Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Emperors and their power

We just spent nine days in Paris, which yielded any number of theological reflections. It was good to see banners on the facades of parish churches proclaiming that "Christ est ressuscité! Alléluia!"

There was a stunning exhibition at the Grand Palais called "Moi, Auguste," which to an English speaker sounds funny in French (I have never forgotten Clarence Day's hilarious take on the Bible in French; for that matter, ressuscité doesn't quite do it for me). However that may be, this announcement is taken from a Latin inscription which begins, "I, Augustus, emperor of Rome..." The theme of this exceptional exhibition was the achievement of Octavian (Augustus Caesar) in stabilizing and unifying the Roman Empire under his "godlike" leadership while making an effort to preserve the values of republican Rome, or to pretend to do so. The artifacts had been collected from all over, especially from Rome, the Louvre, Pompeii, and Naples, but other European locales as well -- even Denmark! -- and needless to say had never been collected all together in one place before. An extraordinary curatorial success. When in Rome I had of course seen some of the objects, notably the statues of Augustus of the Prima Porta and Augustus in his priestly garb, but the extent of the statuary, coinage, inscriptions, and objets d'art from daily life gathered together was instructive to the highest degree. The way the story was told was as accomplished as I have ever seen in any museum exhibition. I had seen and heard most of it in Rome, certainly, but having it all put together in one place with a single narrative arc, brilliantly carried through, intensified the effect exponentially. It was like experiencing Augustus' reign oneself--the emperor's image everywhere, on everything, instantly recognizable by everyone in every far-flung corner of the empire, benevolent and "august." It didn't come across at all like Chairman Mao or "Dear Leader"--not to me, anyway.

Even granted the idealization, Octavian must have been good-looking, and the way his hair is arranged became a trademark that everyone can recognize even today. His political skills were amazing. The whole project is quite awe-inspiring. I am amused to remember how, when I was a young person studying "c.c." (classical civilization) in college, and again later when my mother and I spent two weeks in Greece, I snubbed Roman and Hellenistic statuary. Now the Greek statues that I used to adore seem a bit too pretty.

Granting all this, let's think about what it was like for the earliest Christians. It is somewhat analogous to the situation of the Hebrews when they were in exile in Babylon, but perhaps not so much, because the Pax Romana brought with it certain values that even today seem admirable, and Augustus was at pains to give the impression of beneficence. The point is that the Christian refusal to say Kurios Kaisar  (Caesar is Lord) was truly extraordinary under the circumstances. Augustus was dead at the time of the resurrection of Christ, but he had succeeded in apotheosizing himself and his wife Livia (as the exhibition makes clear) and the far-reaching nature of his accomplishments penetrated every corner of the empire. According to Robert Wilken's classic, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, the Christians were thought to be unforgivably irreligious because they were turning away from the traditional pietas that every good Roman accepted, even embraced, as the foundation of public life--so much so that the Christians were sometimes even considered to be atheists! (Julian the Apostate: see Wilken, p. 176, Yale paperback edition)

At the time of the crucifixion, the emperor was Tiberius, and when Christianity became a force to be reckoned with, it was Nero. I found this, by R. C. Sproul, online:
[Rome] tried to enforce a loyalty oath to the emperor cult of religion, in which all people were required to recite the phrase kaisar kurios — “Caesar is lord.” The Christians responded by showing every possible form of civil obedience, by paying their taxes, by honoring the king, by being model citizens; but they could not in good conscience obey the mandate of Caesar to proclaim him lord. Their response to the loyalty oath, kaisar kurios, was as profound in its ramifications as it was simple in its expression, Jesus ho kurios, Jesus is Lord. The lordship of Jesus is not simply a hope of Christians that someday might be realized; it is a truth that has already taken place. It is the task of the church to bear witness to that invisible kingdom, or as Calvin put it, it is the task of the church to make the invisible kingdom of Christ visible. Though invisible, it is nevertheless real. 
Therefore, it became clear that Christianity really was a threat to the foundations of the Empire. Is this not still the question for us today? What is the foundation of the Kingdom of God? when does it become impossible to reconcile the rule of Christ with the claims of earthly rule?

At St Thomas Fifth Avenue, it has been the custom for some years to sing the Latin anthem Christus vincit! Christus regnat!, Christus imperat! (loosely translated "Christ has conquered, Christ reigns, Christ [alone] is Emperor") every year on Easter Sunday. It was smashingly arranged by Gerre Hancock, of St Thomas, from a French tune by Joseph Noyon.  It certainly made an overwhelming impression on me this year. Don't try it on YouTube! the version that pops up first is by a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia and it's deplorable--the ushers are taking up the collection while it's being sung by the choir. I am a crypto-Presbyterian, but musically they can really screw it up...It ought to be an act of worship that lifts the whole congregation to the throne of God. At St Thomas it is sung standing by choir and congregation as a response to the reading of the resurrection message from the Gospel.

As I went from room to room at the Augustus exhibition, the tune with the trumpets and timpani kept ringing through my head. What does it mean to affirm that the true Emperor is Christ?

The Roman Catholic Right in the US is taking off after Pope Francis for being too humble (mock-humble, some say on their blogs). He has been insisting that the gospel must be offered in welcoming and embracing terms. That is true, of course. The Church must never return to the Crusader-Inquisitorial mentality. Given the fact that such a mentality runs deep in human nature, it's essential to be ever-militant against it (see how easy it is to slip into military imagery?). However, to move away altogether from saying that Jesus is Lord, as some would have us do, is to renounce the title that St Paul uses more than any other for his Savior and ours. More, to reject the title Kurios (Imperator) is to betray the gospel precisely in its geo-political, cosmic significance. During the struggle against apartheid, Desmond Tutu never stopped reminding his people that "I've read the end of the book! We win!"

This brings me back to another experience in Paris, at the interdenominational American Church (not to be confused with the lovely Episcopal/Anglican American Cathedral, which is only a few blocks away). Go to Paris to learn about Rome, go to Paris to hear a singing group from Old Saybrook, Connecticut, just up I-95 from us! The group was called Con Brio and it certainly lives up to its name. Among other numbers they did a terrific rendition of "The Great Gettin' Up Morning"...I'd almost call it apocalyptic.  Just as good, and just as infectious, was the one with the refrain, "Sing to the power of the Lord come down...praise his Name, praise his Holy Name." What a great motto for preachers that would be! Sing to the power of the Lord come down.

Every day I do my back exercises while listening to "Morning Edition" on NPR. That's a problem on Sunday, because the only thing available on NPR at that time is "On Being," the syncretistic talk show hosted by Krista Tippett who seems to have a rule against inviting anyone to talk about Christian theology. The morning after we returned from Paris, she had a guest who kept talking about "the power of possibility." That's a perfect description of most of the preaching that I hear as I travel about the church. J. Louis Martyn, one of my most important professors and an acknowledged giant among interpreters of St Paul, taught his students always to substitute the word "power" when we were tempted to talk about "possibility" in connection with the story of God in Jesus Christ. I prepare to vanish until mid-July when, God willing, I will have finished my project of 18 years' work, my book about the Crucifixion, I close with these two clarion calls:

Sing to the power of the Lord come down!

Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

This should give preachers a shot of adrenaline

Before I go into complete seclusion to finish my book about interpreting the Crucifixion, I would like to commend an outstanding article about preaching. It was written by Joseph Mangina, the very able (and very popular with students) professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto School of Theology. This is the best short analysis of the current state of preaching that I know, and it provides a point of view from which preachers who would like to present the gospel more powerfully can learn. Mangina argues that a thorough overhaul of expectations is needed both from preacher and from listeners, and indicates how that can actually become a reality. It is a polemical article, with significant criticism of the state that preaching has gotten into, but it is also a very hopeful one because of the faith it exhibits in the power of the Word to draw us all into the new world that is set forth in the Bible.
Rather than give a link, I am simply reproducing the article here in toto (it originally appeared in the January 1, 2012 issue of The Living Church).

Getting People Into the Story
On Not Getting Anything Out of Sermons

By Joseph Mangina

This past summer I had an interesting email exchange with a theologian friend at another institution, someone I’ve known since our days together in graduate school. We got to talking about the state of contemporary preaching. My friend asked the arresting question: “How do we get preachers to get people into the story rather than trying to get something out of it?” How, in other words, do we convince seminarians, priests, and pastors that the Bible is not a resource to be accessed but a world to be entered into? That to ask the question of the Bible’s “relevance” is to commit a terrific category error, since the Bible does not want to be relevant to our concerns, but to make us relevant to its concerns?
My friend went on to say:

Hans Frei [of Yale] once told me that you can always tell which direction of interpretation is operative in any sermon you hear. And I would add (what he was too tactful to say) that the wrong direction of interpretation is unutterably boring. And further, in my experience, pastors (like everyone else) either “get” this or they don’t. So the pedagogy to instill this is going to have to aim at a kind of intellectual/theological conversion, a moment when people just “get it,” after which they have no interest in looking back.

He could not have been more right, first, about the “unutterably boring” character of much preaching. It is sad but true that a lot of contemporary preaching manages to be neither orthodox nor heretical, but simply mind-numbingly dull. The reason this is so, I think, is that our culture is already awash in self-help programs, so that when the preacher stands up and offers more of the same it is just not that interesting. What the pastor has to tell us we have already heard many times on Oprah.
Second, however, my friend was right that people either tend to grasp this point … or they do not. The pragmatic (and unutterably boring) approach to preaching has the character of a “paradigm,” in the sense popularized by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. We cannot just think our way out of it, because it provides the very framework of our thinking. Preaching should be experiential, pragmatic, and purpose-driven. This thought is so deeply woven into the fabric of North American Christianity that we can hardly imagine it should be otherwise. The sermon must always have something useful in it, some moral or lesson that people can “take home with them.” What else would it be good for?
But now let us suppose that all this is deeply misguided. Imagine that we have caught a glimpse of another reality, another world. Suddenly we grasp that the Bible is not about human doings and human problems. It is not really about us at all, but about God. And because it is about God it has its own weird logic, expressed in a strange, wonderful vocabulary — words like election, creation, flesh, spirit, grace, law, apocalypse. Instead of just another self-help manual, the Bible offers us something far more interesting — an account of life, the only life indeed that is worth having; life that comes from God and leads to God. Hearing of such a life, who would not be willing to surrender everything in exchange?
This is, to be sure, a theologian’s way of expressing the matter. To which the working priest or pastor may be forgiven for replying, “Yes, but does it preach?” True, the sermon is ultimately — is essentially — about God. But it is also spoken to the assembly and to the particular people within it. The preacher cannot simply dwell in the lectionary text, but must take the risk of interpreting the text for “Mrs. Murphy,” as the great Benedictine scholar Aidan Kavanaugh liked to put it. Kavanaugh was speaking of liturgy, but his counsel applies equally well to the sermon. If the sermon does not address the needs of Mrs. Murphy, it is hard to see why we should even bother.
I will bend on this point, but I will not break. Yes, of course the text must be interpreted for the hearers. Yes, of course the preacher must venture into the world in front of the text, the world of our hopes, fears, desires, longings, and secret guilts. This is harder work than it sounds. There is a certain kind of “biblical preaching” that rests content with an easy, obvious paraphrase of Scripture; that takes no risks, and that therefore reaps few rewards. It is not simply that such a preacher has expounded the text but ignored the world, but has not even expounded the text. “Truth” in preaching is not just fidelity to the Bible, it is the two-edged sword of the Word disclosing how things really stand with us. To use technical language, there is no real explicatio or meditatio without applicatio.
All this is perfectly true. Awareness of context, knowledge of one’s hearers, a certain political and cultural sensitivity — all these are essential items in the preacher’s toolkit. Yet they are not the main thing. God is the main thing. God is what your congregation expects to hear from you, not your jokes or political commentary or stories about your children. I will even call Mrs. Murphy as my witness here. Aidan Kavanagh’s point about Mrs. Murphy was not, as we might think, that we should revise the liturgy to make her feel more at home. Quite the opposite: Mrs. Murphy knows what the liturgy is about — mystery, sacrifice, grace, God — far better than many a learned liturgist. The scholar wants the liturgy to be more user-friendly while Mrs. Murphy wants to adore the Trinity. We had better not, then, condescend to Mrs. Murphy.
The same thing applies to preaching. If we step into the pulpit worried about what the congregation or we ourselves can “get out of it,” the battle is already lost. As my friend put it, our primary task is to get into the story — the story of the God who creates from nothing and who justifies the ungodly. One contemporary preacher has laid down the homiletical rule that God needs to be the subject of the verbs. The worry this evokes — that there will be nothing left for us to “do” — betrays a deep misunderstanding, for among the chief things God creates from nothing are empowered human agents. If we begin with God’s agency, then human agency will inevitably follow, whereas the opposite is not the case. This is the very logic of divine election.
