Monday, December 31, 2007

A Brief History of the Reverend Francis Asbury Owen (1804-1883)

I first researched and wrote this brief history back in 1999. F.A. Owen was my great-great-great grandfather's brother.

Francis Asbury Owen was born February 8, 1804 and died March 16, 1883. His family moved to middle Tennessee from Brunswick County, Virginia. This move took place when F.A. Owen was a young child.

In a June 1822 Conference in Columbia, Tennessee, several young ministers were licensed to preach by the Methodist Church. F.A. Owen was one of these young men. He was 18 years old at the time. This information originally came from Mrs. Annie Ruth Brown of Horn Lake, Mississippi. Mrs. Brown is the great-great granddaughter of the Rev. F.A. Owen.[1]

According to Methodist Church historian John Abernathy Smith, an awakening of Methodism occurred in middle Tennessee after the War of 1812. Thomas L. Douglass came from Virginia in 1813 to lead this revival in middle Tennessee. Subsequently Douglass was named “presiding elder of the Nashville District.”[2] Smith writes: “His [Douglass’] shock troops were young preachers stirred at the annual campmeeting at Mt. Pisgah in 1817.”[3] Among these preachers was F.A. Owen. Although F.A. Owen would only have been thirteen years old at the time, it was far from uncommon for the Methodist Church to send out preachers as young as ten years old at this time.[4] Smith also notes that Owen was “a future Southern publishing agent,” which is an accurate fact (see below).[5]

According to a history of the Methodist Church in Memphis, the Rev. F.A. Owen started the first Methodist Church in Memphis at Poplar and Second Avenue.[6] This would have been in the early 1830s (1831?). F.A. Owen’s brother, the Rev. S.W. Owen, was the minister of the Methodist Church in Spring Hill, Tennessee at this time. So far no information exists to corroborate the dates of his tenure in Spring Hill. S.W. Owen was born in 1814 and died February 26, 1845.[7] He married Sarah C. Nicholson, who was born in Williamson County, Tennessee on April 3, 1816. According to the obituary, Sarah married S.W. Owen on January 24, 1833, and she joined the Spring Hill church the following year. She died while visiting her son, Dr. Richard Watson Owen, in Tunica County, Mississippi on July 17, 1888.[8] She is buried behind the Owen homeplace in Tunica County.

According to Henry G. Hawkins, the Rev. F.A. Owen replaced the Rev. Hawkins at the Methodist Church in Natchez, Mississippi during 1833 and 1834. Concerning Owen’s appearance and character, Hawkins writes:

F.A. Owen was a man of fine appearance; neat in his attire, polished in his manners, and in every respect an elegant gentleman. He was also a good preacher and a man of well-rounded character. Some years after this he filled the honorable and responsible position of Agent for our Publishing House, at Nashville. During the later years of his life he was in the pastorate in the city of St. Louis. He died in 1882, having completed a laborious and useful ministry of sixty years.[9]

Hawkins’ account differs on the date of Owen’s death from family records.[10] Hawkins also notes that “It throws some light upon the ecclesiastical methods of the period to know that a woman was expelled from church for quarreling with a neighbor.”[11] Apparently Owen took church discipline very seriously!

According to another undocumented obituary, the Rev. F.A. Owen married Elizabeth Harding on December 11, 1834. Mrs. Harding’s maiden name was Clopton. She was born near Nashville on September 29, 1811. Her first marriage to ended after two years when her husband, William Harding, died in May of 1832. Willie Harding was the only child from the first marriage. Willie married David H. McGavock, a prominent man of Nashville. According to an undocumented obituary for Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen, “Mrs. [Willie] McGavock did not know for years that [Rev. F.A. Owen] was not her own father, so tender, judicious, and loving was his care for her.” In 1875, Mrs. McGavock “gave the diamonds which had studded her wedding veil for a girls’ school in China.”[12] She named it the Clopton School after her mother. Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen died on March 26, 1893.

F.A. Owen is listed as the editor of the Memphis and Arkansas Christian Advocate from 1851 to 1854.[13] Along with Edward Stevenson, F.A. Owen helped open the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee in 1854. According to one source, Owen had previously been a “Tennessee Conference leader.”[14] Stevenson and Owen acted as agents of the Methodist Publishing House in Nashville from 1855 to 1858.[15]

According to undocumented Memphis Conference Notes, Owen was assigned to the Mississippi Bottom District (1859-1865), the Memphis District (1866), and the Sunflower District (1867). The Mississippi Bottom District included Commerce Mission and Tunica. F.A. Owen moved to St. Louis in 1874 and was placed in charge of St. Paul’s Church. In 1875 he worked at the Chouteau Avenue Church. But by 1877, “his health was such as compelled him to superannuate, in which relation he continued till death” in 1883.[16]

According to stories passed down to his great-great granddaughter Annie Ruth Brown, F.A. Owen was a conscientious objector during the Civil War. Family lore holds that Union troops stole some of Owen’s horses. In anger, he sued the federal government for his property on the grounds of his neutrality during the war.

The Rev. F.A. Owen died at the home of his step-daughter and son-in-law in Nashville, Tennessee on March 16, 1883. The home is called Two Rivers Mansion, and is included in the Tennessee registry of historical sites.

F.A. Owen and Elizabeth Clopton Owen are buried in Mt. Olivet cemetary in Nashville, Tennessee (section 8). Their graves lie in the family plot of Owen's step-daughter and son-in-law, Willie H. and David H. McGavock. Although cemetery records indicate the place of burial, no gravestones mark the site of either F.A. or Elizabeth Owen. The reasons why remain a mystery, particularly in light of the fact that Elizabeth outlived her husband by ten years and Willie McGavock outlived her step-father by 12 years. Elizabeth Owen’s obituary says that “Dr. Owen is held in affectionate remembrance by the [McGavock] family.” Cemetary records give no indication of either the birth or death dates of F.A. or Elizabeth. Nor do they include Elizabeth's middle name of Clopton.


[1] This information is corroborated by Cullen T. Carter in History of Tennessee Conference and a Brief Summary of the General Conference [of] the Methodist Church: From the Frontier in Middle Tennessee to the Present Time (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1948). Carter’s book includes an appendix of persons listed as “Admitted on Trial” from year to year (p. 524). Francis Owen is listed along with thirty eight others as admitted on trial in 1822 (p. 525). William P. Owen was also admitted on trial in 1859, but we don’t know if there is any family relationship (p. 531). According to the St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883, F.A. Owen was licensed to preach in Columbia, Tennessee in June 1822 and was received on trial at the Annual Conference at the Ebenezer Meeting house in Greene County, east Tennessee on October 16, 1822.

[2] John Abernathy Smith, Cross and Flame: Two Centuries of United Methodism in Middle Tennessee (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1984), p. 58.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Professor Frank Gully of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee, brought this to my attention.

[5] Smith, op. cit, p. 58.

[6] Cf. Paul T. Hicks, History of the First Methodist Church of Memphis Tennessee 1826-1900 (1980). See also Perre Magness, “Methodists Helped Tame River Town,” The Commercial Appeal November 26, 1992 (Memphis, TN): pp.??

[7] This information was first confirmed by the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church in Madison, New Jersey. In addition to F.A. Owen, their records indicate the Rev. M. Owen of Memphis as another brother. Rev. S.W. Owen’s obituary was published in the March 8, 1845 edition of the South-Western Christian Advocate. The obituary likewise confirms the relationship between the three brothers.

[8] The undocumented obituary for Sarah was written by T.J. Taylor and, along with many other clippings, notes, and photographs, part of the scrapbook of Sarah Elizebeth Williamson Tappan (“Dabbur”), wife of Dr. Richard W. Owen. The marriage license of Sterling and Sarah confirms their wedding date.

[9] Henry G. Hawkins, Methodism in Natchez (Jackson: Hawkins Foundation, 1937), p. 62.

