Sunday, December 25, 2011

What Muslims Can Teach Us About Christmas

What do Muslims believe about the Nativity of Christ? Muslims believe that Jesus was a messenger of God; they even accept  his virginal conception. What they do not accept is the larger idea of the Incarnation. According to Muslims, Jesus was simply one significant prophet in a line of prophets, culminating with Mohammad; the final prophet of God. They also reject the idea that Jesus was crucified, claiming that Allah would never allow such an indignity to befall one of his chosen ones. They equally deny the resurrection, arguing that Jesus was taken up into heaven before his enemies could lay hands on him. Oddly enough, they do believe in the rest of Jesus' miracles- just not the ones that actually change anything. Indeed, they have gone to such great lengths to edit the story of Christianity, that by comparison the Jeffersonian Bible must seem down right mystical and other-wordly. They have, if you will, re-administered the burqa of inscrutability to the face of God.
What is most interesting about this revisionism (I think) is the reason that Muslims feel compelled to do so. It certainly has something to do with their desire to prove that their message is the superior one, but I would suggest that there is another reason for it, a reason which is even more sympathetic than the former: the Gospel is too good to be true.

Indeed, it is at once too wonderful and too terrible an idea to be believed. The suggestion that an Omnipotent God came as an impotent child- only to be brutalized by the very same people that he came to save- should strike us as more than a little preposterous. What is even more preposterous is the suggestion that not only did He not condemn humanity for this, but instead used it as an occasion to offer him eternal life.

Consequently, I understand why Muslims cannot accept the Incarnation. I understand why they feel it necessary to edit out some of the more provocative details of our Faith. Their creed is as solid and substantial as saying that 1=1 (or in their terminology that God is God). And there is a lot to be said for that. But Christ didn't come simply to re-establish the Old Law, he came to establish something new. He didn't come merely to give the world a truth that it already had; he came to reveal something that it couldn't have imagined in a million years (like 1=3). Christianity is the religion of surprises, and it is for this reason, I think, that we go to such great lengths to wrap our presents during the Advent season.

The very reason that Muslims call the Incarnation a blasphemy is the very reason we should all jump for joy when we hear it. Much like the religions of antiquity (including Judaism), Islam has naturally imagined a God who is transcendent and completely inscrutable in his ways. What no one could have guessed were the extraordinary events that transpired at Bethlehem. If it is accurate to say that God is all-powerful and ever-living, then how is it possible that he should be born under such mean conditions? And if it is true that the Lord of lords was tortured beyond all recognition, then how is it possible that he would not punt the human race into utter oblivion rather than endure such an indignity?

In this sense, then, our Faith is a laundry list of blasphemies... but for one minor detail. It all happens to be true. Is it beneath God to share in the same wicked fate as humanity? You bet. Is it unacceptable that the maker of heaven and earth should be born under such miserable conditions? Without a doubt. Is the idea of an incorruptible God taking on corruptible flesh a little bit far-fetched? It is quite reasonable to say so. Does it sound like a punch line to declare that the Almighty has humbled Himself to the point of washing our feet?  In the immortal words of St. Peter; "Lord, you will never wash my feet!"

In the end, it is God's "blasphemous" love for us that makes all of this divine bombast possible. It is his willingness to submit to any manner of trials that should leave us completely dumbstruck. Who are we indeed that the King of kings should come to us with such a remarkable offer? Who are we to declare the inevitability of an event that leaves every other religion in a state of disbelief? Let all of humanity tremble before this terrible trough; let her approach her Savior with the deepest sense of gratitude and reverence- bearing gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, and the still more precious gift of holy incredulity.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

5 Songs By Secular Artists About Mary:

As stated in a previous post, the artist that quite often writes the most theological piece is the one who is not trying to write anything theological at all. In the field of the imagination one quite naturally stumbles upon certain parallels between human and divine love. Just as the atheist John Steinbeck used Biblical imagery in many of his works, so the artist, by being true to the muse, cannot help but to wander into a whole constellation of truth. In the examples listed below, the songwriters are attempting to express what one might describe as the ideal beauty. Consequently, they come into contact with the very picture of beauty- immaculate Mary.

1. Mercy Street - Peter Gabriel

This atmospheric piece from the album So by Peter Gabriel, details the kind of alienation one often encounters in suburban life. The first two verses paint a rather bleak portrait of a lonely woman who wanders through; "corridors of pale-green and grey". Inspired by the poet Anne Sexton and her work of the same title, Gabriel goes well beyond the poem itself and includes biographical details that provide greater insight into the life of a women plagued by depression. Despite the grim beginning to the song, the second verse offers a glimmer of hope; "Pulling out the pages from drawers that slide smooth, turning out the darkness word upon word, confessing all the secret things in a warm velvet box, to the priest, he's the doctor, he can handle the shocks. Dreaming of the tenderness tremble in the hips, of kissing Mary's lips... Dreaming of Mercy street, where you're inside out; dreaming of mercy, in your daddy's arms again." The contrast between the harsh backdrop of the song and the presence of an abiding grace is an image reminiscent of the Psalms.

2. Mary's Prayer - Danny Wilson

Mary's Prayer is one of those lost little hits of the 1980s that can easily slide right by you without you even noticing just how Marian it is. The song is about a woman named Mary that the lead singer clearly laments having lost; "I used to be so careless as if I couldn't care less... did I have to make this face when I was Mary's prayer."And then as if to warn his audience to avoid a similar error, he declares; "... and when you find somebody you keep, think of me and celebrate..." But the most interesting part of the song occurs in the second verse. As he begins speaking of the beauty of this ethereal figure, he also interjects pseudo-Biblical imagery; "Blessed is the one who shares your power and your beauty Mary. Blessed is the millionaire, who shares your wedding day..." There is an element of Gestalt about these lyrics, an intended ambiguity that allows the listener to see the parallels between both human and divine love. So is this "wedding day" about Mary the Mother of God, or is it simply about lost love? The answer is yes. The parallel is even more blatant when the chorus arrives; "And if I say, save me, save me, be the light in my eyes, and if I say ten Hail Mary's, leave a light on in heaven for me." At the start of the song, an earthly love seems to be the driving force behind it, but by the end the emphasis seems to shift to the divine. In fact, the songwriter even goes so far as to impute intercessory powers to this particular woman; "... and if I can't reach the top of the tree, Mary you can hold me up there, what I wouldn't give to be when I was Mary's prayer."

