Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Same song, second verse



As the year closes, I've been watching a documentary series on Netflix, "Chef's Table."  It profiles in roughly one-hour episodes famous chefs who will never be on Food Network, but who regardless are apparently well known in the field.

I've never heard of any of them.

The third in the series is a chef from Argentina who has several restaurants around the world, is, the documentary tells me, constantly on television and has been for years, and is very, very famous.  Everywhere except America, apparently.  To say he's the Bobby Flay of South America would be an insult, but I'm guessing his fame is on that level or perhaps well above.  More likely he's Bobby Flay combined with Mario Batali with the name recognition of Guy Fieri.

I mention it only because I thought of the notion of what we know being important in giving us perspective on what we think is revelatory, or especially an indicator of the future.  Annie Dillard pointed out that no place on the globe is "out of the way," except as a matter of perspective, and our perspective is not the only one on the planet.  "Out of the way" to us may be "home" to someone else  (as it is to this chef, who lives on an island in a lake on the border of Argentina and Peru, reached at the end of 100 miles of dirt road).  As Ms. Dillard puts it (if memory serves):  "Out of the way?  From where?"

Anyway, I thought of that when reading about story no. 10 here.  Daniel Dennett, in his ignorance about priests and clerics in general, thinks he's discovered a new thing made possible only by modern technology.  When, in fact, it's neither new, or distinctive, nor the shape of things to come; nor only made possible thanks to silicon chips.  Think of Graham Greene's "whiskey priest," or the preacher in The Grapes of Wrath.  Literature is sprinkled with examples of priests and pastors who found the church a convenient place to make a living, and little more.  Hell, Chaucer wrote about them.  So this is nothing new.  And besides, as I've said several times before:  has Mr. Dennett ever attended a seminary class?

Seminary is not a place for indoctrination.  Take this ludicrous statement by Mr. Dennett as an example:

Protecting your inner workings is becoming very difficult; it’s very hard to keep secrets. Religions have thrived in part because they were able to keep secrets. They were able to keep secrets about other religions from their parishioners, who were largely ignorant of what other people in the world believed, and also keep secrets about their own inner workings and their own histories, so that it was easy to have a sort of controlled message that went out to people. Those days are over. You can go on the Internet and access to all kinds of information. This is going to change everything. 
This (the internet) is going to change nothing, because:  what the hell is he talking about?  Christianity ceased to be a "mystery religion" sometime in the 1st century.  You want a mystery religion, you look to the temple practice of the Mormons.  Is the internet going to destroy them?  And as for parishioners being ignorant of that other people in the world believe, has Mr. Dennett paid attention to the arguments about Islam?  It seems clear people prefer ignorance over knowledge, the better to despise and detest "the other".  Yes, you can go on the internet and get all kinds of information.  Most of it is crap, and people mostly look for the information that confirms their prejudice.

Information is not education.

Maybe this is the place to make that distinction:  education is not about being informed; education is about being trained to think in a certain way.  There is no "objective" stance, no "God's-eye view" or "position of the universe" for humans to take.  All information is served up with a point of view attached, if only the point of view that the earth sits "upright" with North America and Europe "on top," and the lesser countries "below."  Larry Wilmore presents the globe like that on his comedy show, but everyone takes it as a joke.  I first encountered it in seminary, as yet another way to simply change my point of view, my presumptions about everything.   And that's what a seminary education will do:  challenge your point of view about everything.  And it won't give you a new one to replace it.  You have to come up with that on your own.  I remember a seminary professor, a man closer to my age now than then (20 years ago) asking a group of us how we would explain the importance of Jesus Christ without resorting to old-school soteriology about the damnation of the unbeliever.  He didn't have the answer either; he was asking us.

Seminary ain't Sunday School

Education is about being trained in the ideas and even ideology of the teacher.  You can challenge that ideology (I got into almost an infamous spat with one of my professors in seminary), but you have to learn how even start to do that.  The self-taught, the autodidact, are conspicuous by their opinions and insistence on ideas that their self-education never challenged.  The internet has not created a class of people who prefer to confirm their prejudices with select information, it has simply confirmed their existence as a normal part of human society.  We all prefer our own prejudices:  that's why there are so many denominations and non-denominational churches, so many different types of French cheese, so many ever-changing flavors of ice cream.  We all think we are right, and we all gather with "right-minded' people; people who think like us.  The internet didn't invent that; the internet didn't change that.

All the internet did was provide yet another forum for the confirmation of that.  What it won't do is the same thing television was never going to do:  it won't educate.

Education is a deliberate process, an engagement between teacher and student.  It does not occur by happenstance or coincidence or osmosis.

I don't know about the pastors and rabbis selected by Mr. Dennett for his book:  maybe they have had mid-life crises; maybe they have had a crisis of faith.  Maybe the insane pressures of being a religious leader simply got to them, and they abandoned their churches and synagogues altogether.  Nothin he describes is new or unique in the world.  It is as old as religion and clergy itself.

And as for the idea that congregations will demand information the church is hiding from them, all I can say is:  I took my training in the thought of the Jesus Seminar and the German Biblical scholarship which prompted the Christian fundamentalist movement, to my congregation, and they didn't use it to demand more of me:  they rejected it wholesale, and me with it.  I don't think I was a worthy messenger, but what I didn't find in my churches was any desire to know more salient and valid and, at the same time challenging, information than anything I've seen on the internet since I went online in the '90's.

Here I want to tie in another article at RD mentioned in that top 10 list, this one about Sam Harris and his e-mail spat with Noam Chomsky.

Let me say at the outset it still surprises me, as it did Chomsky, that Harris would publish this exchange.  Harris seems to be a man remarkably obtuse when it comes to either self-reflection or even any consideration of an idea that isn't his.  But it's the article at RD that convinced me, mainly on the strength of the three long quotes from the e-mails of Noam Chomsky, to revisit this issue at year's end.  I mention it because it concisely states where Chomsky rebutted everything Harris had to say ("I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level" pretty much marks "paid" to any idea that Sam Harris is an ethical thinker; and I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise" is so clear and directly between the eyes it is only myopia that can account for Harris being willing to publish this exchange.) and it establishes, as clearly as anything I've ever seen since the collapse of logical positivism, that the positions taken by Sam Harris are morally corrupt, unsound in reasoning, and thoroughly discredited.

We have in Dennett and Harris two people probably better known because of the Internet than they would be otherwise (the number of people who write bestselling books but also influence the public discourse is vanishingly small), and they are far more alike than different in that both of them live in a bubble which the internet only reinforces for them.  And that is what the internet has created:  more of the same.  A little bit louder, and a little bit worse.  Mr. Dennett is as ignorant of the world around him as I am of famous chefs and public figures who don't swim into my ken.  And he's as parochial as people who think that anyplace not near them is "out of the way" for everybody.  Mr. Harris is no different, yet he can't even allow any contrary idea to swim into his knowledge, lest it uproot his understanding and render everything he's ever said pointless.

And yet they are, if not saints, at least representatives of one constituency on the internet.  Maybe that "vast wasteland" isn't inherent in how we use our communications technologies; maybe it's simply inherent in us.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Waiting for the big one....

What can I say?  I like dancing nones....er, I mean nuns.

23% of Americans don't identify themselves as belonging to a church.  When that number hits 59%, we'll be back where we were in 1906.  Call me then.

As for "Nones," I found this post with remarks by Robert Wuthnow, the expert's expert on church and sociology.  We should listen to him.

Yes, these are "stories to watch."  But the earth is not shaking, the tectonic plates are not rapidly moving;  this is just life as we know it.  Life doesn't stand still.  And those church pews have been emptying since I was a kid; any day now they'll empty out completely.   Any day now.... (The general consensus in seminary was that there was a post-war peak in church attendance, and we've been returning to status quo ever since.  Funny thing is, church affiliation (if not attendance) rose steadily through most of the 20th century, and took its biggest jump between the 40's and the 60's, then went up again between the '70's and the '80's.  Somethin's happenin' here; what it is, ain't exactly clear.)

As for "localization of church," all I get from that is that the Protestant model continues apace, and the dissolution of denominations continues, too.  Again, a 50+ year old trend that keeps trending.  What else do we need to watch?  Paint dry?

And as for story no. 5, about urban ministry going mainstream, I like the comment to the post: "Any thoughts about congregations in rural or semi-rural settings?"  Because from where I sit, while they seem to be constantly ignored, the rural voters in Texas seem to constantly maintain control of the political process.  Might also explain why so many states consistently vote GOP; or, as we used to put it, that might get closer to what's the matter with Kansas.

We've been pushing the importance of the cities for most of my life, too.  How is it any different to now notice there are actually urban ministries and they're "mainstream"?  Maybe because they're white.....?

Or is that not still what's meant by "mainstream"?

Like I said:  call me when something new and different happens.

Nunc Dimmitus


Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.

Just looking at the song of Simeon again. It usually happens that, when taken out of context and reviewed for some reason other than exegesis, the exegesis is clearer and easier.  First, we blame the gospels, and not wrongly, for much of the anti-semitism of European history.  But look at those final lines:  it is a sentiment completely in keeping with the visions of Isaiah regarding the future of Israel from the midst of Exile in Babylon.  The vision of the Holy Mountain in Isaiah 40 is meant to be a vision of Israel in its apotheosis as the people of God, a condition which draws the nations (i.e., people, not nation-states) to it to share in and learn from this blessing.  Simeon echoes that:

a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles/and glory to your people Israel.

By the time Luke wrote Christians had already mined the scriptures for references to their Messiah, so the idea is not original with Luke.  But part of the anti-semitism that would infect the church and the culture came from reading those scriptures as signs the Jews missed, and so brought their damnation on themselves.  Here is a sad example of how badly the gospels were misused, and how they have been more recently put right:  the vision of Simeon is whole, and should be seen as whole sight (or all the rest truly is desolation):  it is a vision of Hebrew and Christian, Gentile and Jew, drawing from the same source for revelation and glory.

And then Luke continues the story:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

The "sign that shall be spoken against" (and I want to stop there and look up Luke's words, to see if he uses the word John uses for "miracles."  John doesn't use the dunamis of the other gospel writers, which should be directly translated as "act of power."  John's gospel uses semeia, which means "signs."  It's part of my own argument that, as Mark's gospel instructed Matthew's, and Q gave material to Matthew and Luke, John's gospel shows unmistakeable signs of Luke as forebear.  But I put this in a long note to remind myself to return to it someday.) is what piques my interest.   Why?  Because that sign which will "be spoken against" will then, by the action of rejection, "reveal the thoughts of many hearts."  And suddenly we're back to Jeremiah:

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse--
 who can understand it?
 I the LORD test the mind
 and search the heart,
 to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

Jeremiah 17:9-10

Modern scholarship tends to emphasize the errors in Temple practice and religious ritual that Luke makes, which marks the gospel's author as a Gentile.  That may be true, but Luke is the subtlest theologian in the four gospels.  And it is that "set against" that is so revealing, if only because the sign provokes the response of rejection; and why does one object?

An argument reveals as much, and often more, about the person raising the argument, than the points of the argument itself.  Simeon's words appear to establish the very "either/or" that Kierkegaard wrote about as the fundamental position of the ethical.  And yet Kierkegaard meant that analysis as the limited view of the non-religious, not as the final word on what is ethically condoned or condemned.  But Simeon doesn't say the cosmic scales will be held by Jesus, and many will be weighed and found wanting.  Simeon says the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  The innermost thoughts; the truest thoughts; of these there will be a revelation, and that revelation will come through the sign brought by Jesus.  And what is a sign?  According to semiotic theory, it is something which points to something else.  What does Jesus point to, according to Simeon, except the truth?

But what is truth?  Ah, what indeed.  The truth that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the father except" through him?  No; Simeon is not referring to that truth.  Simeon refers to a revelation, not a salvation.  Simeon refers to a revealing, not a reconciling.  Simeon refers to the same revolution Mary's song earlier referred to:

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

(Luke 1:46-56, SV)

Right there, almost in the middle:

He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
That sounds, at least to the rich, more like a prophet than a priest:

1:14 The great day of the LORD is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the LORD is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there.

1:15 That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness,

1:16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements.

Zechariah 1: 14-16

The revelation of God is never a judgment from a spiteful god; it is always a judgment brought on the people who have turned away from God, and now reap the whirlwind they have sown.  And the revelation of Jesus Simeon speaks of will be to some like a sword, revealing their metaphorical hearts.  They will be revealed for who they truly are and judged, not by a tribunal of superiors, but by their own actions:  "to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings."

A dark day, indeed, if we all are treated as we deserve.  Maybe a real sword would be better.  And yet Simeon promises, not a judgment, but merely a revelation.

Which, when you think about it, might be bad enough.  But it offers an interesting perspective for insight; especially into our own hearts.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Feast Days to follow


"Good King Wenceslas looked out/on the Feast of Stephen...."

Christmas is a season on the Christian church calendar.  It runs from Christmas day to Epiphany, and includes not only the birth of the Christchild ("Peace on earth, goodwill toward men"), but the feast day of the first martyr, Stephen:

54 When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. 55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. 58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.  (Acts 7:54-60)
There's more violence to come, on the day of the Holy Innocents:

When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger. this corresponded to the time [of the star] that he had learned from the astrologers. With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true: 'In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: They were no more.' " (Matthew 2: 16-18, SV)
I don't think either of those texts ever comes up in the Revised Common Lectionary; not in the entire three year cycle.  That story, however, is why the Holy Family makes the journey to Egypt, a journey we often reference and conflate with Luke's story of the trip to Bethlehem, to show how Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees and homeless and seeking shelter from the very beginning.

We forget that in either narrative, Luke's or Matthew's, the cause of the journey was the world; was society; was the powers that be, indifferent to all but the fate of their own power.  We forget that the life of the Christchild was precarious.  But it would be good to remember; maybe it would cut through the seasonal treacle, the annual tide of artificial bonhomie, the usual haste to get it all over with on time.  Ecco homo.  Behold the human one; behold the helpless child, rejected by the powers that be from the very beginning.  About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters/....How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting/For the miraculous birth, there always must be" someone who didn't want it to happen at all.

Behold humanity.

We don't even make much room for Simeon's song.

Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made
ready in full view of all nations;
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.
There is another story of ending; but that is a life fulfilled, not a life cut short.  That is the song of the aged who are reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth.  Matthew gives us the sign that shall be spoken against explicitly, and from the beginning; Luke reserves that for the future:

34And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
All of this comes in our Christmastide, our season of celebration that runs from December 25 to January 6th.  Even Epiphany is a season of joy; the church calendar doesn't settle down to the hard work of self-examination and preparation again until Ash Wednesday, which most of us know, if at all, as the day after Mardi Gras.

We should season our Christmastide with more than waiting for New Year's.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-fluxed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvelous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingertips.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.
So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.
Be thou then,
O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love,
O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isles,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Valerie Tarico made much of Mary's role in the nativity stories, but she missed this entirely:

A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

But her lacunae allows me to underline the point.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

And so this is Christmas.....


I'm a bit of a dog with a bone about this; or maybe I should say a dog with a tick he can't get at.  But I have this collection of writings connected to the Nativity stories, and it makes for interesting rump scholarship to use it as a source.

Not that there are that many sources for information about Christmas.  The two histories I know of, by Stephen Nissenbaum and Penne Restad, both indicate the origins of Christmas celebrations, even of gift giving (which we'll get to) are murky, at best.  This anthology I mentioned starts with the Hebrew scripture prophecies picked up by Christians as precursors to the story of the Christ (a matter of new interpretations which we can discuss another day), and continues through the two nativity stories into the apocryphal ones (from the Infancy Gospel of James and the Arabic Gospel) into all the earliest church writings about the Incarnation.  It ends in the 4th century, and then jumps to the Middle Ages, with the earliest entry being by Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in the 12th century.

Which means that, for 700 years, nothing much happened.  Nothing worth noting today, anyway; and this is an anthology that picks up just about every obscure reference to Christmas (including the scene on the ramparts of the castle of Denmark from Act I of "Hamlet") that can be found.  Which underlines my first point:  just because it is important to us, today,doesn't mean it was always like this.

As a child I remember thinking how unimaginable a world without Christmas would be.  I didn't mean the religious aspects so much as the celebratory aspects:  gifts and joy and singing and happiness and all the stuff Scrooge's nephew praised about the season.  But of course, that sense of the season is a recent one, not a perennial one.  It didn't start in Bethlehem on that night long ago, and it hasn't been continuous since.  Indeed, the celebration of Christmas as we know it at all is shorter than that 700 year gap; is not even half of that span of time.  We have to first shed the notion that history began with our awareness, and anything we aren't aware of couldn't have happened except as we would expect it to.  So the idea that Christmas sucked up "Saturnalia" or, even more vaguely the "winter solstice" (which I doubt anyone actually observed as we think they did) is wrong, to begin with.

This book does come down on the side of "Sol Invictus" (actually Natali Invictus) as the date for the Christ mass celebration because it was an important Roman holiday; it says so in passing (the anthology is not a work of scholarship).  To this I would say "Yes, but...." and note two things:  one, the Christ Mass was celebrated in Rome sometime before 354 C.E., which places it after the death of Constantine (and so Rome was officially Christian by then), and: "But even should a deliberate and legitimate "baptism" of a pagan feast be seen here no more than the transference of the date need be supposed."  Such things were quite common throughout Christian history; it wasn't until the Puritans that anyone complained so strongly about it, and their arguments really weren't all that sound.  Here, again, the right view of history is needed.

The church in Rome got along fine without the observance of the birth of Christ in a special mass for several centuries.  The first observance of such a mass was in Alexandria (200 C.E.), which is logical because the Egyptians observed the birthdays of their Pharaohs, who were regarded as gods.  Date of birth would be of obvious significance, and it's no surprise the church in Egypt would decide a special celebration of the Birth of the Christ was in order.  But already we're off track if we think that "special celebration" involved anything like the celebration we have today.  This was a celebration by the church, and that meant a special Mass.  Easter was still the dominant day on the Church calendar (as it remains in the Eastern church); the mass for the Nativity was just an addition to the liturgical calendar.

And it remained such for centuries.  It is only in the medieval church that we begin to get celebrations like the Feast of Fools in December, and more elaborate celebrations among the kings as the period moves on.  This anthology includes the tale of Arthur pulling the sword from the stone on Christmas, from Malory's telling of the tale.  Sadly, it doesn't include the beheading game that the Green Knight plays in Arthur's hall during the Christmas feast, another indication of how Christmas was observed:  not with gifts and Santa Claus, but with feasts and parties (feasts and games form a central part of the narrative at the Green Knight's hall the next Christmas).  The noblesse oblige of the rulers included some recognition of the existence of the serfs; but they weren't invited into the great hall to eat the boar's head with the gentry.

The literature of Christmas slowly grows from strictly religious terms (tropes for the Mass; sermons and hymns we still associate with Christmas), and by the Renaissance we find Mummer's plays by Ben Johnson, and poems from Donne, Herbert, Milton, and Dryden (as well as subversive stuff at the time, like the Catholic Southwells' "The Burning Babe").  This is the stuff the Puritans in America were railing against (and in England, for a time); this is the real separation of the church service (the "Christ Mass") from the secular observance (Johnson's play is for a presentation in the Court of James, and it has barely a shepherd or wise man in it.  The characters in the excerpt include Father Christmas, Venus, and Cupid.  No wonder the Puritans were appalled.)

And then there's the matter of gift giving.  So far as I know, Coleridge recounts the story of the German tannenbaum which made it so popular in America and then Europe in the 19th century, and he includes the idea of parents giving gifts to children.  Clement Clarke Moore, of course, made that even more popular in America later that same century.  This is in line with the Industrial Revolution creating a new middle class with money to spend and things to spend it on (thanks to the factories), and so gift giving begins. (Christmas wasn't an official holiday in America until 1870; in 1832 a visitor to America notes how no one is celebrating that day.)  That's really another topic entirely, but as I've mentioned before. the idea that it is connected to the Roman Saturnalia, which ended in Rome 75 years before the first Christ Mass was observed there, is ridiculous.  It also assumes exchanging presents was a custom from the 4th century on.  As I said, we engage in learning from history at our peril, unless we are willing to accept that the world as we know it isn't the world as it has always been; nor is it even the perfection of the world towards which all history has been moving.

Christmas as a religious observance moved away from Christmas as a societal celebration as society itself moved away from the dominance of the church over secular affairs that proceeded from the Renaissance and, more importantly, the Reformation.  What we think of as Christmas related items today have virtually nothing to do with the religious observance of the Nativity story, aside from the ubiquitous manger scenes.  Trees, lights, decorations, ornaments, parties:  none of that really has anything intrinsic to do with Christianity.  Indeed, if we were more concerned with the religious observance of Christmas, more churches would be open on Christmas Day every year, and especially when Christmas comes on a Sunday.

Christmas is extremely important to us today, especially as an economic event (the liturgy of our true secular god).  We imagine it must have been ever thus, and with a little knowledge some of us retroject a history on 2000 years which never occurred and couldn't have happened.  Then again, most of us think Hollywood westerns both taught us U.S. history and gave us an accurate picture of what everything west of the Mississippi looks like.  But the Christmas we know is a very recent invention:  partly the child of Dickens and Moore, but just as much the child of the Industrial Revolution and northern European cultures.  It is also almost entirely a reflection of our culture:  it is a mirror of our times.  Things don't really change all that much or all that fast, and technology certainly doesn't really augur a fundamental shift in human nature or even human relationships.  The traditions we cling to this time of year, apart from a few hymns and carols, aren't really all that old.  But we tell ourselves they are because we need the continuity.

And that, really, is a subject I would preach on:  our need for continuity, for a connection with something other than ourselves that can make us feel truly human.  Religion is blamed for doing that when that need expresses itself in violence and mayhem.  Religion can do that, because nothing can finally control humans except their own individual will.  But religion can also be that source of connection and continuity.  In Christianity, as I hope to show soon, that connection and continuity is part of the gospel (i.e., core) message of the Church.  It is also a part (and this is the key to my thinking) of the paradox of Christianity, a paradox embodied in the child who was God incarnate, creator in the created, king in the feed trough of animals at birth.  That paradox is not only at the heart of the Christian story, paradox itself (or, if you prefer the language of so many new atheists on-line, 'contradiction') is the heart of the gospel message.

But God willing and the Holy Spirit acting, we'll come back to that.  Maybe.  If I keep thinking about it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve 2015

I'll just link to this.  My comment on it is there, so take that as incorporated here by reference (as the lawyers say).

And there's this, courtesy of Charlie Pierce.  It's a goodish sentiment, if not the best possible for the season.  It gets at something about Christmas that makes it valuable, whether we keep it as a religious holiday (and most of us don't, not really) or as a secular one.

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew. "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

 —Charles Dickens, 1843

 I do think there is more to it than goodwill and nice feelings, but frankly, without those nothing good gets started.  The Holy Spirit can trouble the waters; but it's up to us to get in and do something with it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Winter Solstice


I keep reading comments where people want to argue that "Christmas" descends from Saturnalia or some imagined winter solstice celebration (that one is always generic and unexplained).  The simplest explanation for feasting in a European climate in early winter (it just started today), is that without food storage and refrigeration, you have to eat the harvest while it's handy.  You can't import fruits from across the world without airplanes (at least), and you can't store meat without salt (always precious) or refrigeration (unimaginable).  So you eat it, in a binge.

Sauce, by the way, originated to make moldy meat palatable.  Today we throw it out; then they had to eat it, regardless.

So feasting in winter (or rather, just as winter started) made sense.  It was that or watch the food spoil.  Drink, too, would need to be consumed (save some for the rest of winter, of course).  But that has nothing to do with a Roman custom that died out nearly 100 years before Rome observed the first Christ Mass (and the observance of that mass did not spark Christmas parties around Rome the next year.  Let's be sensible here.)

Let me just quote myself:

I have a book about one young Irish girl's memories of a rural Irish Christmas in the mid-20th century. For an agricultural society, the coming of winter meant rest and living off what was provided from the summer. Meat was prepared and animals slaughtered to provide food for the winter, and where there was little food storage capacity or preservation possible, most of that food had to be eaten soon. By the time spring came around larders were usually empty. Not quite so grim a story is told in that book, of course, but she makes it clear the season was an agricultural necessity, not a social or anthropological one. The solstice mattered less than the weather, and the fact livestock had to be wintered over, and crops couldn't be tended. It was also a time to celebrate after a long period of hard work; a time to rest and recover and get ready for all the demands of spring. So, when I put up Christmas lights, am I afraid of the dark and wishing the sun would come back? Or do I just think they're pretty?

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The idea that Christmas is just Saturnalia sanctified, or some winter solstice celebration blessed by the Church, is actually a Puritanical one.  But the Puritans despised all things Roman, and did so because they were on a mission to purify the church.  They also just hated celebrations in general, which is probably why Plymouth Colony only lasted as long as it did:

Historians have noted that New England’s calendar was one of the most physically draining ever adopted, with colonists working practically every day save for Sabbath, Election Day, public thanksgivings and “days of humiliation.” In 1629, Massachusetts Bay colonists went so far as to make it official company policy that those who appeared to be “idle drones” would not be allowed to live among them.
Which would you prefer?  The celebrations of most of Europe, as reflected in early 20th century Ireland?  Or the nose to the grindstone puritanism of a colony of Scrooges?

As I say, the Puritans were trying to purify Christianity.  What are these people who keep bringing up bad history trying to purify?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

White Noise

This is interesting:

Most major religious groups in the country favor the passage of stricter gun control laws, including majorities of minority Protestants such as black Americans (76%), Catholics (67%), the religiously unaffiliated (60%), and white mainline Protestants (57%). White evangelical Protestants stand out as the group least likely to support stricter gun control laws (38% favor, 59% oppose).
Let us begin by saying you can't verify these numbers, so they have to be taken as indicators, not as gospel truth.  Still, in a time when our leaders seem determined to be led by a minority (although a voting minority; I'm convinced gerrymandering works because of the accuracy of historical voting patterns), it's worthwhile to note they don't actually represent the majority.  And that white Protestant evangelicals don't represent Christians at all.

Oh, also that the "religiously unaffiliated" are less likely to take a "liberal" position on an issue like gun control than are black American Protestants or Catholics.

The BBC World Service reported from Venezuela after the recent elections there turned out the Chavez government.  A BBC reporter interviewed an elected official with that government who was basically on his way out, and the first thing the official noted was the media narrative:  if socialists win, he said, the narrative is that radical change has come to the nation, with the implication it has been imposed by a few on the many.  When conservatives win, however, he said, the narrative is that "the people have spoken."

I'm no fan of Chavez, but that official certainly pegged the narrative the BBC was reporting.  In the same way, the narrative in America is that if white Protestant evangelicals say it, it must be true for all Christians in America, and if they don't then no credible Christian in the country has an opinion worth noting.  The former is  nowhere near the truth, of course, and the latter just reinforces the preferred narrative.  And yet that narrative is still repeated and promoted as true by what used to call itself "the reality based community," that community which was supposed to be so suspicious of the "mainstream media."

"Reality" is still pretty much whatever confirms your preferences.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Real Nightmare before Christmas


"This really brings Christmas close to a person."*

*Yes, it's real.  And it's magnificent.  Well, for a sweater that's actually a "100% cotton sweatshirt."

Something about Mary


This is a good place to start a consideration of Mary; especially as last Sunday was Gaudete, the observance of the visit of Gabriel to Mary during Advent.

There are a couple of minor problems here:  one, Gabriel doesn't say "Hail, Mary, full of grace," at least not in the original Greek.  It can be translated that way, but the original Greek translates much closer to "You have found favor with God."  I mention this because the post at the link argues "virgin" is not the best description of Mary, because:

The Greek word Luke uses for virgin is an unusual one, a very specific word that means she has not yet born a child. Its precise meaning does not indicate sexual innocence. So let’s be clear: the focus is on her uterus. The state of her hymen is not at issue here.
It's an anachronistic reading of the word, since a woman who has born a child has obviously known a man (the linch-pin of both nativity stories, as reflected in "The Cherry Tree Carol").   And I can't find any evidence the word is "unusual."  The point, for both Luke and Matthew, is that Jesus is born of woman but not of man.  It's the kind of thing that's kept theologians busy for centuries, trying from that slender reference to understand the nature of the Christ.

It's also anachronistic to aver that assuming Mary is under 16 makes God a pedophile (no, seriously, it's in the post).  The onset of menarche has greatly reduced in recent generations, and the very idea of a "teenager" dates back no earlier than the late 19th century (if that far).  People who were dead in their 40's (watch a TV show from 50 years ago, and look at the people identified as "old:"  you'll think they were in their 90's, when they are supposedly only in their '60's) didn't wait until they were 30 to have babies, and "pedophilia" was a term unknown for women of childbearing age.

But it's also a bit odd to parse a Greek word, but take for your exegesis a very traditional English translation of another part of the story.

Alright, nitpicking aside, we should pay more attention to the story of Mary, especially as it appears in the context of Luke's gospel.   Ne timeas, Maria, Gabriel says to her, according to the Vulgate.  "Do not be afraid," which serves as stark contrast to the first appearance of Gabriel in this gospel:  when he appears to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  I'll let the Scholar's Version take over from here:

At the hour of incense, while a huge crowd was praying outside, there appeared to him a messenger of the Lord standing to the right of the altar of incense.  When he saw him, Zechariah was shaken and overcome by fear.  Luke 1:10-12, SV

We have to stop here and note Zechariah does not come off well, here.  He's a priest, and he's in the "sanctuary," an inner part of the temple, where he might expect to encounter God's presence.  And he's startled and fearful of an angel.  So the "heavenly messenger" (which is really how "angel" should be understood) is reassuring:

But the heavenly messenger said to him, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to name him John." Luke 1:13, SV

Pardon me while I skip to the end, because the heavenly messenger gives a lengthy peroration about how John will live (to prove his holiness) and how he will "make people ready for their lord."  It is the first advent, in other words; but let's not lose our focus now, because Zechariah is about to speak:

But Zechariah said to the heavenly messenger, "How can I be sure of this?  For I am an old man and my wife is all along in years."  Luke 1:18, SV

And how he can be sure of it is with a sign; he is struck dumb until the baby is born, and only when he writes down the baby's name can he speak again.  But that's getting ahead of the narrative.

So note what that priest does:  he is afraid, indeed overcome by fear.  He demands a sign from God (the heavenly messenger is a divine emissary; to speak to the angel is to speak to God), and he learns the lesson of "be careful what you ask for."

He also goes home after his service in the Temple is over, and gets his wife pregnant.  That part of the story is not to be overlooked.  And having been told that, the story shifts to this heavenly messenger's visit with Mary.

In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent form God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David.  The virgin's name was Mary.  He entered and said to her "Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you!"

But she was deeply disturbed by the words, and wondered what the greeting could mean.

The heavenly messenger said to her, "Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  Listen to me:  you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father.  He will rule over the house of Jacob forever; and his dominion will have no end."

And Mary said to the messenger, "How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?"

The messenger replied, "The holy spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you.  This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God.  Further, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age.  She who was said to be infertile is already six months along, since nothing is impossible with God."

And Mary said, "Here I am, the Lord's slave.  May everything you have said come true."  Then the heavenly messenger left her.  Luke 1:26-38, SV
You have to lose that last verse in order to portray Mary as feisty and independent by modern standards.  But then, modern standards insist "slave" is a forbidden word and never, as in this context, a statement of humility and acceptance.  Luke's theology is subtle, and it doesn't do to over-read that last verse either, and conclude that Mary unduly abased herself before the angel.  Here Luke provides a contrast with Zechariah, the male priest who should be the standard bearer for correct behavior before a messenger of God.  The new thing Mary announces in her Magnificat flows directly from her words here.  "My soul magnifies the Lord," she sings, and goes on to announce the chaos and new order God has in store.  She's already begun that by one-upping the husband of her cousin Elizabeth.  Zechariah was terrified, and demanded a sign.  Mary is humble, and only asks for more information.  Her question is even practical, which shows her wisdom.  Zechariah wants to negotiate, to be on equal footing with the angel, if not in charge.  Mary wants to understand, and this, too, is why the child will be holy.  Mary doesn't abase herself before God; Mary accepts her place.  And that, as her son will one day say in a parable, is what raises her up.  Zechariah claims his place at the head table, in the seat of honor, and he is lead away to a lower place.  Mary accepts the lowest place, and she is led to the honored position.

Luke, as I said, is a very subtle theologian.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Nuns raising children? Oh......



The funny thing about this is, you might as well ask how pastors are raising their children.

The joke in seminary is about the student who graduates with highest honors, but has totally lost his (it's an old joke) faith.  He graduates an atheist.  Seminary is not Bible college.  There was even a story at my UCC seminary about a student who professed his atheism at the end of three years of divinity study, but got ordained anyway.  That particular twist was supposed to be a joke on the UCC, but I suspect every denomination's seminary had the same story.

PK's (Preacher's Kids) are a particular subset of offspring; again, you hear about them endlessly in seminary.  Most of the teachers I had were former seminarians themselves, but they went to seminary back in the day when married students were a rarity (rather than the norm, as when I was there).  PK's were notorious for either becoming preachers themselves, or for losing their virginity in the choir loft.  Some of my professors were PK's, but I didn't learn anything about when they lost their virginity.

PK's are also notorious for losing their faith.  Growing up in the maelstrom that is a pastor's life in a congregation will strip you of all illusions about church and faith very rapidly.  My first church didn't go so well; fresh out of seminary, I made about every mistake you could, including the choice of church (they were the first to come calling, and I wanted to get to work).  My daughter lived it all, even if she was only 5 years old at the time.  My second church came about a year after I left seminary, and after a few months there I left an evening church service to attend the first meeting of my pastoral relations committee.  My daughter was leaving worship with us, but when I stayed behind, she wanted to stay behind.  She knew something was going on, and she wanted to protect me.

PK's don't have any illusions about the lives of pastors and the faith of congregations.  It's not quite as bad as Marjoe, returning to the stage to fleece the foolish once again.  But it's not always far from that.

So what's the difference between PK's and the children of the "nones"?  Not much, I'll wager.  First, such an assessment presumes preachers (and church goers) are moral paragons (I could tell you stories.  I got crossways with a number of pastors in a position of power (their power, not mine), and every one of them turned out to be morally weak or to forced out of their positions.  Preachers and PK's don't have any illusions about pastors, as I said.), and they aren't.  Second, it assumes that morality comes from religious belief, and by and large, it doesn't.

The first illusion you get stripped off after seminary is the illusion that people in the pews want to be moral and upright.  They do, but only insofar as it conforms to their self-interest.  Any challenge to their purity of heart is met with a firestorm of resistance.  I've actually known avowed atheists who were better examples of Christian charity than most Christians I've known, so I've long ago given up the idea that in religion is morality exclusively located.  Does that mean it can't be found there?  No; but I'm convinced the image of the Holy Spirit as a wild goose, going where it wants to go, is the right image.  Religion can teach morality; whether it is learned, is quite another matter.

And then, of course, there's the example of the early 20th century, when 40% of Americans identified themselves as affiliated with some church or religion.  I guess the other 60% were "nones" in the sense of the word used in that study:  not anti-religious, just not interested in organized religion.

I can understand that disinterest, although it's a complex subject which starts with the fact that the admirers of Jesus but not religion ignore his words too:  "Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, I will be there also."  Then again, we all pick and choose what we wanted Jesus to say; that's usually where the trouble starts, pointing that out.  Besides, you have to give credit to all those organized religions you despise, and the people who made them up over the centuries, to have preserved the words of Jesus, or whatever your choice is, for you to admire.  You have to take the bitter with the sweet; something we're no better at than we ever were; perhaps we're even worse at it.

So how are the "nones" raising their children?  The same way people in America did in the early 20th century; the same way PK's have raised their kids for generations; the same way pastors have raised children, successfully and unsuccessfully.  What has changed recently?  Nothing, really, except our historical perspective.  That loss of perspective is leading us to insist our time is unique, our problems unprecedented, our issues trouble human beings have never faced.  Ignorant of history, we equally want to think we are the first in history, and that no time was ever more important than now.

Which is true; but not in the sense that makes us more important.

There are so many ways of preparing for the Christchild.  Perhaps this is one more.  Perhaps this is why I prefer to look at how similar we are to the people of 1st century Palestine, than how unique we supposedly are in all of human history.

"(All I want for Christmas is to be slapped by an elected official.)"



I don't even know what the phrase means anymore.  I really don't.  And I understand even less what the steer has to do with anything.  Ever tried to ride a steer?  It's not something you do if there's any alternative available.

Is the Texas Ag Commissioner trying to say there were cowboys at the manger?  Or there would have been?  Well, the real cowboys like Ennis and Jack I can imagine there; not the Hollywood/John Wayne cowboys, like the one in this picture.

As for the Texas AG's offer to slap the next person who says "Happy Holidays" to him, I'm just glad Bing Crosby is dead.  Who knew he and Irving Berlin were starting a war on Christmas that was determined to take Christ out of this eponymous holiday?

I do wonder if AG Commissioner Miller will be looking for a church to attend on December 25th.  I mean, if you want to keep the "Christ" in "Christmas," shouldn't you keep the "Mas[s]," too?  Because otherwise, really: what does that phrase mean?


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jesus, Jesus, rest your head....


The chatter on the Internet continues to be that we are all scared shite-less and trembling under our beds and a-feared of terrorists dropping out of the trees to kill us all as we shop.

Is this happening among people you know?

The source for all this knowledge are polls which are never wrong (except when they are) and which can certainly never be verified (how do you verify that a given percentage of the country is truly afraid?  or indifferent, for that matter?  The latter is more verifiable, actually, given historical rates of voter turnout.).  So the polls tell us we tell them we are afraid, and then the politicians repeat it as loudly as they can, and the internet lights up like a pinball machine (though I think fewer and fewer people are playing that machine anymore) and we're all trembling like giant blanc manges.

Is this happening to you, or anyone around you?

I know we're supposed to be completely unstuck by San Bernardino because PARIS!  ISIS!  TERROR!!!! and if we still had the color scheme we'd be at Terror Level Black Watch Plaid.  But really?  Apparently the FBI has said "Well, maybe those two murderers in California weren't really even inspired by ISIS."  This is a walk-back made necessary by ISIS taking credit for what it probably didn't do in California, because it makes ISIS look bigger and scarier than it is, and because, well, you know:  RECRUITING.  You want people to join your military, you tell 'em it's a man's life in the Army.  You want people to join your football team, you tell 'em what a winner you are.  You want people to pledge their lives to jihad, you take credit for mayhem wherever it happens.

And so the FBI says, "Well, maybe not."  Largely to try to detach the murder of 14 people for reasons nobody can yet explain (they don't even know why that particular party, or whether others were involved in the planning, or if that shooting was even planned.  Remember the story of one shooter leaving the party angry?  Whatever happened to that?), from a gang of thugs and murderers who think they can run a caliphate.

And this apparently has us all convinced we are now engaged in World War III and we're all gonna die if we don't carpet bomb....well, not carpet bomb, exactly, but direct bombs to ISIS leaders because it's Christmas shipping season and we have their home addresses and free market capitalism can deliver, or something.....

I keep asking because all we hear in the media is "FEAR!  FIRE!  FOES!  AWAKE!!!",  and yet this happened at the last GOP debate of the year:

.... a UT Austin student named Carla Hernandez asked, “If the Bible clearly states that we need to embrace those in need and not fear, how can we justify not accepting refugees?”
In Texas State Rep. Gene Wu is asking the DOJ to look into whether or not Texas is violating federal law by trying to block refugees from coming here, and while Gov. Abbott besmirches the tradition of hospitality this take states pride in, Houston continues to be the city in America that has accepted more refugees than any city in the country. 

And we don't even brag about it.

I don't know if the son-of-a-pastor Ted Cruz answered Ms. Hernandez's question, but I doubt I want to know his answer.  It just seems clear to me that once again the Biblical story rings true with current events:  the powerful tremble on their thrones at the news that something good might be coming, that ordinary Americans might actually care about people in trouble and aren't afraid but open their hearts and their wallets to them, like the students of a North Charleston high school who raised $1900 to help Syrian refugees, and delivered it through the Jewish historical institute Centropa, in Vienna, Austria. Jews, helping Muslims, through the efforts of (most likely) Christians (or perhaps "nones".  Who knows?)  While politicians wail and internet commenters complain and both groups insist on the primacy of their group, their tribe, their "people,  the world is trying to get things done, to heal wounds, to help people.

There is no room in the inn, but the trough where the animals eat is a fine place to rest a baby when the parents have been forced from home.  It is a fine offering to make, once again, to allow them room somewhere among us.  And the angels will sing, and the heavens will glow, and the roughest and rudest and smelliest and dirtiest will be welcome at the celebration.

The well-dressed, the comfortable, the smarmy and the cynical, have had their day.  Every year we tell the story, the one ignored at the time it happened, we tell again how little things and unimportant people can be the most important parts of history.  We endure.  They repeat.  Our story is forever.  Theirs has to be renewed constantly, lest it fade away; and fade away, it will.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

This is why we ask not to be led into temptation


Because this cartoon, found in comments there, made this bit of news irresistible:

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) introduced a resolution last week in the House of Representatives that declared the "symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas."

The resolution would not only "recognize the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas," but would also "strongly disapprove of attempts to ban references to Christmas."

The move comes after evangelicals had a strong reaction to Starbucks' new holiday cup. The controversy began after Starbucks released just simple red cups for the holidays instead of cups with seasonal greetings or pictures on them. Some saw the move as another example of the "war on Christmas"

Itinerant Meditation during Advent


First, of course, theologians don't have any power; and they shouldn't go seeking an excuse to claim some.

Second, the last time theologians gained any notoriety, it got some of them on the cover of Time Magazine.  And while there's hardly a straight line and a single cause, getting the then most influential news magazine in America to ask "Is God Dead?" probably sparked, or at least was one more spark, to the rise of the fundamentalists, a problem we're still dealing with in America and on the world stage (funny nobody calls Daesh Islamic fundamentalists, although they so clearly are).

So be careful what you ask for; you might get it.

Third,  never forget the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you wan't make him think.  About 100 years ago, learning koine Greek was a growth industry in America.  People bought correspondence courses so they could read the Greek New Testament in the original language.  Why?  Probably it was sparked by the German Biblical scholars who also sparked the first wave of the American Christian fundamentalist movement; suddenly Biblical scholarship was a hot topic, and people wanted to read the words for themselves, without interpretations.  A similar interest in Biblical scholarship, if not in learning Greek, rose up again at the end of the century when the Jesus Seminar decided which words of Jesus were authentic.  The faint echo of even that interest comes back now with the revelation that science can tell us what Jesus looked like (I always preferred to say he looked like Yasser Arafat, but that's a dated reference now, too.)

The best explanation I can give, in other words, is that it was the zeitgeist.  People were interested in something new.  Even the Jesus Seminar didn't spark any interest in learning Greek.  Why not?  A variety of reasons, I'm sure, but it comes down to:  it didn't happen.  What was the result of all the interest in Greek in the early years of the last century?  Maybe it explains the dip in self-identification with a religious organization (it's low point was 1916).  Maybe not.  But it wasn't anything theologians could fix.

I've learned one thing about education:  you can't educate someone who doesn't want to learn.  You can confuse them, confound them, confront them with their ignorance:  you can't educate them into knowing what you want them to know, if they have no desire to know it.  What do most of us know about Islam?  It's probably as wrong as what I knew about Judaism when I was a child.  I wasn't raised to think the Jews were "Christ killers," but I was raised to think they asked Rome to kill Jesus, and that Jews were too concerned with every jot and tittle of the law, and never understood its human importance the way people I knew did.

Of course, I didn't even think of it as the law of Moses, much less as the Torah.  I'd never heard of midrash, and what I knew of Jews I took from the portraits of the Pharisees in the gospels.  Everything I knew, in other words, was wrong.  It didn't destroy my world to learn that; I just took it as a measure of my ignorance, and learned from it my ignorance is always larger than my knowledge.

Most people, however, don't want to think that way.  I learned it from my extended family, from the humility still exemplified by my Primitive Baptist family members.  Humility doesn't sell well, either.

So I'm not sanguine that better education will solve our problems.  Being a creature of the post-Enlightenment world, a card-carrying member of Western civilization, I'm supposed to believe that, of course:  that knowledge leads to wisdom, that education leads to understanding, and that understanding and wisdom lead to enlightenment and a better way.  And maybe it does; but there's still that problem of the horse, and the water.

All I know is, I know less about Islam than I do about Judaism; that, and I know that 1.6 billion Muslims are neither trying to kill me, convert me, or establish an international caliphate.  This seems to me self-evident, and yet there is another panic upon the land that Muslims will shoot us, and somehow that's much worse than if your generic white guy with a gun shoots us.  Panic is an easily stirred emotion, especially in America.  I think it has something to do with being an immigrant country, and with wanting to form a more perfect union.  The issue, as ever, is that we can never agree on what to unite around, and we always fear a more perfect union means we (never them) lose out.  It's a curious division:  our public discourse is irrational and quite mad; our private discourse is more often calm and reasonable.

I mean, you want to start an argument on the internet, tell someone who claims they know, that they know nothing about Islam or Christianity, or religion in general.  It gives a whole new meaning to "talking to a brick wall."  "A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest," as Paul Simon wrote.  Truer words were never put to music.  But in private?  Who do you argue with about matters of religion, or politics?  You probably work with Muslims and transgendered and gays and lesbians and unmarried couples with children and people who've had abortions, and never think for a moment that you should shun or despise any one of them.  They are people; you know them.  When same-sex marriage is an abstraction, an idea, it may be frightening:  when it is people you have known for decades, you can't see any reason to oppose it.

What can theologians do?  No more than pastors can:  introduce people to people.  Let souls shake hands with souls.  Those who will do it, will do it; those who will not, will not.  Can you lead the great herd of America to water and make them drink?  No.

But you can trust that the great herd of America has yet to be heard on these subjects, and that while they may seem panicky, they can also be wise.  Seek the strength of wisdom; teach the power of powerlessness, the spiritual value of hospitality.  If theologians teach that, who will listen?  Maybe one; maybe two.  Pursue the wisdom that one or two is enough, that all you can do is light a candle in the darkness.

As Jesus said of the one sword his disciples could produce, "It is enough."  It is not, after all, swords and power, either through the sword or through education, that we rely on.

Keeping the "Christ" in "Christmas" means keeping the refugees out


Well, you know this can't go without comment, if only of the res ipsa loquitur kind:

Georgia, Illinois, Nebraska and Texas will have Nativity scenes in their state capitols, and Oklahoma will have one at the governor's mansion. The governors of those same five states have said they do not want any Syrian refugees coming to their states in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

But this is what turns it into art:

The Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm that is co-sponsoring the Nativity scenes, also declined to comment about modern-day refugees. Spokesman Tom Ciesielka said the Nativity scenes were "primarily about free speech in public forum-type locations."
The content of the speech doesn't matter; the freedom to speak is what matters.  To secular humanists.

At least, that's how I always understood that argument.  And yes, Texas leads the way in making it worse:

Some opponents of welcoming Syrian refugees have already rejected any comparison between the story of Christmas and current times.

"Mary and Jesus didn't have suicide bomb vests strapped on them, and these folks do," Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said recently. "You can see it in technicolor in Paris."
Of course, the established authority at the time, according to Matthew, ordered the deaths of all boys two years old and younger born in the region; which is what made the Holy Family refugees.  Lully lullay, thou little tiny child.

But I'm guessing that carol isn't in Rep. Babin's repertory.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"May it be unto you...."

Without the costumes it could be Mardi Gras,
and that's the last celebration of Epiphany before Lent, 
and Advent is likened to the "little Lent," so.....

"Christmas that year, not one to look forward to, was one we should alway look back on."

The opening sentence of "Looking Back on Christmas" by William Owens.  I don't know if it's memoir or fiction, but it's become one of my favorite Christmas stories.  Reading about SantaCon, I decided I should tell the story in a bit of detail.  It's the story of a family gathering in rural Texas on Christmas Eve.  The family gathers, then sits down to dinner, and after dinner:

After the first table [old Texas tradition my family carried on with in my childhood:  the men ate first, then retired, and the women and children ate.  Yeah, my wife was appalled by that, too, and it was long before we were married that she encountered it.] the men and the bigger boys built up a big fire in the pasture between the house and the front gate.  Then, while the women stood on the front porch to watch, Uncle Charlie gave the little children firecrackers and showed them how to shoot them.  He put a paper fuse against a live coal.  When it had lighted he threw it away from the fire into the dark.

"Don't ever let one go off in your hand," he said, "And don't throw it close to nobody.  Somebody might get hurt."

While we went through the firecrackers he had given us, the men made a trip back to the kitchen.  This time they brought the jug with them and set it in the back end of a wagon.  They brought out more fireworks, and Monroe had the sack of power in his coat pocket.

"Time for a roman candle," Uncle Charlie said.

He took a long red roman candle and went to the fire.

"You all watch now," he said, "I'm gonna hold it like I was aiming to shoot the gate."

Charlie runs into the dark and let's the candle shoot balls of fire, then he gets Othal to join him in a roman candle battle.  Full disclosure:  I once did something similar with my cousin, although in summer, not winter.  We used plastic tubes from his golf bag to launch bottle rockets at each other.  We didn't even have the excuse of alcohol, we were just young and dumb.

Anyway, you get the flavor of the celebration.  Firecrackers going off, then roman candles being fired at each other in close range.  Then when those are exhausted and everyone's tired of running around and through the house:

Uncle Charlie was not ready for the fun to be over.  He went up the steps and across the front porch.  Aunt Niece was standing in the door, with the lamplight behind her.  He lifted her chin with his fingers and went on past her, to the chimney corner where he kept his double-barreled shotgun.  Then he came out with the gun under his arm and a box of shells in his hand.

Near the fire, he loaded both barrels and set the stock against his shoulder.

"You aiming at the gate?" Othal asked.

"You got to aim at something."

He fired, and after the first blast we heard shot rattle against the gate.

"Got it first shot," Othal said, and ran for his own gun.

In no time at all, five guns were blazing away at the gate, and the little children were running for hiding places under the house.  I shivered at the sound, but felt safe, for their backs were to us and they were aiming at the gate.

Then Othal came running around the house, loading and firing as he ran, and some of the others took after him.  The women had run inside, but I could hear them telling the men to stop.  Too scared to stay under the house, I crawled out and started for the door.  In the darkness I can straight into Otha's knees, and he let a double-barreled blast go off right over my head, leaving a burning flash in my eyes and a ringing in my ears.

The gate was "a wide, heavy gate made of oak timbers fourteen feet long and an inch thick."  However, the next morning:  "We went to look at the gate, and found it half hanging from the posts, with the timbers drilled and splintered by shot."  The story ends this way:

Uncle Charlie came in with a backstick for the fireplace.  My grandmother was waiting for him.

"You ruint the gate," she said.

"I reckon we did."

He laughed and the light in his blue eyes showed he was not sorry.  She frowned and went out to the front porch.

Aunt Niece came in, with a peeled orange in her hand.

"Christmas gift," he said to her.

She went up to him and stuck a slice of orange between his teeth.  They were both laughing without making a sound, and once he leaned over and kissed her.

"I had me some Christmas," he said.



Keep Christmas as you will, and may it be unto you according to your faith.   I even agree with Garrison Keillor about what is properly Christmas, but by that all I mean is:  I will keep my Christmas, and you keep yours.  SantaCon doesn't bother me a bit, so long as they don't try to change "Silent Night" to make it about bar hopping.


Friday, December 11, 2015

War on, Christmas!

Mrs Breuer's mother, Rita, began collecting antique Christmas decorations in the 1970s. Her husband had said he wanted the sort of old-fashioned German tree that his grandmother used to have. But Rita Breuer and her daughter soon started to unearth bizarre tree decorations that had little to do with the traditional Christmas. First World War items included a miniature glass soldier carrying a hand grenade and military tree baubles in the shape of shells and tanks.*

"The trend continued into the Nazi era," Mrs Breuer said. The church was too intimidated to protest, and the majority of Germans continued with the traditions they had become used to. "The Nazi Christmas ideology appears to have been adhered to most by the families of party activists who lived in towns," she added. The Nazi version of some German carols that were stripped of their Christian content survive and are still unwittingly sung by today's Germans.
I want to say the Hallmark ornaments like the above are in-line with the miniature glass soldier carrying a hand grenade; but then again, Hallmark hasn't made a Punisher ornament yet, or a Rambo, for that matter; so I guess it's all good.

I will add that the idea that Christians "stole" Christmas traditions from pagans is a bit rich, as well as a sign of information deficit disorder.  It's a common problem, especially in an information besotted age like this one; or the 19th century, for that matter.  It's hard today to read Frazer's The Golden Bough without being aware of how prejudiced he was against most things Roman Catholic (he writes like a Puritan on anything to do with Catholic traditions in Europe) as well as most things not befitting an English gentleman to the manor born.  In other words, by modern standards he comes quite a bloomer about many details and conclusions.  I mention him because he could be the patron saint of many a comment on the internet about the origins of Christmas and its traditions.

None of which, frankly, are correct.  Nothing about Christmas was "stolen" by Christians; the very idea that it was is one founded in Puritanism (the infection that led to Deism in the late 18th century) rather than anthropology or any branch of scholarship.  And the irony is, it is neo-puritanism that insists Christmas must be cleansed of such traditions, but where the Puritans wanted to remove the Catholic influence from Christianity, neo-puritans want to remove Christianity from Christmas.

Which things like Hallmark ornaments should prove has already been done, despite the best efforts of Linus van Pelt.

The Puritans were not fans of Christmas celebrations, in no small part because they considered all the traditions associated with Christmas to be pagan in origin, much like the Catholic church itself (which the Anglican church was modeled on.  The name "Puritan" started as a pejorative because they wanted to "purify" the Church of England; later they wore it as a badge of honor.  History is full of such ironies.).  So anything they considered "pagan" was not to be admitted into the purity of their Christianity.  The Puritans are long gone, but they're argument about Christmas lingers on.

So we get statements about how many traditions of Christmas were "stolen" by the Church, which actually didn't adopt any of them.  Some churches do decorate their worship space with evergreen branches (but never mistletoe; or rare enough the exception proves the rule) or maybe even holly and its berries (or plastic simulacra), but that's as far as it goes.  No Santa Claus; no wassail bowls; you can even raise eyebrows if you serve hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls on Christmas Day.

Yule logs, roast meats, grand feasts, evergreens, etc., etc.:  all kept in cultures that converted to Christianity because the church didn't expunge them.  Protestants did, to some degree; it's one reason the Carmina Gadelica preserved the prayers and charms of the Highland people; the Presbyterians were busy eliminating such practices.  Most of what was kept was either deemed harmless or, like St. Brigid in Ireland, converted to Christianity.

But that doesn't make St. Brigid an invalid saint; well, unless you're a Puritan, and then all saints are invalid.

It's not, in other words, an "objective" position on Christmas traditions to say they were "stolen."  It's not even a valid position; no anthropologist would agree with you (no credible one, anyway).  Most of the anthropology that did argue for such "theft" (Sir James Frazer comes prominently to mind) has been discarded in favor of more objective (!) assessments, assessments that don't assume Frazer's prejudices are also the truth.

My favorite example of this is Wikipedia entry which argues that it is transparently clear many Christmas traditions were overlaid on pagan ones, meaning the Church "stole" them in order to keep the people.  Well, first, that appropriation of culture by Christians goes back to Paul (his fight with Peter was over how much of Jewish law to impose on Christian converts), so:  duh.  But  I don't put much stock in Wikipedia, and this entry is as good an example why as any.  The article notes that the word "Jule" doesn't appear in any source until 900 C.E.   I'll just point out that's medieval Europe, not pre-Christian, or even pre-Roman, Europe.  So if "Jule" was popular in 10th century Germanic regions, it was a Christian Europe it was popular in.

You can make the same argument about the Christmas tree, which descends from the paradeisbaum of German passion plays (the tree in the Garden.  The Feast Day of Adam and Eve is in December).

The entry also makes the usual lazy assertion that Christians appropriated "pagan" traditions and rituals, and therefore those things we like most about Christmas aren't really "Christian."Most people converted to Christianity and kept living the lives they'd been living.  Some Protestants objected to that, as I said; sometimes the Roman Church objected.  But for the most part, the Church converted people and left their familiar traditions intact because those traditions didn't offend Christianity.  Christians from Catholics to the UCC have done enough stomping on native cultures around the world; there's no need to make up responsibility for things they didn't do.

And it's not really an offense against God (especially if you don't believe in God) or common humanity to sing for "Peace on Earth" under a bough of mistletoe or while swigging eggnog laced with bourbon standing near as big a burning log as your host could find, or while waiting for the Buche de Noel to be served.

So get over it.  It's not like Christianity was imposed on Europeans as if the Christians were colonizers and the natives mere slaves.  Hell, even the Indians on the subcontinent enjoy cricket.

Did they steal that from the British?

Anyway, I hate to bring the Nazis into this, since our cultural appropriation of Christmas is hardly as evil in intent as they were.  But it is nearly as hegemonic as the Nazis wanted to be.  Ironically, though, the "spirit of Christmas" prevails.  It is the one time of the year we are called to listen to the angels of our better nature, to at least pretend (as Bill Murray says at the end of "Scrooged") that we are as nice as we say we are, that "peace on earth" and "goodwill toward all" is supposed to be a universal sentiment.  We don't get there, but we try to.

And despite comic book characters fighting each other one somebody's tree this year, that's a Christmas gift worth cherishing every December.  It's the last Christian remnant of our popular Christmas, but it endures.  It is the part we haven't managed to remove, despite our best efforts to render the rest of the holiday as religion-free as possible.

Long may it survive.  It does us good to at least remember to express the sentiment annually.