[10] The St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883 confirms that Rev. F.A. Owen moved to St. Louis in 1874, having been placed in charge of St. Paul’s Church and then in service to the Chouteau Avenue Church.

[11] Hawkins, op. cit.

[12] Smith, op. cit., p. 217. Oswald Eugene Brown and Anna Muse Brown’s Life and Letters of Laura Askew Haygood (Nashville & Dallas: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1904) presents a detailed account of Methodist missions to China via the life and letters of Mrs. Haygood. According to this book, the Clopton School’s origins go back to around 1855 when Mrs. J.W. Lambuth began “receiving Christian education” in her house in Shangai, China (p. 146). The gift of Mrs. McGavock’s jewels allowed the missionaries to “erect a more commodious building” (ibid.). It was then renamed in honor of Mrs. Elizabeth Clopton Owen. Mrs. Haygood took over the Clopton School in 1885 (ibid.). Subsequent chapters print selections from the many detailed letters Mrs. Haygood wrote to Mrs. D.H. McGavock. Unfortunately, none of Mrs. McGavock’s letters are printed (assuming they have survived). Mrs. McGavock’s involvement in foreign missions went beyond her gift to the Clopton School. She was active in the Methodist Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, and she even wrote “a manual for missionary candidates.” See Mrs. F.A. Butler, History of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, M.E. Church, South (Nashville & Dallas: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1912), p. 79.

[13] Walter N. Vernon, Methodism in Arkansas, 1816-1976 (Little Rock: Joint Committee for the History of Arkansas Methodism, 1976), p. 170.

[14] Smith, op. cit., p. 131.

[15] Rev. P.A. Peterson, Hand-Book of Southern Methodism being a Digest of the History and Statistics of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, from 1845 to 1882 (Richmond, VA: J.W. Ferguson & Son, 1883), p. 49.

[16] St. Louis Conference Journal of 1883.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Warm Touch

A great song from the Jerusalem band missFlag.

Roots Matter

There's an interesting essay entitled "Roots Matter" over at Christianity Today. Written by Darrell L. Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, it succinctly makes the case for why Christians need to know about more than just the Bible. We need to know the history of the early Church. Here's how Bock puts it:

We are now in a period when it is not enough to know only about the Bible. The apologetics of the past is no longer adequate. Today's questions involve not only how the Bible came to be, but even if there was originally such a thing as orthodoxy. It is a crucial question. Christians need to know a lot more about the second century. Roots matter, especially in the founding of a movement.

One question often raised is how there could be "orthodoxy" when there was no functioning New Testament until sometime between the late second and the fourth century. Doesn't this mean that Christianity could and did go in all directions until the canon nailed down doctrine? The claim is that our history is distorted because winners write the history. My reply is that in this case the winners deserved to win, because their faith had a theological rootedness that the Gnostics' did not.

So how did the faith of the Church get passed down when there was not yet a canon of scripture? Bock answers that question by highlighting the importance of worship:

So how was orthodoxy taught? Did it even exist? The simple answer is that the "Rule of Faith" was present. But how was the Rule of Faith passed on from generation to generation? Was there a mechanism that allowed church members to know what orthodoxy was? The answer is yes. It can be detected within our oldest historical sources for Christianity, showing that the roots of our faith's content go back to the earliest days of the faith. Three words summarize that mechanism: schooling, singing, and sacraments.

Read it all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The 12 Days of Christmas

The very talented members of Straight No Chaser deliver a fun version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christ is Born

From a sermon by Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople (389 AD)

Christ is born: glorify him. Christ comes from heaven: go out to meet him. Christ descends to earth: let us be raised on high. Let all the world sing to the Lord; let the heavens rejoice and let the earth be glad, for his sake who was first in heaven and then on earth. Christ is here in the flesh: let us exult with fear and joy – with fear, because of our sins; with joy, because of the hope that he brings us.

Once more the darkness is dispersed; once more the light is created. Let the people that sat in the darkness of ignorance now look upon the light of knowledge. The things of old have passed away; behold, all things are made new. He who has no mother in heaven is now born without father on earth. The laws of nature are overthrown, for the upper world must be filled with citizens. He who is without flesh becomes incarnate; the Word puts on a body; the Invisible is seen; he whom no hand can touch is handled; the Timeless has a beginning; the Son of God becomes Son of Man – Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and for ever.

Light from light, the Word of the Father comes to his own image, in the human race. For the sake of my flesh he takes flesh; for the sake of my soul he is united to a rational soul, purifying like by like. In every way he becomes human, except for sin. O strange conjunction! The Self-existent comes into being; the Uncreated is created. He shares in the poverty of my flesh, that I may share in the riches of his Godhead.

Source: Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, edited by Robert J. Wright (Church Publishing Inc., 1991), p. 34.

The Stable Door is Open

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, offers his thoughts on Christmas.

Year after year, church attendance at Christmas continues to defy the trends. Disconcerted clergy find themselves putting on an extra carol service or Christingle. Cathedral deans start worrying about health and safety regulations as the number of people standing at the back is still growing five minutes before the service starts. And in spite of all the high-profile antiGod books published this last year, I suspect it’s not going to make much difference to these swelling numbers in church over Christmas.

So what’s going on? I don’t think it’s that people’s doubts and uncertainties are all magically taken away for a couple of weeks in December. But once in a while people need a chance to face up to the bits of themselves that they cheerfully ignore most of the time – a chance to notice what might be missing in their lives.

And Christmas gives us just this. It gives us a story to listen to. It gives us a sense that what matters most deeply to us matters to God too. And it gives us a moment of stillness in a more and more feverish environment.

It gives us a story. If you go to a carol service, you’ll notice that it isn’t just about the story of Jesus’s birth. It starts right back at the beginning of human history and tells us that everything started well and then everything went wrong, and we got so tangled in habits and attitudes that trapped us and damaged us that we couldn’t get out again.

So the question stares us in the face: “Is this your story?” Did you start well and then find yourself snarled up in things that drain your life and energy? There won’t be many people for whom that doesn’t ring a bell or two.

And then the story goes on to say something quite strange and surprising. God steps in to sort it all out. But He doesn’t step in like Superman, He doesn’t even send a master plan down from heaven. He introduces into the situation something completely new – a new life; a human baby, helpless and needy like all babies.

And it’s by that introducing of something new that change begins to happen. Like dropping a tiny bit of colouring into a glass of clear water, it starts to affect the whole glassful.

The Christmas story doesn’t try to explain how it works. It just says: “Now that this story, Jesus’s story, has started, nothing will be the same again.” So we’re not being asked to sign up to a grand theory – just to imagine that the world might have changed. And most of us can manage that for a moment or two. Christmas lets us hold on to that for just a bit longer.

And it tells us that what matters to us matters to God. Most of us have deep-rooted instincts about all kinds of things – about our families and children, about the need for fairness and forgiveness, about honesty and faithfulness in private and public. A great deal of the world we normally live in seems to ride roughshod over many of these instincts.

We get panicky about what our society seems to be doing to marriage and families, about the forward march of a technology that doesn’t ask the moral questions, about the cynicism and brittleness of a lot of political talk and the celebrity culture.

Christmas reminds us of a God who is completely committed to the weakest, who uses power only so that human life can be fuller, more peaceful and generous, who gives us the help we need to make our relationships stable and faithful – and who requires of us a complete honesty about ourselves, and gently, steadily, chips away our self-deceptions. Christmas tells us that our best instincts about human nature and what’s needed for a healthy world and society aren’t just things we’ve made up. They are rooted in the way the whole universe is shaped by God.

Often people demand “moral leadership” from religious figures. Confession time: like others, I suspect, my heart sometimes sinks when I hear this, and I think, cynically, that it’s just about people wanting religious leaders to tell them that they’re right.

But there’s more to it than that: it’s not that folk simply want bishops or vicars to lay down the law all the time. But they do want sometimes to be assured that their hopes aren’t empty and their fears aren’t stupid, in a world where things change so fast and so disturbingly.

They want to know that there is a “home” for their feelings and ideals, that the universe has a shape and a purpose. And yes, religious leaders will be failing in their job if they can’t meet this need.

But as I’ve hinted, it’s not just a need for words. It’s a need for space where you don’t have to struggle, to fight for your place at the table.

You’re just welcome for who you are. It’s a bit of a paradox.

We usually spend the weeks before Christmas in a feverish nightmare of anxiety and driven busyness, as if we were going to celebrate the festival by making our normal situation even worse! But then there comes a moment when we really have to take time out if we’re going to stay sane. That’s the moment when people start thinking about church.

We still have this half-buried conviction that church is a place where, at least at this time of year, we ought to be able to feel at home. We turn up, tired and overwrought, perhaps, still thinking vaguely about what we haven’t done and need to do before tomorrow. And then the story unfolds. Yes, this is our story, and yes, we can for a moment believe that this birth makes a difference. Yes, God cares about the kind of world we want to see and his faithful love is the basis of what makes a really liveable life. And no, we don’t have to do anything for this time except take it in. There are no entrance qualifications. The door of Jesus’s stable is open and anyone can come in and sit down.

None of this – I can hear the atheist protesting – means it’s true, surely? Not in itself, no. But it suggests that, if God is a “delusion”, as some would like us to believe, then quite a lot more of our human life is a delusion as well, including many of our deepest values and our hopes for forgiveness and peace. All sorts of things will make up your mind about whether it is true or not – and naturally I want people to believe it is and I’m happy to have the arguments. But you will never understand why it might matter for it to be true unless you can take in what the Christmas story is saying to us about who we are and the world we live in.

So, arrive early! There are millions who still want to ask these questions and hear the story. And there are millions for whom it’s not just a piece of our “heritage” – a stately home to visit – but a place to live. God is for life, not just for Christmas.

Every blessing to you all for a very happy Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Birthday of Life

From a sermon by Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome (461 AD)

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness.

No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice seeing the palm of victory at hand. Let the pagan take courage on being summoned to life.

In the fullness of time, chosen in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God took for himself our common humanity in order to reconcile it with its creator. He came to overthrow the devil, the origin of death, in that very nature by which the devil had overthrown humankind.

And so at the birth of our Lord the angels sing in joy: “Glory to God in the highest,” and they proclaim “peace to his people on earth” as they see the heavenly Jerusalem being built from all the nations of the world. When the angels on high are so exultant at this marvelous work of God’s goodness, what joy should it not bring to our lowly hearts?

Beloved, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in his great love for us he gook pity on us, “and when we were dead in our sins he brought us to life with Christ,” so that in him we might be a new creation. Let us throw off our old nature and all its ways and, as we have come to birth in Christ, let us renounce the works of the flesh.

Christian, remember your dignity, and now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition. Bear in mind who is your head and whose body you are a member. Do not forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of God’s kingdom.

Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ.

from Sermon 1 for the Nativity

Source: Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, edited by Robert J. Wright (Church Publishing Inc., 1991), p. 33.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Mother Mary

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
RCL, Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Today our Advent journey turns our attention towards the coming Nativity of our Lord. The 4th Sunday of Advent always looks forward to Christmas. And it highlights the importance of Jesus’ family.

Today’s gospel reading, for instance, portrays Joseph as the very model of faithfulness. In a day and age when engagement to a pregnant girl would have been unthinkable, Joseph remains faithful to Mary and trusts God’s purpose. Matthew portrays Joseph “as a man of deep devotion, open to mystical experiences, and as a man of compassion, who accepted his God-given responsibility with gentleness and humility.”[1] And so Joseph is a model Christian saint who embodies obedience to God’s will.

Most Christians have no problem acknowledging all of this about Joseph. But if we turn to Mary, anxiety levels may rise – particularly among Protestants – and there may be attempts to downplay her significance. It’s a true irony that the one time of the year when most Christians even acknowledge her existence, Mary is often regarded as merely the biological mother of Jesus, and thus not worthy of greater attention than any other faithful servant of God. It’s Jesus alone, we’re told, not Mary, who’s worthy of special devotion.

On the opposite pole from Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church has made very generous claims about Mary’s role in the economy of our salvation. In addition to the early Church’s understanding that Mary gave birth to a person who was fully human and fully divine, official Roman Catholic teachings about Mary includes the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the dogma of the Glorious Assumption. The Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary was born without the stain of original sin, and thus was able to give birth to a sinless son. And the Assumption says that Mary did not die, but, like the Old Testament prophet Elijah, was taken up into heaven. Both dogmas are meant to highlight the unique and special character of Mary.

Before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II came close to naming Mary as Corredemptrix or co-redeemer with Jesus. As I recall, even many conservative Catholics worried that such a move would usurp the unique identity and role of Jesus Christ.

So in Western Christianity we have two dominant approaches to Mary: one represented by the Protestant traditions and one in the Roman Catholic tradition. And they couldn’t be further apart.

If Protestantism says almost nothing about Mary, making her virtually invisible and effectively irrelevant to Christian faith, and if Roman Catholicism says a whole lot, what can we say as heirs of the Anglican tradition? What may we Episcopalians believe about Mary?

As part of a reformed catholic tradition, I believe that we can embrace three points about Mary as positive reinforcements for our faith that Jesus Christ is the unique incarnation of God. And each of them revolves around Mary’s motherhood.

1. Mary is the Mother of the Saints.
2. Mary is the Mother of God.
3. Mary is the Mother of the Church.

Let’s start with Mary as the Mother of the Saints. The primary warrant here is scripture. When we look at the New Testament, we see that since the dawn of Christianity, Mary has been honored for playing a unique role in the salvation of the world. Both Matthew and Luke testify that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus. The gospels also tell us that Mary, in the company of many other women, played a vital supporting role in Jesus’ ministry. Mary helped meet needs for food, clothing, and shelter, making it possible for Jesus and his disciples to spread the good news of the coming kingdom of God. When the men abandoned Jesus, Mary the faithful mother and disciple was still there, standing at the foot of the cross while her son died in agony. Mary was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit transformed fearful disciples into bold witnesses to the resurrection. From beginning to end, Mary was there bearing witness to the virtues of faithfulness and perseverance.

But it’s Luke’s gospel that records the very moment when Mary became the Mother of the Saints. In response to the angel Gabriel, Mary was the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan to become incarnate as a human being in Jesus. Her words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) express the heart and soul of what it means to be a saint of God, a person who submits his or her will unreservedly to God’s will.

The 19th Century Episcopal theologian William Porcher DuBose puts it like this: “Christ was born not merely out of the womb, but out of the faith and obedience of his Virgin Mother.”[2] The biblical witness to Mary’s faith and obedience provides ample warrant for honoring her as the Mother of the Saints.

But Mary is more than that. According to the faith of the Church, Mary is also the Mother of God. The primary warrant here is tradition, and specifically the ecumenical councils of the early Church. Second only to Holy Scripture, the ecumenical councils express the basic teachings of the Christian faith embraced by the Anglican tradition. In the 4th Century, two of these councils – Nicaea (325 AD) and Constantinople (381 AD) – hammered out the Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday. Our Prayer Book says that we privilege the Nicene Creed as “the sufficient statement of the Christian faith” [The Book of Common Prayer, p. 877]. We need nothing more, but also nothing less, to get the basic gist of the Christian story. And so it’s significant that next to Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the only other person named in the Creed is the Virgin Mary.

If, as one theologian puts it, “Pilate stands for the world that rejects the claims of God and kills God’s messenger who bodily bears that claim,” then “Mary stands for the world that accepts the claim of God and gives birth to the embodiment of God’s presence in Jesus the Messiah.”[3] Without her consent to God’s plan, Jesus would never have been conceived or born. God’s plan for salvation would either have had to take a radically different form or been shipwrecked altogether. And so the Nicene Creed rightly highlights Mary’s essential role in the Incarnation of our Lord and thus in the salvation of the world.

