Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Imperial Lifestyles

The Church is different from that which is not the Church. While this has not been true in all times and places, it seems to be an important aspect of the Church's identity that it serve in some way as a contrast society. The first Christians professed that Jesus is Lord and this meant that Caesar was not. The ancient manual of Christian ethics and church discipline, the Didache (from the late 1st and and early 2nd centuries) taught that "there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways." Christianity was not - and is not - a matter of being dedicated to some grand ideas or particular theories about the way the world really works, but rather "the Way." Belonging to Jesus looks like some concrete commitments that mean something in the real world of human bodies and the way our lives are organized.

This has been the understanding that has driven the monastic impulse for the greatest part of the Church's history. When the Church at large in a particular culture gets so comfortable with its relationship to the state or the values of its host culture that it begins to lose the distinctive contours of its own story, some Christians will set out and ask themselves - and God - the question, "What does it mean to concretely belong to Jesus and live according to his story at this time and place in history?"

The stories we tell and seek to embody in our common life are Jesus stories - stories of a man who was God, who healed, exorcised, forgave, and prophesied. A church that does not do these same things begins to lose its coherence as a community that has continuity with the Jesus story. Telling and practicing this story will present lives that are lived in contrast to the stories and bodily practices of the Empire.

The Empire says that it's politics are all important, and that appropriate participation in them will save you. So does the Church. They aren't both right.

The Empire - and I'm not talking about the U.S. Government, but rather the entire Western consumerist construction - tells a story about abundant life that includes a spouse, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence that surrounds a house that looks like a Pottery Barn catalog. I live in the promised land of the Empire - the suburbs.

Why is it that people who are coming out of there and going back - the educated people, the ones with good jobs - just as lonely and unhappy as everybody else?

I'm out of time this morning - tomorrow I'll write on how and why this story is failing the people around me, and what we're doing about it.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day Edition: Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War

Most people who know me know precisely what I think about patriotism in the Church - it's bad, m'kay? I struggle to consider myself a Christian brother to and a fellow traveler with those Christians and churches that want to "save America" by bringing it back to the 1950s or the 1790s or any other arbitrary social golden age this nation was said to enjoy.

I have a will to love and care for the people in the time and place called America, but believing in America the way it wants to be believed in is another matter all together.

It's easier to talk about this around the 4th of July, when jingoistic churches start placing American flags over their crosses and having patriotic rallies. It's probably happening today in many churches - America's All Saints Day, as Roger calls it - but I'm going to ignore it. It's tricker on Memorial Day, when the nation commemorates those who died in its wars, some of which are pretty easy for folks to get behind and "believe in."

... so I'll let Hauerwas do it. His lecture, "Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War," was his attempt to show respect to America's soldiers. He does by talking about the ways in which they suffer that the media doesn't profile and people don't usually think about. He also explains why, in terms of a Christian vocabulary, the word "sacrifice" is a completely inappropriate way of discussing death in war.

Go here for the mp3 download.

You must also read Iafrate's splendid essay at Catholic Anarchy, "Memorial Day and the religous syncretism of the state."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Babylonian Ethics

"If you need me, I'll be sitting on my tail right here. Subverting the Empire."
As you may have noticed, my friends and I have been considering that the Anabaptist perspective on the Kingdoms of the world might be a more faithful Christian perspective than, you know, voting and stuff.

I think the difference between Christians who hope in the Powers that Be (read: who have been made the Empire's [lap dogs]) and those who hope in God's kingdom is the question of whether they want to "save Western civilization" or "get back to a Christian America" or whatever. If either Western civilization or America are thought to be good and wonderful ends in themselves - if those ideals are the point - we've completely moved away from doing business with the Bible or the broader Christian church.

I was standing in the kitchen, standing under the glossy 8x10 of Stan Hauerwas that Roger gave us (you reading this, Richard?) and wondering, okay, maybe it's a good idea, and faithful, to deal with voting in terms of local issues that can actually change, like for a politician who's really against mountain top removal in a meaningful way (not that there is one). Then the slippery slope argument started to make sense to me for the first time ever. Today it's mountain-top removal, because you want to be a good steward of God's creation. Next we'll be wanting to elect people on single issue platforms related to abortion (have you ever heard of such a thing?) because, guess what, that affects folks' lives in direct ways, too.

A little here, a little there, and before you even know what you've done, you're voting all the time, about all kinds of things.

Then Roger will accuse me of being a patriotic and responsible American. I'm not sure I can take that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Anglicans Gone Wild


No, really. These dudes are off the freakin' chain.

Rowan Williams announced that he's sent the invitations to Lambeth 2008, the big gathering of diocesan bishops of the Anglican Communion. This will be important because at that conference, all the conservative and liberal bishops are going to have a big cage fight to determine which side gets the Anglican trademark, and whether the center of gravity in the AC is going to be officially Canterbury or Abuja.

I don't care what you say, that's totally what's going to happen.

Williams' spokesman has announced that neither Bishop Robinson of New Hampshire (he's the one married to another dude) nor Minns of CANA (the Convocation of Anglicans in North America) will be invited to the big party - which means +VGR will not have the opportunity to use his patented sleeper hold, and the conservatives will not benefit from Minns' Tai Kwan Do.

The Windsor Report (praise God) asked that the liberals please stop consecrating dudes who are married to other dudes as bishops until this can be talked out a lot more, and also in the meantime would the Global South bishops please stop crossing canonical diocesan boundaries and keep up the pretense at least for a little while longer that TEC on the whole is a Christian church rather than an auxiliary of the Hair Club for Unitarians.

Rowan Williams' action indicates that he's gonna be a Windsor hardliner. Which kicks ass. However, +Akinola of Nigeria has announced through his guy that if +Minns (the American guy) stays home, so will the entire Church of Nigeria. But if +VGR (the guy with the husband) were to not stay home, Nigeria would still stay home. So in effect we have coming out of Nigeria a power play (and how!) that declares, "Rowan Williams does not invite people to Lambeth. Peter Akinola invites people to Lambeth."

Meanwhile, will the liberal bishops of TEC play the same game, refusing to go if +VGR can't go?

Whatever you folks think +Akinola is, he's not as good as all that.

Early linkage here.

What Makes a Cult?


It's popular for folks to call Mormonism a cult. It's not really true in either sociological or theological usage.

If you want to talk about a "cult," it just makes more sense to talk about the new religious groups with charismatic leaders who exercise lots of intricate control over the lives of adherents, and separate them from their families. The word itself comes from the Latin word for worship and adoration. In scholarship, words and phrases like "cult of the Saints" or "cult of the Mass" or "the cultic practices of the ancient Christian church" are not pejorative, but rather descriptive. "Cult" simply refers to the things done in worship. As a matter of fact, would you like to read about the cultic practice of my own church? Here it is. How about of the Church of England? Immanuel Baptist Church?

I suspect that Mormonism can be more properly thought of as a heretical offshoot of Christianity, like prosperity preachers or "oneness Pentecostalism." It has very little in common with Christianity, but it shares some cultic practices (ahem) some bits of common vocabulary. Does calling it a "heretical offshoot" make me sound any more generous or less bigoted than if I called it a "cult"? Probably not, but it's more accurate, and I think that's good enough for me.

More on this next time...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Internet Porn of Churches: "Never Meant to be Boring"

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Solemnity of the Ascension

This is a post in which I decry something evil. Definitely a "Black Spider-Man" day. Stick with me, you'll like it.

There's a new church plant in Lexington, and its staff are big fans of billboards and direct mailings. (I got two in the lead-up to Easter - known to some of us as "Lent.") If you drive along New Circle Road west between the Nicholasville and Harrodsburg Road exits, you'll see a billboard depicting a barefoot man in jeans and a cap leaping into the air. The caption: "Church was never meant to be boring." I have a double-sized direct mail postcard that proclaims the same shameful message.

Everybody knows this is wrong, right? By appealing to middle-class consumerist boredom in their introductory message, these folks make it very clear that their primary value is the entertainment of the masses, the dispensing of religious goods and services in such a way that will keep you coming back for more. Their tagline: "Imagine a church that is vibrant, relevant, and for you!"

I imagine (ahem) an exception to my worries about purpose-driven catechesis: maybe they should open PDL and check out page 1, which proclaims, "It's not about you." A church that's not about being an "us" really needs to pack it in.

Maybe they're right. Should I switch churches? Their advertisement claims that they are "Vibrant - Alive with God's energy!"

What does that even mean? That I have to jump up and down? What's the energy for? Does it have a direction? Couldn't the local Wiccan coven advertise the same thing? Can I ask the goddess to help me align my crystals, please? I can't feel my chi right now! Why can't I feel my chi?

Is my church vibrant? Sometimes we get in fights, and that's pretty energetic. Yes, fights. We love each other enough and spend enough time with one another to get into fights. Does this church do that? Are their fights as good as ours? I'd be pretty impressed if they were. If I'm going to be part of your church, you better care enough about me to care if I act stupid. And don't worry - the reverse would also be true.

Next line: "Relevant - Music, messages, and relationships, that fit your life!"

Do they assume that their goods and services "fit" a life that is as-yet unconverted, or one that is mostly converted? The only way in which it would be legitimate for those things to fit my life is if I were Jesus Christ Himself.

This makes me want to violate my profanity policy. (I only write swear words in the comment box.)

Relationships that fit my life. I'm pretty sure that makes them the internet porn of churches.

What about Vine and Branches? Is the music relevant? We don't have any - we pray Psalms together. Lately we've started whining to chant them. Sure enough, that's probably not relevant to what I think my "needs" are - just like the Fathers said. Rather, the liturgy is relevant to the Thing that I'm becoming. Thank God. But that doesn't count. I'd score us a 1. Ha!

The messages? Alan could sex up his blog a bit, mostly he does pretty well, like the discussion about the new monasticism last week. But in the liturgy we have discussion more than "messages" most of the time. I'll give us an 8.

Do the relationships fit my life? Certainly not. The worthwhile ones don't, really. In order to choose these relationships, I have to say no to others. To live in these friendships, I have to renounce my freedom to continually choose what I feel like doing at any moment of the day or week. These relationships don't "fit" my life. In Jesus, they provide the shape of my life.

And really, if any church wants to offer relationships that "fit my life" - I was serious about the internet porn thing. Always there for you, and never asking anything in return. It's beautiful, really.

Finally, this is "For People Like You - A church where you can belong!"

You know, maybe that's true. Maybe if I attended their liturgy, lots of those folks (hell, there could be 5 of them for all I know) would learn my name and invite me to have lunch with them. Maybe we could be friends, and they would shoulder my challenges and let me bear with them in theirs. I'll never know, so I have to give them the benefit of a doubt. Maybe they would actually require something of me.

I do have a serious doubt, however, because the church's logo depicts four people, a man and woman, a boy and girl, with joined hands. A nuclear family is the symbolic mascot for these folks. Sorry mates, that's not a good sign. I think you all know how I feel about that particular fetish.

It's bad enough I'm single - what if I were divorced? Bloody hell.

Ah, consumerist Christianity. "This ain't a scene... it's an arms race."

If anybody involved with this church or its ad campaign is reading this, let us know. We're willing to accept your repentance.

End rant.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A Valid Eucharist


There's a question that Roman Catholics will sometimes discuss, that I have real difficulty getting my head around: what makes a Eucharist "valid."

Behind the question is the conviction that it's possible for one congregation of Christians to pray (either corporately or through their priest), "that these gifts of bread and wine may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ," and by the grace of God, this very thing will happen, but at the same time another congregation may offer the same prayer, and Jesus totally "blanks" them.

This is bound up in the issue of what makes a legitimate church. (It won't surprise you that I believe it's possible for a congregation to be completely illegitimate as a church, but I have particular ideas about why that might be.) I do not believe that "legitimacy" is passed down through a mechanical "apostolic succession" down two thousand years of history, such that God can be invoked by some priests and bishops but not others. When I hear an argument that I find convincing, trust me, you'll know.

Here's the thing: remember our little discussion on what sacraments are? The bottom line is that we beg for the healing presence of Jesus that has been promised. I think that the triune God would have a really big and obvious reason for denying our entreaties for the crumbs from his table, and I'm not terribly sure what that would be.

When we start talking about the rules and special circumstances by which God will mediate his presence or not, it seems to me that we move out of the categories of promise and gift, and of begging and humbly receiving, that make Christian sense of the whole thing. Discussions about who has whose ducks all in a row get silly very quickly.

A really funny moment that brought this home for me was when an ECUSA bishop insisted that whatever my church celebrated, it wasn't the Eucharist. I almost laughed out loud. Prelates who live in glass houses...

Update: For some background, here's a longer post on apostolic succession.

The Peregrinator at Selva Oscura has written a thoughtful response here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?


Sometimes when certain Protestant Christians want to bait Roman Catholics (or other sacramentally-minded Christians, they accuse sacramental theology of being "magic." They are not kind people who do this, because I think you will understand it's the rough equivalent of being told that your momma visits Canaanite temples (But she's not even Episcopalian!). It's a short below the belt because a) its flagrantly ignorant and b) assumes faithlessness, even idolatry, of the person being asked.

Does everyone know the difference between "magic" and sacramental theology?

Magic is the manipulation of supernatural forces or mystical power through the performance of particularly engineered actions or prayers. Through these incantations, such powers are summoned and manipulated for the purposes of the summoner. Everybody probably has a good notion of this.

The way I like to explain a sacramental rite of the Church is as follows (with thanks to John Colwell): God makes a promise to his Church regarding his saving and healing presence among them. There are actions within the economy of salvation that the triune God wishes to perform among his people, and bids us pray to this effect. Therefore to pray for those very gifts is not presumption. The presence of the triune god is mediated by the Holy Spirit through the instrument of the Church's own prayers, the liturgy. The liturgy is the invocation of the divine promise, during which the Church begs him to be present in power and in healing. This is a question of grace, by which God offers a mystical and material salvation to a people who are themselves both mystical and material.

In these terms, one remembers that in John 6, Jesus teaches us that we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood - since we need it, we can only hope that it will be possible. We trust - not presume, because it is a matter of his own gracious promise - that he will give us this food and drink. In response to Him, we pray that we would be given it. We trust also that he does indeed give it to us. The action of the Eucharistic liturgy is both his and ours: his mediation of presence, and our reception of it as Christ's Church.

Sacramental rites are the concrete practices of reception of God's promises and therefore we consider them an enactment of salvation. God's activity is not limited to his promises and the economy of salvation that this entails, but it is normal.

The bottom line is that in the Eucharistic prayer, we beg for Jesus to come to us in a particular way according to his own promise. If we are not doing that, discussions about sacramental theology and the practice of the actual rites lose any Christian sense.

My other considerations of the Eucharist can be found here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Kitty Update, Etc.


Kitty continues to wander the house, meowing and making that odd chirping noise. It's mostly chirping, which I think is an indicating that he's happy. He loves to sit on laps or curl up next to us on the sofa.

I decided that while he's really cute curled up on my bed sleeping while I work, I don't want a cat on my bed. I started moving him to the floor, or clapping my hands when he jumps up. He hates that, and goes to hide under the bed. After that, he spent the entire afternoon sleeping at my feet under the desk, and most of the evening after I moved on. I think I won - I didn't expect it to happen so quickly.

Jay and Kyle 3 came to dinner last night, and we discussed politics at our table for what might have been the first time ever. We reached two important conclusions: the Republicans are screwed, and so are the Dems.

I made a meatloaf, I thought it was pretty nice.

Oh, and yes. (HT: Addison Road)

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kitty Day, part II


Like many good monasteries, we now have a kitty.

Yah, that's not gonna be a habit.

Kitty, whose formal name shall be "Thunder," came from a questionable background. He's 8 years old, and was delivered to the humane society three weeks ago by an owner who declared him too old and too sick, and they couldn't afford to take him to the vet.

He had various kinds of worms, including a tapeworm, an upper respiratory infection, and was pretty malnourished. He's still pretty gaunt and his coat's a bit thin.

When we went to the humane society, he stared us down as long as we could be seen, chirping and mewing all the while. He got our attention. When we took him to the "get acquainted" room, he switched off between exploring the place and nuzzling us. He crawled into our laps, because he was (and is) too weak to jump very well. Yah, I know. Awww.

So of course we took him home. He has a place on a blanket at the end of the sofa, and likes to hide under the coffee table and chirp when he's not under our feet or curled up beside us. He'll be a good study cat, I think. I didn't know cats could be so affectionate.

"If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

He even played well with Paul Calvin, as opposed to scratching or running. Hopefully (the other) Kyle will have the same good pleasure...!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Kitty Day, Part I


We stopped by PetSmart for a "Kitty Day Eve" visit and picked up some necessities like a little carry box, a litter box, and some catnip scented toys. Because I am a novice in the weird and wild world of pet ownership (I note here that I neither intend to give the cat a name, or refer to it as other than an "it"), I didn't expect that some Humane Society refugees would already be there.

We encountered a little calico that we had previously admired on the Internets, but soon discovered that she was a little nuts. I don't know if kitty was loopy, or if it was too many hands and too many peoples or what, but suddenly it lunged at Kyle, tore off his face, and skinned and bit the arm of a humane society worker before escaping into a pile of dog food bags.

Okay, it didn't tear his face off, but he did get a scratch on his lip.

The nice people told us that that particular kitty was about to be "taken away" anyway - just a little worrisome.

So today after lunch Jesse and I are going to the Humane Society to check out the bigger collection of floor models.

Kyle declined to go with us.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"Be The Change You Want To See in the World"


I remember discussing in philosophy class one day how Gandhi was actually quite mean to his family. His son hated him.

I always think about I read these lefty Christians who talk about the man like he was the wisest, kindest fellow ever.

I'm just sayin'.

Monday, May 07, 2007

FYI: Today's Reading


The Irresistible Revolution, Shane Claiborne
The Rule of St. Benedict
The Winter 2007 issue of Christian History & Biography, focusing on Benedict and his monasteries.

Friday is Kitty Day

That is all.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Anglican Opinions


(Updated with Links)

Bishop Martin Minns has been officially installed as the "Missionary Bishop" of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

What is to be expected from churches whose bishops are suing them in civil courts? Can't we suppose that when these folks are taking such steps, they're no longer dealing with each other as if they were fellow Christians? And for some reason the ECUSA folks are upset that they're seeing the formation of a separate Christian church out of their ruins.

The Archbishop of Nigeria is worrisome to say the least, but what I think we'll see - what I pray we'll see and what seems to be happening even now - is the emergence of a renewed province of the Anglican communion, a group of Christians with a catholic and evangelical view of Christian mission in an emerging post-Christian culture that will be grounded in the broader history of the Church and and that will be passionate about God's future.

Akinola is not, and will not be the leader of such a church. It will be led by the Anglicans of this place and time. I believe Akinola to be deeply morally compromised because of his recent work against human rights in Nigeria, but if he serves as a midwife for the birthing of faithful Anglicanism in North America, so be it.

It really just sucks that issues of sex had to serve as the fuse for this. It's about what it has been about for decades - historic Christian faith, catholic polity, and whether the New Testament witness is going to be normative for our own convictions.

Maybe within a few years these folks can start talking about mission again, may it please God.

Anyway, gratuitous rant. Bedtime for me.

Update, Monday morning: Now that's funny, right there.

Your Church Marketing Sucks


Any account of the Christian story that begins with the issue of my own individual, personal salvation can never speak prophetically to the fact that I remain a selfish bastard. Such a religion cannot reform my consumerist, self-interested mindset, because it is a religion grounded in self-interest. It teaches us to worry about our own "souls" and to consider how the religion can make our lives better - to help us be better versions of the kind of people we think we should be.

If we are saved by that kind of religion, we are yet damned.

Every new church start-up that sends out postcards or rents these billboards that proclaim, "Church was never meant to be boring," or make some claim to fulfill our middle class aspirations as they are, might really be serving as instruments of God's judgment by compounding those selfish tendencies. How about, "Get on board with what God's doing in the world?"

And yes, there is a billboard on New Circle Road right now that depicts someone leaping into the air with the caption, "church was never meant to be boring."

Christ have mercy.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bishop Athanasius


Yesterday was the feast day of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. This oft-exiled bishop was a leading champion of the Church's emerging orthodoxy over against Arianism. As always, Mike Aquilina offers a good introduction, and I've reflected on Athanasius here before:

"Why YHWH Redeems"
"Talking About Sin"

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

I'm a missionary!

Athanasius of Alexandria

A certain Postmodern Anglo-Catholic Anarchist may have been asked to help chaperone a Baptist youth camp for a week this summer.

The rationale? "You seem to enjoy Christianity, and that's good for people."

That made me happy.

Today's Agenda

Athanasius of Alexandria

Breakfast at Joseph-Beth with Kyle and Jesse
Off to Georgetown to deliver my draft, retrieve some books and have lunch with friends
Roast a couple of cornish game hens
Reading on monasticism
Fun with co-workers