No, I’m not “fine” (Lent)

Back in the day, when I was a little crazier than I am today, I preached a sermon at Emanuel Presbyterian Mission, a multi-ethnic church plant in which I was a founding co-pastor, in which I said this:

 When you walk up to me and ask me, “How are you doing?” don’t expect me say, “Just fine.” I’m not “just fine.” I’m worse than that, and I’m better than that. In fact, when you come up and ask me how I’m doing, don’t be surprised if I respond, “I’m dying and being resurrected.”

Turns out that this sermon created quite a reaction in our young and growing diverse congregation, and from that point onward, when someone would approach a member of our community and ask them how they were doing, it was not uncommon to hear, “I’m dying and being resurrected … it’s the only way to fly.”

The gospel lesson from this last Sunday (Lent III), Luke 13:1-9, is an unusual passage. There are a great number of passages in the four gospels which are intended to encourage the downtrodden, the comfort the afflicted, and to encourage the down and out. Indeed we have a Lord who is constantly drawn to the outcast, whose heart beats to lift up the lowly.

But the Gospel lesson for Lent III (in Year C) is no such passage. If you are feeling discouraged today, this passage is not for you, for this passage (one of a small number of such passages in the Gospels) is aimed at the upbeat, the successful, those who are meeting their goals.

Jesus looks at these people, and tells them to repent. What?! Repent from what? These folks are not like the woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is suffering some rather nasty consequences of her sin. These people have not robbed a bank; they have not even kicked the cat or uttered a four letter word!

So why does Jesus Christ tell them to repent? In this passage we realize that sin is not breaking the rules. When one breaks the rules (whether it in terms of drink, sex, anger, or whatever), this is a mere symptom of something deeper. It is this “something deeper” from which we are called to repent. As Soren Kierkegaard said, “Sin is the attempt to build my life on any foundation other than God.” It is from this tendency that we are called to repent.

And, indeed, this is the point of Lent. Lent is the practice of weaning ourselves off of our dependence on false foundations. Lent is about repenting as a way of life, in the spirit of Martin Luther, the first of whose famous 95 Theses was “All of life is repentance.”

I’m reminded of what Richard Foster shared with some of us in his talk at the Renovation Tyler conference this last weekend. First thing in the morning, he lies on the ground, facing upward. He spreads his arms out in the cruciform shape of the cross, and recites Galatians 2:20 out loud:

 I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered himself up for me.

What a powerful way to learn repentance not just when we are feeling down and desperate but in every day, every moment, of our lives.

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Heresy, etymologically speaking

“Heresy.” It’s a dirty word, one that conjures up all sorts of gruesome images (most of them manufactured by Hollywood) of medieval brutes tightening the noose around the neck of some young, free-thinking, romantic rebel type.

Sadly, though, almost no one knows what the word actually means. Heresy is not, much to the chagrin of popular opinion, simply some “doctrine” or belief statement which “contradicts” the Bible or some creed or confession. Actually, one measure of Orthodoxy is that nothing can contradict it, for it affirms everything. Heresy, then, is not simply and unequivocally false, but rather it is always a “half-truth,” taking some element catholic faith and bending or twisting it.

Haireisis is the Greek term which means “choice.” Heresy is what happens when a person or a community looks at the full spectrum of catholic truth, and identifies one sliver of that truth (for example, the notion that the Incarnate Word is a human being, or that human reason has been impaired as a result of the fall of man), and then so emphasizes that particular “sliver” that all the other truths which provide its context get neglected or eclipsed.

In a recent post I claim that Bill O. is a heretic. What I mean is that Bill has rightly seen that what it means to be a Christian involves certain “truth claims,” for example the claim that “Jesus is Lord.” However, he so emphasizes this truth that other features of what it means to be a Christian are forgotten. All that matters is the propositions which one has in one’s mind, and these are essentially a matter of private preference.

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We’re all heretics, but Bill O. more so

In a recent “screaming match,” Bill O. claimed that “Christianity is a philosophy.”

What’s crazily ironic is that he is right, but not at all in the sense in which he means. What he means, it seems clear, is that Christianity is a belief system which functions at the level of ideas, and which is basically a set of private preferences which people have a “right” to express, given that (supposedly) the majority of Americans are still Christians in some abstract sense. At least this much can be gathered from this silly “interview,” linked to above.

What is ironic is that O’Reilly is spot on in stating that “Christianity is a philosophy,” at least according to Peter Leithart’s book _Against Christianity_, in which Leithart argues that what the apostles, whose words are recorded in the New Testament, were describing is not a belief system or worldview which one has in one’s head, but rather a set of commitments to Jesus as Lord which then binds one into a particular community of fidelity to one’s brothers and sisters. That is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ refers to a way of life, a set of commitments, and a particular community called “the body of Christ.”

Hence, Leithart is able to label “Christianity,” which (in Latin-based languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish) as an “-ism,” a gnostic-like heresy. Bill O., who technically is Roman Catholic, would thus be an adherent to this heresy.

None of this is actually that surprising, since the privatization of the Gospel is the heresy of our time. As such both of the talking heads in this interview participate in it.

I only have one real question from watching this video. It is pretty obvious me to that what motivates Bill O. to display his colorful antics (such as using the word “butt” as well as alluding cynically to his own exclamatory use of “Jesus Christ”) is the desire to boost ratings for the ultimate purpose of increased advertising profit. Hence he is in no way arguing in good faith, and should not be taken seriously. That is, Fox News is a pathetic cultural joke far less respectable than the kind of sophistry against which Plato and Aristotle combated.

Please note that I would say the same thing about msnbc, although one must admit that the latter is largely free of the hypocrisy which characterizes Fox.

My only real question is this: does Bill’s interlocutor (David Silverman, president of American Atheists), whose position is far more rational than Bill’s but equally partakes in the illusion of secular reason, take himself to be seriously engaging in public discourse? Or is he, too, self-consciously participating in the antics of ideological consumerism?

 

 

 

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Naked Bodies, “Feelings,” & the Buffered Self

In his A Secular Age Catholic Canadian analytic philosopher Charles Taylor gives a detailed genealogical account of the rise of “the buffered self” (ie, an experience of personal subjectivity in which one’s fundamental identity is fixed, walled-off from external forces such as ghosts, black magic, peer pressure, and social convention, and which is seen as the result of one’s own self-disciplined character formation; the opposite of the buffered self is “the porous self”).

