Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Thoughts in Advent about war and martyrdom: The martyrs at Westminster Abbey

A friend writes that the war in Iraq is deeply moral because it is a battle for the soul of Christianity against an apostate faith. Even if we are to ignore the "politically incorrect" (to say the least) implications of this, it is an astonishing misunderstanding of the nature of Christian witness (I have responded in this vein to my friend). Christian ethics is an ethics of means. In other words, the way in which the goal, or end, is pursued is just as important as the attainment of the goal. Christian conduct, whether individual or corporate, should have a cruciform shape.

The conversion of the "heathen," as we used to call them a hundred years ago, cannot be accomplished by the sword. More to the point, it should not be. The old missionaries had it right even if they made mistakes: learn the language, live among the people, serve them, teach and persuade, set an example, and by God's grace conversion may come. This is an arduous path and has often led to martyrdom (remember that the word "martyr" and "witness" are the same). This Advent season, we will be helped in our reflections if we think about the 20th century Christian martyrs who are commemorated by new statues in the niches above the facade of Westminster Abbey (unveiled 1998).

Here is the link:

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Gospel according to Anne Rice

I don't plan to read Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (wonderful title, though). I read The DaVinci Code when I was drunk on Vicodin after surgery, and I will say this-- it distracted me from the pain. But it is without a doubt "a farrago of historical nonsense," to quote from a new Wall Street Journal review, and I will add that it is even more a farrago of artistic nonsense. (Besides, Leonardo da Vinci is not called "da Vinci." He is called Leonardo.)

Anyway, the WSJ review of the Rice book is intelligent. The writer, George Sim Johnston, seems very bright. He says that Ms. Rice, unlike the execrable Dan Brown, "has made good use of reputable sources" to construct the historical milieu for her story. He quotes Ms. Rice's afterword on the subject of the Jesus seminar, which is delicious: "The whole case for the nondivine Jesus who stumbled into Jerusalem and somehow got crucified...that whole picture which had floated around the liberal circles I frequented as an atheist for thirty years--that case was not made. Not only was it not made, I discovered in this field some of the worst and most biased scholarship I'd ever read."

The most striking part of the review, however, is Johnston's grasp of the uniqueness of the New Testament portrayal of Christ and the impossibility of constructing a "life of Jesus," not that it hasn't been tried over and over. Here is some of what he says:

"It is a foolhardy enterprise to make Jesus Christ the main protagonist of a novel. C. S. Lewis once observed that in the world's narrative literature there are three characters who come across so strongly that we need only half a quotation to identify them: Plato's Socrates, Boswell's Johnson and the Jesus of the Gospels. There is no way that even the most talented novelist can improve on the originals.

"But Christ presents unique problems, especially if you make him the narrator [as Ms. Rice has done]. Much of the power of the Gospels comes from the inaccessible distances in his personality. But these are obliterated if he tells his own story..." (emphasis added)

At the end, referring to Ms. Rice's attack on the Jesus Seminar, he concludes:

"Whatever one's final take on the events in Palestine 2000 years ago, no one should have any patience with bogus constructions of a life that in many respects split history in two. Ms. Rice, a smart student of history, is right to blow the whistle [on the revisionists]. But she may want to think twice about rewriting a story that was already well-told the first time around."

--(The Wall Street Journal, November 12-13, 2005)

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Boycott Emeril

On this blog I have written repeatedly about the disappointing lack of Christian witness at the Superdome and Convention Center in New Orleans during the worst days following Hurricane Katrina. No doubt there were many Christians among the dispossessed and desperate people gathered in these now-infamous places, but I am referring especially to the apparent scarcity of people who could have gotten out and chose not to, sharing instead the horrific conditions in the centers. That would have indeed been a Christlike action. Sometimes it seemed that only the journalists, Brian Williams and Anderson Cooper especially (and their reputations have skyrocketed), shared in the misery.

To this day, two months later, I have not heard of anyone who voluntarily spent time in the two hellish "holding camps" --except for three Roman Catholic priests. Perhaps this illustrates the value of a celibate order of ministry, at least for those who are called to it. One assumes that the married Protestant clergy evacuated because they were understandably preoccupied with getting their own families out of danger. The unencumbered Catholic priests had no such conflicts to dilute their call to be present with those who are downtrodden and left behind.

This issue of presence is surfacing among the restaurateurs of New Orleans, described in a typically knowledgeable article by R. W. Apple (The New York Times, 11/2/05). At the annual Southern Foodways Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, last week, the owners of the venerable Galatoire's were assailed as traitors for opening a branch in Baton Rouge. The son of the founder of Ruth's Chris Steak House was cheered when he distanced himself from the decision of the new owners of the chain who have removed to Orlando, saying, "My mother would never have done that." And the most famous (though, as I know from my many trips to New Orleans, far from the most beloved) chef in the city, Emeril Lagasse, is no hero among the chefs and owners. From his position of enormous celebrity he has said and done virtually nothing to help out in the dire situation, returning to the city only very briefly since Katrina. On the Food Channel he has finally started asking in a less-than-wholehearted way for contributions to the Red Cross (even that is unimaginative and half-hearted, especially since it has recently become known that donations are not flowing through at the Red Cross as they should be).

These matters are related to the incarnational Christian ethic. Solidarity with those who are suffering is at the very heart of who God is.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

What about the men?

My husband and I have been worrying for some time about the disproportionate numbers of women now going into the ministry. If the Christian ministry becomes more than 50% women, that will not be a good thing. I just looked at a photo of the candidates for ministry from one of our major Protestant churches and five out of six were women, most of them middle-aged. Some mainline Protestant seminaries are already more than 50% women. The heterosexual male is an underrepresented species.

As for the disproportion in the pews, it is a situation of long standing. A book that strongly affected me when I read it in the 70s was Ann Douglas' now-classic work, The Feminization of American Culture. She traces the way that the Protestant ministry changed from one of power in the community to one of mere "influence," and she notes how the 19th-century ministers spent most of their time with women in domestic settings.

In a striking article in the Wall Street Journal on October 21 (their "Houses of Worship" column every Friday is frequently a must-read), Christine Rosen cites a book called Why Men Hate Going to Church by David Murrow. "Church is sweet and sentimental, nurturing and nice. Women thrive in this environment. Men do not." Ms. Rosen also cites another author, Charlotte Allen, who states, "The problem is that men love ritual and solemnity, and women, influenced by our all-pervasive therapeutic culture, bring a therapeutic style to the liturgy." That sounds right to me.

There are other aspects of this WSJ article that I do not necessarily agree with, but the column highlights the fundamental problem in a stark and arresting way. This problem is not even being discussed, let alone addressed, by our church leadership. Unless and until prominent, respected lay men step forward to recruit promising boys of high school age to think seriously about the ministry as a career, I don't see this trend changing.