In addition to the Nicene Creed, the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431 AD) expresses the historic faith of the Church. According to this council, Mary is not just the mother of the man Jesus. Mary is the Mother of God, the Theotokos or Godbearer. In cooperation with God’s will, Mary’s will was the moral agent and her womb was the biological agent that made the Incarnation possible. For 9 months, Mary carried in her womb, not just a baby boy, but the Logos, the eternal Word of God, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity. Imagine: the very life of the one through whom all things were made (cf. Col. 1:16) grew in Mary’s womb. By affirming this awesome and sacred mystery, Ephesus affirmed what Christians had been praying about Mary since at least the early 4th Century.[4]

As the Mother of the Saints and the Mother of God, it stands to reason that Mary is also the Mother of the Church. By giving birth to the body of Christ, the God-Man, Mary also gives birth to the body of Christ, the Church. One theologian puts it like this: “Mary’s willing acceptance of her indispensable role in that chain of events which constituted the incarnation and the redemption which it brought about, was necessary for the nurture of the Lord and for the creation of the Church itself. So Mary is not only in the Church and of the Church, she is also prior to the Church, as is implied in her title, Mother of the Church.”[5] As the first person to say “yes” to God’s plan for salvation in Jesus, Mary is the mother of all Christians, of all persons who say “yes” to Jesus and ratify that “yes” through baptism into that body of Christ we call the Church.

And so, as Mother of the Saints, Mother of God, and Mother of the Church, it is right, and a good and joyful thing, that we should venerate Mary. Notice that I said “venerate” and not “worship.” Only God is worthy of worship. But just as we venerate the processional cross by bowing when it comes down the aisle, showing our deep respect for the One who died on the cross, it is fitting for us to venerate Mary, showing our deep respect for the woman whose willingness to conceive and give birth to Jesus made the Incarnation and our salvation possible.

So whatever you do, don’t worship Mary. But do respect your Mother. And just as Mary said “yes” to God’s plan to become incarnate in her womb, may we also consent to the Holy Spirit’s desire to overshadow our hearts, working silently to form within us the fullness of God’s redeemed and redeeming humanity, that we, too, may give birth to Christ.[6]

[1] Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 (Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 200.

[2] A DuBose Reader: Selections from the Writings of William Porcher DuBose, compiled by Donald S. Armentrout (University of the South, 1984), p. 3.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 159.

[4] Cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (Yale University Press, 2003), p. 13.

[5] John Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (Willima B. Eerdmans, 1990), p. 114.

[6] Cf. the prayer by Cheslyn Jones in John Macquarrie, Mary for All Christians (William B. Eerdmans, 1990), pp. 159-160.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Taking on the "New Atheists"

There's a fascinating posting over at "Faith and Theology" entitled "Ten propositions on Richard Dawkins and the new atheists." Here's a sampling:

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” After this now famous first-line knockdown punch by Terry Eagleton it would be unsportsmanlike to bully the bully. Professor Dawkins does not enter the ring with the intellectual heavyweights of the Christian tradition, though he occasionally throws a bottle at them from the seats. Is he ignorant, hubristic, or just plain chicken? Whatever. The irony is that Dawkins thereby again betrays the very Enlightenment he represents (as Tina Beattie records a comment Keith Ward made to her, with sadness), “everything that the Western intellectual tradition stands for, with its privileging of informed scholarship based on the study of texts."


If Professor Dawkins is the “bad cop” of the New Atheists, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee is probably the “good cop”, while Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly the “corrupt cop”. I saw him on the British TV programme Question Time, contemptuously holding court like Jabba the Hutt. And I sat for half-an-hour at Waterstone’s dipping into the over-priced God Is Not Great as if it were dishwater, a highly flattering simile. Hitchens’ penetrating scholarly appraisals include descriptions of Augustine the “ignoramus”, Aquinas the “stupid”, and Calvin the “sadist”; while Niemöller and Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Nazis was motivated by a “nebulous humanism”, and Martin Luther King’s faith was Christian only in a “nominal sense”. Enough said. It is all rather embarrassing.

Read it all.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Marcus Miller is an extraordinary musician. This solo rendition of "Scoop" blows me away! Enjoy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Perfect Stocking Stuffer

If you’re looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for that intellectually-inclined friend or family member this year, search no more. Harry G. Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005) is the perfect gift.

Frankfurt is Philosophy Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. Here’s a summary of the book:

In the essay, Frankfurt sketches a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analyzing its applications. In particular, Frankfurt contrasts bullshitting and lying; where the liar deliberately makes false claims, the bullshitter is simply uninterested in the truth. Rather, bullshitters aim primarily to impress and persuade their audiences. Whereas the liar needs to know the truth the better to conceal it, the bullshitter, interested solely in advancing his own agenda, has no use for the truth. By virtue of this, Frankfurt claims, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

But be forewarned: by the end of the book, you may be wondering who has been bullshitting whom.

Here’s the book’s delightful opening:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.

Purchase a copy of the book on-line.

You can also read it in its entirety here.

Liturgy and Life

Over at “The Eternal Pursuit,” Fr. Chris Epperson emphasizes the intrinsic connection between right belief (orthodoxy) and right action (orthopraxy). I think holding those two together is critically important. And as a tradition which affirms that praying shapes believing, the liturgies we use for our worship in the Episcopal Church are meant to inform, shape, and sustain not only what we believe but also how we live our lives. If we lose the connection between liturgy and life, we run the risk of promoting an escapist theology of worship in which liturgy insulates persons from the joys and sufferings of the world. And if that happens, the Church gives credence to the Marxist charge that religion serves as the opiate of the masses or to the Freudian view of religion as an infantile illusion.

In thinking about the relationship between liturgy and life, worship and ethics, Sunday morning church and the rest of the week, I’ve found the work of Charles Price and Louis Weil helpful. In their book Liturgy for Living, they distinguish between intensive liturgy and extensive liturgy.

Intensive liturgy is what happens in church, especially on Sunday morning. “By its intensive liturgies,” Price and Weil write, “the church encounters Christ as present in Word and Sacraments. Under these forms, Christians appropriate his example and the power which he makes available” [Liturgy for Living (Seabury, 1979), p. 296].

Extensive liturgy is what happens when we bring what we receive in church into the world. “One appropriates an example and its power for a purpose. One leaves the intensive liturgy to live in accordance with the model and in the strength of the grace which it supplies” [Liturgy for Living (Seabury, 1979), p. 296].

Price and Weil continue by highlighting the ways in which intensive and extensive liturgy are mutually dependent:

As our intensive liturgies drive us into the world to do our extensive liturgies, so our extensive liturgies bring us back week by week to the Christian assembly, to seek God’s presence once more under the embodied forms of Word and Sacrament. For the world is stronger than we are. By our own strength, we cannot long live up to Christ’s example, nor can we get along without renewal of spiritual power. Failures are frequent. Discouragement is always close. Need alone would return us to the unfailing source of renewal, given expression and made accessible by the liturgy of the church.

Not only need brings us back, to be sure; thanksgiving also brings us back. Our extensive liturgies are not only the story of failure, although failures are many; they are also the stories of success and triumph. To keep the record straight, and to make sure that we give God the credit due to God alone, we return to give him thanks [Liturgy for Living, (Seabury, 1979), p. 297].

I find it refreshing, and really quite powerful, to think about the things we do during the week – parenting, jobs, recreation, serving food to the homeless, grieving … you name it – as extending the liturgy we participated in when we gathered together with our brothers and sisters in Christ last Sunday. It’s all connected to the thanksgiving and praise we give to God when we gather to hear the Word read and proclaimed and to receive the holy gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood.

A bishop and scholar of the Eastern Orthodox Church nicely summarizes the mutual dependence of intensive and extensive liturgy and the need to safeguard the connections between liturgy and life:

Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St Maximus put it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love on another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity one essence and undivided.’ If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love Him [Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church New Edition (Penguin, 1993), p. 207].

The liturgy of the Church belongs to those who live it. So let us pray. But let us also go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

The Church of Stop Shopping

Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping are on a crusade against the demonic excesses of our consumer culture. Here's what the Church of Stop Shopping's website says:

Statement of Belief :: Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir believe that Consumerism is overwhelming our lives. The corporations want us to have experiences only through their products. Our neighborhoods, "commons" places like stoops and parks and streets and libraries, are disappearing into the corporatized world of big boxes and chain stores. But if we "back away from the product" - even a little bit, well then we Put The Odd Back In God! The supermodels fly away and we're left with our original sensuality. So we are singing and preaching for local economies and real - not mediated through products - experience. We like independent shops where you know the person behind the counter or at least - you like them enough to share a story.We ask that local activists who are defending themselves against supermalls, nuke plants, gentrification -- call us and we'll come and put on our "Fabulous Worship!" Remember children... Love is a Gift Economy!

The church's mission has been captured in a documentary film called "What Would Jesus Buy?" The website for the film says this:

What Would Jesus Buy? follows Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they go on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from the Shopocalypse: the end of mankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt!

From producer Morgan Spurlock (SUPER SIZE ME) and director Rob VanAlkemade comes a serious docu-comedy about the commercialization of Christmas. Bill Talen (aka Reverend Billy) was a lost idealist who hitchhiked to New York City only to find that Times Square was becoming a mall. Spurred on by the loss of his neighborhood and inspired by the sidewalk preachers around him, Bill bought a collar to match his white caterer's jacket, bleached his hair and became the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping. Since 1999, Reverend Billy has gone from being a lone preacher with a portable pulpit preaching on subways, to the leader of a congregation and a movement whose numbers are well into the thousands.

Through retail interventions, corporate exorcisms, and some good old-fashioned preaching, Reverend Billy reminds us that we have lost the true meaning of Christmas. What Would Jesus Buy? is a journey into the heart of America – from exorcising the demons at the Wal-Mart headquarters to taking over the center stage at the Mall of America and then ultimately heading to the Promised Land … Disneyland.

Will we be led like Sheeple to the Christmas slaughter, or will we find a new way to give a gift this Christmas? What Would Jesus Buy? may just be the divine intervention we’ve all been searching for.

The Shopocalypse is upon us … Who will be $aved?

The film looks hilarious and timely. You can watch a trailer here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mars Hill Audio, the Incarnation, and Market-Driven Religious Culture

A few years ago a clergy colleague turned me on to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. In each issue of the Journal, Ken Myers interviews scholars working in a diversity of fields, including religion, history, sociology, psychology, the arts – you name it. And it’s all for the sake of furthering this mission:

MARS HILL AUDIO is committed to assisting Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.

We believe that fulfilling the commands to love God and neighbor requires that we pay careful attention to the neighborhood: that is, every sphere of human life where God is either glorified or despised, where neighbors are either edified or undermined. Therefore, living as disciples of Christ pertains not just to prayer, evangelism, and Bible study, but also our enjoyment of literature and music, our use of tools and machines, our eating and drinking, our views on government and economics, and so on.

We endeavor to encourage sensibilities and habits of thoughtful cultural engagement through creative audio resources, produced at our studio in rural central Virginia. Our primary resource is a bimonthly series of audio programs called the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Each program is ninety minutes long, consisting of ten- to fifteen-minute interviews with a variety of guests on a broad array of topics.

I sometimes find Ken Myers’ perspective a bit too conservative. But overall I find this Journal to be a helpful, stimulating, and insightful resource for thinking about the interactions between Christian faith and contemporary culture and society. You can read more about Mars Hill Audio and even sample the Journal here.

In the meantime, here’s the greater part of an Advent letter written by Ken Myers to subscribers of the Journal in which he offers reflections on the implications of the doctrine of the Incarnation within our market-driven religious culture:

In the past few decades, it has become increasingly common for churches to rely on marketing data to determine the shape of their ministry. It is widely accepted that the Church is like any other provider of a commodity – that the desires, expectations, and assumptions of its potential “customers” or “clients” must be honored. In preparing to celebrate Advent this year, I have been inspired by this model of ministry to imagine what might have happened if God had relied on market research to tailor the form of his ministry to mankind. Given the religious and philosophical assumptions in the world 2,000 years ago, I think it’s safe to assume that consumer-defined salvation would not have involved the Incarnation. At best, we might have gotten something like Good Friday, but certainly no Christmas, and maybe no Easter.

As St. Paul observed in his visit to Athens, the world of his day included many religions, many schemes and strategies to implore deities for mercy and favor. The idea of the necessity of salvation for human beings was not as implausible then as it is for us now. Israel understood the need for salvation, the need for forgiveness in light of human sin. The descendants of Abraham believed in the coming of Messiah, but most likely the idea that their God would enter human history as a human being was not widely entertained, in spite of the fact that one of God’s appellations was Immanuel: “God with us.”

The Greco-Roman world believed in something like the Logos, but the idea that the Logos would be made flesh was repugnant (which is one reason why the apostle John is so emphatic about this reality in the prologue to his gospel). The idea that the Being above all being would become a baby in need of care was metaphysically incorrect. The Greco-Roman mind could not imagine that (in the words of theologian Michael Williams): “The power that called the world into being [could take] on the weakness of creatureliness. Contrary to the universality and changelessness sought by the philosophies of Greece, John declares that meaning and truth are to be found in historical particularity, a specific historical person: Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh. The scandal of the Christian faith is that God became flesh in Jesus Christ.”

If God had been looking for a way to establish a plausible, immediately recognizable religious brand in the region around the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago – a product that would meet the felt needs of the residents of Syria, Asia, Macedonia, and Italy of that period – it would certainly not have included something as humble as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

A religious program modeled after the natural human expectations may have included something like the cross. It may have included a desire to be right with God, to be delivered from death and judgment and anxiety and strife. Even a “consumer-driven” religion might well require a Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. But in God’s own redemptive plan, the Lamb of God is also the Son of Man. The cross which accomplishes our salvation is bracketed by a manger and an empty tomb, which define the shape of our redemption as something with human, earthly consequences. More than just a logical precondition for the Atonement, the Incarnation also establishes the trajectory for our new life as a truly human life. There is a theological link between confidence in the full humanity of Jesus and a recognition of the ramifications of our salvation across the full range of our own humanity, across all of the ways in which we engage God’s creation.

Much of modern culture, with its Gnostic undertones, alienates us from creation and its givenness. Theologian Colin Gunton sees the affirmation of the Incarnation as essential to our enthusiastic participation in creation and therefore in cultural life. “A world that owes its origin to a God who makes it with direct reference to one who was to become incarnate – part of that world – is a world that is a proper place for human beings to use their senses, minds and imaginations, and to expect that they will not be wholly deceived in doing so.”

Christians have the only account of human and natural origins that can give cultural life meaning. But even after 2,000 years of opportunity to reflect on the Incarnation, many contemporary Christians persist in believing in a Gnostic salvation, a salvation that has no cultural consequences. In such a dualistic understanding, our souls are saved, the essential immaterial aspect of our being is made right with God, but the actions of our bodies – what we actually do in space and time – are a matter of indifference if not futility. Salvation is an inward matter only. It affects our attitudes and some of our ideas. But insofar as our cultural activities have any Christian significance it is as mere marketing efforts – things we do to attract others to our essentially Gnostic salvation.

Believing in a gospel that has few earthly consequences is, ironically, just the sort of state our secularist neighbors would wish us to sustain. They, too, are dualists, believing that religion may be a fine thing for people, so long as they keep it private. Their secularism isn’t threatened by Christians as long as they aren’t too “Incarnational.” As long as the cultural lives of Christians aren’t significantly different from those of materialists and pagans, secularism is safe. Christians may pray “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but as long as they don’t actually do anything that demonstrates how such a petition should affect their political, economic, and cultural activities, the Enlightenment legacy is safe.

A hearty appreciation of the meaning of the Incarnation could deliver us from serving the interests of secularists. In his recent book Far as the Curse is Found
, Michael Williams writes that in his gospel, “John does not conceive of Christ as a Gnostic heavenly Savior who comes from heaven to bring souls trapped in the world back to their home above. Rather, Jesus comes to bring his people eternal life on earth, a life that will mean the resurrection of the body at the last day.” Later in his book, Williams argues that the Incarnation is evidence that in saving his people, God does not thereby abandon his creation. “By participating in our reality, the Man from heaven affirms the goodness of creaturely life, the redeemability of creation and creaturely existence. The gospel is not the fracture of heaven and earth but the wedding of the two, embodied as they both are in the incarnation of the one who is vere Deus (‘fully divine’) and vere Homo (‘fully human’). In the incarnation God declared his intentions not only for humanity but also for all creation. The creation is as much an object of the sovereign love and redemption of God as is the soul of man.” …

I began this letter by suggesting that a religion shaped by popular opinion would not have involved the Incarnation. Similarly, religious practices shaped by raw consumer preferences are unlikely to resist disordered cultural fashions. As long as people assume that religion is a matter of cleaning up their inner lives, of changing only their hearts, they will choose forms of religion that fit the cultural conventions with which they are at home. As long as they are essentially dualists, as long as they think of religion as something detached from their humanity in all of its details, the claim that some cultural forms honor the order of God’s Creation better than others will remain implausible to them. Unless the Church bears witness to this idea, unless the Church takes cultural life seriously enough to be willing to make distinctions between healthy and unhealthy cultural forms, neither seekers nor disciples are likely to get beyond their dualism.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Center of Everything

"Christian faith isn't a general religious awareness. Nor is it the ability to believe several unlikely propositions. It is certainly not a kind of gullibility which would put us out of touch with any genuine reality. It is the faith which hears the story of Jesus, including the announcement that he is the world's true Lord, and responds from the heart with a surge of grateful love that says: 'Yes. Jesus is Lord. He died for my sins. God raised him from the dead. This is the center of everything.' Whether you come to this faith in a blinding flash or by a long, slow, winding route, once you get to this point you are (whether you realize it or not) wearing the badge which marks you as part of the church, on an equal footing with every other Christian who ever lived. You are discovering what it means to wake up and find yourself in God's new world."

N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 209-210.

San Joaquin Departure

I normally don't weigh in on Church politics, preferring to leave such postings in the more capable hands of others in the blogosphere. But I feel compelled to express sadness and disappointment over the decision made yesterday by the diocese of San Joaquin to leave the Episcopal Church.

I believe that it's difficult to reconcile this decision - and the consequences it will unleash - with our corporate affirmation (using the words of the Nicene Creed) that "We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church." Decisions that push others to break away and decisions to make the break share one thing in common: they undermine the credibility of these words we recite in the Creed, and so weaken our witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As recorded in the Gospel according to John, our Lord's fervent prayer on the night before he suffered and died for us was this:

"Holy Father, protect [my disciples] in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one" (John 17:11).

And Jesus continues by linking the credibility of the Church's witness to him to our visible unity:

"The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17:22-23).

I am aware of the complexity of the ecclesial and ethical issues that have brought us to this point. There are serious and substantive issues at stake, no doubt about it. And it won't do to paint those issues over with carictures, as too often seems to happen.

I am also aware of the charges levelled against our Church's leadership by some conservatives who say that our leaders are apostates and heretics. While I have some sympathy with their concerns (I do wish, for example, that our Presiding Bishop could simply say "Jesus is Lord and Savior" without qualification or apology), I also think that some of the charges paint with too broad of a brush.

And so, while I have no doubts about the integrity of those who made the decision to leave, I do not believe that departure from the Episcopal Church is the right response.

It's for this reason that I believe the comments of conservative Episcopal priest and theologian Ephraim Radner in the wake of the decision made by the diocese of San Joaquin merit careful consideration. Here is Radner quoted in today's New York Times:

"It will be a huge, huge legal battle," said the Rev. Ephraim Radner, a leading Episcopal conservative and professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto. "The costs involved will bleed the Diocese of San Joaquin and the Episcopal Church, and it will lead only to bad press. You have to wonder why people are wasting money doing this and yet claiming to be Christians."

And here is Radner again, this time at the "Covenant" website in response to his conservative critics (my highlights):

My comment in the NY Times, accurately quoted, was aimed at all parties. I have no problem stating that outright. Once Christians go down the litigation road within the church, we’ve lost our way. Wake up.

I am more than willing to place the initial and weighty blame for this fiasco on the leadership of TEC, its Executive Council, its PB’s, its General Convention, its unbending advocacy groups and so on. They have much to answer for, before God and before the larger church. But that doesn’t let their opponents within the church off the hook for not embodying some simple prudence and more substantive wisdom. If we are dealing with people who are bent on having their way, come hell or high water, to the destruction of common life in Christ—and so, I agree it seems with respect to aspects of the TEC’s leadership—then pursuing actions that can predictably draw them on in their destructive paths is neither prudent nor wise. And this is what is going on in the litigations that are unfolding, and in the engagement of communion forces (e.g. extras-provincial interventions) that are bound to further fray the fragile fabric of our larger Anglican body.

I have every sympathy for the basic motives of those in San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Northern Virginia, Common Cause, AMiA, Network and so on. But they have passed the bounds of prudence and wisdom in the responsive choices they have made. It’s now become like someone going to Vegas to gamble in hopes of raising money for the poor. Things are going down the tubes, whatever the motives, because the methods now are turning against the Gospel and the witness of the Body of Christ as a whole before the world’s eyes.

Anybody who thinks that this unfolding drama is an inspiration to most Anglicans, let alone unbelieving onlookers, had better think again. There are plenty of other Christian churches, traditions and denominations out there — "evangelical", "reformed", "liturgical", "catholic", and the rest — who are not driving themselves into the courtroom, sowing seeds of antagonism around the world, and filling the blogs with mutual hatred, no matter what their first motivations might be. Don’t kid yourselves: this is not Athanasius contra mundum, however exciting the struggle may appear in the midst of the fray; it is the embrace of ecclesial irrelevance.

I am saddened and disappointed by those who have decided to leave. I wish them well and hope that, somehow and someday, the breach can be healed. Given the sad likelihood that San Joaquin's departure is just the beginning, I think we would do well to heed Radner's words about how all us - even with the best of intentions - embrace ecclesial irrelevance for the sake of our own agendas. And so I think that all of us - whether we find ourselves on the Right, the Center, or the Left (or even that place along that spectrum that fancies itself as "refusing the spectrum") - have a share in the blame for the events that have pushed us towards schism and the ecclesial irrelevance it entails. For the truth is that whenever people leave (regardless of the reasons), the Church fails to be the sign of God's reconciliation of the world in Christ.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Climbing the Mountain of Revelation

"We climb the mountain of revelation that we may gain a view of the shadowed valley in which we dwell and from the valley we look up again to the mountain. Each arduous journey brings new understanding, but also new wonder and surprise. This mountain is not one we climbed once upon a time; it is a well-known peak we never wholly know, which must be climbed again in every generation, on every new day. There is no time or place in human history, there is no moment in the church's past, nor is there any set of doctrines, any philosophy or theology of which we might say, 'Here the knowledge possible through revelation and the knowledge of revelation is fully set forth.' Revelation is not only progressive, but it requires of those to whom it has come that they begin the never-ending pilgrim's progress of the reasoning Christian heart."

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (Macmillan, 1941), p. 137.

More Thoughts on Faith and Reason

The discussion on matters of faith and reason continues over at The Open Parachute. It really is a good and civil discussion, and it recently took a very interesting turn with a comment that directed our attention to four models for understanding the relationship between faith and reason. Citing The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, one of the commentators sums up these models like this:

(a) The conflict model. Here the aims, objects, or methods of reason and faith seem to be very much the same. Thus when they seem to be saying different things, there is genuine rivalry. This model is thus assumed both by religious fundamentalists, who resolve the rivalry on the side of faith, and scientific naturalists, who resolve it on the side of reason.

(b) The incompatibilist model. Here the aims, objects, and methods of reason and faith are understood to be distinct. Compartmentalization of each is possible. Reason aims at empirical truth; religion aims at divine truths. Thus no rivalry exists between them. This model subdivides further into three subdivisions. First, one can hold faith is transrational, inasmuch as it is higher than reason. This latter strategy has been employed by some Christian existentialists. Reason can only reconstruct what is already implicit in faith or religious practice. Second, one can hold that religious belief is irrational, thus not subject to rational evaluation at all. This is the position taken ordinarily by those who adopt negative theology, the method that assumes that all speculation about God can only arrive at what God is not. The latter subdivision also includes those theories of belief that claim that religious language is only metaphorical in nature. This and other forms of irrationalism result in what is ordinarily considered fideism: the conviction that faith ought not to be subjected to any rational elucidation or justification.

(c) The weak compatibilist model. Here it is understood that dialogue is possible between reason and faith, though both maintain distinct realms of evaluation and cogency. For example, the substance of faith can be seen to involve miracles; that of reason to involve the scientific method of hypothesis testing. Much of the Reformed model of Christianity adopts this basic model.

(d) The strong compatibilist model. Here it is understood that faith and reason have an organic connection, and perhaps even parity. A typical form of strong compatibilism is termed natural theology. Articles of faith can be demonstrated by reason, either deductively (from widely shared theological premises) or inductively (from common experiences). It can take one of two forms: either it begins with justified scientific claims and supplements them with valid theological claims unavailable to science, or it starts with typical claims within a theological tradition and refines them by using scientific thinking. An example of the former would be the cosmological proof for God's existence; an example of the latter would be the argument that science would not be possible unless God's goodness ensured that the world is intelligible. Many, but certainly not all, Roman Catholic philosophers and theologians hold to the possibility of natural theology. Some natural theologians have attempted to unite faith and reason into a comprehensive metaphysical system. The strong compatibilist model, however, must explain why God chose to reveal Himself at all since we have such access to him through reason alone.

Feel free to add your own thoughts to this conversation by going here.

Although I've weighed in on some of these issues previously, I'd like to add some more thoughts on faith (and reason) by once again drawing on the work of H. Richard Niebuhr.

Here's what Victor Anderson, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Vanderbilt University, says about Niebuhr's conception of faith:

"Like [John] Dewey, Niebuhr also understood faith as the human abode in which value and being cohere in a unity of experience. Faith points to the universal in human experience. Niebuhr writes: '[Faith is a] fundamental personal attitude which, whether we call it faith or give it some other name, is apparently universal and general enough to be widely recognized' [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1960), p. 16]. It is 'the attitude and action of confidence in, and fidelity to, certain realities as the sources of value and the objects of loyalty' [ibid.]. Faith exhibits a dupliclity in Niebuhr's analysis. Both passive and active aspects are present. Passively, faith is the confidence and trust that give value to the self. Actively, faith points to the value toward which the self is directed. Thus, in Niebuhr's analysis, trust is the passive side of faith and loyalty is the active" [Victor Anderson, Pragmatic Theology: Negotiating the Intersections of an American Philosophy of Religion and Public Theology (SUNY, 1998), p. 89].

(An outstanding explication of the active side of faith may be found in the American philosopher Josiah Royce's book The Philosophy of Loyalty, originally published in 1908 and reissued in paperback by Vanderbilt University Press in 1995. You can read more about Royce here.]

Niebuhr's analysis goes to a level deeper than definitions or models of faith that correlate it with beliefs that can be put in propositional form. Before we even get to that level, faith is more fundamentally an attitude, a basic posture towards the world and others. And, as Niebuhr points out, in its active form, that attitude or posture may take the form of faith as trust or faith as distrust. If I do not trust that the world makes sense, for example, I am not likely to engage in scientific research. Likewise, if I don't trust there is any meaning, purpose, or value to my life, I may consider suicide.

What or who do I trust? To what person(s) or cause(s) am I loyal?

How persons answer these questions tells them the object(s) and the content of their faith.

If Niebuhr is right, it makes no sense to exclude faith from science (or any other mode of inquiry, for that matter). For scientists exhibit both aspects of faith. There's faith as trust that the universe makes sense, it's worth investigating, and that the process of submitting one's work for peer review is necessary and worthwhile in the pursuit of truth. There's also faith as loyalty - in this case, loyalty to the scientific method and to the scientific community to which one submits the results of one's work. And the willingness to adjust and revise one's views in light of new evidence exhibits marks of both faith as trust and faith as loyalty.

If Niebuhr is right about faith at this basic dimension of attitude or posture towards the world and others, then the passive and active sides of faith are present in all human activity. So if we understand faith in terms of trust and loyalty, then science is just as much a "faith-based" enterprise as any mode of inquiry.

It does not follow from this that every scientist does or should embrace a particular religious faith or set of beliefs about God (much less claims of special revelation). To make that case would require additional argument. Nevertheless, Niebuhr makes an inescapably true point: "To deny the reality of a supernatural being called God is one thing; to live without confidence in some center of value and without loyalty to a cause is another" [Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Westminster/John Knox, 1960), p. 25].

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Nicholas of Myra: The Real Santa Claus

Today we commemorate the blessed Nicholas, Bishop of Myra – the real Santa Claus. Here’s what Lesser Feasts and Fasts says about him:

Very little is known about the life of Nicholas, except that he suffered torture and imprisonment during the persecution under the Emperor Diocletian. It is possible that he was one of the bishops attending the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325. He was honored as a saint in Constantinople in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian. His veneration became immensely popular in the West after the supposed removal of his body to Bari, Italy, in the late eleventh century. In England almost 400 churches were dedicated to him.

Nicholas is famed as the traditional patron of seafarers and sailors, and, more especially, of children. As a bearer of gifts to children, his name was brought to America by the Dutch colonists in New York, form whom he is popularly known as Santa Claus [Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006 [Church Publishing Inc., 2006), p. 96].

There’s a truly wonderful website for the St. Nicholas Center that has lots of ideas for how to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Nicholas with worship, activities, art, crafts, recipes, and more. As we continue our journey through the Advent season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ, this site opens up a whole world of ways to teach kids (and adults) about how we can live our faith as Christians during one of the most frenetic, self-absorbed, and consumer-driven times of the year.

Here’s what the St. Nicholas Center website says about this saint:

As Bishop of Myra, Nicholas lived the qualities that caused his fame and popularity to spread throughout the Christian world. His vigorous actions on behalf of his people and in defense of the Christian faith reveal a man who lived his convictions. Nicholas was not timid—he did what was necessary and was not easily intimidated by others' power and position. His concern for the welfare of his flock and his stand for orthodox belief earned him respect as a model for bishops and a defender of the faith.

There are many stories and legends about Nicholas. Here are a couple taken from the St. Nicholas Center website:

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value—a . The larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. This poor man's daughters, without dowries, were therefore destined to be sold into slavery. Mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in their home-providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry. This led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas. Sometimes the story is told with gold balls instead of bags of gold. That is why three gold balls, sometimes represented as oranges, are one of the symbols for St. Nicholas. And so St. Nicholas is a gift-giver.

