Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent Reading

The first part of this essay by Joseph Bottum speaks of elegantly decorated homes pictured in House Beautiful and the perfect advent church services. I begin quoting several paragraphs down:

Give me the vulgarity of inflated reindeer, bobbing out on the lawn. Give me trees drooping under the weight of their ornaments. Give me snow piled to the rafters, the dozen crèches my wife scatters wildly around our home, like breadcrumbs leading back through the woods. Give me houses so lit up that the neighbors dream at night of sunstroke. Fruit cakes so dense they threaten to develop their own black-hole event horizons. Gingerbread cottages and Mouse King nutcrackers and wreaths on every door and silly Christmas cards and eggnog so nutmegged that the schoolchildren carolers cough and sputter as they try manfully to gulp it down.
Tastefulness is just small-mindedness, pretending to be art. And Christmas isn’t tasteful, isn’t simple, isn’t clean, isn’t elegant. Give me the tacky and the exuberant and the wild, to represent the impossibly boisterous fact that God has intruded in this world. Give me churches thick with incense and green with pine-tree boughs, the approach to the altar that feels like running an obstacle course through the poinsettias, and a roar from the bell towers so ground-shaking that not even the deaf can sleep in.  A follower once asked St. Francis—oh, so prissily—whether it was licit to eat meat on the Feast of Christmas, and he shouted in reply, “On a day like this, even the walls eat meat. And if they cannot, then let them be spread with meat.” Now there’s a picture that won’t make House Beautiful any time soon: the walls of the dining room dripping with smeared meat. Such an image will not be subsumed by any attempt to tidy up the holiday and make Christmas manageable. St. Francis points toward something about the wonder and the mess of the Incarnation: the shattering of ordinary life that the Nativity declares. The smash of predictability, the breaking of attempts at elegant organization. This world is out of our control—not just in the bad sense of sin and fallen nature, but also in the impossibly good sense that God, in his providence, has taken it in hand.
In other words, embrace the madness of the season. Bellow out the off-key carols. Smile at the silly reindeer. Empty your pockets into the Salvation Army kettles as the Santas ring their bells. Slip on icy walks with your arms full of presents. Load the tree with lights. Pray not in despair or supplication but in wild thankfulness. 
 I have a friend whose outrage at the commercialized falsity of modern Christmas has led him to turn his back on much of the way the culture celebrates the season. A deep believer—a young mystic who has chosen to live his life very simply—he goes out every December to find a small branch, a fallen leafless stick, for Christmas. He stands it up in a pot on his table, decorates it with a handmade ornament or two, and sets a paper star on top. One year, he added a few pieces of popcorn strung on a thread, but I think he thought them a disruption, for they were gone the next Christmas.
This friend is probably a better Christian than I am, and he’s certainly a better man. It’s the hard center of the holiday that he wants not to be distracted from. He loves the discipline of Advent, because the Church’s prayerful run-up to Christmas focuses his thoughts and prayers on the great gift of that holy time: on God’s descending in the flesh, on the Blessed Virgin’s assent to the celestial purpose, and on the beginning and the end of things, the Alpha and the Omega that is Christ. He tries to ignore, as best he can, the overblown, overexcited cheapening of Christmas in the loud blare of the season, since it only makes him sad—or angry, or crazy, or depressed, or something; distracted, at any rate—to see that fundamental moment, when the divine appeared in human form, smothered under layers of phony “Happy Holidays!” cheer.
And it’s true that I envy, in many ways, the intentionally minimal, prayerful life my friend lives. For that matter, his Christmas reaction—his angry distaste for the snake oil of the commercialized season—is surely intelligible, deeply considered, and strongly felt. I know just what he means.
I also know that he’s dead wrong. My friend shares something that’s present in the elegant, tastefully secular version of the holiday so beloved by upscale magazines, for they both betray a dislike of the vulgarity and impropriety of the culture’s celebration.
But surely the point is that Christmas will never be tame (as C.S. Lewis might have put it). God can turn even secularized reindeer and snowflake decorations to his purpose. To reject them is to miss some of the ways in which the modern holiday follows the pattern of a messy Medieval festival. It’s to miss, for that matter, some of the ways in which human beings respond to the rich, abundant experience of God. When we see the busy sidewalks—when we’re buffeted by the shoppers hurrying past the tricked-up Christmas decorations on the storefronts—we shouldn’t imagine we’re watching people who are smothering the impulse of religion. These are ordinary folk, trying to celebrate the season. They sometimes falter, as we all do, and they’re often confused, as we all are. But they nonetheless grasp in a profound way that a real thing comes toward us in December, and they layer it over with whatever fake or genuine finery they can find—not to hide it but to honor it.
Besides, if you set yourself against the season, you’re not going to win. So why not simply be pleased about it all? Smear the walls with meat—carne, the root of incarnation—if that’s what it takes. Break out into song, if you can. Break out into sentimentality, if you can stand it. Break out into extravagance and vulgarity and the gimcrack Christmas doodads and the branches breaking under the weight of their ornaments. Break out into charity and goodwill. But however you do it, just break out. What other response could we have to the joyous news of the Nativity that God has broken in, smashing the ordinary world by descending in the flesh?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Peter Enns on Evangelical Scholars

“If They Only Knew What I Thought”: The Sad Cycle of Evangelical Biblical Scholarship
Here is the article by Enns.

I wish I had kept a list.

I’ve had far too many conversations over the last few years with trained, experienced, and practicing biblical scholars, young, middle aged, and near retirement, working in Evangelical institutions, trying to follow Jesus and use their brains and training to help students navigate the challenging world of biblical interpretation.
And they are dying inside.

Just two weeks ago I had the latest in my list of long conversations with a well-known, published, respected biblical scholar, who is under inhuman stress trying to negotiate the line between institutional expectations and academic integrity. His gifts are being squandered. He is questioning his vocation. His family is suffering. He does not know where to turn.

I wish this were an isolated incident, but it’s not.
I wish these stories could be told, but without the names attached, they are worthless. I wish I had kept a list, but even if I had, it wouldn’t have done anyone much good. I couldn’t have used it. Good people would lose their jobs.
I’m getting tired of hearing the same old story again and again. This is madness.
Folks, we have a real problem on our hands, and everyone has to bear some responsibility. Here’s the familiar scenario. The “best and brightest” students in Evangelical seminaries work hard and are encouraged and aided by their professors to pursue doctoral work. Many wind up going to some of the best research universities in the world.
This is a feather in everyone’s cap, and often they are hired back by their Evangelical school or elsewhere in the Evangelical system.

Sooner or later, these professors find out that their degree may be valued but their education is not.

During graduate school they begin to see issues from a different perspective–after all, this is what an education does. An education does not confirm what we already know, but exposes us to new things in order to broaden our horizons.
Once they start teaching, they bring with them the excitement of learning new things, some synthesis of old and new for their students, because they feel such conversations are necessary for intellectual and spiritual health.

But Evangelicalism does not exist to create these conversations, but to keep them from happening–or perhaps from getting out of hand. Decision makers are gatekeepers, and they rarely have the training or the inclination to walk the same  intellectual and spiritual path. A strong response is inevitable.

This leaves these scholars to ponder how to engage that conversation with their students carefully but with integrity–which is to consign themselves to a life of cognitive dissonance. Either that or they bury their academic and spiritual instincts for fear of losing their jobs.
This is what happens to the “best and brightest” Evangelicals.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Quoting Reza Aslan on Religion

No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.

After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation. Scripture requires a person to confront and interpret it in order for it to have any meaning. And the very act of interpreting a scripture necessarily involves bringing to it one’s own perspectives and prejudices.

The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires. The same Bible that commands Jews to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) also exhorts them to “kill every man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” who worship any other God (1 Sam. 15:3). The same Jesus Christ who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) also told them that he had “not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), and that “he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). The same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity” (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).

Reza Aslan, “Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion,” NYT op-ed, Oct. 8, 2014.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Provocative Poem by A.E. Houseman


If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
A.E. Houseman, 1859-1936

Friday, July 18, 2014

"We are not asked to believe the Bible"

Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) was a Scottish evangelist and teacher, often quoted be evangelicals today. Here is a quote some might be less likely to repeat:

A spiritually-minded person will never come to you with the demand—“Believe this and that”; a spiritually-minded person will demand that you align your life with the standards of Jesus. We are not asked to believe the Bible, but to believe the One whom the Bible reveals. . . . It takes God a long time to get us to stop thinking that unless everyone sees things exactly as we do, they must be wrong. That is never God’s view. There is only one true liberty— the liberty of Jesus at work in our conscience enabling us to do what is right.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Christiana Rossetti's "A Daughter of Eve"

Christiana Rossetti (1830-1894) might have written a memoir that told of a broken engagement, but she wrote poetry instead, sometimes poems that concealed her loneliness, love and longing for particular men. In many ways she was a bundle of contradictions. Born in England of Italian parents, she was an Evangelical who would later become Anglo-Catholic and always remain, as others described her, a spinster—a spinster perhaps with too many lost loves. One of her many poems is “A Daughter of Eve.”

A fool I was to sleep at noon,

And wake when night is chilly

Beneath the comfortless cold moon;

A fool to pluck my rose too soon,

A fool to snap my lily.

My garden-plot I have not kept;

Faded and all-forsaken,

I weep as I have never wept:

Oh it was summer when I slept,

It's winter now I waken.

Talk what you please of future spring

And sun-warm'd sweet to-morrow:

Stripp'd bare of hope and everything,

No more to laugh, no more to sing,

I sit alone with sorrow.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

A Reflection on Theology

Theology is the study of God and his ways. For all we know, dung beetles may study us and our ways and call it humanology. If so, we would probably be more touched and amused than irritated. One hopes that God feels likewise.”

Frederick Buechner