Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A beggar at Bergdorf's

This afternoon, the second Sunday of Easter, I was walking up Fifth Avenue from Grand Central on my way to the Bach Vespers at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. As I crossed 57th Street I could see the figure of a woman half-sitting, half-lying on the sidewalk next to the wall in front of Bergdorf Goodman. Like many people in a big city, I have agonized conversations with myself every time I pass a street beggar. I donate to the Coalition for the Homeless, believing that is a better way to help, but still....

Like everyone else in sight, I passed by the woman (I was in a bit of a hurry anyway). After I had gone perhaps twenty yards I turned back. I had a delayed reaction to her. She was shivering violently and her face was streaked with tears. It was a pretty, sunny afternoon, but quite cold and windy--most people, including me, were bundled up in coats and mufflers. The woman (young, black) had on no outer clothing except a thin, dirty blanket made of some sort of cheap felt-like material.

I never, ever kneel because my knees have been in terrible condition for years, but when I tried to speak to her she could not hear me, so I knelt down on the pavement. I was peripherally conscious of the crowds of pedestrians hastening past, but mostly I was trying to communicate with the woman. I asked her name but it was one of those invented names and I could not catch it. I said something about how she needed real help, more than just the money she was trying to collect in a paper cup. She told me she stayed in a church shelter (she named the church) but that all the guests had to be out by 7:30 AM. I knew from my own city ministry that that was true. I told her that I wished I could offer her some real help. She said a prayer would help. I began to say a prayer.

Here's the point of this story:
After I had been there on my knees for about five minutes, another woman came up and put money in the cup and said kind words. Then a couple came up. Then more people came up with more money and more kind words. A thousand studies have shown this: if one person helps, many will help. If no one helps, it is likely that few will help.

I asked the young woman what she was going to do with the money in the cup (there were only a few coins in it when I first stopped). She said she needed to buy a jacket, that her jacket had been stolen the evening before.

She was probably mentally ill, or an addict. She certainly was not going to find a jacket on Fifth Avenue. What would she do next, where would she go, who would help her at the next stage? My knees gave out--I could barely get up, could hardly walk for a few minutes, and I was of no real use to the woman at all. Did anything that anyone did this afternoon really help her in any significant way? Here is the difference between Christian charity and social action: the causes of homelessness and the neglect of the mentally ill need to be vigorously addressed. Am I going to do this? No. Lord, have mercy.

But I was very much struck with the fact that so many people began to stop. I wished that my grandchildren had been with me to see this. It is important that we be alert to this factor in human behavior, that if one person acts, many will act. If one person says, "Stop the bullying!" (or the abuse, or the cheating, or the hazing, or whatever) then others may take courage as well.

One other detail: When I was on my knees I noticed that under the dirty blanket she had on an expensive-looking tan pashmina (or cashmere) muffler. I said, "This is a very nice scarf you have." She gave a hint of a smile and said, "A man gave it to me this morning." I pictured an elegant man going by on Fifth Avenue, removing the scarf from his own neck (it was a masculine color) and putting it around hers. The image is, somehow, a fragmentary sign that grace does exist. It is, perhaps, better to do something than to do nothing. I will never forget that man and his scarf.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

East vs. West: two competing views of the world?

A new book by Anthony Pagden, a British historian, is entitled Worlds at War: The 2500-Year Struggle Between East and West (Random House). It has received middling reviews, but it certainly raises central questions.

I recently finished reading From the Holy Mountain, a mesmerizing account by the estimable William Dalrymple of his months-long trek in search of the ancient Christian communities of the ancient Near (Middle) East. The overwhelming effect of the book is that of sad irony: Christianity is disappearing from the lands of its birth.