One of the oldest stories showing St. Nicholas as a protector of children takes place long after his death. The townspeople of Myra were celebrating the good on the eve of his feast day when a band of Arab pirates from Crete came into the district. They stole treasures from the Church of Saint Nicholas to take away as booty. As they were leaving town, they snatched a young boy, Basilios, to make into a slave. The emir, or ruler, selected Basilios to be his personal cupbearer, as not knowing the language, Basilios would not understand what the king said to those around him. So, for the next year Basilios waited on the king, bringing his wine in a beautiful golden cup. For Basilios' parents, devastated at the loss of their only child, the year passed slowly, filled with grief. As the next St. Nicholas' feast day approached, Basilios' mother would not join in the festivity, as it was now a day of tragedy. However, she was persuaded to have a simple observance at home—with quiet prayers for Basilios' safekeeping. Meanwhile, as Basilios was fulfilling his tasks serving the emir, he was suddenly whisked up and away. St. Nicholas appeared to the terrified boy, blessed him, and set him down at his home back in Myra. Imagine the joy and wonderment when Basilios amazingly appeared before his parents, still holding the king's golden cup. This is the first story told of St. Nicholas protecting children—which became his primary role in the West.

There are many more stories and legends about this great saint of the Church here. You can also read the history of how St. Nicholas became “a roly-poly red-suited American symbol for merry holiday festivity and commercial activity” here.

The good folks over at the St. Nicholas Center get it right: "Presenting St. Nicholas as the Christian saint he is, provides a corrective to an over-emphasis on the acquisitive, materialistic aspects of Christmas celebration."

Collect for Nicholas, Bishop of Myra
Almighty God, in your love you gave your servant Nicholas of Myra a perpetual name for deeds of kindness both on land and sea: Grant, we pray, that your Church may never cease to work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Mirror of the Psalms

It happens every once in a while that we hear words from a psalm in our corporate worship that trouble or shock us. It’s pretty rare that this happens in the Eucharistic lectionary appointed for Sundays, but since the Daily Office lectionary gets around to the recitation of each one of the psalms, it’s eventually going to happen in Morning or Evening Prayer.

Recently in Morning Prayer, for example, I was struck by these verses from perhaps the greatest of the “cursing” psalms:

Set a wicked man against him,
and let an accuser stand at this right hand.

When he is judged, let him be found guilty,
and let his appeal be in vain.

Let his days be few,
and let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless,
and his wife become a widow.

Let his children be waifs and beggars;
Let them be driven from the ruins of their homes.

Let the creditor seize everything he has;
let strangers plunder his gains.

Let there be no one to show him kindness,
and none to pity his fatherless children.
Psalm 109:5-11 (BCP, p. 751)

Psalm 109 continues with more graphic, vengeful detail for eight more verses.

There are many other examples in the psalms, such as this:

I destroy those who hate me;
they cry out, but there is none to help them;
they cry to the LORD, but he does not answer.
Psalm 18:41 (BCP, p. 605)

Or this:

Let not those who surround me lift up their heads;
let the evil of their lips overwhelm them.

Let hot burning coals fall upon them;
let them be cast into the mire, never to rise up again.
Psalm 140:9-10 (BCP, p. 796)

Or this:

The Lord who is at your right hand
will smite kings in the day of his wrath;
he will rule over the nations.

He will heap high the corpses;
he will smash heads over the wide earth.
Psalm 110:5-6 (BCP, pp. 753-754)

And then there’s the conclusion of Psalm 137:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,
against the people of Edom,
who said, “Down with it! down with it!
even to the ground!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy the one who pays you back
for what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,
and dashes them against the rock!
Psalm 137:7-9 (BCP, p. 792)

It’s hard to imagine a more graphic or vicious example of the desire for vengeance against one’s enemies. But there it is, right in the canon of our Holy Scripture.

I suppose someone like Bishop Spong would cite all of these as examples of “sins of the scriptures.” After all, don’t these passages flat-out contradict our Lord’s teaching: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27)? Wouldn’t it therefore be wrong to pray like this?

I think this is too thin a reading of what’s going on. At least initially, the New Zealand Prayer Book gets it right:

“The wide appeal of the psalms rests on their ability to give words to some of our deepest feelings in the face of life’s experiences. Whether for joy, worship and exaltation, or degradation and rejection, or hope, faith, love, anger, or despair, the psalms contain verses that reflect such moods. In them the writers expressed to God the thoughts of their heart and spirit. The richness of the psalms still speaks to us and in them we too can find words to match many of our moods and express them before God” [A New Zealand Prayer Book (HarperCollins, 1989), p. 195].

Ironically, as soon as the New Zealand Prayer Book affirms the need and appropriateness of expressing our “deepest feelings” across the full range of possibilities, it categorically rejects the expression of some of these feelings in worship as unacceptable, perhaps even un-Christian:

“Some omissions have been made on the grounds that we are not making a new translation of the Book of Psalms, but providing psalms suitable for Christian worship. Some verses of the psalms are not suitable for use in the corporate worship of the Church” [A New Zealand Prayer Book, p. 195].

And so the New Zealand Prayer Book sanitizes the psalms by taking out the verses I’ve cited above, as well as many others that are deemed “not suitable” (including omitting Psalms 58 and 83 entirely). Perhaps Spong would approve.

By contrast, Kathleen Norris offers a perspective on the psalms that provides a helpful corrective to sanitizing them. In an essay entitled “The Paradox of the Psalms” in her book The Cloister Walk, Norris candidly acknowledges the difficulties posed by some of the psalms, but simultaneously suggests that it's precisely those difficulties that make them relevant:

“ … to the modern reader the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from an ancient warrior culture? At a glance they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that’s the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth-century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms ‘become like a mirror to the person singing them,’ and this is as true now as when he wrote it” [The Cloister Walk (Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 93].

In addition to many other deep feelings, the psalms mirror for us the bitterness, hatred, and vengefulness that infect our hearts. They remind us that we religious folks are still fully human, all-too-human. And they show us that, in the name of our religion, we are fully capable of inflicting evil and suffering on others. “The psalms are unrelenting in their realism about the human psyche,” Norris observes. And she continues: “They ask us to consider our true situation, and to pray over it. They ask us to be honest about ourselves and admit that we, too, harbor the capacity for vengeance” [The Cloister Walk, p. 104]. And again:

"The psalms reveal our most difficult conflicts, and our deep desire, in Jungian terms, to run from the shadow. In them, the shadow speaks to us directly, in words that are painful to hear" [The Cloister Walk, p. 97].

But taken as a whole, the psalms don’t leave us there. “The psalms mirror our world,” writes Norris, “but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values” [The Cloister Walk, p. 103]. This kind of transformation-by-confrontation into deeper self-awareness can’t happen, however, if we sanitize the Psalms by editing out all of those parts that make us uncomfortable or express deep feelings which some may deem “not suitable.”

At the same time the psalms serve as a mirror revealing the fullness of our humanity, they also give us permission to pray all of it. When it comes to keeping company with God, no feelings are out of bounds. The good, the bad, and the ugly – the psalms allow us to lift it all up before the Lord in prayer. Here’s what Norris says about this:

“In expressing all the complexities and contradictions of human experience, the psalms act as good psychologists. They defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first” [The Cloister Walk, p. 96].

In short, the psalms – including especially the ugly, angry, vengeful psalms – allow us to pray as fully human beings who harbor feelings we may recoil from when we hear them expressed by others (perhaps even especially in scripture), but which, if we're honest, we harbor within ourselves. By giving us permission to pray those raw feelings and by providing models for how to do it, the psalms are God’s gift to us. As Norris sums it up: “What the psalms offer us is the possibility of transformation, of converting a potentially deadly force such as vengeance into something better” [The Cloister Walk, p. 104]. And that is precisely the kind of work we need to do in order to grow more fully into the image and likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ.