Monday, November 30, 2009

Liturgical Dance

And just in time for the Feast Day of St. Andrew!

Thanks to Andrew Plus for bringing this to my attention on a dreary, rainy Monday morning.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What Is It That We Most Deeply Hope For?

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Archbishop of Canterbury offers a very brief reflection in response to this question in the following video:

The video is the first offering from an on-line Advent calendar issued by the Church of England. The homepage describes the site's purpose as follows:

Take time out this Advent to slow down and consider your lifestyle with daily challenges and thoughts. This website contains a range of reflections, actions and video clips.

Here's the Advent 2009 launch video:

Thanks to Scott Gunn over at "Seven Whole Days" for the head's up about this Advent calendar.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Essential Christianity

"Christianity is essentially the good news of the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection, not an abstract set of timeless ethical truths."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Litany of Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks to God our Father for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea,
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,
We thank you, Lord.

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,
We thank you, Lord.

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,
We thank you, Lord.

Above all, we give you thanks for the great mercies and promises given to us in Christ Jesus our Lord;
To him be praise and glory, with you, O Father, and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 837

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dealing with Rude People (and other enemies)

In a posting entitled "How to deal with rude people," the Rev. Mark Brown, an Anglican priest in New Zealand, offers thoughtful reflections on this verse from the Gospel according to Luke: "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you" (Lk 6:27).

Recently someone I hardly know was unbelievably rude to me, and my initial reaction was to get angry and upset, and try and work out a way of getting back at them. My reaction certainly wasn’t to love them and be nice to them – and this is why this reading is so tremendously challenging.

Enemies in the greek is those who are rude and hostile towards us, people who for whatever reason treat us badly. And rather than lash out Jesus challenges us to respond in a completely different way. The first word is Love which in the greek is agapao and literally means to have generous concern for, to value and esteem, to be faithful towards and delight in. And then there is good which in the greek is kalos and refers to speaking well of someone, praising and applauding them.

So if someone is rude to me or treats me badly Jesus is saying that I am to treat them with considerable respect like they are a close special friend or dear family member… wow.

While it is critically important to note the implications of Jesus' teaching for Christians whose faith literally puts their lives at risk (as the examples of confessors and martyrs past and present testify), Fr. Mark's reflections invite those of us who are fortunate enough to live in less life-threatening social contexts to apply this teaching in ways we may not have thought about. This includes seemingly small things, like how we respond when someone cuts us off in traffic, breaks in line ahead of us at the store, plays passive/aggressive to undermine us at work, or says or does something rude to us in any number of other ways.

Jesus invites us to take the role of the rude other by imagining what it must be like to be him or her. Reflecting on our own experience of why we've been rude to others in the past is a good place to start. Didn't we feel justified for acting that way at the time? So instead of going with the knee-jerk reaction of lashing out, Jesus invites us to respond with a compassion born from an awareness of how we are like the person whose rudeness we find offensive. Such awareness could be a beginning for breaking the all-too-common cycle of a tit-for-tat rudeness that easily surfaces in the busyness of our everyday lives, but which, when escalated, can lead to violence.

When it comes to living the Christian life, the small stuff really does matter.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Gott spricht zu jedem nur, eh er ihn macht

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke,
from Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Experience of Jesus Upon the Cross

"The cross is a symbol of the fact that order has no easy victory in the world over chaos, that love has no easy triumph over force. Christ is always assuring one half of the world that the victory of the spirit over the confusion of the world is not impossible, and the other half that victory is not easy. He himself touched areas of life from which God seemed absent and had experiences in which for a moment the love of God appeared to be an illusion. The cry 'My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?' came out of a tortured soul - tortured not so much by physical pain as by the terrible reality of a life mission in apparent ruins. Yet a moment afterward came the cry of victory, 'My God, into thy hands I commend my spirit!'

"The experience of Jesus upon the cross is not one of a dreamy pantheist who imagines God in easy and magical control of every process in the universe. It was the experience of a spiritual adventurer who saw life as a struggle between love and chaos but who also discovered the love at the center of things which guarantees the victory in every apparent defeat."

Reinhold Niebuhr, "To Whom Shall We Go?"
The Christian Century
(March 10, 1927)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sliding into Nihilism

A friend recently sent me a link to Jean Bethke Elshtain's essay published in First Things entitled "While Europe Slept." Elshtain is the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago. I find her essay for First Things both fascinating and disturbing. Here are some excerpts:

In the great cathedrals in Europe, a few people—usually elderly women—can be found at worship. Everybody else is a tourist, cameras hanging around their necks, meandering through. I was recently in Scotland, and I read a newspaper story commenting on three hundred deserted churches dotting the Scottish countryside, asking if they should be destroyed or turned into bars and cafes. Europe herself, in her proposed constitution, refuses to acknowledge the heritage of Judaism and Christianity—although Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment are acknowledged.

Europe cannot remember who she is unless she remembers that she is the child not only of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and the Enlightenment but also of Judaism and Christianity—the child, therefore, of Catholicism and the Reformation. If Europe abandons her religious heritage, the idea of Europe dies. And Europe has abandoned, or forgotten, her religious heritage. Europe is now “post-Christian.” What does this mean? What does it portend?

If a culture forgets what it is, as I believe Europe has done, it falls first into an agnostic shrugging of the shoulders, unable to say exactly what it is and believes, and from there it will inevitably fall into nihilism. Detached from its religious foundations, Europe will not remain agnostic. The first result is manifest in those ideologies of multiculturalism that make “difference” a kind of sacred, absolute principle, although no principle is considered to have any such status. Difference tells us nothing in and of itself. Some ways of life and ways of being in the world are brutal, stupid, and ugly. Some a human rights-oriented culture cannot tolerate. A culture must believe in its own enculturating responsibility and mission in order to make claims of value and to institutionalize them in social and political forms. This a post-Christian Europe cannot do.

Multiculturalism is then, in practice, a series of monoculturalisms that do not engage one another at all; rather, the cultural particulate most enamored of gaining and holding power has an enormous advantage: One day, it proclaims, we will bury you. A sign carried by radical Islamist protestors in London during the fracas over the Dutch cartoons proclaimed, “Europe is a cancer / Islam is the answer.” A perverted idea of Islam confronts a Europe that has lost a sense of who she is and what she represents.

For that Europe, the window to transcendence is slammed shut. Human values alone pertain. But these human values are shriveled by a prior loss of the conviction that there is much to defend about the human person, and they are seen as so many subjectivist construals without any defensible, objective content. Unsurprisingly, what comes to prevail is a form of reduced utilitarianism that rationalizes nihilism.

The territory as one's own property is the self itself, or an understanding of the self shorn of any encumbrances of the past, any shackles of old defunct moralities. The self blows hither, thither; it matters not, if it blows my way. The question of what the self is, and whether it has any transcendent meaning, is answered with a shrug. ...

Ironically, while Catholicism has become a champion of human rights and democracy as the political form that supports human dignity most fully and bids to be the political form within which human flourishing is most likely to take place, much secular reason has increasingly manifested itself as secularism. And secularism—a rigid cultural ideology that mocks religion as superstition and celebrates technological rationalism as the only proper and intelligent way to think and to be in the world—has developed into nihilism, into a world in which we can no longer make judgments of value and truth in defense of human dignity and flourishing.

No good has ever— ever—come from narrowing and constricting our understanding of humanity in this way. The Jerusalem side of the European heritage tells us that all are equally children of God—the disabled, the ugly, the bad-smelling, the boring, the lonely—all require our care and concern. As the anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, even the most wretched life is worth living before God.

Without God, without some transcendent principle, the wretched life is not worth living at all. And others have the power to decide whose life is wretched based on utilitarian criteria. The utilitarian ethic would annihilate the Christian ethic in the name of progress and decency and the ending of suffering. ...

Europe suffers from many self-inflicted wounds—the wounds of indifference, the wounds of self-absorption. Will Europe be able to deal with all the daunting challenges she faces, including destabilization, economic stagnation, a resurgence of anti-Semitism, and all the rest? Only if she remembers who she is, with something precious and valuable to offer, which means accepting her religious heritage and its normative constraints on what people are permitted to do and how they may do it. Only if Europe can sustain principles and commitments that are historically derived from presuppositions of divinely sanctioned human dignity. I speak here not of faith but of sustaining cultural memory, including that which resolutely rejected the view that we are all forced to choose between faith and reason, which would rule Europe's historical dialectic irrelevant. ...

When I was an undergraduate more than forty years ago, I attended a lecture by Sir Julian Huxley, scion of the Enlightenment, a distinguished branch off the tree Huxley, a proponent of scientism, enthusiastic about eugenics as the forward march of progress. Without qualification of any kind, he pronounced that by the year 2000 religion and nationalism will have disappeared, having been supplanted by the total victory of scientific rationality and a benign world order. The view of the human person celebrated by Huxley was that of the sovereign individual, ruler of his own domain, master of all he surveys. There is no soul to fret about, only mastery to achieve.

Four years ago in April, a beloved Pope John Paul II lay in repose in Rome. As his body was carried into St. Peter's, the pallbearers made a circle through the crowd and then carried his body into the basilica as the people wept and applauded and the litany of the saints rang out with its beautiful, haunting chant that tells us we are not alone on our earthly journey.

Here we witness another sort of reality, another future, even another international order embodied. The view of the human person celebrated in the litany of the saints and honored by the presence of the millions, many of them young people, who poured into Rome to celebrate and to mourn, is very much that of the ensouled body, keeping body and soul, spirit and flesh together. This life is exquisitely social, its meaning and purpose immanent yet framed by the transcendent.

Which represents Europe? Huxley's optimistic view of a vision of progress unencumbered by faith and moral fretting, or John Paul II's “sign of contradiction”? There could scarcely be a wider gap than that between a view of human life as encompassed entirely by birth and ending definitively with death, with both birth and death coming increasingly under rationalistic and scientist control, and a view of human life as a gift and a blessing, given meaning because we understand that our good is not ours alone but a good that links us to a world of others, our brothers and sisters, although they may be foreign and strange and even hostile.

That Europe should wind up poised between two such powerful and contrasting worlds results from no incoherence, as a moral philosopher might claim, but rather from the intrinsic telos embedded in each distinctive understanding and deeded to it by its history. Europe was defined for centuries in and through an energetic dialogue between belief and unbelief and, having lost belief, finds nihilism.

Read it all.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Withdrawal Symptoms: Is God Giving Us What We Deserve?

Gene Davenport, professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University in Jackson, TN and theologian in residence at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jackson, offers some rather grim thoughts on the state of our world:

In reality, the three areas ... [of the economy, health care, and U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan] are simply part of the chaos that engulfs contemporary Western society. Other manifestations of that chaos include the widespread breakdown of authority and personal responsibility, the increase in violence, the loss of respect for others and of a personal sense of decency and restraint, the political hysteria in radio and TV talk shows from both the right and the left – and on the list could go.

Twenty years ago, I wrote that Western society at that time exhibited characteristics commonly associated with insanity, including obliviousness to reality, absorption in a self-contained world of one's own invention, obsession with trivia and domination by paranoia. It was motivated by the contradictory drives of self-love and self-hatred and driven impulsively toward self-destruction. In other words, society, I said, was clinically insane. I see no reason to modify that observation today.

From a biblical perspective, we have been handed over to what English versions of the New Testament translate as "the wrath of God." For the apostle Paul, however, the wrath of God is not God's angry attack upon the world, but is God's withdrawal from the world, God's handing the world over to its own desires.

Some will say that since Paul also saw Jesus as the one in whom God reclaimed the world, God no longer acts the way I have described – that, instead, God so completely loves the world that he will never give up on it. Ultimately, that is correct. But that does not change the fact that there still are times when God abandons the world to its own devices. The work of God in Christ does not eliminate the wrath of God. It simply reveals it more clearly. And we experience the working out of that wrath as social and personal chaos.

Consequently, megachurches, mainline churches, independent churches, TV evangelists, church growth engineers, advocates of "bringing the church into the modern world," advocates of a return to Christian domination of the society – all, failing to recognize the reality of our plight, are simply tilting at windmills.

