Monday, July 23, 2007

More on Latin: Public Response

Lisa Takeuch Cullen's short opinion piece, "I Confess, I Want Latin," (link) can be found on the last page of the July 30 issue of Time magazine. Her reason is simple: "I want to hear Mass in a language I don't understand because too often I don't like what I hear in English." She tells of growing up the daughter of a laicized priest and a Japanese woman, and sitting through Masses in an unknown language. Cullen enjoyed the experience, she says, because it was meditative: it compelled her to slow down and think about God.

The English Masses she would later attend stand in sharp contrast to this, because she had to sit and listen to a priest dictate the congregation's political involvement and pontificate on "controversial" and divisive issues. She grew tired of hearing sermons taken from from the priest's Netflix queue (zing!). She longs for a return to sacred space in the liturgy, and desires to hear comfortable words "in a world unmoored by violence and uncertainty." Indeed, I am sympathetic to some of her arguments, particularly when she pleads for Padre's film choices to take a backseat to Eucharistic devotion: "With your back to the congregation and speaking in a dead language, you find it difficult to tell me how to vote."

She pleads, "Allow me to experience the joy of communion without the anguish of our modern day differences. Bring back the Latin and bring back an embattled believer."

Let's take 'er down. Though I'm not a Roman Catholic, I think you'll see shortly why I bothered with this.

The Good

I think Cullen is right about one thing: there are better sources for moral avatars than inane Disney films. If somebody's going to really listen to you talk about God for 20 minutes every week (or even half-listen), surely one can do better than offer a version of the New Testament according to Eddie Izzard: "Don't do bad things, only do good things, never put a sock in a toaster, never put jam on a magnet, and never lean over on a Tuesday..."

When a priest says Mass and reads the Gospels aloud, he has already created an imaginative world in which to invite people to see themselves. What the hell does he need a film for?

The Bad

Honestly, I think this woman has been to as many Latin Masses as I have: zero. But from what I've read in history and liturgical rubrics and such, I'm pretty sure that sermons are always in the vernacular, and I'm pretty sure that any bishop worth his salt would beat down a presbyter guilty of political opining or even extemporaneous speech during the consecration. Therefore, some of Cullen's cuter comments don't make any sense: one could still hear a bad sermon or a "political" sermon at a Latin Mass, and no priest is going to be sermonizing while at the altar, anyway.

The Ugly

It is not the purpose and end of religion for it to be a comfort to those in need of it. The Christian narrative is a story that subverts and displaces other stories. If one wishes to engage in Christian practice - particularly the liturgy, which can and should crack open imagination like a bolt of lightening - one should open oneself to the possibility that other stories will be assaulted, and make much less sense before long.

One of those stories is the separation - even the alienation - of one's "spiritual" and "political" commitments. May the Triune God save us from the schizophrenia of modernity!

Cullen's piece is ultimately a paean to consumerist religion: I want a particular good that the Church can offer me, and in exchange I'm willing to do them the favor of consuming that good. I am not willing to offer my self, my imagination, or even, in Cullen's view, my full attention.

I'm sure any Christian pastor would be pleased to help someone like Cullen enter a Christian fellowship, share life with the Body of Christ, and begin the work of being transformed by the renewing of one's mind - but not on the terms she has offered.


A friend tells the story of a conversation with his gym teacher in high school.
"What religion are you, son?"

"I'm a Christian, ma'am."

"Well, I'm a Baptist, and those two are very close!"

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Storefront Churches

The main story in last week's Faith and Values section of the Herald-Leader was Providence Christian Church's temporary storefront location (link), coupled with an article on the popularity of storefront churches in Florida (link).

I would really enjoy reading an article on all the local storefront churches that are starting up in Central Kentucky. I have particularly noticed in Georgetown that it seems like a new one opens up every six months or so. I'm not one for watching church planting trends, but if there's anywhere in the world that wouldn't seem to need more congregations that are just like the others, it's this place. Why do you folks think these churches are opening?

I've heard that storefronts appeal to the poor, because dedicated buildings can seem pretentious or intimidating. For many of these Christians, of course, it's the cheap first step to megachurch status, and they don't to meet in homes because they want to grow numerically through an attractional model of mission, i.e., "come to see and experience this neat thing we're doing." I don't like to call that "mission," but there you go.

I also don't take for granted these churches are having the financial or numerical success that they would like; I know that a recent Baptist church plant has been meeting in the Regal Cinemas for almost two years now. Everybody says they offer something "different" from all the other existing churches; I have to say that in many cases, if they have leadership under 50, they are indeed something different.

My favorites are the billboards for the Pentecostal churches that offer more entertaining worship, and the Baptist church plants that see themselves as necessary because the other churches are too entertainment-focused.

I was recently contacted over the MySpace by the worship leader of a storefront start-up in Georgetown. They're trying to put together a combination worship space, coffeehouse, art gallery, and music venue. The funny thing was, the coffeehouse wasn't open for regular or any posted hours, and the Saturday night live music they're promoting is "Christian Rock," and carries with it a $5 cover charge.

This really doesn't help those ugly rumors that Pentecostal preachers are in it for the money. But seriously, I would assume it's because they need to pay the rent on the space in the Georgetown Outlet Mall, and can't wait until they have adherents to do so. Do they really expect Scott County kids to come streaming in with fivers in hand on Saturday nights to listen to an Audio Adrenaline cover band?

The implication is that a church is a meeting space before it is a group of people covenanted together, and that it's a worship band before it's a liturgy. The slogan: "A Non-Denominational, Relevant, God Glorifing, Body of Believers!"

I would have stopped in to meet them and see if I can learn what they're about (Roger and I were feeling feisty that night), but I didn't want to pay $5 for the privilege. I drove by another time out of curiosity, but there were just a couple of bored kids sitting at the door waiting to take money, and nobody inside. They advertise "freedom," too. Oh dear. I need to share with them the gospel of ritualism...

Anytime one of these groups introduces someone to a journey with Jesus, that's great. It really is. But I always wonder, how many people are going 'round those parts because they're offering something more relevant or exciting? Do they ask them to return to their previous fellowship? If they don't, they probably deserve them, now that I think about it.

Can you imagine what kind of parish priest I would be?

"Yeah, we really want to come to your church - the sermons are much more relevant than our other church, and I really feel like I'm in the presence of God here."

"I'm sorry my dears, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you not to return. You see, we're very exclusive here..."

Ha ha.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Instructions for Worship Leaders

No, really. I am gonna help you folks out quite a bit today.

First new rule: Stop talking about "God." Tell me which god you're referring to, and maybe do a little teaching on why and how we worship that god as opposed to some of the other gods, such as the cosmic Santa Claus most nominal Christians believe in. If you're not capable of that, please resign. Right now.

Here's a neat little story from Tom Wright that illustrates the point nicely:
It is important to begin by clarifying the question. When people ask “Was Jesus God?” they usually think they know what the word “God” means, and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading. I can perhaps make my point clear by a personal illustration.

For seven years I was College Chaplain and Worcester College, Oxford. Each year I used to see the first year undergraduates individually for a few minutes, to welcome them to the college and make a first acquaintance. Most were happy to meet me; but many commented, often with slight embarrassment, “You won’t be seeing much of me; you see, I don’t believe in god.”

I developed stock response: “Oh, that’s interesting; which god is it you don’t believe in?” This used to surprise them; they mostly regarded the word “God” as a univocal, always meaning the same thing. So they would stumble out a few phrases about the god they said they did not believe in: a being who lived up the in the sky, looking down disapprovingly at the world, occasionally “intervening” to do miracles, sending bad people to hell while allowing good people to share his heaven. Again, I had a stock response for this very common statement of “spy-in-the-sky” theology: “Well, I’m not surprised you don’t believe in that god. I don’t believe in that god either.”

At this point the undergraduate would look startled. Then, perhaps, a faint look of recognition; it was sometimes rumored that half the college chaplains at Oxford were atheists. “No,” I would say; “I believe in the god I see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.” What most people mean by “god” in late-modern western culture simply is not the mainstream Christian meaning.
- From "Jesus and the Identity of God," and re-told in various places.

Some of you might lead worship in churches that don't actually, literally dance in the presence of God, or actually, literally kneel. I particularly find the latter omission to be deeply problematic, but even so, - and this is the second new rule - please stop singing songs about how you are dancing or kneeling in the Lord's presence. If you're not really doing it, it's a bloody lie, and such base prevarication is beneath baptized people.
"No, son, it's our fault. We forgot to teach you shame."
- Hank Hill
The last time I was in an evangelical megachurch, I remember thinking at the lyric "We just wanna kneel in your presence, Lord," (or some such) thinking, "Oh, no. If I don't find a way to actually kneel in the eight inches of space between my chair and the one in front of me, the fruitcake on stage will have made a liar out of me!"

It's not pleasant.

Remember the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist: terrorists negotiate.

The helpful illustration is from Dave Walker at CartoonChurch.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Justice in the Burbs

Check it out at Will's blog. I hope you'll be able to pick this up at Joseph-Beth by the end of the week. Also note that Publisher's Weekly has called Lisa Samson "one of the most powerful voices in Christian fiction," and you can pick up her new Quaker Summer at JB now.

Mike Stavland suggests why you might not bother reading the book.

Finallly, they've done an interview with the Relevant magazine folks.

Sojourners Magazine: Jesus of the Cul-de-Sac.

Learning and teaching the art of being human again is part and parcel with the Gospel proclamation and the expansion of God's Kingdom. Kevin Rains makes some very practical suggestions.

Noakes reminds of us a word from N.T. Wright. From his sidebar:
"Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, in the power of the Spirit, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents, heralds, stewards of the new day that is dawning."
Have a nice day.

Sleepy Cat is Sleepy

He's exhausted.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Vatican News

... In which I explain to you recent news from the Holy See in terms that non-Catholics will understand.

First, let's consider this Latin Mass thing. After the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church translated its liturgy into local languages. On the one hand, it was great that some bishops and cardinals realized that despite their best(ish) efforts at education, many of the planet's Roman Catholics couldn't make heads or tails of Latin. Attending masses in one's own language meant that even if one still didn't understand what was going on, one could at least understand the words being used (ha ha). In addition, the move from Latin to whatever vulgar alternative language was in many cases forced upon clergy and laity from the top down, which was apparently a pastoral disaster that ranked a 8.5 on the Righter Scale (Episcopalians will get my little joke).

Rules of liturgical revision:

1. Don't.

2. No, really. Don't do it. Put the pen down.

3. If you really really must absolutely, unavoidably revise a liturgy because the very voice of our Lord is entreating you, do it slowly and carefully.

So up to this point, the celebration of Masses in Latin has required the special permission of diocesan bishops. I understand that many would not permit this, which makes old people very sad. And everyone knows that bishops should not make people sad.

Now the Pope has said that priests can say Latin Masses if they want. Traditionalists hope that this means hippie folks masses, or masses said while in a Barney costume, will decline. One can only hope. Stupid traditionalists are relieved to know that they can go back to praying in a language that Jesus will actually understand.

Some Catholic liberals fear that English Masses will disappear overnight. I doubt that.

Watch this video Fr. Richard passed onto me for an idea of what this is about:

Now, as for this whole "Protestants are outside the Church" thing. It's probably not what you think.

What people (and stupid media people) think the document said: "Protestants are not Christians." If you think that, smack yourself on the nose. Right now.

What the document really said: "Ecclesial communities out of communion with Rome are indeed instruments of salvation, but not Churches in the fullest possible sense, because to be Churches in the fullest possible sense requires communion with Rome."

Ecclesial communities? Instruments of salvation? That language is very loaded with good things, theologically, and it is much, much more generous than what I hear many Protestants say about each other or the Roman Catholic Church. If you don't get that, smack yourself on the nose right now. Then read Peter and Alan's take on it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hallelujah, Sing to America!

... hers the scepter, hers the throne?

