Saturday, July 29, 2006

What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem?

In the last couple weeks, I've been reading some of Tertullian's moral treatises on the bus to and from my Honours Specialist course for Latin. He's been a bracing companion on this bus ride just as I'm sure he was a bracing conversation partner at the time (that would be an understatement!). What I like about him is that, while he is thoughtful and forceful, he really doesn't get into abstractions, but, rather, grounds his thought on what impact does our faith has on our Christian practice in the world. He is, of course, a rigourist and sometimes goes off the rails (especially towards the end of his career), but all too often he asks precisely the right questions.

One of his strengths is confronting the culture. Most of us, insofar as we know about him, know his comment "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem" (I think that is in the De praesciptione haereticorum). That question, I think, is one that we need to keep asking ourself because, at the end of the day, we have to challenge the culture around us and recognize that, however comfortable we are in our secular culture, we are called to a faith and practice which is, more frequently than we might like, at odds with people around us. That means we should be asking questions about what practices and customs we see around us and whether they are consistent with what Christ has taught us.

Take, for instance, his De spectaculis. In this treatise, Tertullian takes a look at the great mass spectacles of his day: theatre, chariot racing, and gladiatorial combats. What Tertullian was reacting to was Christians who believed that they can attend these spectacles without being tainted by the pagan rituals or immoral behavior which one found in these events. Tertullian, predictably, unloads on them. All of these spectacles, he argues, are saturated with idolotry which we Christians are called to flee. All of these spectacles are characterized by immorality that we should not witness, much less participate in. There isn't much give in Tertullian and, here, he is at his rigourous best. It sounds like he was right, but that was then and this is now. What do gladiatorial combats have to do with us now?

I remember asking myself that when I first read the De spectaculis in a graduate course I took on gladiators in the late nineties. While I concede the idolotry implicit in ancient spectacles is no longer, I wonder, to what degree, we are facing a more subtle idolotry: the idolotry of money which drives today's entertainment industry to such a degree that moral considerations are no longer worth talking about. I find Tertullian is asking the questions I think we all need to ask about entertainment today. What does the 'virtual' violence we experience in TV, movies and video games doing to our call to be peace-makers and to turn the other cheek? Is the sexual innuendo and content on TV something that we as Christians should consider harmless, swept by the tide of permissiveness in our society? Where do our Christian beliefs come in when we choose our entertainment options?

Tertullian, at the end of the day, was a rigourist and his solutions tended towards a nearly complete separation from the secular culture of his day. I'm not sure we need to go so far, but I do think we need a little bit of his discernment and challenging attitude to the culture we find around us. What does Hollywood have to do with Jerusalem? What does the secular university have to do with the Church? What does New Age have to do with Christians? The answers to these questions are not rarely simple, but I believe that, as Christians, we need to pose them with the same force and conviction that Tertullian showed so many centuries ago.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Fleming Rutledge, War and the Church

I was browsing around some of the blogs that I regularly watch this morning and found Fleming Rutledge's most recent blog entry: Idolatry is alive and threatening the church. Have I mentioned how much I admire the Rev. Fleming Rutledge? She is articulate, thoughtful and puts the lie to the assumption that the only alternatives we have for the Anglican Communion are in the extremes. She is a conservative with a strong social conscience and I like that very much.

Her blog entry deals with the dangers of nationalism in the church. The particular subject of her reflection is a service at an unnamed Protestant church which had plenty of flags, soldiers and patriotism, but virtually no recognition of Christ or the mission of the Church in a recent service she attended. She, rightly in my view, condemns this kind of approach because it introduces idolatry into the church by making love of one's nation more important than worshipping God, which is rather the point of the church.

Nor is this phenomenon isolated only to the US. I know my former parish, on Remembrance Day, was rather heavy on the flags and military pomp, even though our rector usually wrote rather subversive sermons which stood the test of remembering our war dead without lapsing into an idolatrous nationalism. Yet, even up here in Canada, the idolatry of the nation sometimes rears its ugly head and it is an idolatry we can and should challenge. I think here Rev. Rutledge does that very well.

It isn't that love of country is necessarily wrong, it isn't. Rather it is a plea not to make this love an idol because, like all good things, people can and do raise patriotism into an idol which obscures the real object of our worship: Jesus Christ. As a Christian, Christ must come first, but I do wonder with services of this kind whether the planners remember that.

I take this as something of a challenge because, somehow, I have wound up being the keeper of the archives on the WWII war dead from my school (a long ironic story). This means that I will have a role in preparing the Remembrance Day ceremony at my school. That's fine in that I have no problem mourning the war dead or remembering that they sacrificed themselves for the freedom of our nation. Besides, I also know that these ceremonies tend to avoid overt nationalism and exulting in military glory, so my pacifist sensibilities are unlikely to be offended. That, in itself, is an irony. Why is it that a secular school can manage to differentiate remembrance and nationalism and we Christians have had a history of blurring that line continuously when the Bible itself warns us about the idolatry of the powers and principalities of the world?


Sunday, July 16, 2006

Settling Dust

I've been holding off for several weeks from writing any comments about the events in Anglican World during and since General Convention. I've held off because, as I noted in an earlier post, there was really too much dust in the air from the various combatants going at each other to figure out just what has happened and what it all is going to mean. I'm not entirely sure that the dust has lifted (certainly not in Anglican blogosphere, where the sandstorm doesn't look like it is going to abate before the Second Coming), but I can now see a few metres ahead of me, so I thought it useful to think about what I've managed to see.

First, ECUSA (is it still ECUSA???? Or is it officially TEC??) has elected the first female primate, Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schorri. I admit that I had to smile at Archbishop Williams' reaction which was, in effect, 'oh, my aching head' because he knew what was coming. That, in itself, wasn't any reason not to go ahead with a female primate. In the last elections for a primate in Canada, the leading candidate (Bishop Victoria Matthews) was a woman, but she had to drop out because of health reasons. Yet, I do think there are reasons to worry about this new Presiding Bishop. It isn't that she's a woman or even that she made the now infamous 'Jesus, Mother of God' comment (strictly speaking, that image has been in the mediaeval mystic tradition, although Bishop Schorri had to have known that it was going to annoy the conservatives). It is, rather her lack of commitment to the Windsor process which worries me. The fact that she continues to argue the effective separation of ECUSA from the Communion because of its polity and the fact that she permitted two same-sex marriages in her diocese (yes, I know. Only two. But, remember that Windsor didn't ask for a reduction in the number of these blessings, but rather a moratorium). On the positive side, she seems not to have pushed orthodox parishes very hard and she hasn't closed the door to discussions. We'll have to see how she grows in the job, but the opening signs aren't encouraging.

Second, ECUSA had real difficulties with figuring out to what degree it could be compliant with the Windsor Report, so, as a result, they managed not much. Let me say that I appreciate what was done, but, really, ECUSA still isn't in line with the Windsor Report's recommendations. Nor does it look like it is interested in doing so. This has serious implications for the future of the Anglican Communion and for the orthodox who remain in ECUSA.

Third, the implosion of ECUSA, which has been clear since General Convention 2003, seems to have picked up pace. The biggest reason is that the much vaunted Anglican Middle simply failed to make its presence felt. The result wasn't a one-sided convention, but rather gridlock. The fact that any answer to Windsor was formulated strikes me something of a miracle, even if that answer was half-hearted. Indeed, that answer was, in some parts of it, only achieved through procedural manouvers, not by consensus. On this issue, at least, ECUSA is so deeply disfunctional that it is hard to feel optimistic about the future. As Fleming Rutledge pointed out on a recent post on her blog, how can one expect reconciliation when one side so dominates the scene and ignores/mocks the opposition. How indeed.

Fourth, the result of General Convention has led Archbishop Williams to issue his strongest statement about the current situation regarding ECUSA and the rest of the Communion. I applaud his irenicism and his firmness in noting that ECUSA hasn't really satisfied the Windsor process and his defence of the conservative minority of ECUSA (that, they are inspired by legitimate concerns, not irrational fear). What hope I have for the Communion is the efforts to get a Covenant process started will succeed because, if nothing else, we'll have some idea of what is and is not acceptable degrees of autonomy in provinces. I know this is hardly music to liberals' ears, but, frankly, as a Communion, we need to decide what we stand for and why we are staying together. Historic ties to the Church of England the archdiocese of Canterbury are simply too flimsy ground to base a Communion. If we don't make this definition, we'll just relive these battles on new issues which just would be tedious and distract us even further from our real mission: preaching and incarnating the Gospel

Fifth (and last), we have also been watching the positioning of Nigeria as the leader of conservative separatist elements inside the Communion. This started before General Convention 2006, but has accelerated since. I do not, however, share the almost hysterical attitude to Archbishop Akinola, who has become, in the eyes of many liberals, the epitome of the power-hungry cleric, exploiting the present crisis to create a ecclesiastical fiefdom of his own. Yet, I'm also not a fan either. His ordination of a Nigerian bishop in America is less than helpful and is in breach of the Windsor process. I deplore that, even if concede that the motive of protecting a marginalized conservative Episcopal wing helps explain it and, possibly, to mitigate the offense. Set next to the gaping wounds created by ECUSA and Anglican Church of Canada, this is a lesser wound, but it is bad enough. Triage procedures dictates that we should deal with the more serious wounds first, but it doesn't mean that we can forget these either.

This is where my thinking has brought me so far. I haven't lost hope that, as a Communion, we'll navigate through this mess mostly intact, but it is going to take us a long time to do it. Meanwhile, I'll just go back to staring through the sandstorm to figure out what precisely is going on out there. I'm not sure that dust is settling any time soon.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

PhDiva- Jewish mosaics

I just ran into this interesting blog entry from PhDiva on Jewish mosaics of the Late Roman period. These findings are part of the growing interest in Judaism in the Roman Empire, especially after the great revolts of the first and second centuries AD. I really think that awareness of what is happening in Judaism in this period is an important element of understanding the religious landscape of the Roman Empire which Christianity shared. Besides, given Judaism and Christianity's close relationship,these findings have a direct bearing on Christian history.


Monday, July 10, 2006

Reviving Latin

Thanks for this blog reference to Mike Aquilina's The Way of the Fathers.

MercatorNet charts the demise and revival of Latin. This is all the more well-timed because I'm in the middle of taking an Honour Specialist Course in Latin/Classical Studies as we speak. Everyday for the last week or so, I meet with 16 other Latin teachers; some who have next to no experience, others who have decades. I'm learning fast to improve my own teaching and enjoying the process.

As a Christian, it is still a mystery to me why we're not encouraging knowledge of Greek and Latin. Now, I recognize we're fighting the same cultural factors which have been eating away at language learning in North America (at least). North Americans are really language-phobes and that makes the prospect of learning a language seem impossibly hard. Yet, how can we forget that the New Testament is in Greek or that the Fathers write in Latin And Greek. Translations are well and good, but sometimes it is helpful to get back ad fontes in the original. Yet, seminary after seminary dumps Greek and Latin. And, then, we wonder why we wind up with crazy biblical interpretations and what not.

This linguistic blindness is, at least, a great a piece of of our tendency to forgetfulness as a society and as Christians. So, I welcome that revival of language learning, both in the secular school system and among Christians. God willing, it will continue.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Shape of Christian History

One of the things that I've been thinking about for a while is the whole topic of just what is Christian history. In a sense, I've been wondering about this since entering grad school and becoming a Christian (which coincided, oddly enough). Part of this wondering is the odd disjuncture faced by all Christians in modern academe. It isn't that academic institutions like universities or schools are anti-Christian; rather most academics regard Christian faith as inherently irrelevant. This is all part of the Enlightenment inheritance which sought to separate religion into a private sphere and reserve the public sphere for matters of universal concern. So, in history (my own area of interest), what this produces is a great concern for causation, chronology and the reinforcement of universal humanistic values such as the loyalty to the nation state, human rights and such like. It isn't that these values are wrong or bad, but, to a Christian historian, they are incomplete.

Still, I really don't know how to write Christian history. There is no doubt that one of the characteristics of it is that we have to presume God as historical actor. That is easy enough when we're dealing with periods covered by the Bible because here we have a book which not only presumes God's intervention in time, but it even records it. Academic historians have problems with this, of course, but that is only to be expected. God's interventions are, by definition, one offs and academic history thinks in terms of patterns. God's actions are a part of a pattern, but it is one that is simply too big to trace. So, God seems random, even when we can see His actions.

Yet, what strikes me as the hardest area to wrap my head around is dealing with what faith tells us about the shape of Christian history. We are, if we think about it, a people who is in the middle of its story. That is, we presume a history which has a beginning, a middle and and an end. The beginning presents its problems in details, but all Christian historians begin with Creation, even if they may find it hard to define exactly what happened because of the lack of human witnesses. God was there, of course, and, for the Christian, that is enough to know that God created the world at least.

The middle, of course, is the easy bit. Much of that is what, we would claim, all historians study. It is the stuff of history. We may have lost information. Some periods may be next to unattested, but, theoretically, we could know something because this is humans acting upon each other. Now, we Christians assume that God's redemptive work is also operating behind the scenes, but it only peaks out every once in a while. The supreme example is Jesus' incarnation which is the pivot point in human history. It is the point at which we shifted from the beginning to the ending of history. It is so important that even secular historians use it as the implicit pivot point, even if their explanation is that, rightly or wrongly, the rise of the Christian movement is so important for later history that it is a pivotal point. We will get increduous reactions when we insist on God as a historical actor, but, at least, the events of the past are taken as known or, at least, subject to proof.

Yet, we also presume an end. More than that, (since many histories presume an end to history: witness the predictions of nuclear suicide in the Cold War or environmental disaster today), we think we know how it will happen. We presume that, someday, God's redemptive work will be completed and human history as we know it will end. Death will be conquered and evil destroyed. Some Christians go so far as arguing that the Book of Revelation literally tells us how things will end. Others take it as an indication that they will end and, while the dying throes won't be pretty, the end will be wondrous. We are, as N.T. Wright suggests, in Act Four of a five act play, but we have an idea from the hints thus far how thing will end, but they haven't happened yet. Among the things that we see darkly is the future consummation for God's purpose, but we just don't know the details yet.

It is this last part which drives our secular colleagues crazy. They rightly point out that it is difficult for historians to study something that hasn't already happened yet. Yet, because of our faith, we can't stop remembering that all that we see is leading in that direction. Yet, we also have to remember that we aren't called to write a future history, if that isn't an oxymoron. Nor are we called to create a Rapture Index . We are called to try to figure out what people have done and where God is in the periods we talk about. I'm just not sure how to strike that balance.


Monday, July 03, 2006

St. Thomas' Day

Happy St. Thomas' Day!

It is the feast day for St. Thomas the Apostle today which got me thinking. St. Thomas is a popular saint these days. Not only do we have the (false) Gospels of Thomas, but we have a long tradition of preachers and lay people to whom the story of St. Thomas is both appealing and comforting. He is, if you like, the patron saint of doubting and seeking, as well as that of architects and blindness.

Now, I grant you that this role of St. Thomas is appropriate in many ways. Certainly, two out of the three times in the Gospel of John (John, 14,5 and John, 20,24-29)in which Thomas plays a part, Thomas is probing at Jesus (in the second case, quite literally) because Jesus is promising some pretty incredible things. In the first instance, Jesus is promising to prepare a place with God in Heaven which is, after all, quite a promise to make. In the second instance, He is alleged to have been resurrected which, to sympathize with poor Thomas, is rather a big claim. Sure, it had been promised, but no one had actually done it yet.

You can really sympathize with the poor guy. What is more, by his very empirical mind, by his persistent questioning, he seems to mimic a very modern show-me, prove-it-to-me mindset. Yet, we would do ourselves a dis-service if we stopped reading at Thomas' doubtful speech. Jesus doesn't leave Thomas in doubt. Sure, He lets Thomas test Him, but He also makes it clear that faith is always preferable to doubt. He tells Thomas not to doubt, but believe, but, more importantly, He commends those who have not seen and yet believed; not those who juggle the balls of doubt and skepticism in the most elegant manner possible. This encounter is one which is designed to enhance faith, not leave us in doubt as happens too often when we stop at Thomas' doubts.

I am a convert and I really do get the need the question and to doubt, especially as we feel our way to faith. I did (and still do, to some degree) my fair share of that questioning. Yet, I think it is all too easy to get hung up on our intellectual doubts and reasonings and not remember that faith is merely the trust that what God has told us will happen, even if it doesn't look like it will. Really, it is the faith which Thomas discovered that day and it is that faith which sent him out, according to tradition, to India to found a church thousands of miles from his Judaean home. That faith is what inspires me and which makes St. Thomas so compelling a saint for me.