3. Let it Be - The Beatles

When it comes to this Beatles classic, people are quick to point out that Paul McCartney was writing it about his mother "Mary" and not about the Virgin Mary. And this would be be a significant detail, were it to in any way undermine the central thesis (which it does not). Motherhood is motherhood is motherhood. If Sir Paul sees some ideal beauty in his Mother, then how could it not, like the moon, reflect an even more immaculate love. Did McCartney know that he was essentially repeating the Angelus when he wrote the words "Let it be", a line that blatantly echoes the very words that Mary spoke to the archangel Gabriel; "Be it done unto me according to thy word"? Whether McCartney intended this or not is irrelevant. By virtue of wanting to praise the good of motherhood, he has indirectly praised the Mother of all the living; the one who was made perfect from her conception. He praises her for her wisdom; he praises her for patience and trust; he praises her for the gift of her consolation. Mary glides right through the verses of this song like a mysterious, yet potent, force. In the final verse, he universalizes this sign of hope by promising this Marian consolation to all the "broken-hearted" of the world, assuring them that in time "an answer" will come.

4. She's Got a Way - Billy Joel

It is more than a little ironic that the fourth Marian-themed song should come from the artist who wrote the ultimate anti-Marian song (viz. Only the Good Die Young). Nevertheless, love covers a multitude of sins, and in this wonderful ode to femininity, we once again get a distinct picture of what this creature called Woman truly embodies. Of all the songs on the list, this is the only one that never actually mentions Mary by name. However, if you look at the virtues that are attributed to this woman, you quickly come to the realization that he doesn't have to; "She's got a way about her; don't know what it is... She's got a light around her... She's got a smile that heals me... She comes to me when I'm feeling down inspires me without a sound, she touches me, and I get turned around." Grace is the operative word here. Men are not given the name "Grace" by their parents, and there is good reason for that. The power of a man is generally exhibited through some sort of physical exertion, while the power of women is far more intangible and mysterious. Some may point out that there are many songs that fit this bill, and I agree. But whether it's Lionel Ritchie, Led Zeppelin, or Daughter Zion, it doesn't change the fact that men have been writing hymns to this ideal woman since the beginning of time. Nevertheless, when I listen to songs like "She's Got a Way", I can't help but to think that these artists (especially those most inclined to write love ballads) would be far better off if they didn't confuse their beloved with the Beloved.

5. The Song of Bernadette - Jennifer Warnes and Leonard Cohen

Their names may sound unfamiliar, but you are more than likely to recognize the songs that are credited to them. Warnes reached the top of the charts with songs like "Up Where We Belong" (with Joe Cocker), "Right Time of the Night", and the theme song to- of all things- "Dirty Dancing". Leonard Cohen is perhaps best known for his song "Hallelujah", which was most popularly covered by the late Jeff Buckley. Of all the songs on the list, "The Song of Bernadette" is undoubtedly the most obvious in its implications. There is very little question about the identity of the central figures, or even the central message; "There was a child named Bernadette, I heard the story long ago. She saw the queen of heaven once, and kept the vision in her soul". Some may consider the music and message a bit maudlin, but being one for some occasional "sap", I cannot help but like this song. The message is simple but by no means does it cover the same old ground; "So many hearts I find broke like yours and mine, torn by what we've done and can't undo. I just want to hold you, won't you let me hold you, like Bernadette would do." Indeed, it is one of those rare instances where a secular artist simply tells a religious story without any hint of irony. Worth noting is the fact that these two also collaborated on a song called "Joan of Arc"; a richly theological piece that explores the martyrdom of St. Joan and offers a provocative look at the nuptial implications of her fiery death.

The fact that no one on this list, as far as I can tell, is a devout Catholic, does not diminish the power of their testimony. In fact, it makes their witness all the more compelling. Certainly the musician in this instance can't be accused of pandering to their audience (and most certainly not their record company). So what else should we assume about this suprising display of Marian piety but that he or she has stumbled upon some undeniable truth; a truth that they cannot help but to announce?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Death of a Beloved Atheist

It is not every day that such a preposterous phrase is put together, because it is not every day that the announcement of an atheist's death should bring such collective sorrow. I am not sure what it was about Christopher Hitchins' atheism, but if it can be said, he was truly a lovable atheist. In many ways he was like a villain in a play that you like primarily because he's got personality. In an age where Christianity has all but turned into a kind of warmed over Theism, he was what Flannery O'Connor referred to as the scourge of God, demanding that Christians make an account of their faith.
Perhaps my favorite Christopher Hitchins moment occurred at King's College during a debate with Catholic apologist Dinesh D'Souza. When asked what his thoughts were on the omnipotence of God, he responded by comparing heaven to "a celestial North Korea," and then adding, "but at least you can get out of North Korea when you die, for Christians death is when the fun really begins!" When I heard him say this, I have to admit I wanted to stand up and applaud, not because I agreed with it, but because I thought it was incredible theatre. The villain has spoken, and now the hero, if he is in fact worthy of that title, must respond with equal, if not greater, vigor. In an unmanly time, he demanded an intellectually virile response from Christians (and anyone with whom he disagreed).
Indeed, he was so much the "Devil's advocate," that he literally played one during the canonization process of Mother Theresa; a role that even the most seasoned controversialist wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole. During the process, he pointed out that the Church used to do this themselves when evaluating possible candidates for sainthood, though it had regretfully ceased to do so in recent decades. Frankly, I agree with him on this account, and hope that the Church will bring back this noble tradition.
This is not to suggest that he himself was secretly working on the side of the Church (though sometimes I fancy he was). Nevertheless, he always kept about himself two things that distinguished him from the rest of the so-called "new atheists". First, he had a sense of humor. Agree with him or not, and there was much to disagree with him on, there was always a twinkle in his eye (and a drink in his hand) whenever he was conducting an interview or a debate. I do not think that Richard Dawkins ever possessed the same levity. Secondly, he believed in an objective moral norm, though he could never quite effectively argue why a Darwinian primate should have such a strict moral code. Indeed, he was more than willing to travel to some remote location if only to shed further light on some particular injustice. Once again, I do not see a similar willingness on the part of the other "Brights" (as Dawkins likes to call them). They are good at assessing blame, but are ultimately a bunch of grouses that do nothing.
No one should confuse Christopher Hitchins with a saint, he was not. But in some mysterious way he did help shed light on a particular Biblical passage that is nothing if not paradoxical; "Love your enemies". Of all the enemies of Christ and His Church, I would have to say that Mr. Hitchins was probably the most lovable. Maybe it was because, as Flannery O'Connor once put it, "he was walking backwards towards Jerusalem". I do not know. What I can say is that his candor and creative prose will be sorely missed, and that despite what some may say, he was doing the Church a great service by demanding that She give an account of Herself. It is true that God rebuked Job for his tremendous presumption, but it is equally true that Job's wife and his companions were rebuked even more so for their facile solutions to the problem of evil. Let it never be said of Mr. Hitchins that he fell into that latter category.                                               

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Riddle: When Is a Gift Not a Gift?

When is a gift not really a gift? When it's given to someone else in your honor. It sounds like a punch line, and in a way it is. I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but let me give it a shot. In recent years, I have received cards around Christmastime that essentially inform me that I am somehow responsible for a family in Sub Saharan Africa receiving an emu (I am embellishing a little). Forgive me if I do not see the logic in giving someone a card which says, in essence, I am donating this to a cause that I find important, and now I am doing so under the pretext that I am giving you a gift. Wow, now that is some creative gift giving! Not only do you get to point out that you are generous and charitable, but you get to do so while pretending that you are actually giving me something. I must say, I do not feel "gifted" in this respect.  
I am certainly not against giving to a worthy charity, but that is the point, I am not giving anything at all, I am being used in a very odd way to give to a charity that I may or may not endorse. And what if the donation is to someone or something that I find morally objectionable (like Planned Parenthood)? Since I am the one who is apparently so generous, am I then responsible for the consequences of that donation?  How about we compromise. If you want so badly to give to some venerable charity in my honor, at least give me some options; put a column of "check boxes" beside a list of charities that I can choose from, and then I may feel a little bit honored. But as long as you continue to purchase some exotic beast on my behalf, I would just as soon you leave me out of it, because frankly, you already have.                            

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Virgin of Guadalupe vs. Frida Kahlo and Modern Art

If one were to walk into any shop in Mexico today, one would invariably run into two images: the Virgin of Guadalupe and Frida Kahlo. In fact, quite often Frida is depicted with the same iconic imagery as that of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ubiquity of these two figures in Mexico can hardly be an accident (even if it is an accident of that particular shop owner). On the one hand you have Guadalupe who represents everything familiar and familial about traditional life in Mexico, and on the other you have Frida, a figure that serves as a kind of post-modern riposte to that previous ideal.

When I first encountered the image of Frida, I was under the distinct impression that I was looking at a man dressed in drag. It was only later that I was informed that Frida was in fact a woman with masculine features. Considering what we know now of the artist, that initial impression was probably accurate– and if I might say it– intended. Frida was no enemy of ambiguity, nor was she averse to disturbing imagery. She felt right at home at the circus, wandering about those warping windows, ogling those carnival characters, and reveling in that nameless figure we’ve come to know as the Bearded Lady. In any event, Frida and Guadalupe represent far more than a conflict in Mexican culture; they are the icons of a conflicted anthropology.

Even so, there is something far more interesting about these images of Frida than a good deal of modern art. Unlike most contemporary art, it does not require an explanation for one to find it intriguing, nor does it necessitate the snobbish presumption that if you "fail to appreciate this, well then, you are not worthy of it in the first place." Secondly, there is a sacramental quality to her work even if only in the negative sense. Her art is representative of her self image; it is an externalizing of her internal disposition. If you were to give it the most positive read, you might even say that it has a little of that Flannery O'Connor grotesquery about it. But just because something can be appreciated on that level does not necessarily mean that the artist intended it that way.

What Frida represents is a twisting of the feminine ideal. Judging from her often unflattering depictions of herself, there is clearly an element of self-hatred in her work. In some of her pieces she is depicted as a monkey or an animal, in others she graphically depicts the pain of her miscarriage in a most brutal fashion; in others still she clearly embellishes the amount of facial (and eyebrow) hair she has in order to appear as masculine as possible, or at least as masculine as one can be in a dress and earrings. Lest you be tempted to think that she is at peace with all of this gender (and animal) bending, suffice it to say that the perpetual sneer on her face should erase any doubts in this regard.

Thus marks the profound chasm between the pretensions of modern art and the intention of the traditional artist. Frida is attractive, but not because she is attractive, rather she is attractive because she has made herself ugly. This is the reverse instinct of the images of the Blessed Virgin, which ultimately seek to embody the virtues of beauty and femininity. We are attracted to Mary because she is beautiful, we are attracted to Frida because she is an anthropological train wreck; one makes us freer, while the other titillates, but never elevates.
The contemporary artist is not so much the product of an artistic movement as the consequence of modern thought. In simpler terms, he is a deconstructionist. He takes one good look at the world and determines that the only way to salvage it is to demolish it. So he declares that God is dead, and then proceeds to envision a new world order, one that goes “beyond good and evil,” one that is even "more human than human.” He really does want to re-invent the wheel (though the one he envisions is far more “wheely” than the previous). Yet what he comes up with is not innovative at all, in fact, it is nothing more than a horrible hybrid, a collapse in the distinction of subject and object, “a picture of Dorian Grey.

That is not to say that the modern artist lacks the capacity to turn heads– indeed that is practically his raison d’etre. The problem lies in his strategy. Unlike the traditional artist, his goal is not to create a masterpiece; but to shout “fire” in a crowded theater. He is not interested in wooing his audience; rather he is trying to insult them. He is like the doctor in the mental hospital that uses shock treatments in order to achieve a desired end. His “therapy” is successful insofar as it makes the patient more amenable to an unsavory environment, but what it lacks entirely is the ability to inspire a more meaningful existence.    

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why I Don't Listen to "Christian" Music:

In recent decades faithful Christians have attempted to offer an alternative to the generally immoral content that tends to appear in the movie and record industry. I applaud this effort. However, what I do not applaud is a kind of engineering of content so as to produce the correct message. That sounds a little bit too much like propaganda to me. Besides, in many respects, this effort has failed. Go ahead, try and think of a movie or song that was both Christian and substantive at the same time (other than The Passion of the Christ) and you will be sitting there for a long time. There may be one or two out there, but beyond that it's "slim pickings".

One could almost get the impression that there is nothing in common between God and good art. When you want good music, you listen to something godless, and when you want something godly you listen to "Jesus is my Friend" by Son Seed (I recommend it highly). The truth is very nearly the reverse. Indeed, there are elements in heavy metal that deal more substantively with Christian content  than do many of the Christian bands that are out there today. I am not arguing that we should canonize Black Sabbath or Judas Priest, but I am saying that their names are unarguably more theological than a band called Son Seed.

The problem arises fundamentally from a misapprehension of the nature of art and music. The Christian rocker thinks that in order to write a good Christian song he must say the name Jesus at least five times, otherwise he might be mistaken for a secular artist. Would that he were mistaken. I remember a number of years back Amy Grant (who was quite popular in Christian circles) was shunned by a number of Christian radio stations because she wrote a song called "Baby Baby". The reason this was unacceptable?  Because "Baby Baby" was a song about a man and not about God.

This is precisely where the mistake is made. To call a form of music "Christian music" is a terrible redundancy. Respectfully, God is the author of music, and no doubt we need to write songs praising him for it, but God is also the author of the "every day," which we should also depict. To simply write the same lyrics over and over again about praising God (which of course must be accompanied by an effeminate male voice who sounds like he would cry if you punched him in the stomach... see below) is not what I would call a religious experience. In fact, it would be more accurate to call it a hellish experience, for how else would you describe an experience that is at once unimaginative and repetitious.

The primary thing that these artists are missing is the simple notion that a song can be about God without being expressly about God. Art is at its most effective when it is not preachy and when it gives the one who is experiencing it a certain freedom of imagination. Christian music more often than not fails in this respect, condemning the imagination to a veritable crawl space of thought.

I am not speaking here about Christian hymns so much as about Christian rock/pop; for the previous, whether through chant or classic hymnody, generally strikes the right tone for the occasion, while the latter, with its ultra saccharine presentation, reduces God to something as nebulous and insubstantial as a fleeting emotion. When you address God directly, it should have some level of awe and reverence to accompany it. Writing songs that sound like mainstream pop and then super-imposing religious lyrics over it, does not exactly inspire holy fear in the listener; rather, it makes him dumber, and even worse, it dumbs down the dreadful name of God.

Secular artists write better Christian songs because they are not trying to write Christian songs. Certainly this is no virtue in itself, but it does produce the kind of content you want in music. When Chris Cornell, formerly of Audioslave, wrote the song "Like a Stone", I am sure he didn't sit down and say this must have Christian implications. Quite the reverse, because he wanted to say something meaningful, he wound up writing a song about Christ. He let the music speak to him and then wrote the lyrics accordingly. The longing that is expressed in this song is not so much an attempt to be sublime as it is to reveal in a very visceral way the present state of his soul. He sees the beauty of the Faith from an outsider's perspective because he is outside the Faith. He talks about it with the kind of newness because he brings a fresh pair of eye balls to the table. Thus, he is not predisposed to talk about the subject matter in any way except how it strikes him. That is the proper approach to art whether you are Christian or agnostic, or even an atheist.

Another accidental virtue these artists possess is the idea that when you talk about something (especially something like God) you should really not talk about it. In other words, one can surmise that a song is about God, abortion, etc. without the need to expressly say it. The artist may be doing this simply because he is ashamed of saying it, but it nevertheless serves as an effective tool in the art of good song writing. Hence, when the artist attempts to veil the Almighty, he actually winds up revealing him, and when he shrouds Him, he ultimately facilitates a most glorious discovery... the good news that Christ had been with us all along.

And so I don't listen to much "Christian" music these days, but not because it's too Christian for me. Rather, I don't listen to it because it's not Christian enough. In the Father's house, there are many mansions and many rooms, and unfortunately the Christian pop artist seems all too content to confine himself to one.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

WWJD and Why It's Unchristian:

Recently on a morning talk show I saw a man who was discussing the protests in New York City (or some such event). Towards the end of the discussion, he declared with remarkable conviction that; "Jesus would be doing the same were he with us today". Immediately I was reminded of what annoys me so much about the catch-phrase WWJD. Other than it being an acronym, which is bad enough, it reduces faith to a form of text speak, a veritable script dedicated to abbreviating any real thought. But even worse than that (if that is even possible), it borders on a kind of blasphemy.

To ask this question, which more often than not is presented in a rhetorical fashion, is little more than a egotistical attempt to put words into the mouth of God. "I know what Jesus would do in this situation, he would...." Oh, you know what Jesus would do, huh? Nobody in Jesus' life seemed to know what the heck he was doing, and now you're going to tell me that you've figured him out. Not only is this presumptuous and arrogant, but it quite obviously implies that this individual believes that their thoughts are synonymous with God's. This is utterly unbiblical; "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways" (Isaiah 55:8). As opposed to pretending that we know the mind of God, and then making him say what we want him to, perhaps we would be better served if we spent the majority our time talking about things we actually knew, as opposed to pretending that we were some divine oracle.

Incidentally, this phenomenon is nothing new, people have been co-opting the voice of popular figures (in this case a divine figure) for ages; "If the founding fathers were here, they would..." I do not like people putting words in my mouth, and I am sure Thomas Jefferson would not be amused if someone declared, "I know what he would do in this situation?"  Another classic example of this is the use of the royal "we", a form of speech that generally involves more "you" than "we". 

I am not claiming that people that wear those little yellow bracelets are closet Satanists. Indeed, many who wear such things are, though in a very modern way, expressing their faith through a memorable phrase. No doubt there is sincerity in this. What is lacking is a proper starting point. I do not know what Jesus would do, but I do know what he did, and what he said. To declare any more than that is simply to overstate the case in the most egregious way. What I aim to do is to do the will of God. And what does God aim to do? How about we leave that up to Him?                         

Thursday, December 1, 2011

St. Paul was the First Feminist...

It is often assumed that St. Paul was a misogynist. At best, they say, he was a byproduct of his era- a time when women were regarded as little more than oversized children. They point to passages like Ephesians Chapter 5; "Wives be submissive to your husbands in everything" as proof of this discrimination. However, there is only one problem with this conclusion: it is wrong. The reality is St. Paul did more to further the rights of women than any of the so-called activists alive today.

First of all, what do we mean when we say that someone is a feminist? I think it is safe to say that all parties (with the exception of those who view men as completely useless) would agree that female equality is the cornerstone of any discussion related to feminism. Now, if what you mean by equality is that men and women are interchangeable and utterly indistinguishable from one another, then you have not only transgressed the boundaries of theology, but you have bypassed the very evidence of your eyeballs. Men and women are equal, but you hardly need an anthropologist to point out the biological differences. What I am saying is they compliment one another, which is to say they are not merely a redundancy of persons. They are both indispensable parts of an organic whole (yes, I said it, men are indispensable as well). All of this to say that together they are the instruments of God's plan to further human dignity, and perpetuate the human race.

But the issue at hand is whether Paul's theology is bigoted. Two passages in particular lay waste to this claim. The first one is in Galatians where Paul declares that in Baptism; "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not man or woman, but all are one in Christ" (Galatians 3:28). Not only does this passage provide the basis for women's rights, but it is practically a manifesto for the condemnation of all discrimination. This is not to say that all of those mentioned in this passage are merely some nameless interchangeable amalgam, but that in Christ every human being finds their own worth, and by extension, their equality. This reality is by no means "self-evident", as the American founding father's suggested, but a recognition of something quite intangible; something that in many ways contradicts social reality- and by contradicts I mean challenges common perceptions.

A second passage that proves Paul's inestimable contribution to women's rights is the very passage often used as a witness against him. Setting aside the obvious demands that are made on both parties in Ephesians 5:21-5:32, let us focus on the main objection. How can anyone call Paul a defender of women's rights after he tells them to be "subject to their husbands in everything"? As with everything in Scripture, or even in a media report, anything can be spliced together in such a fashion so as to appear to be saying something it is not. In fact, sometimes it is even made to say the exact opposite of what it is actually trying to say.

But the genius of Paul's words go well beyond a clever phraseology. Indeed, Paul is saying something far more revolutionary than the banal and predicable idea that men and women are the same (which would be easy enough to do). He is stating their divine vocation. Situating the discussion within the patriarchal language of the Greco-Roman world (he is speaking to the Galatians after all), he does not simply dismiss masculinity and then declare women to be equal. Rather, he does the more liberal thing. He affirms what is true and good about the pater familias, while simultaneously and rather subtly dismantling the notion of machismo. On the one hand he elevates women, but not by turning men into effeminate doormats, rather he does so by defining headship as an act of service. The irony of course here is that women must lower themselves only so that they can be at eye-level with man who is to already prostrate in her service.

In any event, declaring that women be "submissive to their husband's in everything," can hardly be more difficult than the demand to love your wife as Christ loved the Church; "Who though he was in the form of God did not deem equality with God something at which to be grasped, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming obedient, even unto death..." (Phillipians 2:8-9). Any wife may declare, half jokingly, that she is slave to her husband and children, but at least that is not, according to Scripture, her stated vocation. On the other, it is he who is slated to put himself in her service as a foot washer and a slave.

I call this passage a Pauline trick, for he takes the former pagan idea of marriage and says in essence "You want to be pater familias, OK- but here is the new definition: 'Husbands love your wives even as Christ loved the Church, handing himself over for her. So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh, but rather nourishes and cherishes it.'" I do not think that even a feminist could object to the suggestion that men treat women as their equals, nor to the idea that a husband should "cherish" and "nourish" his wife.

Nevertheless, should one object to this interpretation, they are not only fighting with me, but with millions of women in the ancient world who converted for this reason. In droves they converted to Christianity in the early centuries, not because the Church oppressed women, but because they received that had far more rights under this new "regime." Some men were even reluctant to convert precisely because it seemed, as a result of these mass conversions, to be a "woman's religion". The increased rights of women (like, for example, not being forced to marry some creepy old dude at the age of 10), are the natural consequence of the nuptial image offered in this Pauline letter. A man may propose to a woman, but a woman is free to reject his proposal. Why? Because her free will is to be regarded just as much as any man's. They are companions in the truest sense of the word, for they eat (as the etymology suggests) of the same bread, and drink of the same cup, sharing in a marvelous communion prepared for them from the foundation of the world.          


Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Grinch Who Saved Christmas...Almost

It had become the recent custom in the town of Juniper Falls to erect Christmas decorations the day after Halloween. In previous times, people had waited at least until the day after Thanksgiving, but times had changed, and so had the attitude of the townsfolk. It all started when one well-meaning chap from the neighborhood decided, long before the season warranted it, to start decorating his home and place of business with Christmas lights. In the years that followed, his decorations became more and more elaborate until others began to imitate him. Eventually everyone in Juniper Falls began celebrating Christmas at the beginning of November.
On main street, one could observe a band of bright tinselly Christmas trees all the along the roadway. Up on the hanging electrical wires was a whole slew of gigantic slow flakes. From the giant trees hung large festive ornaments, sparkling red and blue. The shop windows were all alight with trains, gingerbread men, wooden soldiers, and snowmen. Surrounding each snowman was a veritable blizzard of substitute snow. Each home prided itself on having the best and most colorful display. People could hardly go anywhere without being assaulted by a dizzying array of colors. From life sized Crèches, to an army of waving Santa Clauses, the people could never seem to get enough. All day long they would sit and listen to nothing but their favorite Christmas songs and reminisce over their favorite Christmas memories. No one dared object to this marathon of good will, for no one wanted to be called a Señor Grumple Pants or a Grumplestillskin, as some in town liked to call stodgy old men.
One year, however, something terrible happened in the town that left its people greatly distressed. It was a mid-November night, and all was quiet in their houses, when a terrible figure (or monster if you prefer) blew into town like a shadow and made off with all of their beloved decorations. Those items that were not stolen, were either broken or destroyed by the bandit. Who could do something like this, they asked? What sort of barbarian could commit such a heinous crime? After much deliberation, they agreed it must be the work of some angry atheist, someone who never had a decent Christmas in their whole life; someone who's memory of the day was so completely corrupted that even the sight of happy things made them sad. As a result, many felt compassion for this terrible beast. Some even considered never putting up any seasonal displays again. Ultimately, they concluded it was best to continue to spread good cheer, and as a motivation, the people in town were compelled to greet everyone with the words; "Merry Christmas." But within a few days of this glorious restoration the interminable grump struck once again, managing to dampen the spirits of all the little boys and girls. This time even a life-sized model of the baby Jesus was taken out of a manger.
The people were crest-fallen, and decided, at least for this Christmas season, it was best to keep their celebration as low key as possible. So for fear of this bandit, the townsfolk celebrated very discretely and privately in their own homes, only occasionally wishing those on the street a very "Merry Christmas". It was a quieter December that year, but the people were not unhappy. In fact, they felt an even greater sense of anticipation and longing for the coming of the Christmas season. By the time Christmas rolled around they could stand it no longer. They said; "let that miserable atheist come and steal our ornaments away. What he cannot steal is our Christmas cheer." Whereas in previous years the people would have only celebrated up until Christmas day; this celebration, buoyed by a deep sense of anticipation, went well into the New Year.
Standing on the hillside overlooking the town was the Grinch, the monster, the beast, whatever you want to call him. Beside him was his anti-sleigh sleigh, still filled with many of the bright colored objects that he had removed from the town below. He was quite pleased with his performance and most edified by the effects of his iconoclasm... that is until word got back to him that the people in town had a plan more terrible than he could have previously imagined. Indeed, even worse than the idea of a radio station that plays only Christmas songs from November 1 to December 31st. This proposal came straight out of the bowels of his own private hell. You see, the Grump foolishly believed that once the people saw the virtue of implementing a season of anticipation, they would instantly turn from their wicked ways and reject that wretched spirit of instant gratification. How naive he was, to believe that parents would instantly recognize that gifts withheld for a time actually make their reception all the more pleasurable. How irrational to think that patience generally inspires (in the heart of the recipient) a greater sense of gratitude. In truth, his "lesson" had the reverse effect. Thanks to their overwhelming exuberance regarding this particular Christmas season, not only did they not discourage the custom of celebrating Christmas early, but rather they expanded it. They called it the Christmas Everyday Ordinances of 2005, declaring that the Christmas spirit should be extended throughout the year. As part of this new law, the town would be opening new businesses that dedicated themselves entirely to celebrating Christmas perpetually. Likewise, the law declared that security would be tightened in order to prevent the enemies of cheerfulness from doing their worst. Cameras were to be set up everywhere to prevent some Glum Gus from ruining their fun. And so the people of Juniper Falls journeyed blissfully towards a Nirvana of Christmas accoutrements. Ribbons and wrappings and endless toys marked the boundaries of this particular heaven.
Now whether or not this felicitous custom actually bore "heavenly” results is a matter for another debate, what I can tell you is that the people of Juniper Falls got everything that they asked for and more. High above it all was the Grump, staring downward at what seemed to him a barren wasteland of activity, paralyzed by the hellish prospect of celebrating Christmas every day.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving and Fatboy Slim

The Psalms are an interesting assortment of extreme sentiments. On the one hand, you have Psalm 45 which describes a great wedding feast in which the bride is bedecked with jewels, and then you have psalm 88, which concludes on a Simon and Garfunkelian note, "darkness is my lone companion". You have Psalm 23, in which the Lord is described as a loving Shepherd, while the central figure of Psalm 22 declares that he is forsaken of God. If Seinfeld was a show about "nothing," then the Psalms are songs about everything. What is most startling about them is that they are words of men written to God, which nevertheless are said to be God's words. This mystery becomes even more powerful when we find Christ, at various stages in his ministry, uttering those same words to His own Father. In a very real sense, Christ is elevating the very sentiments of mankind to a divine status. He condescends to speak our words and in so doing truly sanctifies them. Christ is the true missionary, bringing not only slavation, but a remarkable appetite for learning our ways and our customs.

But perhaps an even more mysterious tradition typical of the Psalms is their inclination to praise. For many, the habit of praising God is truly a sacrifice that challenges us at our very core. David rejoiced when he heard the people say "let us go to the house of the Lord" and then later, "the throngs were wild with joy". How many of us are wild with joy when we are told we are going to God's house. Growing up, I was usually "wild", and by wild I mean like a feral animal resisting this injunction with every fiber of my being.

We just finished reading The Confessions in one of the classes that I teach. At one point, Augustine points out that man was made to praise God. Understandably, one of my students complained; "... if this is the case isn't that type of praise reducing humanity to a puppet-like status." If by praise you simply mean that we are compelled to say nice things about God without meaning it, then yes, we are puppets. But the praise of God has a more profound significance than that. First of all, what we mean when we say that we are made for praise is not so much a command as a fact. Gratitude and Thanksgiving make us better, Cynicism makes us worse. Those that are the most happy in this life are those that are most grateful. That is not only a metaphysical truth, but a psychological fact.

More than a sentiment, praise is an act of the will. If practiced it may even become a reflex, but it ultimately has its roots in a decision. Much like prayer itself, we may even find  ourselves at odds with the very praises that we sing. Not only is this not a problem, it is the very point of prayer and praise. The words of the Our Father do not generally match our sentiments, but they do match our ideal, and until that ideal is reached we should continue to pray it (which means for the rest of our lives).

Fatboy Slim once sang "We've come a long long way baby, through the bad times and the good, I have to celebrate you baby, I have to praise you like I should". Obviously, Fatboy (or whoever is singing) is not singing this ode to God... but he may as well be, for even he recognizes that in this particular instance, praise is not only a luxury, but it is in fact "right and just". A man is compelled to praise his lady because to do otherwise is stifling to his very core. The lover feels that he "should" praise her, not because she has commanded it, but because she is worthy of it. Indeed, the one who is in love hardly needs anyone to tell him to say gracious things about his beloved; it is as natural as breathing.

This explains the overwhelming gratitude that the Psalmist expresses in many of the Psalms. He praises because he is in love, he rejoices because he feels like he has won the lottery; he dances before the Ark, because he has found some secret treasure and now his mouth is filled with laughter. When you talk to people who have had a conversion, it is a lot like talking to someone about how they fell in love. Quite often the story involves some harrowing details about how the bride and the groom almost didn't make it to the altar at all. In either case, one's arrival at the altar is undoubtedly a harrowing experience; and it is harrowing precisely because it might have been otherwise. We were made to praise God, but even when we lack the desire or sentiment to do it, we can at least take comfort in the fact that it is not for a slave driver that we do it, but for a Bridegroom. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Part II: Why Fundamentalists Are Not "Fundamental" Enough

In my last entry, I discussed why the primitivist's philosophy is often not primitive enough. Today my focus is on the failure of evangelical fundamentalism to be truly fundamentalist, even by their own definition, and how the Church is, in the proper sense, even more fundamentalist than the fundamentalist.

It is generally argued that the Roman Catholic Church plays fast and loose with the plain words of Scripture, whereas when it comes to the Church's own traditions, she is quite dogmatic. On the other hand, the evangelical fundamentalist regards human traditions as "human traditions", while upholding the eternal words of God. However, if you observe the actual behavior of both, you just might find that the opposite is the case. And it is more than a little bit ironic that I need to admonish my Protestant brethren for their failure to take the "plain words" of Scripture more seriously.

 The Protestant Reformation began under the pretext that the Church was not Biblical enough. Now if you pass by any given church you may wonder where that sentiment has gone. Instead of reading some verse from Scripture, you are more likely to read some clever (or not so clever) aphorism. As opposed to "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...", you get "God so loved the world that he gives us flowers in the Spring". I can certainly understand the desire to give theological context to what we believe, but to reduce the Gospel to the pastor's personal "thought of the day" is not exactly what I would call Biblical. When I see some of this nonsense on a billboard, I am half-tempted to go inside the church and demand that Protestants act like Protestants and not follow their own traditions. Indeed, a Protestant in the original sense has far more in common with Catholics than this mealy-mouthed creature that has come to us in our modern age.

Another way in which fundamentalists fail to be Scriptural is in how they pray. Please show me where in Scripture it says that you are only supposed to pray extemporaneous prayers, and in what sense this is even Scriptural? Frequently, fundamentalists describe the Mass as a kind of "hocus pocus" made up Catholic ceremony. The truth is the entire Mass is Scriptural in both theme and words. We begin outside the gates of the garden of Eden with the Penitential Rite, and ascend the mount of God, culminating with the Resurrection. In between, we say the Gloria, which is an announcement of the birth of Christ (after we repent), as well as recounting Jesus' life and ministry as we are nourished on the Word of God. In fact, during the Liturgy of the Word, we begin with the Old Testament, so in essence the Mass is meant to be a kind of representation of salvation history in miniature. The sermon is obviously an attempt to make this timeless tale intelligible for us today.

In Protestant ceremonies, everything is a set up for the sermon. In other words, Scripture is not the center of the service, but rather the preacher's ability to creatively convey an interesting message. If he can't do that, the congregation will soon look for a replacement. God knows some priests cannot preach very well, but for the Catholic, a good sermon is an added bonus, not our primary motivation for going to Church.

Interestingly, the celebration of the Mass itself is another example of a Scriptural imperative essentially ignored by Protestants. Other than the general admonition to "love one another as I have loved you", Jesus commands his disciples to "do this in memory of me", hence Maundy Thursday. He doesn't tell them to preach long sermons in his name, he doesn't instruct them to sing uplifting hymns, he doesn't even tell them to read the Scriptures in his name; he tells them to "do this." Now, if a loved one feels the need to tell me as they are about to die something they want me to do, I am going to do everything in my power to accomplish it. In the same way, the Church, Sunday after Sunday, since his ascension, has done just that. Why? Because it is the plain words of Scripture. Why don't fundamentalists do the same? I would recommend you ask them.

Recently there was a study that showed that "Bible believing Christians" were just as likely (if not more so) to divorce than anyone else. I do not know if this is the case, but it does make one wonder why Protestants are so permissive about divorce. In fact, one is more likely to see the words "Divorce Care" on one of their neon billboards, than "Marriage Care" (actually I have never seen the later, whereas I have seen the former many times). Was Jesus not patently clear about divorce and remarriage? That's right- he called it adultery. Some may rightly regard it as a difficult teaching. Even Jesus himself said "this is a difficult teaching", but that doesn't mean he didn't say it. So why aren't Protestants obeying the plain words of Scripture? Some may consider the annulment process a kind of Catholic form of divorce. But even if you argue that the Catholic deceives himself in this regard, at least he is trying to deceive himself in order to uphold the Scriptures. I cannot say what the rationalization is from the Protestant end. Which brings me to my final point.

In the end, the heretic must always be a heretic even to his own position. Why? Well, because he is a heretic and fidelity is not exactly his strong suit. To be clear, when I use the word heretic, I do not mean so much the person as the position, but it is the person, after all, that holds the position. Anyhow, the reason why the evangelical fundamentalist cannot be true to his own creed is because if he were to be he just might find himself a little too close to the Catholic Church. In some cases, he will even deny reason itself if only to maintain his particular world view. Consequently, he has retreated into a kind of devotional sentimentality. Go into any Protestant bookstore, and tell me how many books on theology you see. There are none. He has gone from quoting Scriptures to quoting doctor Phil. The man who set out to uphold the Holy Scriptures is actually turning them into a glorified greeting card; the man who once called the Word of God the foundation of his life, now betrays it in the name of the very same human traditions he once condemned in Catholics.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why Fundamentalists are not fundamental enough...

It seems to me that among Evangelical Protestants there is a competition when it comes to naming their church. What they are trying to do is to come up with a name that sounds more primitive than their competitor. For example, there is the “First Church of the Nazarene”, or the “Baptist” church. Indeed, there are some, in great nominalist fashion, who ignore their own church’s affiliation, and refer to themselves simply as “Bible believing Christians.” I thought we were supposed to be Christ believing Christians, but I digress. The idea follows the same logic as the consumer market, which is to present a product that seems to be the most original or antique. My complaint is not that these individuals (many of whom are genuinely devout) are being primitivists— the complaint I lodge is that they are not being primitive enough. If the goal is to go back further and further why not declare yourself the Church of the Big Bang or the Church of the Land Before Time. Do not tarry with such figures as John the Baptist, but rather go straight to the heart of the matter. If you really want to get primitive, why not begin with the Prime Mover. I am not trying to make a mockery of evangelical fundamentalists; what I am trying to point out is that when it comes to the fundamental position of our separated brethren, what they attribute to themselves is actually more attributable to Catholics.

First, we need to define terms. A fundamentalist is generally one who claims to take the Bible at face value; one that wants to get back to the church as Christ intended it. Therefore, they say, simply looking to the Bible is the best way to do it. However, if they really wanted to return to the early Christian community, they would be operating with no “Bible” at all. As recounted by the Book of Acts, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to communal life, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42). Notice that the last thing that they were said to have done is to “devote themselves to the prayers,” not simply to prayer itself. This implies that there were already formal prayers that they were obliged to say. What is notably absent is any mention of Scriptures. Why? Because apostolic teachings were already in a certain sense the Scriptures. Let us not be idolaters of even the Good Book, for it is the content, not merely the words, that make it holy. To put it another way, the early Church didn’t read the Bible because there was no Bible… with the exception of the Hebrew Scriptures; which brings me to my second point.

If evangelical fundamentalists are so bent on making the Bible their modus operandi, then why do they spend so little time with the original Scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament)? Indeed, the only time they speak about it is when they are discussing, either the end of the world, or when they relate it to some moral or ethical issue of today. This reductionistic approach to the Hebrew Scriptures turns a dynamic history into a defanged parable. The Church’approach is far more fundamental and interesting. The events of the Old Testament, from her point of view, are meant to foreshadow in a most dramatic fashion, the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet it is not enough to say that it is mere symbolism, rather it is a symbolism that makes sense out of all that Christ accomplished. What does the Last supper mean without an understanding of the Passover? What does our “baptism into death” mean without the Great Flood, or that miraculous escape at sea? What does the change of Simon’s Peter name mean apart from the story of Abram? And what about those primitives known simply as Adam and Eve? Can we even begin to rejoice over the wedding feast of Revelation, without a proper understanding of that original debacle? In order to be true “angels of the good news,” we must first know why it is so good in the first place; otherwise what can it even mean to ask the question; “Are you saved?”

In my next entry, I will discuss, how fundamentalists fail to be fundamentalistic even as it relates to the New Testament. I will also attempt to show how the Church takes the Scriptures more seriously than do “Bible believing Christians”.