Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is Advent disappearing?

The Kings College Ceremony of Lessons and Carols is one of the greatest treasures of the Anglican Communion, and justly beloved, but its influence has unintentionally become a problem.

The Episcopal Church throughout all vicissitudes has hung on to Advent. The importance of waiting until Christmas Eve as a rigorous moral and aesthetic discipline of focusing on the darkness of a world without Christ has been a profoundly significant part of our worship and self-understanding. Now, bit by bit, it is being chipped away by--of all things--the Ceremony of Lessons and Carols.

The Kings service in Cambridge is held at exactly the right time: twilight on Christmas Eve. That is the whole point. Bringing the ceremony forward into Advent is having the wrong impact. We are singing "Hodie" ten days before the "today" that the carol celebrates. Even the great and wonderful St Thomas Fifth Avenue is now singing Christmas carols at numerous services over and over throughout this week.

It's true that most Episcopal churches still refrain from decorating till Christmas Eve, and the Sunday morning services still have an Advent flavor, but the traditional emphasis on those ancient "Last Things" is hard to maintain when the great majority of people are flocking to the carol services. The magic and wonder of Christmas Eve is being lost altogether; in many churches the glorious adult "midnight service" has given way to the buzzing confusion of the 5 PM family service. A serious argument can be made in favor of having children's pageants not as an alternative to the Christmas Eve midnight service but a sort of training for it--if the children know there is something adult that they can look forward to when they are older, the true significance of the birth of Christ sinks in more deeply. Many of us older Episcopalians can testify to the power of the midnight service when one has to wait to get old enough to go to it. We have allowed a drift that was probably not intended; the 4 or 5 PM children's services now dominate the church's celebration of the great miracle of Christmas. Surely this has been a mistake.

So consider supporting your church's "midnight" service this year!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ungodly evangelicals

That good word, evangelical, has almost been taken away from us. It is time to take it back.
--James R. Crumley, formerly Bishop of the Lutheran Church in America

An evangelical is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly [Romans 4:5, 5:6]…Those who are not [evangelical] have a defective view of the sovereignty of divine grace in the saving process. Anything that allows for an element of merit or human achievement in work of salvation is, to that extent, non-evangelical.
--F. F. Bruce, distinguished New Testament scholar

The word “evangelical,” as the bishop notes, is in danger of being lost to us because of its almost daily use in the media to denote fundamentalists and others on the Christian Right who insist on “born-again” experiences as the hallmark of the true believer. These Christians are typically identified with three issues above all others—abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research—and vote Republican in overwhelming numbers.

The word is also used within the historic Protestant (mainline) denominations to identify parties within the church, usually in a political context with regard to hotly debated issues such as same-sex marriage. Rarely are the deeper theological issues addressed or even acknowledged. Part of the frustration of being evangelical in the Episcopal Church today is the near-impossibility of getting a discussion going about foundational issues—Christology, Scriptural interpretation, the doctrine of revelation, the divine agency. The last is the most important of all, as F. F. Bruce clearly outlines in the quotation above, which is taken from a 1989 interview with W. Ward Gasque, a professor at Regent College.

Bruce firmly identifies the central affirmation of the gospel: the justification of the ungodly. The radicality of this declaration of Paul in the letter to the Romans is almost entirely ignored by the leaders of the mainlines—and, frankly, by most of the so-called evangelical churches as well. One way or another—whether by singing the approved renewal music, or by correct political commitments, or by Celtic spiritual practices, or by energetic community participation, or by charismatic enthusiasm–we are determined to put our own achievements at the center. This is a subtle matter, because most Christians realize, in theory, that they should not be putting themselves in the place of God. In practice, however, it is remarkably rare to hear a religious person utter a sentence in which God is the subject of the verb.

Because of this blind spot, we are not willing to carry out the idea of the justification of the ungodly to its logical (or, rather, illogical!) conclusion. We are theoretically inclusive, but not in practice. There is no congregation anywhere that can truly call itself inclusive, in spite of the widespread practice of doing so. What “inclusive” really means at the moment is, “we favor gay marriage.” It doesn’t mean that we accept people who are radically outside our template. A recent story in the news is instructive: a woman who worked for Planned Parenthood was welcomed into an Episcopal parish as a new member, and she grew to love the congregation. Then she assisted at an actual abortion, and was shaken by the way the fetus flinched at the needle before being suctioned out. She decided that she could no longer work for Planned Parenthood. Now she is shunned at her church.

This story could be told about countless people who were made to feel unwelcome in churches, and not only because of positions on various hot-button issues. There is no congregation capable of welcoming everyone. Sooner or later there will be a person with mental illness, bad hygiene, an irritating personality, or unacceptable views, who will be made unwelcome or even asked to leave. Instead of bragging about how inclusive we are, we would be more honest in the sight of God and our fellows if we maintained a state of perpetual repentance and prayer.

There is no answer to this universal human dilemma except to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and his justification of the ungodly, for in the final analysis, that category includes, without exception, every single one of us.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Classic 1960 military movie and waterboarding

Tunes of Glory (1960) is available in a first-rate DVD from the admirable Criterion Collection. It is, first of all, catnip for lovers of all things Scottish and all things military.

But there is more. Alec Guinness plays against type as the boozing, brawling commander of a peacetime, postwar Scottish battalion--in his autobiography he said it was one of his all-time favorite roles and, indeed, it displays his depth and range as an actor more than any other film performances of his that I can think of (not that I ever saw him on stage, alas. My parents saw him in the premiere of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party--imagine!)

The story concerns two military men with antithetical personalities and styles. Both are essentially decent, both have enormous flaws, and they destroy each other. It is an enactment of the tragedy of unredeemed human nature.

But who remembers that it featured waterboarding? The John Mills character, Colonel Basil Barrow, who is brought in to command the battalion, has a breakdown at a dance party (love that Scottish dancing!) that the battalion is giving for the local community. He recalls being waterboarded by the Japanese during World War II. This dialogue ensues:

Lt. Col. Basil Barrow: When you're dying, when you really believe you're dying, you think of the most absurd things.
Capt. Jimmy Cairns, M.C.: In my war I never had time to think.
Lt. Col. Basil Barrow: Oh they gave me time, all right. Again and again. When I was in the prison camp, they nearly drowned me, then they brought me round. Then they put a wet cloth over my mouth and kept it wet until I nearly drowned again. And the only thing that pulled me through was the thought that one day I'd come back and sit in the middle of that table as colonel of this battalion, like my grandfather and his father before him.

When this movie was made, this was not the sort of thing that American audiences would have ever thought would come up as part of our domestic policy. Alas....

Christian doctrine and the murder mystery

The famous mystery writer Sue Grafton was interviewed today on WNYC (our superb local NPR station). She was intelligent, thoughtful, quietly analytical. She talked about constructing a mystery novel and all the various "rules" of the genre. All things considered, she thought, the rules are "liberating." That was her word. Flannery O'Connor said the same thing about doctrine. When you know what the boundaries are, you can work more freely and more adventurously. If you have to stop and make endless choices all the time, you are overwhelmed with choices and your work has no shape. For this reason, ballet dancers still have to do their barre exercises every day, aspiring poets need to learn the traditional forms, pianists do their five-finger exercises. Knowing what the communicatio idiomatum is may not be necessary for a sincere prayer, but if your understanding of the Godhead is limited to a "Jesus kerygma" (the presentation of Jesus prevalent today--a Jesus without Christology), the entire Christian faith is seriously compromised. Not everyone needs to know about perichoresis but there was a time when those who didn't know recognized that their teachers and leaders needed to know.

(The term "all things considered" is used here not only in homage to NPR but also as an attempt to avoid "at the end of the day" which has become so tiresome. Or, how about, "in the end," or "in the final analysis," or "after due consideration," or"summing up"... etc. )