One easy way to make God disappear from a sermon is to focus on the gospel text for the day. I know this sounds strange, even blasphemous. Is not preaching about Jesus preaching about God? In principle, yes; in practice, often no. The problem is the use we make of the reading. Because the gospel comes in narrative form — generally some story concerning Jesus and his disciples — it is perilously easy to turn it into a moral or religious object lesson. Poor old Peter, wanting to build those booths for Elijah and Moses and Jesus! Doesn’t he know that eventually you have to come down off the mountaintop? The lesson here is “incarnate your faith in everyday life.” Dear misguided James and John, jostling for the best seats in the kingdom! Don’t they understand what Jesus had to say about humility? The lesson here is “be more humble” or “recognize God’s special love for the lowly.”
These things are true, of course. It is good to come down off the mountaintop, just as it is good to be humble. Certainly part of what is going on in Matthew 20 (on James and John) is a commendation of humility. Yet to remain at this level is to rest content with mainly an image of Jesus as teacher. Surely the most interesting thing about both these passages is what God is doing in Jesus to enact the kingdom. The Transfiguration is not about mountaintop experiences, but about the Law and the Prophets bearing witness to the Son. Likewise, the reason James and John must learn humility is because the Father hides his mysteries from the wise and understanding and reveals them to babes (Matt. 11:25). Humility is an eschatological virtue. Notice how the text from Matthew 20 opens up only when we situate it within the larger, apocalyptic story told by Matthew. “Moralizing” sermons are often the result of not having done our homework. Baffled as to what we should say, we default to exhortation. Be more humble! Have more faith! Love God better!
Well, we should love God better. But if it is really God we would love, we must be willing to move beyond our homiletical comfort zones. Two good rules of thumb might be: “Embrace the Old Testament” and “Dare to engage Paul.” In my experience, Anglican preachers tend to avoid the Old Testament, or touch on it only lightly, as background material for the gospel. The reasons for this are obvious. The Old Testament is hard. It is even frightening. This is true despite the best efforts of our lectionary-makers, who, Mrs. Grundy-like, leave out the most offensive bits. All these are reasons to claim the Old Testament as our own. Many people who have been attending church for years really have no idea why these books are in our Bible. Ignoring Israel’s Scriptures will simply confirm their worst suspicions. Moreover, the Old Testament is not just scary, it is majestic and glorious and not least exciting. The priest who decided to preach through the David cycle, say, would command the attention of the congregation. They would come back each Sunday just to find out what happens next.
The same is true of preaching on Paul, often ignored because he is seen as forbiddingly theological and abstract. Like the Old Testament, Paul is “difficult.” But he is difficult because he is wrestling with the questions that really matter. Life, death; spirit, flesh; sin, grace; suffering, hope. And at the center of it all, a determination to “[know] nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Moreover, the rumors of Paul’s supposed abstractness are greatly exaggerated. Paul hammered out his theology in response to the travails of his churches. He was an apostle and church-planter before he was a theologian. The letters to Galatia and Corinth, in particular, offer rich possibilities of exploring the nature of Christian mission to a pagan world, and in a situation where the church itself is badly divided. Does this sound familiar? In our current climate, nothing could be more “relevant” or “contextual” than a strong dose of Paul.
None of this is to say that we should not preach on the gospel readings. We should. But without the Old Testament and Paul — as well as, of course, the other apostolic writings — we will stand little chance of understanding the Figure who confronts us in the gospels. I often think that the problem besetting our churches is not a low Christology but a shallow one. Jesus, it is said, shows us “what God is like.” We are thus treated to an endless parade of sermons on the theme “God is love.” True enough; we have this on apostolic warrant (1 John 4:8). Yet I fear that we fail to grasp the true import of this great saying. For the apostle goes on to say: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). This is deep Christology, secured by the active verbs loves and sends. Jesus here is more than just revealer of the loving attitude of a far-away deity. In the words of Austin Farrer, he is God’s “self-enacted parable.” And more even than parable, but the divine love poured out and embodied in a particular human life, Jesus of Nazareth, Love come dangerously close, God-under-the-skin.
What can we “get” out of such a story? Not very much, if what we are looking for is homely advice for getting through the day. The advice column in the newspaper will do for that. But everything, if what we are looking for is news about God. This is what the people in our congregations — it is what we ourselves — are hungry for. This hunger for the Word can be satisfied nowhere else. It is the great privilege of the Christian minister to help people get into the story, where they can be fed and perhaps feed others in turn. What a wonderful calling. What an extraordinary gift.

Dr. Joseph Mangina is professor of systematic theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto.