Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, April 30, 2012

Thoughts on "crossing the Tiber"

In recent years, several people that I personally know and admire have left Protestant denominations to become Roman Catholic, including an Episcopal bishop, a couple of scholars, and recently an Episcopal priest. (This move is familiarly and colloquially known as "crossing the Tiber.")

I am too much a child of the Reformation ever to entertain such an option for myself, but I think I understand why someone would do it. The great appeal of the Catholic church for crossovers is the magisterium, the Catholic teaching office. Even though many, probably most, modern Catholics—certainly in the United States—openly flout the church’s teaching on birth control, abortion, and, increasingly, homosexuality, no one seems to question the church’s right to teach what it believes. There is nothing remotely comparable in Protestantism. Protestant teaching in our time, taken as a whole, seems to be wildly untethered and undisciplined, and there seems to be nothing anyone can do about it.

Ross Douthat (a very interesting and very serious young Roman Catholic intellectual) has just published a book, Bad Religion, analyzing the breakdown of the religious consensus in America. I think I agree, more or less, with his general point of view, based on excerpts I’ve read. Protestantism in our country has almost completely ceased to matter in the public square unless you count the Tea Party. The “Christian Right” of today is a mere cul-de-sac compared to the days, fifty years ago, when the World Council of (Protestant) Churches really meant something, and its American branch, the National Council of Churches, played a significant role in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements. Gone, gone are those influences.

These thoughts are occasioned by a remarkable broadcast I heard a few days ago. I listen to the POTUS channel on satellite quite a lot (selectively—I don’t like Pete Dominic, but political commentator Llewellyn King is among the last of the old-school hyper-educated British polymaths, with an accent to match). On this particular afternoon there was an hour-long interview with Father James (Jim) Martin, a blogging Jesuit, on the subject of the Roman Catholic bishops’ statement about Paul Ryan’s budget. Congressman Ryan has invoked his devout Roman Catholic faith in recommending his plan. The bishops have risen up and the whole country has been required to take notice. There is nothing in Protestantism today that remotely compares to this sort of impact. When Paul Moore was the Episcopal bishop of New York in the late 60s and early 70s, his stature (literally and figuratively) fit the temper of the times, and his thunderings from the pulpit made copy. A few months ago, the Diocese of New York elected a new bishop, and there was not one word in The New York Times to note the event—so irrelevant have we become.

The Episcopal bishops today could not produce a document like the recent one from the American Catholic prelates. With all due respect, most of them are not as learned. The academic rigor required of Catholic clergy outstrips the Episcopal Church’s standards. The Catholic bishops are able to articulate their positions with reference to the great figures in their (and in some cases, our mutual) tradition. They understand their role and responsibility as teachers of the faith. There are only a few American Episcopal bishops who see themselves in this capacity.

The Jesuit in question, Fr. Martin, made a splendid case for Catholic social teaching, and though he spoke somewhat too colloquially for my taste, his presentation was powerfully persuasive. He explained how the “preferential option for the poor,” a central commitment in Catholic social teaching, has clearly made an actual, on-the-ground difference in the way that Catholics minister to the less fortunate.

What really struck me was Fr. Jim’s argument that you can’t have Catholicism “lite.” He was, indirectly at least, targeting the Tiber-crossers who love the magisterium when it supports traditional teaching about marriage and homosexuality, but ignore it when it goes against the economic policies of the Republican party. The bishops were able to state, bluntly, that Paul Ryan is simply wrong when he invokes the Catholic faith in the context of his budget, and they were able to say it with uncontrovertible authority. Their stand has been making news for days. From a Protestant perspective, one can only envy them this capability.

PS. A less felicitous development occurred at the same time as the American bishops’ statement. The Vatican leveled its magisterial guns against nuns who, supposedly, spend too much time helping the poor and fighting injustice, and not enough time opposing abortion and contraception. I must admit, this really shocked me. The pushback has been intense. I admire Nicholas Kristof’s defense of nuns, and his column is well worth reading:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Double bill at the movies

One of the many blessings of having our country house in the Berkshires is that the little Triplex in Great Barrington has most of the same movies that pop up at the Lincoln Plaza theatre which I frequent in NYC. Thus it was that I saw two wonderful films just this week. For those not near an art-film house,  consider these for your Netflix list: Footnote, from Israel, and The Kid with a Bike, from Belgium.

The two of them could not be more different, but both movies help us to understand people we would not otherwise understand, and to enter into the human condition unreservedly. Both revolve around father-son relationships, with results both revealing and heartbreaking.

Footnote takes us into the arcane world of Talmudic scholarship in Jerusalem. Does that sound foreign? Yes, but the rivalries of academia are the same everywhere, and fathers who envy their more successful sons can be found anywhere. The film is quite funny during the first half, then grows ever more probing and serious, though it has a sequence of cyber-sleuthing that almost has the tension of Lisbeth Salander sifting old photos (well...not quite). It is a story of frustrated endeavor that could happen in any field, and the unresolved ending leaves us feeling that we have just seen something from our own lives. The only thing, really, that is specific to Israel is the creepy presence of guards with enormous automatic guns at the entrance to every academic building.

The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo), a film from Belgium, is so fine that I urge everyone to consider it. It would be especially good to see with a young teenaged boy. There are many movies about troubled boys (The 400 Blows being the most obvious) but this one stands out. My heart was pounding throughout as the 11-year-old Cyril (played by one of the remarkable child actors that we seem to have in abundance these days) meets with one cruel rebuff after another and seems doomed to lifelong deliquency, but is found by redemption in some very surprising ways. I had not heard of the Dardennes brothers before, but I will surely seek out their earlier films. They are Roman Catholic, and their themes are recognizably Christian. I was happy to read the wonderful Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker and to learn that he was "laid prostrate" by the ending, and by the use of Beethoven's Emperor concerto. I was laid prostrate too (and I am not even a Beethoven lover!) 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Two artists, two visions

On Sunday, April 8, the New York Times obituary page displayed the most extraordinary juxtaposition of obituaries that I ever hope to see. On the left side, a large picture of one of Thomas Kinkade's floridly sentimental paintings accompanied the announcement of his premature death at 54. On the right side, the death of Mauricio Lasansky at 97 is announced with a reproduction of  two of his almost unbearably horrific "Nazi drawings." It would be hard to imagine a more challenging combination on one page.

Many, perhaps most, people would not have the stomach to peruse the Lasansky drawings. They were exhibited at the University of Iowa Museum of Art in 2006. They can be seen online, with a helpful commentary, at

I have long been disturbed by Thomas Kinkade's mass-marketed pictures, which are displayed in Kinkade shop windows all over America, often in upmarket locations. Not only are they sentimental, they are untruthful (and that amounts to the same thing, in the final analysis). He wants us to believe in an utterly unreal world of shimmering waters, flawless landscaping, quaint cottages, picturesque little churches, unreal "spiritualized" lighting--a world that never existed and never could exist. Not only does this encourage a fairytale concept of Christianity, it is also excruciatingly bad art. It is distressing to think that supposedly educated people are unable to distinguish good art from bad. Kinkade's marketing genius enabled him to pull in megamillions, and he estimated that one in ten American households had one of his paintings on its walls.

Lasansky, in his horror-filled series of drawings (which should be viewed in order, since they are a sort of narrative), makes much use of crucifixion imagery, while explicitly charging the Church with complicity in the Holocaust. There are complexities and depths here, but it cannot be denied that the atrocity occurred in the center of Christian Europe. It could not have happened if the churches had risen up as one. The failure of so many (though not all) self-identified Christians to protest or act will--and should--haunt us until the Second Coming.

Addendum: After I wrote the above, I saw an article about Kinkade in the Wall Street Journal reporting that he died "after a night of heavy drinking." What tragic irony. Kinkade wanted to paint "a world without the Fall" but, like all the rest of us, could not free himself from the fallen world. The article, "Art in a Fallen World," is quite's the "Houses of Worship" column by Gregory Wolfe.

And by the way, the remarkable appositions are multiplied by the third obituary on the same page in the Times, being the notice of the death of the book editor who saved The Lord of the Flies from oblivion by putting it into paperback, thus sending sales soaring, leading to its becoming part of the canon for students. William Golding's famous novel with its deeply pessimistic view of human nature could serve as a commentary on the other two obituaries, those of Kinkade and Lasansky.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

We believe in the Millennium Development Goals?

I try not to spend much time calling attention to the theological wasteland around us in the mainline churches, since there is so much upbuilding and planting to do, and so little time, but a friend has pointed out the Presiding Bishop's Easter message and I think it will speak for itself. There is not a single word about the Risen Lord.

Is this intentional? Does she simply not believe that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead? "If Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain..."

Are the Millennium Development Goals a good thing? Absolutely. Are they making progress so far? Apparently they are, judging from what I've read elsewhere. Should we be behind them? Why ever not?

But are they a creed to live by? Not unless you believe yourself and all human projects to be "without sin."

"If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins..." (I Corinthians 15:17)

Here is the link to the message:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Beware of the newsweekly Easter issues

By now I am sure that most savvy Christians are long since inured to the drivel that Time and Newsweek foist upon us every Easter and Christmas. It was not always thus. David van Biema (formerly of Time) and Kenneth Woodward (formerly of Newsweek) were knowledgeable, conscientious religion editors and took great care with their reporting (not to mention the estimable Peter Steinfels, late of The New York Times).

It's very different today. Case in point: the cover story on heaven in this week's Time. Who's the author? None other than Jon Meacham, Sewanee graduate, author of several highly praised historical works (Franklin and Winston, American Gospel, and American Lion) and former editor of Newsweek. In addition, he has been on the vestry at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.

Unfortunately, Meacham does not know when to back off gracefully from subjects he does not understand--which includes theology. I won't parse every detail of this disgracefully thin and misinformed piece that he has written. However, in regard to a subject about which I know a thing or two--biblical scholarship--I can certainly declare that this is an article that should never have been written, let alone published.

Christopher Morse, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was my tutor when I was an undergraduate, and remains a friend. He has recently published a splendid book, The Difference Heaven Makes, which put him in Meacham's sights. A research assistant called him on the phone and interviewed him in a cursory and superficial fashion. Her chief interest was finding out what he thought of the blockbuster bestseller about the little boy who says he visited heaven. (I was reminded of the late great Raymond E. Brown's complaint that he was always being called at Christmas by reporters who wanted to know "what really happened." They could not have cared less about what the biblical stories really meant.)

In Time's published story, the title of Christopher's book is not even stated. Instead, he is described as a member of the "[N. T.] Wright school." This is preposterous. Wright's and Morse's positions are in many ways opposed to one another. The cavalier attitude of Meacham to his material is quite a contrast to the way David van Biema (as I personally know) used to call and ask searching, respectful questions.

I do not have Christopher's permission to blog about this! but he sent an indignant email to a few people saying, among other things, that "I do wonder how long we can allow the self-styled 'authorities' on such important matters to carry the day with their trivializations unchallenged in the media." Does anybody out there feel like rising to this challenge?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The message of Holy Week

It is a mystery to me that the words of our hymns are so widely ignored. Over many years of attempting to teach people to pay attention to them, I have had very little success. My sister and I know the words of many hymns by heart, having grown up with our mother who was the organist at our little church, and I have often thought how, if I were ever to be a hostage or captive of some sort, it would be the words of the hymns that would sustain me (I have never had a good word-for-word memory for biblical passages).

In recent years, it has become customary for Episcopalians to sing "Ah, holy Jesus" on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. This is surely one of the greatest hymn texts ever written--not on the literary level of the great Christopher Smart, to be sure, but for sheer theological weight, almost unparalleled.

And yet the message of this text never seems to find its way into sermons during Lent, on Palm Sunday, on Good Friday--not the ones I hear across this country, anyway. The congregation sings the hymn, but whether people are absorbing the words as they sing is questionable. I have never heard a sermon that called the congregation to pay attention and to take the words to heart.

If we were to do so, so many problems and questions would be straightened out ("Did the Jews kill Jesus?" "Who deserves salvation?" "Who is the active agent in Christ's crucifixion?" "What about the 'substitutionary atonement'"? "What role does judgment play in the condemnation of Jesus?" "How do I pray to a crucified Lord?").

Why is this text not a central part of our proclamation?

Here it is:

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
That man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee,
I crucified thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinnèd, and the Son hath suffered;
For our atonement, while we nothing heeded,
God interceded

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
Think on thy pity, and thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

by Johann Heermann (1585-1647)

The German title of the hymn text is Herzliebster Jesu, was hast du verbrochen...
Johann Heerman was a German Lutheran theological student and tutor, eventually an ordained Lutheran clergyman and recognized poet. Heerman had a very difficult life full of sickness, pain, and loss, but was obviously a man of towering faith and insight. Blessed Johann is recognized in the Lutheran calendar of saints, on October 26.