Dalrymple’s book reminded me of the essentially “eastern” beginnings of the faith and its expansion and growth in the “west.” Which Christianity is more “authentic”? From my perspective as an unrepentant child of the Reformation, the West has been essentially defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church’s withdrawal from dynamic cultural engagement in the Levant caused its gradual demise in that area and contributed to stagnation or instability in political life in those countries. This is an oversimplification, to be sure--it is not entirely fair to the Eastern Church; and the defining of the West in this way is, as everyone knows, politically incorrect to the nth degree. The American and European churches should, however, resist cultural pressures to conform to the views that produced the refusal of the European Union to acknowledge the influence of Christianity in its constitution (the Pope protested mightily in a magisterial way that Protestants cannot match). We may and we must continue to argue that Western values arose out of the dynamic, formative interaction of Christianity chiefly with Hellenistic civilization, and then with the cultures that followed. The gospel is timeless in the sense that it is “once for all,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly announces; but the Judeo-Christian tradition is timely in a fashion unique in religion, because it is perpetually (semper reformanda) rethinking itself. In just this way, “once for all” is continually being rethought in a more, not less, generous direction.

This brings me back to Pagden’s Worlds at War. In a New York Times book review by William Grimes, we read of

“two competing views of the world, memorably expressed by Herodotus in his history of the struggles between the Greeks and the Persians, which pivoted not on politics but on ‘an understanding of what it was to be and to live like a human being.’ The Greeks subscribed, broadly, to ‘an individualistic view of humanity.’ The Persians displayed courage and ferocity on the battlefield but as a society, Mr. Pagden writes, they were ‘craven, slavish, reverential, and parochial, incapable of individual initiative, a horde rather than a people.’”

This won’t go down well in today’s environment, but it certainly suggests avenues of thought. Does not Christianity (in its truest form) uniquely combine two things: an unconditional commitment to the importance of every human individual, and the news of a new human community? Individualism taken to extremes produces a distorted—indeed, unrecognizable—picture of the relation of Christians to one another as the body of Christ, but, at the same time, “the freedom we have in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 2:4) is so complete and comprehensive that it does indeed enable each individual to flourish in ways that are impossible in an unredeemed creation. This combination of opposite poles of emphasis is specifically Christian.

One more thing, having to do with the vexed matter of “free will.” In reading Mr. Grimes’ review of Worlds at War, I had an “aha” moment. I have spent most of my life explaining, via Augustine and Luther, that there is no such thing as “free will” independent of the will of God, and in almost (not quite!) every case have met with unyielding resistance to this central Christian idea. Pagden, in his book about East and West, sheds some light on this matter. He depicts our present situation as an unbridgeable chasm between the West and the Islamic Middle East, writing that “the society of Islam is ultimately based not upon human volition or upon contract but upon divine decree…In the societies of the West, by contrast, every aspect of life has been conceived as a question of human choice.”

In a remarkable way, this shows how the question of free will in the Christian world-view must be understood with subtlety or not understood at all. The contrast that Pagden draws in the quoted passage is quite accurate, up to a point. The Christian gospel does indeed free individuals from their bondage to the principalities and powers which dominate their lives and make free choices impossible. In this sense, Pagden’s description works. But in differentiating Western emphasis on “human volition” from Islamic conceptions of the “divine decree,” he fails, because it is a central paradox of Christian theology that it is precisely in the divine decree that the Christian finds his true freedom (“grant what you command, and [consequently] command what you will,” Augustine prayed).

These distinctions are not arcane. They lie at the heart of the gospel proclamation, and they constitute, now as in Augustine’s time, an enlightened foundation for a political understanding of civilization.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Yahoo, Oprah, and a moral giant

I am revising this post and bringing it forward because it seems to me very important.

This post first appeared in November 2007. As indicated below, I was deeply impressed by Congressman Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. I was amazed and saddened to read in January that Mr. Lantos had died of esophageal cancer only two months after the hearing that I describe below. Still more amazing (though, upon reflection, not surprising in view of Mr. Lantos' lifelong commitment to human rights) was the fact that he was the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress. An added item of interest is that he was one of those who survived through the heroic efforts of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Here is a slightly revised version of the earlier post. If you read it knowing that this Holocaust survivor was looking his own death straight in the face as he presided over the hearing, the story takes on a much greater power.

Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:37)

On November 7, 2007, on C-Span, I had an opportunity to watch a couple of hours of testimony in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Our much-disrespected Congress is generally at its best in the hearings that it conducts, and this was an exceptional example.The subject was the harsh imprisonment in China of at least two (probably four) Chinese political dissidents whose plight is a direct result of the collusion of Yahoo with the Chinese government. (Yahoo has admitted fault in this regard in the case of two of the prisoners.) As Committee Chairman Tom Lantos quite angrily made clear, the testimony of Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang and Yahoo General Counsel Michael Callahan before the committee was extremely disappointing, to say the least. The two men were repeatedly asked, over a period of two hours, by Democrats and Republicans alike, to answer simply "yes" or "no" to various questions, and in no case were they ever able to do so. The fog of Orwellian circumlocution that they created around themselves made it impossible to discern any semblance of integrity or humanity on the part of either, let alone get answers to the questions. (If you saw only the clips on the evening news, you didn’t get the picture.)

In particular, Yang and Callahan were being asked why Yahoo, one of the most successful companies in the world, had done precisely nothing financially to compensate, or personally to comfort, the families of the two incarcerated and tortured prisoners. One prisoner's family was sitting directly behind Callahan and Yang in the hearing room. With some difficulty the Committee was able to extract the reluctant admission of Yahoo that they had not reached out to this family in any way, not even to shake their hands, not to mention financial help for the loss of their breadwinner. At the end, under the persistent tutelage of the various members of the committee--especially Chairman Lantos--Callahan, having finally grasped the fact that he was not making a good impression, attempted to restate his non-positions in order to be more responsive to the committee. Chairman Lantos sharply reprimanded him for being focused on placating the committee, rather than the Chinese family. He said to Callahan that he should examine his own conscience; and I quote: "Look into your own soul and look at the damage you have done to an individual and his the enormous damage your policies have created."

It was interesting to watch Jerry Yang, a relatively young man, absorbing the instruction of the committee. Obviously it is possible to achieve enormous success in the world of cyber-business without being a mature human being. Yang seemed mentally slow during most of the hearing. He hardly seemed to understand what he was being asked. He did not seem to grasp the fact that human suffering was involved. After an hour and a half of intense questioning it seemed that he was beginning to learn something. His answers at the ending seemed marginally more human and more humble than those of Callahan.

A powerful example in contrast to Yahoo has been offered by Oprah Winfrey. I have never been an Oprah fan, but her television conference a few days ago was a winner (again, if you did not see the whole thing, you could not get the full impression). Her apology for the sexual abuse that occurred at her South African girl's school was clear, forthright, thorough, passionate, and convincing. She followed the rule of "tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." She kept herself and her own feelings out of it almost entirely, turning what might have been a maudlin, self-pitying occasion into a soul-strengthening one. She used language flawlessly -- there were no cliches, no bromides, no evasions. She did not use the favorite saying of the evaders, "I take full responsibility." She did not need to say it. Instead, she showed that she had already assumed responsibility, by describing the decisive actions she has taken and by outlining the further measures she intends to take. It was an altogether sterling performance and should be watched by anyone who wants to know what genuinely remedial action looks like.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama on race in America

It is ten minutes since I listened on the radio to Senator Obama's speech about race in America. Already the broadcasters, even the ones I most admire, are picking out bits of it to comment on, thereby spoiling the effect of the whole. I do not intend this blog to become a partisan tool this election year, but as a lifelong student of oratory and the power of words, I believe this was an epochal speech in our history and it will be a great pity if the sound bites taken from it cause us to lose focus on the entire speech and the subtleties in it. Very rarely has any political speech reflected upon the contradictions in human nature in such a sensitive and discerning way.

On a somewhat different tack, for preachers and biblical interpreters I will lift out just one portion of the speech, which Obama in turn lifts from his own book to explain what attracted him to Trinity Church in Chicago in the first place:

In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:

“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”

The text of the entire speech is at this link:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Resurrection in the news: some affirmations and some disclaimers

The estimable Peter Steinfels writes the "Beliefs" column every other Saturday for the New York Times. It is very hard to find on the Times website if you don' t know what you're looking for, but it is almost always worth finding.

Last Saturday, March 15, the headline was "Resurrection Is Often Misunderstood by Christians and Jews." That is surely the truth. Steinfels is commenting on two new books about resurrection in the tradition. One is Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, co-written by two Harvard Divinity School colleagues, Kevin J. Madigan, Roman Catholic, and Jon D. Levenson, a Jew who teaches Jewish studies. The other book is N. T. Wright's latest, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Steinfels focuses on the essential agreements between the two books. Much of this is most welcome, especially to us parish clergy who have had a great deal of difficulty putting across the idea that the Bible does not teach individual "immortality." These writers have done us a great service by insisting that the concept of resurrection from the dead is "deeply rooted in the Judaism from which Jesus emerged" (the Sadducees stood out because they did not believe in it).

Steinfels helpfully summarizes the teaching of the books in words like these: "In classic Jewish and Christian teachings, resurrection refers to a collective resurrection of people and renewal of all creation at the end of time. Resurrection was linked to the expectation of judgment and a final triumph of justice. This was the idea of resurrection that had evolved as Jews returned from exile and struggled under foreign domination in the period before Jesus. It was this idea of resurrection that Christians had in mind when they declared that what occurred on Easter was the 'first fruits' of what was to come."

And let us cheer for this insight:
"Professor Madigan, Professor Levenson and Bishop Wright view the anti-Gnostic stances of early church fathers and rabbinic sages alike as a proper defense of their traditions’ core beliefs and not, as recently argued, a tactic in religious power politics."

All of this is good news for the Easter season. Particularly important, as is now generally recognized, is the emphasis on the deep roots of Christianity in Judaism, and particularly the reliance of the New Testament upon the Hebrew Scriptures.

However, as Steinfels reports on these books (I have not read them, but am familiar with their authors), a concern arises. If there is too much emphasis on continuity, the radical rupture in human history that was effected by the death and resurrection of Christ is correspondingly minimized or ignored. There is a danger here in failing to see what a dramatically new thing was happening in Christ. As one who last Sunday preached on the raising of Lazarus from John's Gospel, I am acutely aware of the distinction made in that passage between the resurrection at the Last Day and the power of "the one who is coming into the world" now. The contrast between Martha's weary traditional affirmation ("I know that my brother will rise at the Last Day") and Jesus' awesome declaration "I AM the Resurrection and the Life..." is the central focus of John's narrative. Christ's victory over death brings with it the kerygmatic announcement of the power of the age to come present in the life of the believer now

Another objection can be made. Paul's Resurrection chapter (I Corinthians 15), and indeed his entire proclamation, sweeps the hearer-reader along with the sense that a world-overturning, cosmos-recreating event has occurred. Sharp discontinuity is assumed in Paul's gospel, and treatments that smooth this over miss the essential nature of the New Testament witness. This does not mean that we should mute or deemphasize the fact of Christianity's dependence upon the faith of the Hebrews, which is total. The corresponding depreciation of gnostic influence (old and new) in these scholars' work is particularly welcome. But if we do not see that "the righteousness of God" in the Old Testament is radically recapitulated in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, then we are settling for something less than the apostolic kerygma.

Click here for the Steinfels column:

Friday, March 07, 2008

Pre-modern, modern, post-modern: the Bible today

I just wrote a letter to the editor of The Christian Century, to wit:

It is curious that Walter Brueggemann should be asked by The Christian Century to review the Isaiah volume of “The Church’s Bible” series (CC March 11), since he is well-known to be unsympathetic to the premise upon which the series is founded. He is gentlemanly in his assessment, as one would expect; he gives credit to Calvin as an interpreter, and to Ricoeur’s concept of the “second naïveté.” In general, however, he makes no bones about his distaste for the project.

When I was asked to be part of a preaching series on the Song of Songs three years ago at an undergraduate college in England, I turned to the late Richard A. Norris’ anthology, the first volume of “The Church’s Bible.” If these brilliantly translated and skilfully selected excerpts from the first thousand years had not liberated my imagination from the limited way I had been taught to understand the Song of Songs, I would not have had anything either contemporary or theological to say to a chapel full of young people facing all sorts of perplexities about God and sexuality.

In my experience, the pre-critical, pre-modern interpreters have become more vibrant than ever for our post-modern era. I plan to invest in “The Church’s Bible.”


Fleming Rutledge

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

A crypto-Christian novelist?

Michiko Kakutani's review this morning of Richard Price's new crime novel, Lush Life, is ecstatic. I don't know when I will have time to read it, but Price's earlier book, Freedomland, is a great favorite of mine. (The movie of Freedomland got lukewarm reviews, even though Mr. Price wrote the screenplay, and I have not seen it.) Mr. Price lives in New York, but I have never been able to track him down, to my frustration. He interests me greatly because, if Freedomland is any guide, he knows something about Christianity and portrays it with understanding and respect. I don't know where he got this rapport with biblical faith from, but in that book, at least, he is pretty much pitch-perfect. Plus, it is the best book about the urban scene and our racial problem (he calls it "the American flu") that I think I have ever read.

The main character in Freedomland is a black police detective, Lorenzo. He is assigned to the case of a young woman, Brenda, who says she has been carjacked by a black man and that her child was in the car. Lorenzo is suspicious of the story but has no proof. He befriends Brenda and spends countless hours with her visiting the site, canvassing the neighborhood, and just talking. Lorenzo is a fascinating character. Everything that we see him doing in the book makes us like him tremendously; he is hard-working, conscientious, smart, tough—and gentle. He talks to Brenda in explicitly Christian terms: "You got to draw strength from God...See, you can think of people as good, bad, guilty, innocent, but whatever we do, whatever mistakes we make in life, he don't make mistakes, and me, you, everybody out there, we're nothing more than His agents..."

As the story unfolds, we discover that this likable detective is a recovering alcoholic, and one of his sons is doing time in prison. The other son, a good citizen and schoolteacher, won't have anything to do with him. So we can see that Lorenzo is talking about himself as well as Brenda when he says, "Let me tell you something...With kids? No matter what you did, how badly you messed up, God will find some way of letting you get up to bat again. You see, Brenda, God's grace? It's, like, retroactive."

There could be nothing more Biblical than that. But that's not all he says. Trying to coax Brenda into a confession, he talks to her about a song by Mary Wells called "Two Lovers." "I got two lovers and I ain't ashamed," she sings. It turns out that the two lovers are, as Lorenzo puts it, "the same guy split into two, kind and loving, and the other person, when he was treating her bad, messin' around on her, like, a split personality. But you know, I swear, the older I get the more I think that song is about everybody, you know what I'm saying?...I mean we're all two people..." (simul peccator et iustus—simultaneously sinner and saint)

I'm always trying to coax preachers to read literary novels (as opposed to mass-market commercial fiction). Why is this important? Here's a major reason: Richard Price himself said in an interview, "I wanted to create people who wind up tripping all over themselves because they have unexpected empathy for the other. I just wanted to do a story where people cannot hold to their sides." He wants us to see ourselves in all the characters, instead of setting ourselves over against the "bad" ones. This, surely, is the calling of the Christian pastor, preacher, leader, believer—to have "unexpected empathy for the other" as Jesus Christ had for those who put him to death (namely, all of us).

A good line from the Kakutani review concerns Tom Wolfe, who used to be a brilliant culture critic but has never been a first-rate literary novelist. She writes, "He [Price] is as adept as Tom Wolfe at using his journalistic eye for social detail…but he does so without turning his characters, as Mr. Wolfe so often does, into caricatures or cartoons." Maybe that's why so many hundreds of thousands of people read Wolfe. It takes more mental effort to read Price, although, to be sure, Ms. Kakutani promises, "At its most basic level, Lush Life is a police procedural, and it possesses all the gut-level suspense of a detective story."

Hmmm. Maybe I will just have to find time for it.

Click here for the review: