Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A subversive Christmas story

Along the lines of a non-"corny" Christmas (see previous post), I offer this reflection written by my friend Tony Robinson. If you don't know Tony and his work, you should (links are below). Here is his post for Christmas Eve:

A Subversive Story

Luke 2: 1 - 14

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered . . . All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem . . . ."

Reflection by Anthony B. Robinson

We've finally arrived. In Bethlehem, at the manger. As Martin Copenhaver noted in the Introduction to this Advent booklet, it's the same story every year, the familiar story, nothing different.

There is comfort in that. Whether you gather in church this evening, or at home with family or friends, I hope you hear or read aloud this old, old story. “In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus . . . .”

But don't let familiarity and its comforts deafen you to the subtle subversion this story would work in us and our world.

It begins with the acknowledgement of the great power of emperor and empire. Power to direct "the whole world" to be registered. Imagine that. Some power.

But when the camera focuses in, we see two people and a donkey. Joseph and his wife, Mary. In accordance with the Emperor's edict, they travel from Nazareth where they live and work, to Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral home, where they are to register.

But what the Emperor doesn't know is that there is another power at work. Moreover, even he, the great Caesar Augustus, is serving, however unwittingly, this other power and purpose. God's hidden purpose is coming to pass. Ancient promises, made centuries before the current empire, are being brought to fulfillment, as Caesar's census brings David and Mary right where they are supposed to be.

So this familiar, comfortable and even beautiful story is something else. It is a subversive story. It tells us that the world's powers and empires are neither ultimate nor absolute. There is another power, God's power. There is another plan, God's plan, working its way to fulfillment in hidden and unexpected ways.

This familiar story makes a bold claim. Neither Caesar nor any other earthly powers are God. They are not final or ultimate. God alone is God. And this God rules and reigns in the oddest and most unexpected of ways. God reigns through a newborn baby who is born outside because there’s no room for him on the inside.

It's the same old story, shocking and new.


Thank you, Lord, for this beautiful and familiar story. Grant us ears to hear its deep meanings and claims, its great unexpected subversive humor, and its wild hope, because, as you know, we really need it. Amen.

About the Author
Anthony B. Robinson, a United Church of Christ minister, is a speaker, teacher and writer. His newest book is Stewardship for Vital Congregations, published by The Pilgrim Press. Read his weekly reflections on the current lectionary texts at by clicking on Weekly Reading.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A "corny" Christmas?

For many years, I have been a committed supporter of NPR, especially in its WNYC variation. My one objection is that the various broadcasters (all of them outstanding, especially Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate) never miss an opportunity to take a pot shot at Christianity. It is really maddening. (I have complained to Brian many times, with no effect.) This morning there was a segment on the "Christmas Jollies," an eclectic collection of seasonal songs put together afresh every year by Bill Adler. This year's cover features a skeleton in a Santa hat "driving" a mailbox as though it were a motorcycle. It must be admitted that once in a while something turns up in the Jollies that can't be faulted, like Pete Seeger's half-sister Peggy's rendition of "Babe of Bethlehem." But on NPR today, Adler enthusiastically promoted his devotion to "Santa Claus, not Jesus" as the center of the story he wanted to celebrate; his project was warmly endorsed by the interviewer. What really got me was his description of most Christmas music as "corny."

"Corny"? What is he listening to? Well, I guess he is thinking about the little drummer boy and his ilk. Admittedly, a great deal of the whole Christmas ordeal is grounded in sentimentality about childhood innocence, cute animals, treetop angels--and paintings by Thomas Kinkaide, God help us, with music to match. Seen that way, Christmas can certainly be described as corny.

It is up to the church to present a radical alternative to a "corny" Christmas. But how are we doing in that regard? Every church now, it seems, has put the children's pageant front and center at services that used to be aimed at adults. The fourth Sunday of Advent has lost its solemnity, having been given over to pageants in many parishes. In place of the once-beloved, formerly ubiquitous "midnight service" that attracted college students, the most popular offering on Christmas Eve has become the late-afternoon "family service" with mobs of children whose antics make a serious message impossible to deliver.

Much as I still love (and still play) the music of the King's College Chapel and the traditional hymns, I find myself drawn these days to the astringent harmonies and bracing words of the older music. One of my favorite CDs is The Carol Album: Seven Centuries of Christmas Music, by the Taverner Consort directed by Andrew Parrott. I never tire of it. For one thing, the selections are full of references to such Advent-y subjects as sin, death, hell, the devil,and the crucifixion. Nothing corny about that! (And the program notes included with the disc are excellent.)

This music takes some getting used to, but once it has taken hold, a lot of the more familiar carols begin to sound a bit sugary, if not corny. "The Babe of Bethlehem" appears, in authentic shape-note form. One of my favorites on the CD is "Nova, nova," which is in the Episcopal hymnal. The refrain is Latin: Ave fit ex Eva. What does that mean? I had to do some digging to find out. A literal translation is, "Ave becomes from Eve." Carrying it further, then, "Ave" is Latin for the first word of the angel's salutation to Mary: "Hail! [thou that art highly favored; the Lord is with thee."] Eve is, of course, the wife of Adam who successfully tempted her husband to rebel against God. The medieval mind loved to play around with language in this way; "Ave" spelled backwards is Eva, or Eve.

All of this is magnificently enacted in the beautiful Annunciation by Fra Angelico, often reproduced on Christmas cards with just the angel's head in detail. But the whole painting tells a greater story. The angel's appearance to Mary is the centerpiece, but up in the lefthand corner is a small but powerfully presented scene of an angel (perhaps the same one?) with a drawn sword, expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Thus the whole story is told in nuce--the fall of humanity, and the divine reversal. Ave fit ex Eva. The story of the original disobedience is to be rewritten in the obedience of Christ, which is prefigured by the obedience of his mother.

Nothing corny about it. It's up to us to offer a more adult, more challenging version of the Christmas story: the one told in the Bible.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cremation vs. traditional burial

A recent article in The New York Times addresses the issue of cremation. There are two important points for Christians to consider with regard to this article and the issues it raises, neither of which has to do with the relative merits of cremation vs. traditional burial. This Rumination takes no position on that (after all, no one has suggested that a body consumed by fire cannot be raised by God--e.g. Joan of Arc).

Point number one:

The article states that a traditional funeral and burial costs from $10,000 to $16,000. No doubt that is true if the undertakers are allowed to have their way. But a family who has prepared for a funeral ahead of time can cut that cost by three-quarters:

--As long as the coffin remains closed, embalming is not necessary, nor is it required by law.
--A really inexpensive coffin can be purchased from any number of suppliers, including Jewish ones. There are dozens of sites on line.
--The coffin can be brought to the church and covered with the church pall until time for the service.
--If there is to be a time of visitation and the home is too small, most churches can arrange for it to be in the church parish house or fellowship hall.
--Family and friends can serve as pallbearers.

There are various other ways to save money on funerals, and many organizations that can help. Most clergy will have good relationships with the local undertakers and can run interference. The crucial thing is to think ahead and to have someone prepared to deal with pressure from the funeral home.

Point number two:

Whether there is a cremation or a burial, the crucial factor is the teaching of the Bible and the church regarding the resurrection of the dead. The Times article quotes Prof. Stephen Prothero, with whom we have had occasion to take issue previously in these Ruminations. Here's what he says:

“America is becoming Hinduized in this way,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and the author of Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America. “We’re increasingly seeing the human as essentially spiritual and gradually giving up on the Judeo-Christian idea of the person in the afterlife.”

Well...let's give Prothero the benefit of the doubt and assume he does not agree with this "Hinduization" of America. The real issue is this: Do Christians believe in a body/soul split, or do we inherit the Hebrew view of the person as a psychosomatic (psyche--spirit; soma--body) unity? The New Testament proclamation of the resurrection of the dead depends on the Hebrew conception. Even more, the entire anthropology of the New Testament assumes that of the Old: without a body, the person is a mere shade of a human being in Sheol, where God is not praised. To be sure, the resurrection body is "changed" (I Corinthians 15:52)--but it is still a body recognizable as one's own, or, even more, as the body of one who has fully become Christ's own.

So the real issue is not whether to be cremated or not. The important factor is understanding what the Christian faith promises about the importance of the resurrection and its relation to bodily life. If bodies were not important, we would not still be trying to find and identify the remains of the lost from the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Link to the article:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A film to remember Wall Street by

What a pleasure it is to see a grown-up movie with superb ensemble acting and an intelligent point of view. Margin Call depicts an all-nighter inside the offices of one Lehmann-like investment banking firm during the 2008 Wall Street collapse. It is mesmerizing from beginning to end without being manipulative. I don't remember being so transfixed by a movie for quite a while; it is even being called a "thriller," though that does not seem to me to be the right word (I would suggest "drama"). Keep an eye on writer-director J. C. Chandor, whose first film this is; he is truly remarkable.

From the very first scene, when employees of the firm are paraded past the cubicles of their colleagues on their way to being "downsized," we are drawn into a world in which greed gets the best of almost everyone, even ordinarily decent people. The firing, a ritual of humiliation, is carried out with subtle touches that set the tone for the entire film. There is an evenness of tone throughout--minimalist musical accompaniment, a cool palette, calm camera work, no "action" to speak of--which makes the crisis all the more heart-thumping. One scene takes place on a narrow balcony on a high floor above the night city; the acrophobes among us will pray for the scene to end, but the effect is achieved with the simplest of means.

The film begins in daylight, but soon the midnight-blue-and-spangled-silver skyline of New York City takes over as the backdrop for the interminable sleepless night just before the firm collapses, as the inner circle of executives and board members debate their options, always with an eye toward their own interests. The cool blue office space, with its glass dividers and its windows high above the city, becomes almost a character in itself, and a scene in an elevator, showing two tall principals negotiating across the head of a small cleaning woman, seems to tell the whole story of the Great Recession in one unforgettable image. The acting is extraordinarily understated and restrained, which heightens the effect; the whole story is written on Kevin Spacey's face even when he does not say a word. Jeremy Irons does a star turn as the Mephistophelean CEO, but the other actors are even more effective in conveying various shades of guile, weariness, fear, duplicity. Zachary Quinto and Penn Badgley are especially convincing as two young, ambitious, but immature analysts who are ensnared and unmoored by the mendacity that they see appearing all around them. The one false note is the inclusion of a female character (presumably to be politically correct), Demi Moore, who is too glamorous and movie-star-ish for the role.

Roger Ebert makes this simple but penetrating observation:

I think the movie is about how its characters are concerned only by the welfare of their corporations. There is no larger sense of the public good. Corporations are amoral, and exist to survive and succeed, at whatever human cost. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters are angry about: They are not against capitalism, but about Wall Street dishonesty and greed.

And David Denby of The New Yorker also ends his review ("the best movie ever made about Wall Street") with a reference to the Occupy movement:

...the toxic assets were assembled in the first place, and were sold well past the danger point, because the fees from doing so were high enough to extinguish caution. Until the last moment, the smugly reckless top executives don’t even comprehend the firm’s exposure; they need the fledglings, peering into computer models, to explain it to them (not an exaggeration of what happened at several firms). If Wall Street executives find themselves at a loss to understand what the protesters outside are getting at, they could do worse than watch this movie for a few clues.