Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

To all of you out there who are wondering if orthodox Christology can survive all the attacks being made on it, there is hopeful news. A research project has been completed at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, and its findings will be published in Seeking The Identity of Jesus (Eerdmans will ship in late September).

Those who have not necessarily been following the "Jesus wars" may not be aware of the intensity of the struggle to keep a door open for the ancient creedal and conciliar affirmations about Jesus Christ. The widespread attacks on classic Christology coming from the "Jesus Seminar" and other sources have been so pervasive, and in many cases so deceptively attractive, that they have taken over much of the preaching and teaching of the mainline churches without anyone noticing.

In the church today, there are two distinct ways of speaking about Jesus. We can call them the Jesus kerygma and the Christ kerygma (the Greek word kerygma means proclamation or announcement but is principally used in a theological context to refer to the gospel message).

The Jesus kerygma is familiar to those who hear sermons in most of the mainline churches, because the habit nowadays is to preach every Sunday from the stories in the Synoptic Gospels. Each of these Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) has a Christ kerygma, but one can easily miss it if sermons are focused essentially on such themes as Jesus' table fellowship with sinners, his welcoming of outcasts, his healings, his "inclusion" of women, his self-sacrificing style of life, and so forth. The effect has been to leave us with an impression of an extraordinary (but not necessarily unique) person who in some way reveals the love of God and inspires us to follow him in the practice of radical hospitality, willing service, embrace of the other. These are aspects of his ministry by no means to be downgraded, but when the high Christology of the Gospel of John and the Lordship of Christ in the epistles of Paul have gone missing, something less than the eternal Son of God is here.

Therefore it is very good news to hear of the Identity of Jesus Research Group. Beverley Roberts Gaventa of Princeton, co-chair of the group (together with Richard B. Hays of Duke) summarizes their conclusions in these words:

"The work of the project ranged across the biblical canon, church tradition, and contemporary Christian life, and no easy consensus has emerged. Yet the varying perspectives converged around the notion that historical investigation into the life of Jesus is necessary but not sufficient. While this group affirms the importance of historical work, especially work that situates Jesus in first-century Judaism, it differs from many recent approaches to Jesus in two ways:

"1) The group insists that Jesus is not reducible to what can be learned from historical research alone.
"2) The group contends that the Creeds of the Church are in continuity with the identity of Jesus as revealed in Scripture."

This should be of great comfort to us who wish to say wholeheartedly,

I believe (Credo) in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth…
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father…..

(The members of the Identity of Jesus Research Group are: Dale Allison, Gary Anderson, Markus Bockmuehl, Sarah Coakley, Brian Daley, A. Katherine Grieb, Robert Jenson, Joel Marcus, Walter Moberly, William Placher, Katherine Sonderegger, David Steinmetz, Marianne Meye Thompson, and Francis Watson. The group met in Princeton for three years, from 2003 to 2006.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Are you absolutely certain, or fairly certain?

Peter Steinfels writes a "Beliefs" column every other week for The New York Times. It is always buried inside, below the fold, and is very difficult to find in the online edition. I am nevertheless encouraging a greater readership of this fine column, always of the highest quality, which has been appearing for at least 15 or 20 years. Steinfels is a Roman Catholic but very conversant with Protestantism.

This past Saturday he posed a question about faith and doubt. Acknowledging the difficulty of Christian faith in our era of irony and skepticism, he refers to a Pew Forum poll in which believers choose between "absolutely certain" and "fairly certain" of their beliefs. He wonders if the "fairly certain" might not hold a key to the future of the church in our time, continuing to attend worship and practice the faith in spite of doubts. My guess is that Steinfels himself might be in this category. He puts it this way:

"If it turned out that the answers of the 'fairly certain' came even close to those of the 'absolutely certain,' it would confirm the idea of a stable strata [sic] of deeply committed, actively practicing religious believers who have also integrated a significant degree of doubt and uncertainty into their faith."

Steinfels calls this the "steady-state hypothesis." As one who has tried to encourage this sort of churchmanship for as long as I can remember, I commend this way of being Christian to those who are not "absolutely certain." We need more "negative capability" (a phrase of John Keats') as a counterbalance to simplistic assertions. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC has been giving a series on the wisdom of the Proverbs, and he (following Gerhard von Rad's lead) is describing wisdom as insight into the complexities of life when there are no clear guidelines to follow. Amen.

Here is the link to the Steinfels piece:

And here is a link to another column which I found helpful, about the controversy concering homosexuality:

And finally, here is a nice one about Rowan Williams when he was first appointed, before Gene Robinson:

Friday, July 18, 2008

Torturing George Clooney

Good (as distinguished from mediocre) movies on DVD are remarkably satisfying because you can replay scenes and pick up tiny details. This advantage is particularly helpful in the case of the 2005 Syriana, highly praised by almost all the better critics, but extremely difficult to follow with its multiple locations, its intricate narrative twists, its stop-and-go scenes, and its enormous cast (that's why we hadn't gone to see it sooner). Having watched it once at a normal speed and then again with many stops and replays, I would call it one of the most morally challenging, most grown-up movies of recent years. George Clooney--what a perpetually interesting man--produced and acted. He won an Oscar for his role, but the film did not do well at the box office, largely because its subject is so dark and its plot so difficult to follow. Now is the perfect time to see it--it is ten times more relevant now, with the price of gasoline as it is and the problem of Iran growing ever more pressing.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gives the general idea: "Global oil corruption has seeped into every facet of our lives, from the collusion of White House and business interests in the Persian Gulf to the financial squeeze we all feel just pumping gas. No dry civics lesson, this fighting-mad film isn't just hot, it’s incendiary. And no one gets off the hook. You see it with the exhilarating feeling that a movie can make a difference." It hasn't and won't make a difference, given the principalities and powers that be, but at least, as Stephen Gaghan (same screenwriter as Traffic), Clooney, and their team say hopefully in an interview, it might make us reflect about what it takes to get our cars filled up--namely, "the brutality of the strategic [oil] game played on the global stage."

When I first thought of writing about this movie I had one idea, then I developed others. The first idea has to do with the scene in which Clooney (who gained 30 pounds and grew a graying beard for his role as a CIA field agent nearing the end of his career) is gruesomely tortured by a sadistic Middle Eastern operative. I had the idea that perhaps the sight of George Clooney, instead of some sinister terrorist, being tortured might jog our collective consciences. Lack of imagination is what prevents us from rising up against state-sponsored torture: we can't imagine that we ourselves, or any of our friends, or any good American, could ever be tortured. It's the bad guys who get tortured.

But then I thought no, this act of imagination won't happen, even though it should.

Another feature of the film is the fact that there aren't any "bad guys" or "good guys." Almost all the Americans are varying degrees of bad, actually, and the most attractive characters, two young Pakistanis who are living in a squalid compound for foreign oilfield workers, end up—convincingly--in a radical group training to be suicide bombers. Still, Clooney and Matt Damon are so well known to us, so American, that we can hardly imagine them involved in the sinister activities depicted here. "US interests in the region" sounds like an innocuous phrase, but we soon come to see how these "interests" rapidly devolve into callousness, mendacity, lies, betrayal, and murder as the oilmen throw parties for one another and praise their executives and middle managers as "the best people in the world" producing the "best possible product at the best possible prices." Joseph Conrad's narrator, Marlow (in Heart of Darkness) called it with high sarcasm "the merry dance of death and trade."

The movie has a huge range. We move from Washington and Houston to Teheran and the Arab emirate called "Syriana." We get a good look at Hezbollah ensconced in Beirut, students and teachers in a madrasa, and a very large cast of Arabs and Iranians. The subtly haunting, percussive score is unusually effective. The movie is mesmerizing even if one can't follow it all; the general idea comes through well enough

Indeed, the relevance of Syriana grows by the day, with Sy Hersh's article about appalling Bush administration policies re Iran in The New Yorker this very month, and Countdown (MSNBC) reporting a couple of days ago that Arabic and Farsi speakers continue to be fired for speaking up about these policies—very much like the Clooney character who also speaks these languages and is callously dumped off the CIA train. And how about this: on July 3, The New York Times reports a possibly shady deal between the Kurds and Hunt Oil of Dallas contrary to American policy in Iraq. Link to story:

I highly recommend Syriana. (It might help to read a few reviews first.)

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Beware of Olympic pageantry

We recently had the rare privilege of attending a private screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous but seldom-seen film Olympia, made to celebrate the 1936 “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin. The powerful artistry and technical mastery of “Hitler’s moviemaker” left everyone stunned.

Naturally, the number one question asked afterward was about the relation of art to morality. There has been no clear answer to this question, but here are two sets of reactions that some of us shared:

Overall, the movie is apolitical. The overwhelming effect at the end of the very long movie is of the beauty of the human body in action. Riefenstahl’s amazing camera angles, often catching the athletes from below in motion against a sky filled with fair-weather clouds, are indeed “Olympian” in more ways than one. The astonishment of the second half, which covers the athletic events themselves, tends to cancel out the creepiness of the first half.

The first half of the film is deeply disturbing. It depicts the carrying of the Olympic torch by fleet, proud runners (looking for all the world like the old Modern Library logo) and then the opening procession with numerous shots of a beaming Adolf Hitler taking the salutes of the various teams as they pass. It is impossible to resist the powerful emotional effect of this pageantry. As the team members from the various countries (including the USA) pass in review, many give the Nazi salute with Rockette-like precision, all others turn their heads toward the Führer with perfect symmetry as they march by. What did they know? (By 1936, they should have known plenty.) Did it matter to them? I found myself choking on tears and fury. Here were the principalities and powers on review. Human nature is irresistibly drawn to spectacle, and can be manipulated in almost any direction through pageantry when it is harnessed to nationalism and the will to power. We should beware of our own proclivities when we watch the Olympics this summer.