There was an awkward moment in my mission assignment last week when we'd gotten 'round to the end of the afternoon. In the last 30 minutes of our time at the assisted living facility, we sang hymns with/to the residents. If you've ever stood alongside me in Christian worship, you understand that I may have missed my calling as a Baptist deacon: I'm not always on key, I have only one volume setting, and I know every single song in the Baptist Hymnal, especially the older editions. I was by default a lead voice because I know the songs and I'm not shy (it's really amazing to me how much congregational singing doesn't actually include congregational singing).

When at the end of the session our group decided to sing "America, the Beautiful," it was just a little awkward when my voice was so noticeably absent.

Submitted for your approval, a quick explanation of why it's inappropriate to sing to "America" in Christian worship.

In Christian worship, thanks and praise and supplication are offered to God the Father, through the Son, by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. This is the trinitarian understanding of the relationship between God and God's people.

When in the course of the liturgy, the people of God cease to address the Father, and instead address prayers and praises to the nation-state, we have ceased to celebrate Christian liturgy. While we might pick up the Christian liturgy again after that song, this is an unacceptable foray into another religion. Instead of Trinitarian harmony we've offered pagan cacophony.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Update: You've seen this, right?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

PASSways, Day 3: Rules for Youth Ministry

If a kid is getting on everybody's nerves because he doesn't know the difference between good and bad attention, the best course of action is to completely ignore him.

Kids respect you more if you're aloof, so it's best not to smile around them, or laugh.

It's important that praise mean something, so it's best to use it sparingly. (Ecumenical note: Baptists often use the same logic for Holy Communion.)

Believe it or not, kids actually do a pretty good job of policing themselves. Allowing the bigger kids to lock the irritating little ones in closets is a really effective way of calming everybody down.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

PASSways, Day Two

Okay, so it's not really fat camp. I'm glad nobody chose to comment on that one.

It's an ecumenical Christian camp (but primarily consisting of CBF-type baptists) that's a spin-off from the Passport camps that many of my fellow Georgetown College alums will remember. This is the first time I've worked in a ministry project with Baptists since that ill-fated Kosovo trip in 2002. (I have snarky things to say, but I'll hold back.)

I've been quite pleased with the liturgies so far: meditating on scripture, responsive readings, Ignatian meditation, and centering prayer. Yes, I know. I'm really getting on well with the students, and it's wonderful to spend time with Josh and Jessica. We've been talking about the "monastic future" and Josh and I have been working on "Christian-baiting," wherein I invite Josh to lead the kids in the Pledge of Allegiance, and he invites me to explain to them my "snack-pak" theology. The bumper sticker version: "If Jesus can't smell himself on your breath, he's not letting you into heaven."

I will probably murder him in due course.

My afternoon ministry project is to visit an assisted living facility to make crafts and sing hymns with the residents. There was a little bit of unpleasantness this afternoon when in spite of being warned previously about racist jokes (never mind that today's camp theme is acceptance and inclusion) a couple of the students stepped in front of me and sought to amuse me with certain behaviors that would have been right at home in a WWII propaganda film. I didn't expect to become so angry, so quickly. I addressed all the students in a very loud voice and told them that racist jokes were not funny and would absolutely not be tolerated. The kid quickly apologized. I spoke briefly with him later and apologized for being so harsh, and felt better about it. That kind of behavior cannot be tolerated to any degree or in any fashion, but I didn't mean to publicly humiliate the kid, either. It doesn't make much sense to talk to the students about treating other people with respect and as brothers and sisters in Christ if I can't treat a student with respect even while chastising him.

Today an older black woman requested a couple of songs that weren't included in the 1975 Baptist Hymnal, so she was kind enough to sing them for us. It was a blessing - I was reminded that we weren't just being "charitable" toward these folks, they are (many of them) our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they were welcoming us into their home to share in common worship.

Thanks be to God.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Kyle's Camp Experience

Hey Everybody, this is Josh.

I'm posting on Kyle's blog to let you know that I have sent Kyle to Saint Stephen's Camp for Gluttonous Little Girls (We couldn't afford an age or sex appropriate fat-camp so we took what we could get). He'll be sweating to the Oldies and enjoying a chance to socialize with girls his age in an energetic environment.

It all centers around his Snackpack (tm) theology and his idea that you can consecrate a Krispy-Kreme.

You can send him letters but please don't send him snacks.


P.S. Ask Kyle about his Baptist party experience.

Friday, July 06, 2007

On Hating America

I believe that Christians are called to faithfully love, serve, and even potentially be killed by the people who live in the time and place called America.

I just don't happen to believe in the story called "America." That's the difference, and it is often called "hating America."

But it's not, really. And I'm comfortable with that.

Mindless, Anti-Christian Jingoism

Okay, so it took me a little time, but I've decided to come 'round and write a couple of my obligatory "patriotic holiday" posts. It's just that whenever people burn incense before Caesar, my nose begins to get really itchy, and I gotta scratch it.

Because Roger likes to see me vexed in my righteous soul, he will sometimes send along to me the worst of the e-mail forwards he gets from patriots. Here's a recent schtick:
A United States Marine was attending some college courses between assignments. He had completed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the courses had a professor who was a vowed atheist and a member of the ACLU.

One day the professor shocked the class when he came in. He looked to the ceiling and flatly stated, "God, if you are real, then I want you to knock me off this platform. I'll give! you exactly 15 minutes."

The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. Ten minutes went by and the professor proclaimed, "Here I am God. I'm still waiting." It got down to the last couple of minutes when the Marine got out of his Chair, went up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him off the platform. The professor was out cold.

The Marine went back to his seat and sat there, silently. The other students were shocked and stunned and sat there looking on in silence. The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the Marine and asked, "What the hell is the matter with you? Why did you do that?" The Marine calmly replied, "God was too busy today protecting America 's soldiers who are protecting your right to say stupid sh_t and act like an a__hole. So, He sent me."
This is verbatim. Let's take it apart; feel free to chime in.

A marine in class, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan? Clearly the man is meant to be a badass - I wonder if the people who pass this stuff on stop to question what use he had for book larnin' anyway? And what, boys and girls, is the antithesis of a patriotic American badass? A smarmy, simpering atheist academic who has an ACLU card in his manbag. I think, as a public service, I'm going to start blogging new stories I find in which the ACLU defends Christians' first amendment rights against the encroachment of government entities. They really are out there, kids.

How interesting that atheism should be shocking! The founding fathers of the US were deists (what do you expect from Episcopalians, wink wink), so at least atheism is honest. Clearly this took place in the South, but I'm surprised that nobody included the detail that the prof was a Yankee. Furthermore - and let's move now from the cultural aspects to the theological ones: it must be noted that the "God" supposed in this story has nothing in common with the Christian god.

The story assumes that the existence of a god could or should be confirmed or denied by that god's "intervention" into the Laws of Nature, and further, that this god would find this at all a desirable activity.

In the assault, we see a version of the myth of redemptive violence - that the right kind of coercive violence, exercised by the right people in the right ways, is going to yield a good result. In addition, it is supposed that there is a "god" who tells this story right along with the Empire's good citizens. This is a strange take on that bit in 1 Kings when Elijah faces down the prophets of Baal - when Baal cannot show himself to be a player in space/time, he teases them that their god is sleeping, while Yahweh is living and active. Strangely enough, when the professor challenges the class that their god is not a player in space/time, the Marine responds that his god is sleeping indeed, and that he will defend that god's honor by enacting the story of redemptive violence.

And of course in the closing remarks, we read the argument that an imperialist war halfway across the world is protecting the profs freedom of dissent even while the imperialist warrior has physically abused the prof for exercising it. One wonders if in a sequel, the Marine won't burn down the professor's house and perhaps rape his wife in order to encourage gratitude for the Marine's protection. It's just that kind of passionately vicious activity that this parable glorifies.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Getting Ready for Next Week

"So tell me... what do you think that the religion depicted in these "praise choruses" might have in common with the religion of the martyrs who died for the name of Christ?"

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Question of the Day

Is it acceptable for anabaptist Christians to view fireworks displays if they offer the apologia, "I'm not a patriot, but a pyromaniac?"