Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Royal Wedding: some impressions

I watched the entire proceeding on the BBC, and I am very glad I did. The coverage from their box was restrained, respectful, and--of course--knowledgeable. The only time they went wrong was with the roaming correspondents among the crowds who spent all their time "interviewing" narcissistic people in outrageous costumes. It would have been much more interesting if they had sought out the ordinary, unpretentious people who had made a great effort to be there and would have had more edifying observations. It was also a bit of a shock to hear these crowd-roaming BBC reporters saying "like" and "you guys"!

Other impressions:

--It was very moving and soul-strengthening to hear the traditional Prayer Book service. The majesty and solemnity of the language is simply incomparable. One of our favorite family stories concerns a cousin's wedding in New England fifty years ago. The grandfather of the bride, a Congregational minister, was asked by the bride's family to use the Episcopal rite. When going over the service with the bride and groom, he protested that he was sure they didn't want to use "I require and charge you both, as ye shall answer at the dreadful day of judgment..." The bride said, "But grandfather, I LOVE 'the dreadful day of judgment'!" That's a good Advent text, right there.

--Ordinarily I recommend that lay readers keep their eyes on the text. But James Middleton read Romans so wonderfully well that, although he looked up frequently, I could only admire the reading--simple, deliberate, solemn, slowly paced, and above all, delivered with understanding and respect for what he was reading.

--The hymns were well chosen. I was amazed to see almost that almost all the gussied-up English people in the congregation were actually singing, and all the verses at that. The Queen and Prince Philip also joined in. I wondered whether those who sang were pondering the lines, "When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside..." It seemed odd, yet significant, to sing of one's inevitable death on such a day. In these days of tornadoes and terror attacks, memento mori is a good thing, even at a wedding. I have often wondered how many people realize that when we sing "Death of death, and hell's Destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side..." we are addressing the Lord Christ who alone is victorious over death and hell.

--The homily by the Bishop of London was quite good, I thought. Even though there were all those conspicuously divorced people sitting right under the pulpit, he managed to say something substantive about marriage in the sight of God.

--The Queen looked so very happy as she rode with Prince Philip to the Palace from the Abbey in the Scottish Coach. It really was striking. Perhaps she hopes for more marital success in the second generation.

--Prince Philip is as erect at 90 as he was at 30. It is astonishing. He got out of the coach with much more ease than I could at 75, and then helped the Queen out, although she looked as if she didn't need any help. They both then walked up the steps without holding on to anything and without looking fearful of falling. Amazing!

--In my opinion, the most remarkable dress was Pippa's, a paradigm of understated elegance. Kate's will hold up well, also. It would be nice to think that this means the beginning of the end of strapless wedding dresses, a lamentable fashion. But why did Kate (Catherine) wear such an underwhelming tiara?

--Englishwomen's hats: one wants to cheer for the deeply ingrained tradition of hat-wearing, and the Prime Minister's wife looked underdressed and out of place without one, but why such preposterous designs? One is more absurd than the next. They are just too huge. Today's dresses and shoes can't stand up to them. Pity the poor men standing behind one of those things; they couldn't possibly see anything. As for the flyaway creations that Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie habitually wear (with egregiously unsuitable dresses), what are they thinking?

--It's important to remember that the Household Cavalry are not just decorations. They are real soldiers, who have served or are going to serve in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In an interview at the Royal Mews, an attraction I hope to see if I ever go back to London, the officer in charge said that it took 10-12 hours to prepare a man and his horse for a ceremonial occasion, and that his men took great pride in their "kit."

--Almost all the music was by English composers, which is probably as it should be, but there was too much C. H. H. Parry for my taste. I longed for a bit of Handel. Alas, I probably will not live long enough to hear once again "Zadok the priest" as the Crown of St. Edward the Confessor is lowered onto the sovereign's head. I will never forget the overwhelming power of that music when I heard it for the first time as a 15-year-old watching the film of Elizabeth II's coronation. (By the way, Handel's house in London has been saved and has recently been converted into a museum of his life and work while he was in England.)

--One can only wish the handsome couple well. I wish that they had not been openly living together, as have Zara Phillips (Princess Anne's daughter) and Mike Tindall who will marry this summer (at one of my favorite churches in Edinburgh). It is already hard enough to set an example for one's grandchildren,and when the royal family sets such a conspicuous precedent it is that much more difficult. It is not true that living together is a good preparation for marriage; statistics (though of course statistics never tell the whole story) repeatedly have shown that couples who have lived together have a higher break-up rate. By now, however, it is such a common practice that there many not be many more statistics to show.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Missing: the message of the cross during Holy Week?

Word has just come from a rector in a neighboring diocese that a rewritten Good Friday liturgy is being used in many parishes (and approved in several dioceses) for Earth Day, which will fall on Good Friday this year. There is also a move to alter the season just before Advent (late Pentecost) to celebrate creation.

Why is this a terrible idea?

I hasten to say that I am a charter member of the Friends of the Earth. I marched in the very first Earth Day demonstration in Manhattan in 1960. I yield to no one in my passion for the environment. I follow the news about environmental degradation closely, and I am active in a number of conservation groups.

But the earth and all that dwells therein is fallen. That is the missing factor in all this emphasis on the earth and the creation. God's pronouncement that the earth was "very good" came before the Fall. Everything that has gone wrong with creation is part and parcel of the reign of Sin and Death, which came about because of the rebellion of the human race against the Creator. Proclaiming a "theology of creation" without telling the whole story is not theology at all, because it makes the death of Christ superfluous. The emphasis on a creation gospel fails to account for the runaway selfishness and greed that will spoil our precious planet, for sure, without the gracious intervention of God to call us to our senses a hundred times a day.

The only season of the church year that has permitted us to talk about the judgment of God on selfishness and greed is late Pentecost. I suspect that this move to substitute creation for judgment during those weeks in November is precisely intended to remove the theme of judgment from the lectionary.

Where does one go, these days, to hear a full-out sermon on the meaning of the Cross of Christ? The evangelical churches are no more likely to address this central article of our faith than the mainlines. Paul the Apostle wrote that he'd decided "to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2), and yet Paul is the very one who, along with Isaiah 40-55, proclaims a cosmic gospel. The entire created order is presently "in bondage to decay" and is "groaning" as it waits for its redemption (Romans 8:21-22).

"The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (I Cor. 1:18) Without the word of the cross, there is nothing left of the gospel except self-help. But that is what we human beings have always preferred, isn't it?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Something everyone should know

About four years ago, I began to realize that we did not know enough about the Holocaust, that our vision was distorted, and that the scholarly landscape was changing. This began to dawn upon me when I went to see an exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. It was about the "Holocaust by Bullets" and it contained photos that I had never seen, more horrifying than those I was familiar with. I had read a novel called The White Hotel, about the shooting of all the Jews of Kiev (about 33,000) in the ravine of Babi Yar, but the full scope of these events did not yet fully register with me. Later I read Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, an important investigation of the groups of "ordinary" Germans (the Einsatzgruppen) who were sent to Eastern Europe to shoot hundreds of thousands of Jews, Poles, and others in the woods near their own towns ("Operation Reinhardt").

Still, it was not until I read Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, the ground-breaking recent work by Timothy Snyder, that I fully understood. More and more, students of the Holocaust are beginning to insist that Auschwitz is not an adequate symbol. Quite a few Jewish historians and writers are complaining about "Auschwitz tourism." It is stressed that we know more about Auschwitz because there were many survivors; virtually no one survived the gas at Treblinka, so we know little about that furnace of Hell. The familiar writings by Elie Weisel, Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo, and others are all about Auschwitz. No one has written in this way about the "holocaust by bullets," yet as Snyder points out, by the time Auschwitz was fully operational, most of the Jews of Eastern Europe ("the bloodlands") were already dead.

Snyder wrote the following capsule of his own book. We owe it to ourselves and the lost millions to absorb at least this much (the second paragraph especially):

The subject of my article was the five largest policies of mass killing of civilians carried out by Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union: the German attempt to exterminate European Jews (circa 5.7 million deaths); German starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 4 million); German mass reprisals against civilians (at least 750,000); Soviet starvations of Soviet citizens (circa 5.5 million), and the shootings of the Soviet Great Terror (circa 700,000).

I argued that our understanding of European mass killing should be modified: that Auschwitz was less important to the Holocaust than Operation Reinhardt in occupied Poland and the death pits in the occupied USSR; that the Germans planned to kill more non-Jews than Jews and in the end killed the two in about equal numbers; and that German and Soviet killing policies overlapped in territory and should be considered together as part of a larger phenomenon.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The twelve-minute sermon, challenged

As a riposte to the saying that people are constantly throwing at me ("If I had had more time, I would have written a shorter sermon"), I rejoice to pass along a quotation from the late lamented Rev. Dr. Prof. Peter Gomes of Harvard Memorial Church. This is lifted from Will Willimon's enjoyable remembrance of him in the March 8 issue of The Christian Century:

When I got word that Peter had died, I recalled some of his memorable pronouncements, uttered in his inimitable voice: "Anything worth saying in a sermon is worth taking at least 40 minutes to say it."
I preached twice at "Mem Church" at Peter Gomes' invitation. It was both a challenge and a joy. To know that one is expected to preach at some length (not 40 minutes, though!) was liberating. Expectation is the key ingredient in preaching, really; I remember wistfully the congregation at Grace Church in New York City where I served for 14 years. They were there expecting to hear a word from the Lord. That is rare in Episcopal churches today. I miss it very much.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Intervention in Libya: a preposterous argument

T. S. Eliot, in Murder in the Cathedral: “This above all is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.” I love Mr. Eliot, but if that were true, we would be too tied up in knots ever to do anything. I suggest that it is better to do the wrong thing for the right reason than to do nothing. We are going to screw up no matter what we do; it is God who validates and vindicates our actions on behalf of others.

Thinking along those lines led to this: If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times--we can’t solve all the problems of the world, we can’t intervene in every crisis, we can’t get involved in every calamity, we can’t save all every endangered population, etc. etc. etc. But suppose you have come upon a terrible car crash. The cars are full of injured families and children. You can’t pull but one to safety before the gas tanks explode. Does that mean you won’t save the one since you can’t save them all? Suppose you see several children struggling in a riptide and only one of them is close enough for you to rescue. Are you supposed to let them all drown? As someone said on NPR yesterday morning, if a doctor has two critically injured patients in a refugee hospital, and he only has the resources to save one, will he let them both die? The argument is preposterous.

There are many factors that made military action in Libya a viable possibility. These factors are not present in the case of, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congolese have not asked for our help. The French and the Italians are not close at hand to press for action and to be supportive. There is no UN resolution. There is no Sub-Saharan African League issuing a directive. There is no air force to bomb. There is no possibility of intervening without ground troops, and that is politically off the table (viz. Somalia). And so forth.

From a Christian point of view, violence is always a deal with the devil. Non-violent resistance is the way of the cross. Yet such deals must sometimes be made, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer acknowledged with his analogy of the spoke in the wheel of the runaway cart. The Libyan deal will have many negative repercussions, this being a seriously fallen world; however, the one argument that makes no sense is the one about “you can’t save ‘em all.” An for a superb column along these lines by David Brooks, see this link: