Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent: the season begins in the dark

Advent begins in the dark. And these are dark times. In the farm market where we shop in the Berkshires, the everyday talk among customers picking out wreaths and baked goods has been dark, dark, dark. Economy barely dragging along, the euro nations sunk in gloom, worst Congress ever, pundits writing about the end of the American dream. On top of that, Pakistan (worst ally ever) becoming even more impossible, resurgence in Cairo, credible reports of children tortured and mutilated in Syria, Christians disappearing from the Middle East, no sign of an end to human rights violations in surging China.

"Religion" is not the answer. Religion is essentially man-made: it is projected out of our wishes, our longings, our "spiritual" capacities. Advent reminds us: human incapacity is the condition in which we find ourselves -- our inability to gain any lasting victory of light over darkness. It is from beyond human capacity that the announcement comes: "Behold, I am doing a new thing" Isaiah 43:19). The Light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5) is not the light of religion, not even the light of religious faith. It is the uncreated Light, not part of this darkened sphere at all, not bound by it, not contiguous with it, not limited by it, not projected from it, not coexistent with it but rather, God from God, Light from Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not created. Therefore the New Thing is not just generalized religious comfort, but the Incarnation itself -- the invasion of "this present evil age" (Gal 1:4) by the Deliverer who arrives from a sphere of power entirely independent of and qualitatively greater than the powers that dominate and ravage this world.

But still more extraordinary is the announcement that this Deliverer whom deutero-Isaiah apostrophizes in 15 soaring chapters is among us as the Suffering Servant. It is he who is the Light of the world. It is the humanly inconceivable conjunction of his coming in lowly obscurity with the decisive, cosmic, universal salvation announced by Isaiah that forms the heart of the Advent-Christmas season. Sentiment about babies, mangers, and cute farm animals really must be resisted; and since Christmas is to some extent lost to us as proclamation because of the overwhelming appeal of the irresistible Nativity story, the time for that resistance is now: Advent.

The heavens will vanish like smoke,
The earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
(Isaiah 51:6)

Monday, November 21, 2011

What hope for marriage? Part Two

One of the most startling observations in the Atlantic article about marriage (referred to in Part One of this Rumination) is the author’s charge that married couples are wrapped up in each other and their own little world, not inclined to give freely of themselves. To be sure, one of the reasons often given for a celibate life is the ability to drop everything and rush to the aid of whoever needs it. There is something to be said for that. However, though the primary purpose of marriage remains the raising of the next generation, it is quite common to see married couples who, after the children leave the nest, devote themselves to community and church. After retirement, married couples are able to offer their leisure time to others and to their volunteer work—and a good many do just that. In the process they offer themselves as models of a life of mutual service. The Book of Common Prayer contains these words for a newly married couple:

O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
This prayer contains a capsule version of the theology of the covenant (mentioned in the first installment of this Rumination about marriage) which is so vital for the understanding of Holy Matrimony, but so rarely expounded in an intentional and consistent way in the churches. This teaching is what we need if marriage is to be strengthened. What we hear of marriage in our culture is largely related to the expenditure of outrageous sums of money on wedding ceremonies (the Kim Kardashian fiasco registering as a sort of cosmic joke on us all). We need to hear teaching from our spiritual leaders that will be a strong alternative to these distortions. (The only wedding ceremony that I ever really enjoyed performing was minuscule, held in the chancel of the church with only the family and closest friends present. The bride wore a simple suit and the luncheon afterward was not extravagant, but the whole thing was radiantly joyful. The marriage remains steady and solid, with two brilliantly successful college-age offspring.)

As far as I can recall, I have seen only one movie that is devoted to showing a married couple whose home is “a haven of blessing and of peace.” That “small” English movie, called Another Year, came and went from independent movie houses very rapidly in spite of excellent reviews; the average moviegoer today would not have the patience for it. It depicts a middle-aged, rather homely married couple who have two careers, an unpretentious house, a grown son who loves them—and they love each other. They work together in their community garden and their door is always open to a host of friends and hangers-on. They are constantly cooking or grilling meals for these guests. In particular, they are endlessly patient (though not foolishly so) with a troubled young woman who has lost her way in life and shows up regularly at their doorstep. I remember the details of this little film better than those of a hundred thrill-a-minute movies, but I don’t think my grandchildren would sit through it; such are the challenges we face today.

I would hardly be able to count the numbers of married couples who have made a tremendous difference in my life and in the lives of our daughters. To walk into the front door of these couples’ homes was to shut out chaos, dysfunction, and stress and find, indeed, an oasis of “blessing and peace”–only for a time, to be sure, but nevertheless a soul-strengthening stage along the way. Only a few days ago I met an elderly couple who shyly but proudly told me that every Sunday they greeted and welcomed all the newcomers in their church. I later learned that when they were younger they had both been leaders in parish governance and in church maintenance; now that they are in frail health they are still serving. The author of the Atlantic article seems wilfully to have closed her eyes against such example.

Speaking from personal experience, it is quite likely that such marriages have endured intense periods of challenge and disruption. Very few marriages are truly tranquil for decades. The face of a marriage presented to the world never tells the whole story. Yet it is precisely the struggle to persevere in the midst of extreme provocation that mirrors the faithfulness of God.

Part Three of this Rumination on marriage will come along in due course.

And here is a review of Another Year: 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dr. "Chip" Skowron and the meaning of justification by faith

There was a lot of Internet buzz in Christian circles in the Northeast about the bus filled with members of a men's prayer group going to Foley Square in NYC for the sentencing of Dr. Joseph "Chip" Skowron. They went, their spokesman said, to support the recent convert and "to pray for mercy and grace."

I knew about the conversion and the bus, but until I read the news accounts I had no idea how truly dreadful Dr. Skowron's financial crimes were, how intentional they were, how extreme and calculated. He was an orthopedic surgeon, a very lucrative specialty, but that was not enough for him. He kept going with the insider trading and the lies, along the way acquiring a $7 million house in New Canaan for himself, his wife and their four children.

The deal reached by prosecutors and defense allowed him a sentence of five years in return for pleading guilty. His family and supporters wept openly in the courtroom. What were they weeping about? the prison sentence? the fall of a highly-placed physician? their own losses? Whom or what exactly were the prayers for "mercy and grace" intended for?

Can there ever be anything wrong with praying for mercy and grace? No. Is anyone too far gone for redemption in Christ Jesus? No. Should we not pray for prisoners? Of course we should. Do we believe in justification by grace through faith? Most certainly.

Then what is wrong with this picture?

Maybe the prayers for mercy and grace, which came across as focused exclusively on Dr. Skowron, should have been hand-in-hand with prayers for justice. Maybe the men on the bus could have made a public statement, not only that they were praying for mercy and grace in Foley Square, but for a wholesale cleansing of the sickness of the financial institutions which have brought the United States so low. Maybe they could have made a point of the fact that they were not excusing Dr. Skowron's egregious criminality. "Mistakes" is the word commonly used today, and apparently that is what Dr. Skowron apologized for. Maybe his prayer partners could have said something about God's judgment upon Sin. even as they bore their witness to God's redemptive power.

St Paul virtually never uses the word "forgiveness," which is surely intentional on his part. The word he uses is dikaiosune, ordinarily translated "justification" but better translated "rectification." The word in Hebrew and Greek also means "justice." Therefore, when Paul speaks of justification by grace through faith, he means not only forgiveness but also being set right.

Dr. Skowron says that he has turned over his life to Christ. That's a good beginning. Fifteen years from now, we will see how genuine this conversion is. Will he continue to refer to his crimes as "mistakes"? Will he still focus largely on his own need for "healing" (an ill-suited word for what he needs--how about repentance and regeneration?) Will he learn to see the victims and the sweeping damage that he has done--not only to his wife and children, but to the entire capitalist system?

I realize this sounds somewhat harsh, but so do the Hebrew prophets and our Lord himself when speaking of those who disregard the "little ones" in order to line their own pockets. There is a lot of sentimental thinking about mercy for white-collar criminals. Where were the buses full of Christian supporters for the dozens of recently exonerated poor black men who fought and struggled for decades on death row to maintain their innocence of the crimes for which they had unjustly been incarcerated?

The details of the Skowron case can be readily accessed on the Internet; here are two links:

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Christian Marriage: What’s It Got to Offer?

This is the first part of a three-part Rumination on the subject of marriage. The second and third parts will appear in a few days.

A friend sent me a link to the November issue of Atlantic, which has a long (very long) cover story by Kate Bolick extolling single motherhood and the single-woman life in general. The author works hard to convince us that the institution of marriage may be on the way out (and for her it’s good riddance).

Certainly the statistics point that way. The exponential growth of unmarried live-ins and births to unmarried women has been astonishing, particularly among African-American, working-class and poor women, but it is happening among all classes and races. The Atlantic article rehearses all of this as it seeks to present the strongest possible case for following this trend all the way to its logical conclusion—the end of marriage as we’ve known it.

About half of the article is analysis, drawn in part from statistics, and the other half consists of the author’s personal reflections. That much space given to anecdotal evidence skews the article considerably, but this sort of argument-from-autobiography is common in our self-centered, individualistic culture.

The challenge is so serious, and the trends so unmistakable, that anyone who hopes to hold on to the concept and the practice of traditional marriage had better be equipped with very strong convictions and powerful arguments. Apparently it is not enough to set an example; the sexually adventurous author of the article has not been guided by her own parents’ lasting marriage, and she writes rather pityingly of her mother’s having had sex only with her father. To illustrate further: the Queen of England, so admirable in so many ways and a Christian believer, has allowed her youngest son (Edward) and all of her grandchildren to cohabit while unmarried, regularly inviting them to bring their romantic partners to Balmoral and other royal residences. Her own rock-solid marriage (undertaken when she was only 21) has apparently not been thought a model to emulate.

The Christian community is not doing a very good job of teaching about marriage. (Indeed, it can be argued that the mainline churches are not doing a very good job of teaching anything theological about anything.) It is our responsibility to come to grips with the challenges of modern life and to meet them with theo-centric exposition. A few Roman Catholic students have founded the Anscombe Society, with a presence on college campuses; their commitment to chastity is based on solid catholic teaching. I met a young Roman Catholic college student this summer, and she spoke with feeling about her commitment to chastity. Such young Catholics can count on the church to support them, but this is not the case in the mainline Protestant churches, which have largely yielded the field.

The concept of marriage as an image or reflection of the divine covenant between God and Israel, between Christ and the church, is what’s missing. Very few pew-sitters today would be able to tell the story of the covenant in its full biblical context, with the prophets’ imagery of Yahweh’s marriage to Israel in the desert and his fidelity to her despite her blatant and continuous apostasy—metaphorically described as adultery (or, more colorfully, harlotry). The fidelity of God to his covenant—“for better for worse,” so to speak—is the central feature of the story of God’s constitution of a holy people dedicated to himself.

Likewise, few church-goers today would be able to give an articulate account of the way that this imagery is taken up in the New Testament and in Christian history, with Christ as the bridegroom and the church as the bride. They may have heard the expression “the bride of Christ,” and they may sing hymns during Advent about the arrival of the bridegroom at midnight, but the ability to link all this with actual marriage today would be a stretch for most. It would be harder still to find a congregation where all this was taught on a steady, recurring basis so that every person in the congregation would know it by heart. What a difference that would make!