Taylor’s account is detailed and multi-faceted. Much of it concerns the emerging “rage for order” which we see in Latin Europe in the early medieval period, together with the concomitant shift from ethical “praxis” to ethical “poesis” — ie, a shift away from the older idea (which we find in the classical tradition of moral virtue — that we can nurture character through the practice of working out our inherent, god-given human telos, to the idea that we can impose an external ideal upon the human person and through discipline … not unlike, according to Taylor, to the modern scientific approach to exploiting the natural resources of the earth).

However I want to focus specifically on Taylor’s account of our relationship with the body and the culturally constructed ways of experiencing it, or “disciplining” it, which begin to emerge sometime around 1500. What emerged gradually is what Taylor calls “the disengaged, disciplined stance to self.” (A Secular Age, 136)

The stance is “disciplined” in the ways I allude to above. The goal is to impose an ethical ideal upon the human person, much as the goal of a black smith is to impose an external ideal (for example, a sword) upon a formless piece of metal. (Influential here are Stoicism, Descartes, and the “Christian” neo-Stoic Lypsius.)

The stance is “disengaged” in that there emerges a separation between the “self” on the one hand, and a “certain modes of intimacy … and bodily functions” on the other (A Secular Age 137). This disengagement from certain bodily functions gives us an utterly concrete case of the rise of the buffered self.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth. A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit” when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell. People are told not to defecate in public places. (138)

Taylor also documents the practice of the aristocracy regarding nakedness. It would not be uncommon, just before this period, for a duchess or baroness to expose her naked body to a servant, for one would feel shame while naked only in the presence of someone of a higher rank. “Kings would dress in the company of their courtiers; they would even sit on the “chaise-percee” [a commode chair] in company.” (140)

From here naked exposure and open bodily functions move to becoming taboo outside of a small circle of intimate relations. But this expectation is not “natural,” not written into the foundation of the universe, not a matter of natural law. Rather, it is learned and culturally conditioned. Taylor situates this development within the shift in early modernity to a more disciplined stance, in which the “true self” (that which is totally incorporeal in the human being, a kind of “ghost in the machine”) is distanced from and seeks to suppress or hide all exposure and contact to undisciplined, raw nakedness and unrefined creaturely performances.

This distancing or buffering goes hand in hand with a shift in how we understand “intimacy,” which here comes to refer to the dimension of shared feeling. This sense of intimacy “is part of our modern concept … in an age where the having of certain profound and intense feelings comes to be seen as central to human fulfillment. At this point in Western history, Taylor writes, “We are on the road to our contemporary age, where creating a harmonious household, having children, carrying on the line, no longer define the point of marriage, but this finds its main goal in an emotional fulfillment which is identified as one of the central human goods.” (141)

I think that this absolutization of feelings plays a central role in the inability of our contemporary western society to produce human beings who can successfully raise children (to allude to Stanley Hauerwas). That is, this absolutization of feelings, which plays a key role in the rise of the modern buffered self, is deeply relevant to the issues of divorce and “same sex unions,” two intimately connected issues, even if only the latter is currently under public discussion (within the church and without).

As an example, I appeal to  the rhetoric in a video of Bishop Gene Robinson (appearing on “Frost Over the World,” in conversation with the more traditional Anglican priest Lynda Rose) who appeals to his feelings and to some “inner core” of the identity of gay and lesbian people.

Please note, I find much of what Bp. Robinson says, but I’m trying to isolate one facet here of the gay issue — the absolutization of the “feelings” of the buffered self — and I think that his discourse is a good example of this. This “inner core” of (experience-derived) identity is, all too often, presented as inviolable, and it seems to trump scripture, tradition, and reason.

 

 

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Against Human Rights (again): Sachs on Circumcision

If anyone had any doubts about the validity of Radical Orthodoxy’s critique of the secular rhetoric of human rights let them read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this article in The Jerusalem Post by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs (hat tip to Chad Pecknold), in which Sachs trenchantly writes,

Since Hiroshima and the Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral authority. Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be cast in the language of human rights. Hence the by-now routine accusation that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity. This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them – some do, some don’t. It is because this is the only form in which an assault on Jews can be stated today (italics mine).

That is what the court in Cologne has done. It has declared that circumcision is an assault on the rights of the child since it is performed without his consent. It ignored the fact that if this is true, teaching children to speak German, sending them to school and vaccinating them against illness are all assaults against the rights of the child since they are done without consent. The court’s judgement was tendentious, foolish and has set a dangerous precedent.

One can see a similar dynamic at play in the recent Dutch ban on the shechitah (thankfully reversed … for now), here endorsed by the secularly machiavellian Peter Singer, as well as in the Obama Administration’s recent deplorable attempt to require payment and referral for abortion-causing drugs and birth control in the health care services provided by various Catholic institutions.

I hasten to add that that the most profound response to such developments is not for the Church (or “religious institutions”) to lobby for “a place at the table” of pluralistic voices, thereby pandering to and invoking the very secular rhetoric which has led to the marginalization of religion (although of course such a move can “buy more time” in the short run).

For more on this I would recommend (especially for my more “conservative” friends) Peter Leithart‘s works on ecclesiology, including The Kingdom and the Power, Against Christianity, and Defending Constantine.

The Church has two basic vocations: to convert the culture (noncoersively, of course) and to suffer as martyr. Christians in postmodernity should be asking, “What time is it now?”

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Tragedy & Comedy, Intertwined: Thoughts on _Bernie_

I don’t know if you have seen the film Bernie yet, directed by renowned Austin film maker Richard Linklater. (I’m grateful to two Christ Church parishioners in particular for urging me to see the movie, despite the fact that Bouquet and I had not seen a movie in a theater by ourselves for four years!). If you have not seen it, I urge you to do so.

When you see this movie, which tells the story of an infamous 1996 crime in Carthage, Texas, you will see a work of art which, though at times uncomfortably dark and dry (be warned!), is a masterful exhibit of “comedy and tragedy, all intertwined.”

These words – “art and tragedy, all intertwined” – are, according to a May 2012 Texas Monthly article about the film by journalist / screen writer Skip Hollandsworth, the words uttered by Linklater right after witnessing the trial and conviction of Bernie Tiede in San Agustine, Texas in 1998. The story of Bernie’s life and times in Carthage is just that: comedy and tragedy, all intertwined, as the film and its dozens of real-life East Texas locals wittily and subtly portrays.

As Christians who gather regularly to confess our faith in the words of the Creed, we, too, have our own story of comedy and tragedy, of tragedy and comedy. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was delighted to serve others. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ was drawn particularly to the down and out, the destitute, the marginalized. Like Bernie Tiede, the man Jesus Christ knew what it was like to be tried, found guilty, and punished under the law.

Unlike Bernie, however, the man Jesus Christ was no people pleaser. He knew the difference between niceness, which is not a fruit of the spirit, and kindness, which is (Galatians 5). Unlike Bernie Jesus walked around his city as a free man who was not in bondage to the conventions and mores which others assume to be “normal” and “natural.” Unlike Bernie, Jesus was innocently convicted of a trumped up charge, levied against him by a kangaroo court. Unlike Bernie Jesus could not be held in the chains of bondage, but instead rose victorious over death and imprisonment.

I never expected to be living in Tyler watching a film by Linklater (who directed some of my favorite films, some of which take place in Austin) about East Texas. What is most profound about the film is that he allows us to laugh at our East Texas selves without falling into cynicism or despair. There is something about life in Carthage (and Tyler) which is sad and superficial, and at the same time precious and profound.

In this way the film and life are like the story of Scripture. For here nothing is sugar-coated, Nothing is glamourized. Instead human life and culture are taken for what they are.

And what are they? They are tragic and comic. They are good, fallen, and redeemed. They are bound up not with the life of Bernie, but with the life – and the death – of Jesus Christ.

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Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.

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Human Rights as a Sub-issue of the Gay Debate

My short summary of Alasdair John Milbank on human rights:

Prior to modernity, “rights” (Latin iura) were seen as the participation of persons in relationships of mutual, free associations in something objective. But with the advent of liberal political thought, rights become absolutely grounded in the subjective self in isolation from others. American political precedent is built upon these modern assumptions. Hence, “gay marriage” is perfectly rational in an American context which is built on the foundations of modern, liberal political thought.

I would add: if one is not prepared to challenge the foundations of American political theory (including the US Constitution), then one should not complain about gay civil “marriage.”

Two caveats here:

1. I do not mean to imply that the meaning of the word “marriage” (which is a sacrament of the Church) can be redefined. Indeed, I wonder why secular people even care about something called “marriage,” if not for financial reasons based in the tax code of the US. Thus, the church ought to disentangle itself from the state when it comes to marriage.

2. None of the above discussion applies to decisions within the Church with respect to issues around “homosexuality.”

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“So you wanna be a Doctor?” (PhD FAQ’s)

What follows is an article I wrote for The Crucifer, the bi-weekly newsletter of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Tyler, Texas.

As many of the good people at Christ Church already know, I (Matt) have been admitted to the PhD program in philosophy at the University of Dallas (a Roman Catholic school about 80 miles down the road), to begin formal study this fall. Since many folks have been asking me about this development, I thought it would be a good idea to address some of these issues in this issue of The Crucifer.

Why in the world would you want to enter a PhD program? In Ephesians 4:11, St. Paul looks at the elders in the church at Ephesus and says, “Some of you are called to be prophets and apostles, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Ever since my college years at the University of Texas at Austin, I have had a burning passion for what I can only call “evangelism.” By this, however, I really don’t mean standing on a street corner and preaching (although I have done this!). I don’t mean handing out tracks to strangers. I don’t mean inviting people to come forward in a worship service or a “revival” to “make a decision” for Christ. Rather, what I am referring to is a deep desire to engage the secular mind. This is why I want to do a PhD, and this is why I want to do it in philosophy (as opposed to, say, theology). Where did the secular world come from? How did it come about that most Americans assume that “religion” is a private matter of one’s own inner emotions and preferences? If people in our culture view themselves primarily as autonomous consumers, is this the best way to live? These are the kinds of questions I hope to discuss and to write about, in a more rigorous and public way than I could without this degree program.

Why the University of Dallas? There are two reasons, primarily. First, UD is one of a handful of universities left in the US which emphasizes the “great books” of the western canon of thought. As a doctoral student in the humanities at UD I will take six core courses with grad students from the politics department and the English department in areas such as Plato and Aristotle, Homer and Virgil, and Augustine and Aquinas. Since I firmly believe in the importance of tradition, this opportunity is very appealing to me. Second, in PhD studies it is definitely true that what matters is not only “what you know, but who you know.” What matters more than anything else is who your advisor / mentor is. Enter Professor Philipp Rosemann, who I met “randomly” at a party in Dallas two summers ago. Rosemann is a well-published medievalist in the same post-structuralist vein as I, and for some reason he took an immediate interest in me, inviting me to converse with him in his office, assigning me books to read and discuss, and offering to support me in my doctoral application and research.

What does this mean for your role at Christ Church? One of the most amazing aspects of this opportunity has to do with my work as Assistant to the Rector at Christ Church here in Tyler. The bottom line is that my doctoral work will not affect my role at Christ Church and in the Epiphany Community. Beginning in the fall, I will commute to Dallas for classes twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and my studying will (in the main) be limited to those days. It will be a grueling routine, but I feel confident that it will be well worth it. Father David (along with Bishop Doyle) has been very supportive in this decision, and in fact I think that for our ministry here locally it will have no downside. On the contrary, I think I will find it so rejuvenating that it will fuel and inspire my ministry in all sorts of ways.

How long will this program take you to complete? My anticipation is that I will be taking classes for four years, followed by preparing for comprehensive examinations, followed by writing and defending my dissertation. So I predict that I will be finished with my coursework at the end of the spring semester of 2016, at which point I will have much more flexibility.

 

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Jeremy Taylor & Gay Issues

Yesterday in my Christian Formation class at Christ Church I made the case that the Bible is not as clear as I used to think on matters of “homosexuality.” Next week I will argue, however, on the basis of Romans 1 as well as the “narrative arc of Scripture,” in harmony with the consensus of catholic tradition, that same sex practice should not be sanctioned by the Church.

Hence, same sex issues are on my mind & heart today. It is in that context that I read this morning in my personal study time this excerpt from Jeremy Taylor‘s A Sermon on the Marriage Ring:

Nothing can sweeten felicity itself but love. But, when a man dwells in love, then the breasts of his wife are pleasant as the droppings of the hill of Hermon, her eyes are fair as the light of Heaven, she is a fountain sealed, and he can quench his thirst and ease his cares, and lay his sorrows down upon her lap, and can retire home to his sanctuary and refectory and his gardens of sweetness and chaste refreshments. No man can tell, but he that loves his children, how many delicious accents make a man’s heart dance in the pretty conversation of those dear pledges; their childishness, their stammering, their little angers, their innocence, their imperfections, their necessities, are so many emanations of joy and comfort to him that delights in their persons and society.

But he that loves not his wife and children feeds a lioness at home, and broods over a nest of sorrows; and blessing itself cannot make him happy; so that all the commandments of God enjoining a man to “love his wife” are nothing but so many necessities of capacity and joy. She that loves is safe, and he that loves is joyful. Love is a union of all things excellent; it contains in it proportion and satisfaction, and rest and confidence.

Could an analogous sermon be preached at a same sex “wedding?” Hard (for me) to imagine. Perhaps my horizons need to be broadened? I’m open. Skeptical, but open.

I also was reminded this morning that Taylor staunchly resisted the “pro-divorce” views of that Presbyterian Puritan John Milton.

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Gender & Sex: Ancient Near Eastern Sex

Sex & Gender in Bible, World, & Church

Christ Church Christian Formation Class

“Patriarchy & Ancient Near Eastern Sex Regulations”

Sun, March 11, 2012

The Rev. Matt Boulter

 I. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were like its neighbors.

  • A. In both cultures (Israelite & non-Israelite) women were left out of the levirate system of inheritance. (Ie, daughters did not inherit anything from the father
  • B. In both cultures (Israelite and non-Israelite) it appears that women were thought of as the property of the man, the head of the household.

Note, however, that there are certainly tensions here. For instance, we have the examples of Miriam (Exod 15:20,21), Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Esther, and others.

II. How Israelite sex practices & regulations were different from its neighbors.

  • A.  “Lex Talionis” (an “eye for an eye”) in the case of “ravaging a virgin.”[1]
  • B. Prohibition of Prostitution. Dt 23:17-18. Because the marital relation is seen as analogous to the love between Yahweh and his covenant people.[2] Ezek 16, Ezek 23, Prov 7, Jer 5:7, Isa 23:16, I Kings 3.

Conclusions.

  1. Old Covenant Israel was a cultural product of its time, although we can see the “inbreaking” of justice and grace in ways which a) forshadow the New Covenant, and b) improve the quality of life for women, in comparison to Israel’s neighbors.
  2. We should distinguish between Israel’s torah and Israel’s behavior. For example, polygamy is never sanctioned by the torah, and yet it was obviously rampant in ancient Israel.
  3. In the case of Israel’s neighbors, sexual activity is regulated on the basis merely of economic and social stability, but in the case of Israel, there is clearly a theological component in view.


[1] Hurley notes, 4.

[2] In Assyria and Babylonia there is a legally sanctioned way for a man to engage in extramarital sex without damaging another man’s property. What is prohibited is the damaging of another man’s goods. But in Israel this is not the case. There is no “sexual escape” for men. Hence, it is about more than property.

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Beer to the Glory of God

Of the many times I have been proud to be Episcopalian, a few truly special moments come to mind. My ordination to the priesthood at the hands of two dearly beloved bishops. The opening Sunday of the Epiphany Eucharist, when I got a vision for what is possible. My chance to meet with the Most Reverend Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of Nigeria.

And then, there is this:

shota_house_beer

Way to go, Nashotah House!

For more on this vital means of grace, see here.

 

 

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Christian Nation? The Founders on Religion

I highly recommend James Hutson’s book of quotations, The Founders on Religion.

Reading it I realized (or rather, was reminded) that, of the six most influential founders of the US (John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington), two were Unitarians (Adams and Jefferson), and one was a deist (James Madison), one was an all-out nonbeliever / non churchgoer (Franklin).

That leaves only two of the six as remotely resembling the historic Christian faith. (Note: of these six, four were Episcopalian!)

Is it any wonder that the landscape of American Christianity (to say nothing of the Episcopal Church!) today is so muddled? The more things change….

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Tourist or Participant? (Religious Art & the Church)

At the gracious invitation of the Tyler Museum of Art, I recently gave a lecture there entitled “Christians Then & Now: Religious Art and the Christian Church.” This event was held in conjunction with the exhibit, “Object of Devotion: Medieval English Alabaster Sculpture from the Victoria and Albert Museum.”

Abstract: “When it comes to approaching Christian art, there are really two different approaches. The first is the approach of the spectator, the tourist, someone viewing the art from the outside, as if the art were an object, an inert item. That is one approach, and it is an approach which I am going to suggest is connected with what one thinker calls ‘the disenchantment of the modern world.’ The other approach is that of the participant, the member, the one who belongs. What I suggest is that that approach … might have something to do with the ‘re-enchantment’ of the postmodern world.”

You can podcast the talk here.

(Note: the audio quality on the first couple of minutes is not great. My apologies.)

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The Fecundity of Walter Ong

I am currently in the final stages of discerning a possible opportunity to begin doctoral work at the University of Dallas under the esteemed postmodern medievalist Phillip Rosemann. As a part of our ongoing dialogue designed to culminate in a final decision (mutually discerned) to apply to this program or not, Professor Rosemann invited me to read Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong. In so doing he correctly perceived, on the basis of our discussions so far, a great interest on my part for texts and authors related to genealogy, or the intellectual developments which have led western society and culture down the road it has taken in particular toward secularism and modernity.

I must say that the Ong book is among the most original books I have read in a while in its fecundity and heuristic value, rivaling even Pierre Hadot’s work in its ability to shed light upon our cultural and intellectual predecessors, showing how they viewed the world and why.

Whereas much of Hadot’s work focuses on the “schools” of ancient philosophy (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.) and shows how they organically lead to major historical strands within Christianity, Ong takes as his point of departure the “pre-literate” culture makers of the Homeric poets and bards, whose description of the world, as is the case with all pre-literate (ie, oral) thought leaders, is decisively shaped and determined by the form of their discourse. In a world which knew nothing of writing (let alone an alphabet or still less moveable type and the printing press) their description of the world was cast in terms of formulaic units of text (eg, repeated patterns of subjects, verbs, and objects), repetition of events, epithets (eg, “crafty Odysseus,” “the wine-dark sea,” “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”). Just as important, their “genre” (to be horribly anachronistic) was epic narrative, which we would identify as closely related to poetry, given its conformity to strict patterns of meter or scansion.

This book reminds me of the phrase of Alfred North Whitehead who spoke of the “simplicity on the far side of complexity.” The explanatory power of Ong’s thesis (which builds on the work of, among others, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Milman Parry) to explain why the ancients described their world they way they did is staggering. For example, there is the simple matter of memory (a topic given ample attention by Ong). Why did the ancients rely so heavily of formulaic expressions, epithets and repetition in their rendition of important events? (Why, for example, is there so much repetition, say, in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 or in the Abraham cycle of the same book?) Why, further, did they not cast their reports in ways more amenable to the modern, “scientific” mindset? Before one delves into complex matters of historical development, there is the simple fact that they were just trying to remember the account being given. Think about life with no writing at all: of course “tools” such as repetition, formula, and epithet would be of great value. (Note that I am here presupposing that the Bible has an oral provenance which precedes its being committed to writing in the Hebrew language. This is an assumption shared by Ong.)

To take this a bit further, consider again the structure of the creation account of Genesis 1. Why is it structured in terms of six days? Given Ong’s thesis, it would be a great mistake not to include in one’s answer to this question that the communal guardians of the story were simply trying to remember an ancient narrative, to continue the story in the living memory of the people. This is the case regardless of whatever else one might want to argue about the creation story of Genesis 1, any account of Genesis 1 (seeking either to undermine it or to bolster its validity) must take these factors into account.

Briefly I want to list some other areas to which this book is particularly relevant:

I have already hinted at the area of Biblical criticism.

I have already alluded to the genealogical import of the book.

Plato. Ong highlights the deep ambiguity in Plato’s posture toward writing as opposed to orality: in the Republic he banishes poets from the city but then in the Phaedrus and elsewhere he extols the beauty and value of oral dialogue, complaining that writing will lead to a loss of memory.

Rhetoric. Ong shows how, paradoxically, rhetoric both presupposes writing (Aristotle could have never developed the loci communes without the mental structure afforded him by writing) and is eclipsed by (that especially intense form of) writing (known as alphabet-based moveable type). The Romantic movement, itself utterly dependent upon moveable type as well as a level of interiority which only a deeply literate culture could achieve, was the nail in the coffin of rhetoric.

Depth Psychology. In a fascinating discussion of Freud, Ong shows how the depth psychology which he spawned is utterly dependent upon literary developments which could only be achieved in a highly literate culture, for example the development of the round character. (The characters of oral narrative are by necessity “flat,” eg, Odysseus, Adam, Abraham.)

Derrida. In addition to interacting with Derrida’s reading of Plato viz a viz speech and writing (a crucial issue explored in Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing), Ong masterfully, provocatively, and simply shows that what Derrida does is to downgrade oral discourse so that he does not have to deal with it. If orality is stricken with the metaphysics of presence, then Derrida is liberated to deal only with the written text, and to attempt to argue that the text is all there is. Page 162 is the best (and most concise) summary of Derrida I’ve seen.

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Breaking Down the “Gay Issue”

Are you trying to figure out what you think about how to respond to the challenge which our “progressive,” modern, enlightenment culture poses to the church in terms of the gay rights movement?

Here are three (of many) sub-issues which must be studied and mastered. I suggest that when these issues are understood (when it comes to dealing with this issue within the church, not in terms of our secular culture and our modern nation-state) the “gay issue” to some extent dissolves and vanishes.

1. The “buffered self” versus the “porous self.” See Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, and also here.

2. The rhetoric of individual, “human rights.” See Milbank’s article “Against Human Rights,” here.

3. The idolatrous, vicious character of market-driven determination of individual preference and identity construction. See William Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed. Cavanaugh is also interviewed by Ken Myers here (much recommended).

Note that all three sub-issues above presuppose, on the “revisionist” side, a commitment to liberal philosophical individualism.

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“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Last night I had some sweet time with my Bella, my seven year old daughter has who perhaps done more for my theology than anyone over the last few years. (See here and here.)

You see, Bella attends a private school locally which, while virtuous is so many ways (not least the truly rigorous education balanced with a good measure of fun and play) is populated with children and teenagers, who, quite frankly (and unlike what is the case at City School, where Bella attended in Austin), are on the upper-most rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Of course this is not all bad. We are unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to send our kids to All Saints, and often times money brings cultural richness. However, it does pose some real challenges.

Recently Bouquet and I have noticed that Bella is getting more pretentious, that her values are shifting a little, in some subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Last night we spent some wonderful time in the backyard around our outside fire pit (it was cold last night in Tyler!) and talked about things like being rich and being poor, and how some Christians in the past (namely the Puritans) prayed that God would spare them from both extremes.

With that conversation ringing in my mind, I spent some time this morning in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution.

The passage from Eagleton which really hit me aroused in me the intensity I often feel (I am tempted to use the word “anxiety,” but I believe that Jesus has risen from the dead!) when I think about Bella’s future in this culture of narcissism, nihilism, and non-sustainable consumerism.

It is difficult for me not to think that Bella (to say nothing of her own children) will grow up in the twilight of the western culture and civilization. Such cultural decline in the west is not bad, but it will be painful for many.

And it reminded me of a conversation she and I have had over the last couple of years about television, internet, and other forms of media. She has questioned Bouquet’s and my privleging of PBS over other television networks, including our decision not to purchase a version of cable TV service other than the bare minimum (which, by the way, we purchased for the sole reason of obtaining PBS, not available here without a basic cable package).

When explaining to her my suspicion and aversion to various forms of media and entertainment such as signing up for free videos from disneychannel.com, etc., she found one argument particularly compelling:

“They’re just trying to sell you stuff.”

Through email marketing, pop-up ads, irritating and vile commercials … they are just trying to sell you stuff.

I’m so grateful that she found this argument compelling, and it made her question and begin to “see through” the glitz and glamor of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers. Such attraction is full of illusion and deception, she began faintly to grasp.

Born in 1972, I still find it a rather novel concept that media entertainment is about profits, not art. And yet, this is more and more the case, and this is a part of the larger “narrative” I want to inculcate into my daughter.

If I were to take a month off to develop this narrative one text on which I would rely would be the following quotation from Eagleton, which reminds me that:

– Conservative American culture is frequently naively complicit in supporting some of the very worst tendencies and underlying forces in our culture, forces in which the principalities and the powers are utterly owning us. For example, the assumption that form and content are able to be separated without damaging content (examples: Wal-Mart, megachurches, contemporary music).

– Subtle mistakes at the beginning of the Enlightenment in the west are now rearing their full-grown, ugly heads, with demonic furor. (example: the nation-state is now a merely surveillance organization to promote the untrammeled profitability of global capitalism.)

– This narrative (which one might call post-modern) of resisting worldliness through a recognition of the baselessness of consumerism needs to be developed more and more rigorously families and churches, such that it is foundational to how we think and live. That is, only the church has the resources to withstand and resist the onslaught of late capitalist nihilism which will continue to come down the pike, until, to adapt a phrase from the late Neil Postman, we entertain and consume ourselves to death.

– Bouquet and I need to work hard to develop real, authentic relationships between our family and those who are economically struggling.

… the chief threat to enlightened values today springs not from feng shui, faith healing, postmodern relativism, or religious fundamentalism. As usual, it springs from some of the fruits of Enlightenment itself, which has always been its own worst enemy. The language of Enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy. The economic individualism of the early, enlightened middle classes has now spawned into the vast corporations which trample over group and individual rights, shaping our destinies without the slightest popular accountability. The liberal state, founded among other things to protect individual freedom, has burgeoned in out time into the surveillance state. Scientific rationality and freedom of inquiry have been harnessed to the ends of commercial profit and weapons of war. One vital reason why the United States has declared open-ended war on terror is to ensure a flow of open-ended profits for a large number of its corporations. An enlightened trust in dispassionate reason has declined to the hiring of scholars and experts to disseminate state and corporate propaganda. Freedom of cultural expression has culminated in the schlock, ideological rhetoric, and politically managed news of the profit-driven mass media.

Rational or enlightened self-interest brings in its wake the irrationality of waste, unemployment, obscene inequalities, manipulative advertising, the accumulation of capital for its own sake, and the dependence of whole livelihoods on the random fluctuation of the market. It also brings with it colonialism and imperialism, which scarcely sit easily with enlightened values. Political individualism, intended to safeguard us from the insolence of power, results in a drastic atrophying of social solidarities. The vital Enlightenment project of controlling Nature, which frees us from being the crushed and afflicted victims of our environment, has resulted in the wholesale pollution of the planet. In claiming the world as our own, we find that we have ended up possessing a lump of dead matter. In asserting our free spirits, we have reduced our own bodies to pieces of mechanism. – Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution, p 71 – 72.

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Sam Harris: “Values” & Modern Science

Regarding a Sam Harris video from TED which a friend asked me to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hj9oB4zpHww&feature=player_embedded

What is going on here is that Harris is presupposing an Enlightenment understanding of “values,” and then and saying that, contrary to much pop opinion, this is really not at all in different sphere from modern science. He might be right, because these two realms are, to invoke Aristotle, “contrary propositions within the same genus.” They are apparent opposites, but in reality they are kissing cousins, two sides of the same coin.

But what if we were to frame the debate in terms of representation versus participation?

That is, what if we were to grant that modern science and enlightenment-based values, are, in fact, overlapping spheres, but then to challenge the common assumptions of this sphere: that our minds interact with the “external world” or creation according to a scheme of representation (ie, “pictures in the brain”)? Over and against this modern assumption (espoused, for example, by Descartes) is the premodern approach to knowledge which is participatory: the form of the tree migrates into my mind (and vice-versa) much like small particles of fragrant coffee are wafting into my nostrils even as I write this.

What needs to be challenged, therefore, is the enlightenment, representationalist worldview which is shared by both privatized “values” and the modern science establishment.

“Values are certain kinds of facts: facts about the well-being of conscious creatures” presupposes a positivistic epistemology. He is letting modern science define his terms and frame the issues.

“There is no notion of values that I have ever come across that is not reducible to a concern about conscious experience.” Really? How about the “notion of values” of Ancient Jews? Or of 5th century Athens?

Notice how he reduces religion-driven values down to the “afterlife.” Perhaps he should try reading the Bible sometime. Paul almost never speaks of “the afterlife,” let alone Jesus and the Old Testament. “The afterlife” is a term which hegemonically imposes a modern conception of self and religion upon Christian theology.

He assumes that “adding cholera to the water” would “probably not be a good thing.” I’m surprised to hear him say this, since he is not a pacifist. Surely there might be, given his worldview, a time and a place to add cholera to the water, for example, as strategy in the middle east of Afghanistan in the American Empire’s “war on terror?”

4:55 Brain versus mind. This is a huge example of begging the question. He argues that variant understandings of human flourishing are reducible down to culture-induced changes in the brain (but how does he know this?), and so we can understand these differing value systems through “a maturing science of the mind: neuroscience, psychology, etc.”

He speaks repeatedly of a “state of wellbeing.” What is that, and who gets to choose? Is it “not killing each other?” That seems rather shallow and unambitious. (What if we start killing ourselves?) Is it pleasure? That is certainly what the Epicureans and the radical skeptics thought, but the Stoics trenchantly disagreed. Who is right? Will modern science settle this debate?

What is wonderful, however, about Sam Harris is that he is passionately concerned about human flourishing. Would be that more “Christians” shared his passion.

In addition, I agree that “there are right and wrong answers” to the best ways to promote human flourishing.” How to determine those, however, is where the disagreement starts.

One more thought: I love TED!

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Bridge Beer, Bridge Church

I suppose that one of the things I learned from my almost 4 years as a Starbucks barista was the fun of introducing customers to new things: new coffees, new pairings, new ways to drink tea, etc. (Actually, I have always loved to do this. Even when I was a little kid I liked to experiment with drinks, for example & 7Up — not Sprite — with various fruit juices, and then share my new discoveries with sisters and parents.)

Recently here in Tyler, an area somewhat beer-challenged (though I love many things about Tyler!), I have enjoyed sitting at a bar somewhere, and starting a conversation with a Bud Light drinker (for example).

“Bartender, give him a Fireman’s Four on me, please,” followed by a discussion about the ways this beer is superior to his former go-to.

Another good beer in this situation would be New Belgium Sunshine Wheat, but, alas, I’ve not seen that one (especially on tap) in these parts, east of Dallas.

In other words, Fireman’s Four and Sunshine Wheat are good examples of bridge beers which can help a person transition from beer which, having little redeeming value, can only be called “cheap” to a truly wonderful beer, rich in flavor and full of body.

Another good bridge beer is Shiner Bock. I have seen many a beer drinker enhance their quality of life by moving from cheap beer to robust stouts and porters by way of Shiner. (Shiner Bock to Shiner Black to a good stout is a natural trajectory.)

Now, just as there are bridge beers, so also there are bridge churches. In my journey the PCA was just such a church. I was blessed to get a taste of liturgical and sacramental worship in the PCA in Austin while still retaining the sense that I was rooted in the evangelical world.

But over time (to make a long story short) I needed more. I needed to go deeper. I needed the full experience, the full body, the full depth of layer and subtlety.

Now, as an Episcopal priest, I have the joy and privilege to be forming a new worshiping community of young people in the context of an Episcopal Church (kind of like a church plant but with fewer of the intense challenges that accompany that monumental project).

One of the things going on with the “Epiphany Eucharist” is this idea of bridge worship. What we are trying to do here is to provide access to the liturgy and sacramental life of the church for folks for whom this way of worshiping the Triune God is quite foreign and awkward.

Just as (for Calvin) God “lisps” in the Incarnation, so also we are wanting not to “dumb down” the liturgy, but rather to implement creative ways of making it more accessible, more reachable, more natural.

Just as a Bud Light drinker usually has trouble going straight to Old Rasputin or Young’s Double Chocolate Stout or Dogfish Head Raison d’etre, so also many folks have trouble going straight from secular culture or megachurch culture (which are basically the same thing, I think) to the Rite I Eucharistic Liturgy.

I would love nothing more than if, after a year or two of folks worshiping with us in the Rite III Epiphany Service, they were to come up to me and say, “You know, I have really enjoyed and grown from this Epiphany Eucharist over the last many months, but I think I would like to try that Rite I Service downstairs.”

“Great!” I would respond, thinking to myself all the while, “mission accomplished.”

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Anglican1000 Conference: some modest thoughts

A couple of friends have asked me to share my thoughts about this conference.

Anglican1000 is a yearly church planting conference (which just ended) which was held at Christ Church Plano, a parish in the northern suburbs of Dallas which left the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas a few years ago. (The rector, David Roseberry, who planted the church in the mid-1980’s and grew it to become the largest parish in the entire Episcopal Church when it exited that church body, then led the church into the Anglican Mission in the Americas, and then subsequently changed affiliations to the ACNA.)

Some thoughts:

1. Praise God for the missional energy and excitement which is spreading in this group. The planting of biblically-based local churches can only be good.

2. It was kind of a surreal experience, on the other hand, being in the midst of a group of folks who are forming a reactionary or alternative church body, in opposition to a more liberal one. This was the air in which I lived and moved and had my being for about a decade in the Presbyterian Church in America, including several years as a pastor. The temptation for such a new body to define themselves against the “apostasizing ones” is absolutely undeniable, as is the potential arrogance and self-congratulation which go along with that.

3. It was also surreal to hear Tim Keller in this group. Keller’s rich, nuanced, thoughtful, culturally savvy theological engagement (which I have been studying for a decade) was soaked up by them like parched desert soil soaking up a shower of life-giving rain.

4. I noticed a tendency in the group (there were perhaps 500 church planters and other interested parties in attendance) to push for a more confessional Anglicanism, something I had known about previously at a more theoretical level from Dr. Philip Turner, who has argued against a confessional framework against Stephen Noll from Trinity School for Ministry. Several folks with whom I spoke explicitly argued for this, the need for a more confessional commitment as something that will bind the church together in unity. I continue to think, however, that this is not classically Anglican, and, quite frankly, that this makes this group tantamount to the PCA (especially since one can find great liturgies all throughout the PCA).

5. Connected to #4 above, this conference has deepened my commitment to catholic liturgical practice as the only way the Church can withstand the onslaught of modernity. (To play devil’s advocate for a moment, the strongest argument against this posture is the global south: that is, a non-liturgical christianity could well outlast and outflank modern secularism by continuing to take root in Africa and other 2/3 worlds countries, which then continue to bring this evangelical faith back to the post-Christian west.) It is clear that for these Anglican brothers and sisters at this conference, it is not the liturgy which binds the church together in unity. As a result one sees wildly divergent ways of worshipping among the church plants and a longing for a more robust commitment to confessional standards.

5. I did attend one workshop during the conference put on by a group in New England (led by Bishop Bill Murdoch) that is embodying a “new monastic” way of practicing intentional community that was truly encouraging, motivating, and inspiring. God willing, I will implement some of these practices in my ministry, and the worshipping community that God is forming, in Tyler.

All in all, I am grateful to God for doing a new thing in this group, and that “denominational” disputes cannot stop the work of God in the world. However, as a liturgical catholic Christian who embraces a “communion ecclesiology” (along the lines of Rowan Williams, Radical Orthodoxy, the Windsor Report, and John Zizioulas) who enjoys the oversight of a godly bishop, I am glad I am not directly numbered among them.

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Times reports on Iraqi Martyrs

51 Christians were killed in Baghdad at a single shooting last week, the NT Times reports.

An excerpt:

In an emotional service interrupted twice by applause, the Rev. Muklis Shisha told the congregation, “The church is a martyr,” adding: “The cross needs blood, and the blood is happiness because Jesus is our happiness. I congratulate our country and ourselves for our martyrs.”

For many Christians here, the attack underscored a bitter irony of the American-led invasion. It opened the door for warfare on one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.

According to the Society for Threatened Peoples, a nongovernmental organization in Germany, more than three-quarters of Baghdad’s 400,000 Christians have left the capital since the invasion, and many have left the country. With a few exceptions, the country’s Jewish population left years ago.

“I don’t think the American people care about this,” said the Rev. Meyassr al-Qaspotros of the nearby Sacred Church of Jesus, whose cousin was one of the priests killed at Our Lady of Salvation, adding, “The Americans are the cause of all this.”

In his sermon to his own congregation, he said, he planned to stress the existential meaning of human suffering and the need for forgiveness, even in the face of horrific bloodshed. “God allowed man to torture Jesus, he will allow this as well, because he gave freedom to all people,” Father Qaspotros said. “We are willing to live with them as our brothers, and teach our sons to love them, because we are no different from them. We are all human.”

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Where did “Halloween” Come From?

Happy (early) All Saints Eve!

Enjoy this excellent article by James Jordan on the origins of Halloween, or All Hallows Eve:

Concerning Halloween

James Jordan

It has become routine in October for some Christian schools to send out letters warning parents about the evils of Halloween, and it has become equally routine for me to be asked questions about this matter.

“Halloween” is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word “hallow” means “saint,” in that “hallow” is just an alternative form of the word “holy” (“hallowed be Thy name”). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.)

In the First Covenant, the war between God’s people and God’s enemies was fought on the human level against Egyptians, Assyrians, etc. With the coming of the New Covenant, however, we are told that our primary battle is against principalities and powers, against fallen angels who bind the hearts and minds of men in ignorance and fear. We are assured that through faith, prayer, and obedience, the saints will be victorious in our battle against these demonic forces. The Spirit assures us: “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Romans 16:20).

The Festival of All Saints reminds us that though Jesus has finished His work, we have not finished ours. He has struck the decisive blow, but we have the privilege of working in the mopping up operation. Thus, century by century the Christian faith has rolled back the demonic realm of ignorance, fear, and superstition. Though things look bad in the Western world today, this work continues to make progress in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.

The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.

What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. (The tradition of mocking Satan and defeating him through joy and laughter plays a large role in Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a Halloween novel.)

The gargoyles that were placed on the churches of old had the same meaning. They symbolized the Church ridiculing the enemy. They stick out their tongues and make faces at those who would assault the Church. Gargoyles are not demonic; they are believers ridiculing the defeated demonic army.

Thus, the defeat of evil and of demonic powers is associated with Halloween. For this reason, Martin Luther posted his 95 challenges to the wicked practices of the Church to the bulletin board on the door of the Wittenberg chapel on Halloween. He picked his day with care, and ever since Halloween has also been Reformation Day.

Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR!

I don’t have the resources to check the historical origins of all Halloween customs, and doubtless they have varied from time to time and from Christian land to Christian land. “Trick or treat” doubtless originated simply enough: something fun for kids to do. Like anything else, this custom can be perverted, and there have been times when “tricking” involved really mean actions by teenagers and was banned from some localities.

We can hardly object, however, to children collecting candy from friends and neighbors. This might not mean much to us today, because we are so prosperous that we have candy whenever we want, but in earlier generations people were not so well o_, and obtaining some candy or other treats was something special. There is no reason to pour cold water on an innocent custom like this.

Similarly, the jack-o’-lantern’s origins are unknown. Hollowing out a gourd or some other vegetable, carving a face, and putting a lamp inside of it is something that no doubt has occurred quite independently to tens of thousands of ordinary people in hundreds of cultures worldwide over the centuries. Since people lit their homes with candles, decorating the candles and the candle-holders was a routine part of life designed to make the home pretty or interesting. Potatoes, turnips, beets, and any number of other items were used.

Wynn Parks writes of an incident he observed: “An English friend had managed to remove the skin of a tangerine in two intact halves. After carving eyes and nose in one hemisphere and a mouth in the other, he poured cooking oil over the pith sticking up in the lower half and lit the readymade wick. With its upper half on, the tangerine skin formed a miniature jack-o’-lantern. But my friend seemed puzzled that I should call it by that name. `What would I call it? Why a “tangerine head,” I suppose.’” (Parks, “The Head of the Dead,” The World & I, November 1994, p. 270.)

In the New World, people soon learned that pumpkins were admirably suited for this purpose. The jack-o’-lantern is nothing but a decoration; and the leftover pumpkin can be scraped again, roasted, and turned into pies and muffins.

In some cultures, what we call a jack-o’-lantern represented the face of a dead person, whose soul continued to have a presence in the fruit or vegetable used. But this has no particular relevance to Halloween customs. Did your mother tell you, while she carved the pumpkin, that this represented the head of a dead person and with his soul trapped inside? Of course not. Symbols and decorations, like words, mean different things in different cultures, in different languages, and in different periods of history. The only relevant question is what does it mean now, and nowadays it is only a decoration.

And even if some earlier generations did associate the jack-o’-lantern with a soul in a head, so what? They did not take it seriously. It was just part of the joking mockery of heathendom by Christian people.

This is a good place to note that many articles in books, magazines, and encyclopedias are written by secular humanists or even the pop-pagans of the so-called “New Age” movement. (An example is the article by Wynn Parks cited above.) These people actively suppress the Christian associations of historic customs, and try to magnify the pagan associations. They do this to try and make paganism acceptable and to downplay Christianity. Thus, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, etc., are said to have pagan origins. Not true.

Oddly, some fundamentalists have been influenced by these slanted views of history. These fundamentalists do not accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of Western history, American history, and science, but sometimes they do accept the humanist and pagan rewriting of the origins of Halloween and Christmas, the Christmas tree, etc. We can hope that in time these brethren will reexamine these matters as well. We ought not to let the pagans do our thinking for us.

Nowadays, children often dress up as superheroes, and the original Christian meaning of Halloween has been absorbed into popular culture. Also, with the present fad of “designer paganism” in the so-called New Age movement, some Christians are uneasy with dressing their children as spooks. So be it. But we should not forget that originally Halloween was a Christian custom, and there is no solid reason why Christians cannot enjoy it as such even today.

“He who sits in the heavens laughs; Yahweh ridicules them” says Psalm 2. Let us join in His holy laughter, and mock the enemies of Christ on October 31.

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Islamophobia at Fox News?

Until this last week I had not heard of “Tell Me More” or Tell Me More’s “Barbershop” discussion on NPR. Now, though, I’m a fan.

This discussion in particular, about the Juan Williams incident, was riveting for me, and I only wish I had time to gather my sisters, parents, and wife into a room to discuss it. (Pub club in Austin would be another desireable dialogue community for this one.)

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Bp. Tom defends Archbp. Rowan

Yet again, it seems to me that NT Wright has spoken profoundly and faithfully to a listening world, which is asking good and difficult questions, but which seems to resist the depth of truth which the church (at its best) offers.

Listen to then Bishop of Durham discuss and defend Archbishop Rowan Williams (and many other things besides) in the face of a round of questions which makes assumption after assumption with which then Bishop Wright gently takes issue.

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Nigeria & Eliza Griswold’s _The 10th Parallel_

About a month ago I heard a podcast of “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross in which she interviewed both Eliza Griswold, daughter of former Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, as well as Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and 2010 Blandy Lecturer at the Seminary of the Southwest.

Sharlet has an article in this month’s Harper’s on homosexuality in Uganda called “Straight Man’s Burden” which is interesting reading.

After hearing the interview I purchased the book and started reading, largely to prepare myself for the upcoming visit to Christ Church Tyler of the Most Reverend Benjamin Kwashi, an Anglican archbishop in Nigeria. (God willing, I also have the amazing opportunity, at the Archbishop’s request, to travel to Nigeria next summer with a group from Christ Church.)

I plan to blog on this book over the next few days. For now, here’s a great quotation (from page 11):

Today’s typical Protestant in an African woman, not a white American man. In many of the weak states along the tenth parallel, the power of these religious movements is compounded by the fact that the “state” means very little here; governments are alien structures that offer their people almost nothing in the way of services or political rights. This lack is especially pronounced where present-day national borders began as nothing more than lines sketched onto colonial maps. Other kinds of identity, consequently, come to the fore: religion above everything – even race or ethnicity – becomes a means to safeguard individual and collective security in this world and the next one.

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