Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The deficiencies of Karen Armstrong

I have the telephone number of the local NPR station (WNYC) programmed into my cell phone so I can pull over to the side of the road and argue with the person uttering absurdities about Christianity (it happens often)--but I never, ever get on the air. So here is what I want to say to/about Karen Armstrong, who was interviewed for the umpteenth time on the Brian Lehrer show (I am not at all interested in reading her books, for reasons that will be clear):

No one working from within the Christian tradition would recognize the Jesus that she talks about. It is not responsible to speak about a religious tradition without working to acknowledging its own understanding of itself. Yeah, I know she was a nun, but it didn't take. Calling Jesus an "axial sage," a "towering religious genius" (among other TRGs, of course) or a "paradigmatic human being" (among other PHBs) misses the point entirely.

Ms. Armstrong has forced Jesus into a framework that serves her own theories about "religion," but no reputable New Testament scholar would agree with her depiction of him as one of several "axial sages" who, turning away from Iron Age violence, sought to nurture "transcendence within the self." What Jesus actually did (at the very least) was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God in his own person.

Moreover, comparing Jesus to Mohammed (or Buddha, for that matter) as though they were essentially the same is intellectually (not to mention religiously) preposterous. All these people who talk about Jesus as a "sage" forget, or overlook to the point of perversity, that the faith proclaims him as the crucified One who was raised by God from the dead. Without that, the Christian faith is nothing. As Will Willimon writes with his typical pungency, the people working with the "sage" or "religious genius" notion share one fundamental assumption: Jesus is dead.

If the Karen Armstrongs of the world want to renounce the Christian confession, they may do that, but those who are leaders in the church should make it clear that such people (and they are legion, though few are so articulate as Armstrong) twist the Christian confession out of all recognition and then present it in such a way as to support their own history-of-religion theories. It really is important for Christians who care about the content of our faith to speak up about the deficiencies in the work of this very popular and influential writer.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Where are the male preachers?

In his forthcoming book, Conversations With Barth About Preaching, William H. Willimon (the famous chaplain of Duke University, now a United Methodist bishop) writes that preachers must be prepared to be powerful people. In this morning's New York Times, an article reports that more and more students in the mainline seminaries are declining to go into parish ministry. The reporter describes this with a highly suggestive observation about one male student who "does not want to preach or take up a position of authority in the community."

It has been widely noted that the proportion of women to men in mainline seminaries is rapidly rising. Less well known, perhaps, is the preponderance of gifted female preachers winning preaching awards and publishing sermons. What is going on here, and is it related to the poor academic performance of boys that has been so much in the news lately? I think it is. An article in the Times a few months ago examined the falling-off of male leadership in Reform Judaism. In that article it was noted that there was no similar problem in Orthodox Judaism because boys routinely saw males in leadership.

This is only an introduction to a huge subject, but it is my impression that even as women are striving to step into positions of power in the church (yes, preaching is meant to be powerful), men are no longer seeking to do so in like numbers. If this is the case, we are in serious trouble. If anything is to be changed, it can only be by an intentional, concerted effort on the part of clergy and, especially, lay leaders in the churches to recruit promising young men, not just young women, to enter the ministry. It is demonstrably the case that most men will not consider a vocation that does not offer them significant male fellowship.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A genuine theological emergency

Archbishop Akinola of Nigeria has become a prominent figure in the worldwide Anglican Communion since General Convention 2003. Up to that point he had vigorously defended Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold against charges of not being theologically sound. Since GC, however, Bishop Peter has been perhaps the leading Anglican critic of the USA Episcopal Church, largely on issues related to homosexuality.

If I am not mistaken, the Anglican Church in Nigeria has more members than does any other country in the world. The explosive growth of Christianity in Africa, and Nigeria in particular, has been widely noted. Now, suddenly, the Christian community in that land has taken on a high degree of geo-political significance. An article in The New York Times on February 24 reports on the Christian-Muslim riots taking place in Nigeria. "Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center [the city of Onitsha] on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors. Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons."

That is just the beginning. In the middle of the article we read this:

"At the central mosque, rioters burned the building and hacked down trees surrounding it. Someone wrote in chalk on a charred wall, 'Jesus is Lord.' The message went on to warn that 'from today' there would be no more Muhammad. Thousands of Muslim residents fled the city, some on foot over the bridge leading to Delta State, taking refuge in neighboring cities. Thousands more huddled in police and army barracks in Onitsha and surrounding towns.

" 'What has become of us?' lamented the Rev. Joseph Ezeugo, pastor of [Roman Catholic] Immaculate Heart Parish. 'This cannot be Nigeria today. We have been living side by side with our Muslim brothers for so long. Why should a cartoon in Denmark bring us to civil war?' "

The use of the earliest Christian confession, Kurios Iesous (Jesus is Lord) in such a context simply staggers the imagination. Issues about sexuality are very important indeed but must be set aside in this genuine theological emergency. This is not about barbarous, primitive Africans. This is about the universal human capacity to move rapidly from relatively peaceful co-existence with others to murderous mob action in a matter of days when certain conditions are present, and to appropriate even the most sacred religious beliefs for lethal purposes. The 20th century is full of examples-- the Afrikaners in South Africa, Gentiles all over Europe in the Nazi era, segregationists in the American South, Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the Hutu in Rwanda who murdered Tutsis in their churches with frequent cooperation from the clergy.

Even so, there is something particularly horrifying about this example from Nigeria. The use of the name of Jesus Christ to celebrate destruction and murder is beyond sickening. This is the Name of the One who voluntarily gave himself up to a tortured death to show us how to forgive our enemies and not to seek vengeance. Bishop Tutu of South Africa led his people in non-violence for more than thirty years under conditions of utmost provocation. Let us fervently pray that Archbishop Akinola is made of similar metal--for the sake of Nigeria, for the sake of the Anglican Communion, for the sake of the Gospel around the world, for the sake of the Name of the Crucified One.

This just in: a friend has sent this link to a statement by Abp. Peter Akinola. I find it profoundly disappointing.

I look in vain in this statement for any sign of a transforming cruciform theology. It has a truculent sound, as if he were saying: if you're going to beat us up, we're going to let loose our young men to beat you up. This is not encouraging. I am comparing it in my mind with something that any of the recent Popes might have written, for instance. I think of Lech Walesa in his great early days, Martin Luther King-- not to mention Desmond Tutu. There was no doubt about these leaders' strength and determination, but it was clear to everyone that they intended to rein in their troops. They were enabled to exhibit dauntlessness while at the same time still teaching us about what a distinctively Christian witness looks like. When a Christian leader speaks truth to power, it should have that unmistakable note of trust in an invincible unseen Power that arms its servants with alternative weapons.

A friend sends this email:

"I hope the Anglican Communion might spend a little more time on the sins of Nigeria than those of New Hampshire. To have an Archbishop fanning the flames of civil war takes us all back to a dreadful time in church history to which we should never wish to return. Kyrie eleison."