Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Argo," again

Now that Argo has won the Oscar, I am re-posting an earlier rumination. I think it makes an  important point.


Argo, the new movie about the Iran hostage crisis (how well some of us elders remember) is not only a terrific thriller but also extremely funny--a refreshing and unusual combination. Alan Arkin has been a favorite of mine for ages, ever since his very first movie, The Russians Are Coming (see it!), and this is one of his most amusing performances.

But the reason for this blog is to remind us all that MI5 and CIA derring-do can be more pernicious than glamorous. In 1953, Great Britain and the United States collaborated to engineer a coup to remove Mohammed Mossadegh, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran and Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1951.  This was not Winston Churchill's finest hour, nor Eisenhower's, nor the Dulles brothers.' Why did we do this? You can look it up in Wikipedia, but the principal reasons were 1) Mossadegh, a reformer, had the temerity to nationalize the British oil companies, and 2) United States was in a state of paranoia about Communism. Mossadegh, an elegant and educated man, was held in solitary confinement for three years and then under house arrest until his death.

Many years later, Madeleine Albright, no pushover, made a statement regretting this action. It can certainly be argued that many of our problems today date from this atrocious intervention on the part of the two Western powers. The movie Argo spends only a minute or two, at the very beginning, reminding us of this, but it's clearly laid out, and that's all it takes to start one thinking.

The subject of the verb: God, or us?

Tony Robinson is one of the most active church leaders in the United States, greatly in demand as he teaches congregations and denominations about church life. His work has a deep theological underpinning, which many congregational-development gurus don't have.  He and I have often talked about the importance of showing that God is active in the world whether we cooperate or not. Here is one of his reflections that illustrates the way that our language about God does, or does not, glorify God in the life of the church (and world):

My unscientific experience has been that virtually every mainline congregation identifies itself by what it is or what it does. "We are a congregation that..."  Particularly popular is the note of welcome. "We welcome all people regardless of...." And yet, as I have often written before, this is simply not always true. There is no congregation that will embrace everyone. I have personal knowledge of people who, for various reasons, have been shunned, ignored, or even asked to leave a church advertising itself as "radically hospitable." No congregation is competent to advertise itself this way. Rather, as St Paul writes, "Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant...."  (II Corinthians 2:5-6)

Here is Tony Robinson's website:

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

News from the "apocalyptic" front

To my amazement, my postings about a school of apocalyptic theology emerging in the 1970s from Union Seminary in New York have been picked up by some exponents. I am not inclined to or trained for academic theology, but I owe everything to my teachers and colleagues, and am deeply grateful that my small contributions have been noted.  Here is a link (nonacademic readers beware: this is very demanding reading! but you can get the general idea).

I have written to the author, who is a PhD candidate at Princeton Seminary, expressing appreciation and reservations. I think that it is a mistake to cherry-pick my original list so finely. As my colleague Joe Mangina points out, my original list was intended to point out a "family resemblance" among a group of contemporary biblical theologians, many of whom learned from one another at Union Seminary in New York in the 1960s and 70s. My list was also intended to bring New Testament apocalyptic theology into the foreground, and to some extent I think the list has helped. I never meant to systematize the groupings, and I think it is a mistake to try to do so other than to identify the "family resemblance."

If required to distill apocalyptic theology to its essence, this is what I would say:

1) The divine agency is the central emphasis and the sine qua non.
2) The presence of an occupying enemy Power must be insisted upon.
3) The Cross-Resurrection event is a novum not to be located on a continuum (see Isaiah 40-55). 

There is a brand-new book out, Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology (Wipf and Stock) which includes an essay by yours truly. More about that anon.

My original blogpost about apocalyptic theology is here:

Sunday, February 03, 2013

A major but neglected Christian feast day

I would have wished all my readers to be at Holy Trinity Lutheran on Central Park West at 5 this Sunday evening for Candlemas. What?? Well, I didn't know about Candlemas either, until about 15 years ago. We've been missing something. Groundhog Day is actually the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, also known as the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and it is colloquially known in England and in Sweden (and maybe some other places) as Candlemas. It's a feast of light, but more important, it's a feast day of the revelation of Jesus Christ to the world.

The story is Luke 2:22-40. It is steeped in Old Testament atmosphere. Its chief characters, besides the Holy Family, are Simeon and Anna. These two aged Jews have been "waiting for the consolation of Israel" and "looking for redemption in Israel" all their lives. When Simeon sees the baby, he breaks out into the exquisite canticle that we know as the Nunc Dimittis:

Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
The greatest wonder of this canticle is its breakout to the ungodly--the Gentiles. The juxtaposition of Old Testament expectation with the advent of the infant Messiah creates a marvellous scene. Rembrandt's painting of the Presentation, which hangs in the Mauritshuis in the Hague, evokes the numinous atmosphere unforgettably, as the light falls upon the face of the old man who has just seen the light of the incarnate Son of God. In the background are figures of the temple visitors, drawn from Rembrandt's own experience of living among the Jews of Amsterdam. The miracle of the Word of God opening up to the heathen, the outsiders, those who are "strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2:12) is shown forth in the Gospel of Luke in unforgettable terms. The service tonight included a motet with a wonderful text by Martin Luther, based on the Nunc Dimittis, with much emphasis on die ganze Welt (the whole world) and die dich kennen nicht (those who know him not).

(And speaking of "those who know him not" and "strangers to the covenant of promise," I am told by Rick Erickson, the director of Bach Vespers who is of Swedish descent, that Candlemas is a huge occasion in Sweden, with unchurched people flocking to the services as they seek light in the darkness of the great Northern winter. What a wonderful bridge between sacred and secular--let us pray that the Spirit touches some of those people with the light of Christ.)

A sermon that I preached at Bach Vespers in 2009 is on this website, but tonight's Vespers was an even more moving occasion because the central portion of the service was the performance of the solo cantata, Ich habe genug ("I have enough"). This is an expansion of the Nunc Dimittis and, like all Bach's cantatas, it expresses the very personal longings and hopes of those who prayerfully listen to the words and music. The homilist explained that "I have enough" is not at all the same thing as "I've had enough!" It means that in Christ, all things needful are given to us by the grace of God. The story of the aged Simeon and Anna becomes the story of every believer who puts his or her trust in Jesus, especially those of us who are getting older. The singer this evening was Joe Damon Chappell, a wonderfully gifted basso cantabile whom I always love to hear because of his special ability of communicating his personal faith.

I hope someone will play a recording of Ich Habe Genug (preferably with Fischer-Dieskau of blessed memory) when I am on my deathbed!

The sermon for Candlemas 2009 is here: