Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, September 27, 2010

Problems with a favorite hymn

Here are two excerpts from my forthcoming book about the meaning of the Crucifixion:

One way to avoid the shamefulness of the Cross is to interpret it exclusively in terms of victory. When the Episcopal Church produced a new hymnal in 1982, it included a new hymn, “Lift High the Cross.” It promptly rocketed to the top of the charts and has remained there ever since. Its catchy, spirited tune is fun to sing and is probably the most important single factor in its having caught on so quickly. It is also likely that its title featuring the Cross has made it a favorite in evangelical circles. The words, however, are problematic. It is perhaps significant that they were written in a period of optimism about human potential, prior to World War I. Here are two sample verses:

Led on their way by this triumphant sign,
The host of God in conquering ranks combine.

So shall our song of triumph ever be,
Praise to the Crucified for victory.

We are supposed to be in a post-Constantinian era, but Constantine himself, with his motto in hoc signo vinces—conquer in this sign —could hardly have thought up a more triumphalist fight song. Note how the Cross is associated exclusively with victory, with glory. It makes it sound as though the victory of Christ did not cost anything. There is not a hint of shamefulness or suffering in the entire hymn. One line refers to “him who died,” but even that glancing reference to death is quickly cancelled out by a reference to “the glorious tree.” There is no suggestion of tension or struggle. It makes one rather wish for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered / We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered...”

The words of familiar hymns enter deeply into people’s consciousness whether they are aware of them or not. Many people who cannot remember the words of a hymn will nevertheless absorb some of its general meaning, especially if it is associated with a memorable tune. Now, to be sure, there are times and places in human history when the theology of glory has a central, energizing role to play. Oppressed peoples undergoing persecution, imprisonment, “disappearance,” torture and murder need to know and to celebrate Christ’s victory over the powers and principalities. People undergoing great hardship will be strengthened for the struggle by worship emphasizing the Lord’s conquest over all forms of human suffering. For them the Cross as “triumphant sign” might very well be the right hymn at the right time.

However, when the Cross is repeatedly praised in the hymnody of relatively comfortable white American churches as a “triumphant sign” of victory, one must seriously question what sort of victory is being envisioned. Neither death, nor sin, nor Satan, nor evil, nor any form of human oppression are mentioned in the text of the hymn. The hymn-singers are free to interpret “victory” any way they like, from victory on the football field to victory in the world economy. This is literally, not merely figuratively true; it is well known that American Christians quite typically learn to associate their faith with various forms of success, and pray far more for personal good fortune than for the sufferings of the poor and disenfranchised of the earth. “Corinthian” hymns that identify the Cross exclusively with triumph and conquest, with no corresponding mention of suffering and shame, subtly undermine the Biblical picture of the meaning of the Crucifixion…

And, in a later section about the theme of redemption:

The word redemption in secular English usage used to be familiar because of pawnshops. If you pawned an object, you hoped to go back later and redeem it—buy it back. Pawnshops are not as commonplace as they once were, so the idea of redemption as “buying back” is no longer an everyday image. These days we are more likely to hear the word in quite another context, as one disgraced politician or television evangelist after another finds “redemption” on the prayer-breakfast circuit. The basic idea underlying redemption in both cases is that something that was forfeit has been reclaimed, either literally or figuratively; something once lost has been regained, a disrupted relationship has been repaired, a grievous error has been redressed. In the pawnshop example, the payment of a price is to be understood in the most literal sense. In the rehabilitation of a public figure, the price is a ritual of public self-abnegation followed by absolution from the community. In each case, a price of some sort is paid. When the idea is transferred to Jesus, it immediately becomes apparent that the price is not being paid by the person in financial or personal difficulty, but by someone else. Thus an element of vicariousness or substitution is introduced.

Continuing with the subject of hymns, we might note that none of these implications are taken into account in the widely popular hymn that we mentioned earlier, “Lift High the Cross.” In chapter 2, “The Godlessness of the Cross,” we noted the lack of any sense of tension or struggle in the words. In the context of the present chapter there is another problem to be noted. The cross is extolled as a sign of victory. This is not wrong; we have already seen in the Passover chapter and will see again in the Christus Victor chapter that triumph is a major aspect of Christ’s work. In the hymn, however, there is no corresponding hint of price or cost, nor is there any suggestion of what it would mean to “lift high the cross” except to carry it in a procession, which is usually what is happening when the hymn is being sung. I don’t mean to suggest that it is possible to say everything in one hymn; Isaac Watt’s 17th century favorite, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” emphasizes the extremity of the price paid by Jesus but does not contain any explicit mention of sin. Still, it is a cause for concern that there is so little in the liturgy or hymnal of today to remind us of the cost to God in the cross, and the relevance of that cost to the gravity of sin.

Flannery O’Connor, in her stories, deals insistently with these unpopular topics. In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she writes that the “reader of today” is indeed looking for redemption, “and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” She has identified the heart of the argument. The human predicament is so dire that it cannot be remedied in any ordinary way; if we fail to see this, then we “have not yet considered the great weight of sin.” Redemption (buying back), therefore, is not cheap. In the death of Jesus we see God himself suffering the consequences of sin. That is the “price.” When Christian teaching falls short of this proclamation, the work of Christ on the Cross is diminished to the vanishing point, becoming nothing more than an exemplary death to admire, to venerate, perhaps even to emulate, but certainly not an event to shake the foundations of this world order. We see today in so many of our mainline churches and seminaries the results of this diminished view of the Cross—impoverishment in the preaching of the Atonement, if not abandonment of it altogether. Flannery O’Connor would be the first to agree that we are the ones who are now “paying the price” for the thin gruel being served.

The question arises, Is this our same bugaboo as before, namely, literal-mindedness? Are those who have such an antipathy toward some of these themes unwilling to see that they are figures of speech? Perhaps I am being unfair. God knows, there has been enough egregious literal-mindedness over the years in evangelical circles to keep interpreters of every persuasion busy undoing it for many years more. The tendentiousness has been especially pronounced in the evangelical battle against regarding redemption as deliverance in a general sense. This in turn has fueled the fires of those in the opposing camp who don’t want to any idea of a price paid at all.

The Anglican theologian Austin Farrer has a particularly good way of describing the way that the Biblical imagery functions. Bear in mind that his term for the metaphors and motifs, such as those of “ransom” and “price,” is “parable.” We return yet again to hymns; Farrer cites two of them, both of which play a role in this book. First, from the hymn “There is a green hill far away,” he cites the line, “There is no other good enough to pay the price of sin”; and second, the verse,

Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone...?

Then he asks if the imagery in these lines is literally true, and answers, “If you...require a Yes or No answer, you force me to vote for the negative; they are not true. But I shall vote with reluctance, because the parable of the hopeless debtor redeemed by Christ’s infinite generosity is an excellent parable.” He then continues to explain that “parables” have “gleams of truth” nevertheless, and that the truths expressed by the images should be encompassed in the literal, or systematic, presentation. “The great merit of parable is to convey passion or lay on moral colour; when we break it down to literal statement the colour fades, the passion evaporates.” Yet we must do this breaking down, he says, if we are to do the work of systematic theology. The question then becomes whether the truth of the parable is accurately conveyed in the theological propositions being put forward. He shrewdly takes the reader through various steps, trying out first this objection to the imagery and then that, firmly concluding that, although God’s action in Christ “is nothing so formal or so ineffective as the deletion of a ledger entry on account of payment received from a third party,” nevertheless “God’s act of universal forgiveness is the whole train of action he sets working through Christ....And of this great process Christ’s blood was, once more, the cost.”

Farrer thus shows how we may reflect systematically and theologically upon “parables” (metaphors) without foregoing the “passion” and “moral colour” that they convey. In what follows, I will try to build a case for understanding redemption both in a general way as deliverance, and in a specific way as deliverance at cost, or, in a phrase used by Vincent Taylor and taken up by many other scholars, deliverance by purchase....

Footnote: (One of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns is not sung in the American Episcopal Church at all, perhaps because English evangelicals sing it to a poor tune. It would be a great gift to the Church if “How can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s love?...Amazing love, how can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me...” could be given a tune as good as that of “Lift High the Cross.” )
Also: The author of "Lift High the Cross" was George W. Kitchen (d. 1912). He is buried in the churchyard at my beloved Durham Cathedral so he must have been a good man :-)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The true meaning of elitism

Once in a while something comes along that transcends the conservative/liberal divide in a radical way. Radical is the right word. It's so difficult nowadays to go beyond the entrenched positions on right and left. I am thinking more of the church here than anything else at the moment, which is odd, since my comments are inspired by the writings of a completely secular person.

Tony Judt, who suffered from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and died a few weeks ago, was one of the most important public intellectuals of our time. The important writer Timothy Garton Ash, in his obituary in The New York Review of Books, placed Judt in "the great tradition of the spectateur engagé, the politically engaged but independent and critical intellectual." Judt was always controversial, especially in his criticisms of modern Israel, but if ever there was redemptive suffering, his was it. During the last stages of his illness when he was unable to move a single muscle, he dictated a series of essays for The New York Review. The first one, a detailed description of what it's like to have a fully functioning brain in a totally immobilized body, was so riveting that many readers like me must have been permanently affected by it. After that, he did not speak of his affliction at all, but continued to publish a series of reflections. The August 19 issue featured his musings about his education at Kings College, Cambridge,]. He was a member of the first lower-middle-class generation to be admitted to the previously upper-class "Oxbridge" as a result of the 1944 Butler Education Act. Judt, of Russian Jewish extraction, found himself entirely, and surprisingly, at home in the environs of elite Kings. His reminiscences about his education there are found in the August 19 issue of The New York Review at

Judt's brief but probing essay about his education at Kings is deeply conservative in the most valuable and, indeed, radical sense. He is not afraid to use the term "elitist." Here is his conclusion:

Liberalism and tolerance, indifference to external opinion, a prideful sense of distinction accompanying progressive political allegiances: these are manageable contradictions, but only in an institution unafraid to assert its particular form of elitism. Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

In my generation we thought of ourselves as both radical and members of an elite. If this sounds incoherent, it is the incoherence of a certain liberal descent that we intuitively imbibed over the course of our college years. It is the incoherence of the patrician [John Maynard] Keynes establishing the Royal Ballet and the Arts Council for the greater good of everyone, but ensuring that they were run by the cognoscenti. It is the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented. It was the incoherence of my King's and I was fortunate to have experienced it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bulletins from the furor about Islam

Billy Graham, please call Terry Jones! Rick Warren, please call Terry Jones! Tim LaHaye, call him! Are we going to let 30 people in Gainesville, Florida put the entire American experiment in potentially mortal danger? Is this insane project -- burning Korans -- really going to go forward? It isn't enough for Episcopal and Roman Catholic bishops to weigh in. Even the estimable Richard Cizik speaks only for liberal evangelicals. The Christian Right has to get involved.

As for the hot-button issue of the day, the "mosque at ground zero" (which it isn't--it's a community center in downtown Manhattan), the idealistic (maybe too idealistic?) imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who envisioned the whole thing, has written an op-ed piece which appears in the New York Times today. It is remarkably cogent and gracious on a number of levels. Most people don't know why his project is to be called Cordoba House, and his explanation is winsome:

Our name, Cordoba, was inspired by the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims. Our initiative is intended to cultivate understanding among all religions and cultures.

He makes the best case for "Abrahamic" cooperation that I've seen:

Cordoba House will be built on the two fundamental commandments common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam: to love the Lord our creator with all of our hearts, minds, souls and strength; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We want to foster a culture of worship authentic to each religious tradition, and also a culture of forging personal bonds across religious traditions.

The content and tone of what he has written feels to me like a breakthrough. May it be so.

PS. Later reports indicated that the young, somewhat inexperienced developer and the older, idealistic imam have conflicting visions for the site. It's an ongoing drama.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Two books, two perspectives: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides

In order to get a grip on the greatest political tragedy of modern times, one could hardly do better than read two books from opposing perspectives. Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh sets out the history of the conflict in the Holy Land from the perspective of a politically savvy (if not quite activist) philosopher-scholar from an ancient Arab family. He has been president of Al-Quds University, the Arab university in Jerusalem, since 1995 and, indeed, was responsible for bringing it into being as a creditable institution against formidable odds. His book is suffused with love for his people, the humanist heritage of Islam, Arab Jerusalem, and his family’s history (they have held the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre since Caliph Omar “the Just” gave it to their forebear in the 7th century). At the same time he is relentlessly honest and forthcoming about Palestinian failings, follies, inertia, and self-deluded behavior.

From the Israeli side, A Tale of Love and Darkness is a memoir by Amos Oz, one of today’s great writers by any standard. The brilliant English translation from the original Hebrew is by Nicholas de Lange. Oz, originally surnamed Klausner, was the high-strung, astonishingly gifted son of parents whose relatives in Poland and Russia had been swallowed up by the Holocaust. Highly personal, the book depicts the struggle of the young Jewish boy, an only child, to free himself from the grip of his pedantic father, desperate mother, and smothering family by escaping into a kibbutz. A major event in the boy’s life was the birth of the nation of Israel and the ensuing War of Independence (1947-9). The reader will never forget the depiction of the night of November 29, 1947, when the UN (meeting at Lake Success, New York) voted to give statehood to Israel.

These two authors, as boys, lived 100 yards apart in Jerusalem but might as well have been on different continents at that time. When they were both adults, however, they met and became friends. Oz had become a famous writer and Nusseibeh “read everything of his I could get my hands on, partly because of his genius and partly because my Israeli friends had always spoken very highly of him as a man of integrity and the conscience of the Israeli people.” Nusseibeh contacted Oz and was invited to visit in his home. They met and forged bonds with one another in adulthood, and Oz provided a blurb for Once Upon a Country.

The two books could hardly be more different. Oz’s book is the work of a poet and novelist, a literary masterpiece by any standard. Nusseibeh’s is more workmanlike, offering a good deal more actual historical information. His book details his struggles on many fronts to persuade not only the Israelis but also, and especially, his own people that the way of violence and confrontation is fruitless. Academic life was his calling; he truly hated being a political activist, and yet again and again, though he was imprisoned for 90 days and many on both sides of the conflict sought his life, he returned to the political fray. He was declared “the most dangerous Palestinian alive” by the right-wing Israelis, and Hamas hates him, so that he has had to employ bodyguards for years. His story is therefore one of extraordinary moral courage, requiring more sustained quiet heroism than an action on the battlefield.

Both these men, Oz now in his 70s, Nusseibeh a decade younger, are dedicated to the seemingly endless struggle for sanity, rationality, and peace among Arabs and Israelis. They have continued to meet “at peace rallies, demonstrations, and debates between Palestinian and Jewish intellectuals” (Nusseibeh, p. 11) but with few concrete results as the struggle has become ever more vain over the decades. With a Jewish colleague, Mark Hiller, Nusseibeh wrote a proposal ("No Trumpets, No Drums") for achieving a two-state solution. It seems to a disinterested observer to make perfect sense, but it does not seem to have gained any traction.

Nusseibeh has believed for decades that the two peoples should be strategic allies, not enemies. He has persisted in this view, and in trying to persuade the Palestinians to give up violence. Once Upon a Country is an excellent introduction to the Palestinian point of view, causing the reader to care deeply about the Arabs and their hopes; at the same time, Nusseibeh is without illusions; his depictions of Palestinian haplessness, incompetence, corruption, and magical thinking are devastating.

Note: the seeker after interfaith cooperation should be aware: There is not an ounce of theology in either of these books. Both men love their respective religious traditions and speak with great respect for them; and yet neither one of them shows the slightest sign of believing in either YHWH or Allah. Indeed, they both go out of their way to show how secular they are. That is one of the baffling aspects of modern-day Judaism, in particular; many Christians find it puzzling that so many American Jews are ultra-loyal to their culture and community without seeming to have much commitment to, or even interest in, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

No sentient person could fail to be deeply concerned about the future of the Middle East and the talks now taking place at the White House. However, anyone who reads the two books I've just finished will not only be concerned, but will feel a profound emotional involvement that I imagine would remain throughout life. These two books present the two sides--Israeli and Palestinian--with great power and urgency.

One of the two books is Once Upon a Country, by Sari Nusseibeh. The title alludes to the author's love of fairy stories, but it's no tall tale. It's a full history of the Holy Land in modern times from the perspective of a leading Palestinian peace activist. Nusseibeh is a member of an Arab family that traces its ancestry directly back to the 7th century, a family so old and so venerated that to this day a Nusseibeh still holds the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The second book is A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz, a leading Israeli political leftist and a first-rate writer in any language. His book is more memoir than history, more novelistic than Nusseibeh's and much more literary, but it evokes the events of the birth of the modern nation of Israel better than anything I have ever read. It's a masterpiece on a number of levels.

I read the first half of Once Upon a Country first, then set it temporarily aside and read all of A Tale of Love and Darkness. I then returned to Nusseibeh. This turned out to be an excellent way to proceed. Nusseibeh refers to Oz's book several times in his first half. The two men met when Nusseibeh contacted Oz (having read his book) and was invited to visit him in his desert home. They were dumbfounded to learn that they had grown up in Jerusalem only 100 yards from each other, but knowing nothing whatever of the other's world. After that meeting they became comrades in the struggle for peace, and Oz wrote a blurb for Once Upon a Country.

One of the advantages of reading the second half of Once Upon a Country is that it very clearly presents the "Destination Map" drawn up by Nusseibeh and a few colleagues, a response to George W. Bush's Road Map. It lays out the issues most disputed and calls for a two-state solution based upon sacrifices made by each side. Most impressively, it asks the Palestinians to give up the right of return--no small concession. The Israelis would yield East Jerusalem, end the occupation, and stop building settlements. There is a lot more to the Destination Plan than this, of course, but this gives the idea. Because of his positions, Nusseibeh is hated by factions on both sides, and for years has had to employ bodyguards.

Both of these men are extraordinarily courageous, in their different ways, morally and (especially Nusseibeh) physically. Both draw upon their respective traditions for inspiration and resolve. I found myself wondering if Nusseibeh's warmly compelling images of Islam weren't a bit rosy, but even if they are, he presents the faith in such a beguiling light that one can't help being impressed. How much did Christianity seep into his thought (he was educated at Oxford and Harvard)? He makes a couple of serious mistakes in referring to Christianity, but there was a story about him in The New Yorker a few years ago that I have never forgotten; he actually said to an uncomprehending David Remnick that the Palestinians should absorb more of the spirit of Christ. He hasn't regretted saying this; he quotes it again in Once Upon a Country. and strengthens it with a story about his mother (a most wonderful person) and her spontaneous compassion for the Other.

I recommend these two books--in tandem--with no reservations.