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”.