Deadly Sins In Their Mutual Relations.

I've been teaching a Sunday School class on the Seven Deadly Sins, so I was delighted to come across the above bit of wise wimsy by Jessica Hagy, which could keep the discussion going for another month or so of Sundays. Via Alan Jacobs.

That You May Obtain The Glory Of Christ.

Proper 27, Yr. C
2 Thes 2.13-3.5
11 November 2007
Church of the Holy Communion
The Rev’d Patrick S. Allen

+ + +

Today, as you no doubt are aware, is Veterans Day – a day set aside to honor and express our gratitude to and for those who have given of themselves to the service of our nation in the Armed Forces. Thinking about Veterans Day brought to mind an essay I recently read, an essay occasioned by the posthumous awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Navy Lt. Patrick Murphy, who, with great courage and full understanding of what he was doing, laid down his own life to save the lives of the Navy Seals in his squad, high in the mountains of Afghanistan. After detailing Lt. Murphy’s heroic acts, the author – a captain in the 82nd Airborne, as it happens – had this to say:

What makes men like Lt. Murphy do such extraordinary things? In the U.S. military, we often say, “Drive on.” We say this in myriad settings to convey in two simple words that difficulties must be overcome. It means that you never quit, that you keep going, that you always find the will to accomplish your mission. The military teaches and endlessly develops the will of its members to drive on. Combat is hard—much, much harder than most people ever realize. . . The only way to win is to drive on, even—and even especially—when you don’t think you can go any further.[i]

So today we are grateful for our veterans who found the courage and the will to “drive on,” even – and even especially – when it didn’t seem possible to go any further. Considering this kind of will and courage gives us perhaps a bit of insight into this morning’s epistle lesson, in which St. Paul writes to the young church at Thessalonica, encouraging them, essentially, to “drive on.” He writes because they are down, discouraged, even despondent; they are losing hope. So much so that some are abandoning their new faith in Jesus Christ, the faith they had received from St. Paul and his fellow missionaries. But Paul encourages them; he urges them to hold on, to “drive on,” and not to give in to doubt and despair: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us. But Paul’s ringing “Stand firm” is not just more hollow encouragement, nor is it some grim stoic incentive to bear up manfully under difficult circumstances. No, he gives them something they can use, a truth they can hold on to that will fill them with confidence and courage and even joy, despite all that is arrayed against them.

Before looking at the content of that encouragement, it’s worth looking at what it is that stands against the Thessalonian church, at the forces pressuring them into abandoning the cause of Christ.

Well, if you were to sit down this afternoon and read both these epistles to the Thessalonians, which wouldn’t take more than half an hour, several of problems would be apparent. For instance, it seems that some from the local Thessalonican synagogue had questioned Paul’s credentials and integrity. In that day, as in our own, there were any number of huckster preachers and teachers who sought to enrich themselves by pulling in the gullible with wise-sounding but specious words. Some apparently charged that this new faith in Jesus as God’s messiah was simply the product of Paul’s fevered and fertile imagination. Beyond that, following Christ meant a new and different way of life, adhering to a higher and stricter moral code, and so there was considerable pressure to return to a more lax pagan sexual lifestyle. And beyond this cultural pressure, they had doctrinal questions as well, and not due solely to the distortions of false teachers. Indeed, they were confused by some of the teaching of Paul himself – certainly we can relate! Paul had told them the return of Christ in glory was imminent. Well, where was he? What was the hold up? And what about those brothers and sisters who had died? Having died prior to Christ’s return, what would become of them? What could it possibly mean to have a resurrection body? And finally, there is evidence of some persecution of this young church, and this is not surprising. Flannery O’Connor paraphrased Jesus and said, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Knowing the truth – knowing Jesus – had made these first generation Christians, among other things, odd. And anyone who has lived through middle school knows what the odd are in for. There is incredible pressure – implicit, explicit, and sometimes violent – to conform. Following Christ then as now meant living against the grain, swimming against the tide.

In short, this church 2,000 years ago felt all the same pressures we do. They had all the same reasons to give in, to ease their own way by conforming to the world rather than being transformed by the Gospel. And to them and to us, Paul doesn’t give hollow encouragement but real help. He gives a job to do, but also the tools to do it with.

So what does Paul give them? Well, he does not give them a discipline to practice; he does not give them a mantra to repeat – “All is well, all is well.” Instead, he gives them a short course in theology.

I used to look occasionally at a magazine called Credenda/Agenda. We all know what an “agenda” is. “Agenda” is just a Latin word that means “things to be done.” Similarly, “credenda” just means something like “things to be believed.” And the magazine title got the order just right, the same order that St. Paul always used. First comes the credenda – that which is to be believed – and only then comes the agenda – that which is to be done.

And the theology, the credenda, that Paul gives doesn’t just tell us what to do, it actually gives power to do it. Remember what Paul says: “So then, brethren, stand firm.” That phrase we have translated as “so then” in Greek always introduces a logical necessity, an inescapable conclusion. What Paul has just told them leads, and leads necessarily, to stability of life and faith despite all the pressures brought to bear by the world, the flesh, and the devil – if we will believe and live it.

So, what did Paul tell them? He gives thanks for the Thessalonians, because, he says,

“God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our Gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now there is a lot there. In two sentences, Paul has given us an entire system of theology. A system of theology that teaches us that God has destined his faithful people for glory. All that we have been through, all that we are going through, all that we ever will go through, God is bending and using and redeeming for this purpose: that we might “obtain to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is for this that God has chosen and sanctified and called us by the Gospel.

Now, how does this work? How does this bedrock truth, this bit of theology, this credendum, lead, and necessarily lead, to stability and fixity of purpose?

It does so because it allows us to take our eyes of ourselves, off of our own wavering and faltering faith, and to focus them steadily on our God who is faithful, in whom there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”[ii] It teaches us to see our emotional highs and lows for what they are –temporary, subjective states, which do not alter the objective reality of what God is doing and where he is taking us. It teaches us to see that the circumstances in which we find ourselves are the arena in which, and the means by which, God is working out his purpose, “so that you may obtain to the glory of Christ.” Our circumstances, our struggles, our problems – and also our triumphs and joys – are real. Paul is not encouraging some Eastern-style detachment that says suffering is an illusion and evil unreal. Rather, while our circumstances may, and at some point certainly will, involve us in deep suffering and real evil, Paul would have us remember that our circumstances are not ultimate; instead, they are means which God is using to prepare us to share in the eternal life of the Blessed Trinity. Suffering is not the last word. Glory is.

In his wonderful little book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis gives us a wise insight in the form of some advice from a very senior, experienced devil giving advice to a younger, rookie devil in how to tempt a man to hell. The man in question has fallen in love, and the junior devil wants to know how to make use of this circumstance for his diabolical ends. But Screwtape cautions his advisee. He tells him that the circumstance of being in love, “like most of the other things the humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.”[iii]

“Mainly raw material.” In short, Paul is telling us to keep our eyes on the big picture, on the end game. Remember who called you – your loving Father. Remember who you are – his beloved child. And remember your loving Father’s plan and purpose – “that you may obtain to the glory of Christ.”

And, then, stand firm.

+ + +

[i] http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=888
[ii] James 1.17
[iii] Screwtape Letters, Ch. XIX


Music Unites, Music Divides.

A little more re church music, from the eminent church historian Mark Noll in Books & Culture:

Moviegoers who are conscious of connections between the scores they hear and what they are watching on the screen know that Martin Luther once caught it exactly: "For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate … , what more effective means than music could you find?" We are what we sing, the music we listen to regularly, the music we instinctively like, the music that brings tears to our eyes or a charge of energy to our spirits, the music that expresses our deepest longings and strongest loyalties.

Scripture recognizes the cultural depth of music by simply accepting and recording its fundamental importance—from Genesis 4:21 (with the throwaway reference to Jubal, "the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe") to Revelation, where the living creatures surround the throne of God and sing "day and night without ceasing … 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come'" (4:8) while every creature, "myriads of myriads and thousands and thousands" sing "with full voice, 'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!'" (5:11-12). Yet in the book of Revelation it is noteworthy that when the great gathering of the redeemed is described—"from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages"—this gathering is said to "cry out" its praise ("Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" [7:9-10]), while in the same scene the angels around the throne are said to "sing" ("Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen" [7:11-12]).

Imagine a fully harmonious and spiritually edifying service of Christian worship where new Christian believers played Palestrina on the indigenous musical instruments of Burkina Faso.

Too much should not be made of the difference between "crying out" praise and "singing" praise. But it does point to the fact that singing is a special challenge when Christian believers gather from every land and tongue or, we might say, from every culture or even subculture. The new Christian music of Andean, Thai, Tanzanian, or Mongolian congregations can be jarring to most believers from the West, even as Western hymnody can be as alien to those congregations as Western individualism, Western economics, or Western clothing (culture vs. culture). Likewise the contemporary praise of Hillsong can sound like an unintelligible musical tongue to believers whose roots are deep in Charles Wesley or John Newton, and vice versa (subculture vs. subculture). In these and many other occasions of musical disharmony, we see again the countervailing realities that have long marked Christian song: music is an exceedingly powerful medium for securing Christianity in a community; different forms of music are one of the most obvious manifestations keeping worshiping communities apart. Explaining why both realities exist requires attention to several theological truths.

Here's the whole thing.

07 November 2007

Bad Religion, Bad Rock & Roll.

Because it expresses everything I have to say on the subject, I cut and paste an entire post from Alan Jacobs over on the American Scene:

“There has been enormous growth in the evangelical Protestant movement in America over the last 25 years, and bands in large, modern, nondenominational churches — some would say megachurches — like this one, 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, now provide one of the major ways that Americans hear live music.” From the NYT.

Hank Hill’s line is still definitive: “You’re not making Christianity better, you’re making rock and roll worse!”


06 November 2007

Sex & The Resurrection Body.

Lauren Winner reviews Courtney Martin's Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters and Beth Felker Jones' Marks of His Wounds: Gender Politics and Bodily Resurrection, which seems especially to offer fresh "of the body" theologizing:

Jones' starting point for a sanctified embodiment is the resurrected body of Christ; thus, her work creatively departs from many recent theologies of the body that begin with Creation. Indeed, insofar as Jones argues that "our bodies now must refer to the resurrection bodies to come," Marks of His Wounds offers a fresh answer to a set of centuries-old questions about bodily integrity and resurrection. Jones' central interest is in the perdurance of specific, material difference in resurrected bodies. She notes that Christ's resurrected body bore his particular wounds; analogously, our resurrected bodies will have particular marks, too. Specifically, she draws on Augustine and Calvin to argue that resurrected bodies will be gendered. Sex differences are natural (there is a bit of confusing slippage between "sex" and "gender" in Jones' account), and thus they will persist, transformed, in resurrected bodies. (Jones takes pains to note that gender is simply a "test case"—it is not necessarily the only particularity that will persist in our resurrected bodies.)

Here, Jones is arguing not only with many early church fathers but also with contemporary scholars such as Sarah Coakley, in whose work Jones finds a worrying "shadow of flight from the messiness of physicality." Hence Jones' last chapter explores how people anticipating gendered resurrected bodies ought to live now. Recognizing that the reification of embodied differences—including sex differences—has often led to abuse and oppression, Jones argues forcefully that her claims about embodied difference need not lead to violence: difference, in fact, is integral to peace, because without difference "the concept of peace is vacant."

. . .

The best books spark wide-ranging conversations and leave the reader with new questions, so to wish that Jones had gone or will go further with these lines of inquiry is merely to acknowledge what she has already accomplished: inviting us to face the brokenness of our bodies—not least the ways the world's brokenness gets written on the bodies of "starving daughters"—and to inhabit the knowledge that "redemption happens through the body." It happens here and now, prompting us daily to practice a distinctively eschatological embodiment, one that can witness to a world hungry for the Bread of Life.

Here's the whole thing.

05 November 2007

Of The Road To Hell.

From the November parish newsletter:

The road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. I have no shortage of good intentions; indeed, each time I approach the Sacrament, following the words of the Prayer Book, I make a firm intention (at least I intend to make a firm intention), “to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and [to walk] from henceforth in his holy ways.” But now it’s Monday morning, I’m under-caffeinated, my intentions are inconvenient, and hell looms on the horizon. Good intentions abound, but how to make the transition from intention to actual obedience? Too often, knowing what we ought to do is not the problem; rather, lack of motivation is.

Love is the answer, and those great spiritual directors Tom Petty and St. Paul tell us how it works. In “The Waiting,” Petty croons about the change that came when, after having had lots of mere girlfriends, he found his true love – a change that transformed intention into action. To that love he sings, “but you’re the only one who has ever known how/ to make me want to live like I want to live.” A noble and good life had been a nice idea, a fine theory, a good intention. But now, love has changed him, there is someone to be good for, someone to whom to offer a good life.

Is not this what the Gospel – “the power of God unto salvation” – does in and through us? Again, as St. Paul argues in the first chapters of Romans, ignorance of life’s “oughts” is not the problem, “for what the law requires is written on [our] hearts” (2.15). But the Gospel enters love into the equation, love which brings life. Having been loved beyond our knowing or worthiness – “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (3.21) – now there is Someone for whom to live well, Someone to whom offer one’s life in love and gratitude. Love changes everything. “Therefore,” says Paul, “in view of the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable” (12.1).

Though it may be true in theory that virtue is its own reward, being good just to be good can be a bother. Or, as someone else has said, “discipline without desire is drudgery.” But love is a motivating force that trumps drudgery by arousing desire; it makes me “want to live like I want to live,” to offer my body as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable.”


Of All Saints.

All Saints’ Day
St. Matthew 5.1-12

Church of the Holy Communion
Fr. Patrick Allen

everal years ago, at the height of the media furor concerning the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in America, without in the least denying the horror and pervasive evil of what had gone on, Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete managed to put the matter into some historical perspective. He said,

“If, in addition to all the terrible things we have learned, it was revealed tomorrow that the Pope had a harem, that all the cardinals had made money on Enron stock and were involved in Internet porn, then the situation of the Church today would be similar to the situation of the Church in the late twelfth century when Francis of Assisi first kissed a leper.

His point was simply this: that the Church is always renewed and revived by her saints – that is, by sinners who in the power of the Spirit respond to the call to holiness, the call to be saints. And that call goes out even and especially today. On the outside, “the fields are white unto harvest.” A broken and despairing world aches to hear, and even more to see enacted, the Gospel of peace and life. On the inside, as the hymn says, we see the Church “oppressed, by schism rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” We need saints.

So who are these saints?

In the Bible’s way of speaking, all of Jesus’ disciples, the whole company of sinners redeemed, are called sanctoi – holy ones – in English, “saints.” But in its worshipping life, the Church recognizes some from among that “great cloud of witnesses” who have lived lives – and very often died deaths – of heroic virtue, who have been extraordinarily faithful in extraordinary times. To these, who have passed from this present darkness into the Beatific Vision, and intercede for us there, we give a title of love and honor: “Saint.” Throughout the year we set aside days for their commemoration, and just to make sure we don’t miss any, we set aside this day, this All Saints’ Day.

We call them “saints.” We give them a title of love and honor, but love and honor very often – indeed, characteristically – were precisely what was denied the saints in the time of their earthly lives. We need only read our Lord’s description of his blessed ones to see that this is so, and is so by definition. He paints a portrait of them for us in the Beatitudes. They are poor in spirit; they mourn and are meek; they hunger and thirst for righteousness and are merciful. They are pure in heart in world that rewards subterfuge and false witness and spur-of-the-moment ethics. And though they would be and are peacemakers, they find themselves persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

In other words, the saints tend to be this world’s last and least – or at least they make themselves so for the sake of the Gospel. But it is the nature of the Gospel and of the Kingdom of God to enact a great reversal. “Things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.” And the last and least become in God’s Kingdom the first and foremost. And so, to take one not so random example, a poor unwed mother in a rural backwater of the Roman Empire is made Queen of Heaven, and brings in her train all those who with her have said “no” self and “yes” to: “be it unto me according to thy word.” As Fr. Clarke reminded us at Mass this morning, the saints are that diverse and motley crew who have staked their all on God’s love; they are the ones who have been, we might even say, literalists about God’s fidelity to his own Word, to his promises, which in Christ are always “yea and amen.” And so for love’s sake, they were poor and meek and mourning… and so on.

Jesus paints their portrait in the words of the Beatitudes – and as we look at that portrait, and as we look at the vast sweep of that multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and polyglot company of white-robed prophets, apostles, and martyrs, “drawn from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” – as we gaze at that portrait, do we not see a single, glorious profile emerging? It’s like one of those “magic paintings” which, if you look at it long enough, you will begin to see another and truer image emerging from beneath the surface image. And we should expect that to be the case. For, as St. Paul tells us, using the strongest possible language to describe God’s sovereign and resolute purpose: “Those whom he foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

“The image of his Son,” our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That – He – is what the Communion of Saints is about. The Saints are to be praised because they reflect his image and reveal him to us, with their prayers and by their example. So look again at the portrait and see whose profile emerges

He became poor, so that we might become rich.

He mourned inconsolably, so that we might be comforted.

He became meek – “like a lamb that before its shearers is mute, so he opened not his mouth” – so that we might inherit the earth.

He hungered and thirsted – he cried out from the cross, “I thirst” – so that we might be filled with righteousness.

He received no mercy, so that we might receive mercy.

The Father was hidden from him – he cried out, “My God, my god, why has thou forsaken me” – so that we might see God and become pure in heart.

He found no peace, but instead made peace by the blood of his cross, drawing into one things earthly and heavenly.*

Friends, that is a love worth joining the saints and staking our lives on. His are promises to trust, promises that transform. In the Prayer Book there is a collect “for heroic service,” appropriate for Veterans Day and Memorial Day and other similar occasions. It contains a wonderful phrase. It gives thanks for “those who in the day of decision ventured much.” Friends, today – All Saints’ Day – is the day of decision. The Saints call us to join them in the adventure of faith, reviving and renewing the Church to be a sign of Christ’s love in and for the world, and to cry out with them, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” +++

*This Christological reading of the Beatitudes from the Rev'd Dr. Timothy Keller, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York.