Although there have been religious thinkers with prophetic insight into the nature of our age – for example, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton and Ivan Illich (Catholic), Jacques Ellul and William Stringfellow (Protestant) and Martin Buber (Jewish) – there also have been secular prophets who saw the world more clearly than did most religious leaders – for example, George Orwell ("1984"), Aldous Huxley ("Brave New World") and Mary Shelley ("Frankenstein").

They warned that a world controlled by technology and good intentions would wind up with control in the hands of a few and with all those things that truly make us human having been sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

Read it all.

Interesting as Davenport's thoughts are, I wonder if it's really fair to single out our time as so utterly unique or so hopelessly turned in upon itself. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if we could find thoughtful persons in every age of human history who have embraced a piety of pessimism about their world. Perhaps, in different ways and contexts, things have always been askew and chaotic (those of us who still believe in original sin wouldn't be surprised by that). But it's tempting to take comfort in the exceptional character of our own time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America

Just for the kick of it earlier today, I Googled my name and the title of an essay I wrote in fulfillment of requirements for a sociology of religion class during my senior year at Kenyon College that was published in the Fall 1992 issue of The Wittenberg Review (a journal which I believe is now defunct). The essay is entitled, "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America."

Much to my Google-searching surprise, I discovered that Dr. William S. Abruzzi, Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Muhlenberg College, has been using my essay as one of the required readings for his "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Movements" class. A link from the website for this class entitled "Saint Elvis the Divine" includes excerpts from my essay (although on the site Dr. Abruzzi gets my name wrong as Charles Bryant Owens).

I couldn't resist e-mailing Dr. Abruzzi to share my amazement that anybody would even know about my essay, much less be assigning it for a college class. He wrote back:

I begin my class on religious movements with a discussion of the question "What is a religion?" It is in this context that I use your article. It understandably disturbs a number of my students to consider Preslianity a religion, but I want them to be aware of the variety of movements that anthropologists would lump under the category of religious movements. I also have them view the film Mondo Elvis, which they also have great difficulty accepting!!

Among other scholarly and pop culture sources, I cited the 1984 documentary film Mondo Elvis a number of times in my essay. If you haven't seen this film, then by all means do yourself a favor and rent or buy it. It's one wild ride!

Just for the fun of it, and bearing in mind that I wrote it half a lifetime ago, here are some excerpts from my essay "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America."

The image of Elvis Presley is deeply embedded in American culture. Fifteen years after his death the tabloids continue to print sensational headlines about Elvis sightings and the magical powers possessed by the King of rock and roll. Some fans even devote their lives to Elvis. Viewing the devotion Elvis' popular image as a form of secularized religious consciousness provides a means of understanding both the fascination of American culture with Elvis and the worshipful adoration of his fans. But it also provides an understanding of the values that define us all as Americans. This point of view discourages the judgment that Elvis devotees are fanatics. Rather, their religious devotion explicitly reveals the idolatrous ultimate concern shaping the identity and values of all Americans in a secular society: the pursuit of a consumer lifestyle and the consumption of products. ...

The idea of a secularized civil religion illuminates the meaning and function of the popular image of Elvis in the American consciousness. By rising from rags to riches, Elvis perfectly fulfilled the values of the American dream paradigm. Most Americans are familiar with the basic story of Elvis Presley, particularly his humble beginnings as a poor boy in Tupelo, Mississippi, his recording a song for his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, his gaining a recording contract with Sun Records in Memphis, and his rise to the most internationally acclaimed music personality in the world. And given his extraordinary charisma as a performer and as an individual, the myths later to arise through the medium of popular culture are more easily understood. Dr. Raymond Moody, in his book Elvis After Life, compiled a list of fifteen qualities attributed to Elvis. Outstanding in this list are such qualities as "kindness, warmth and sincerity," "generosity," "being a good son," "humor," "sadness," "influence on others," "loyalty to his friends," "law and order," and "strong religious faith." Such attributes are critical for maintaining the purity of the deified popular image of Preslianity's Elvis. While the pop image of Elvis bridges class lines through the media, the majority of individuals expressing religious devotion to Elvis are largely confined to the white lower middle class and the working class [cf. Melissa Olson & Darrel Crase, "Presleymania: The Elvis Factor," Death Studies 14 (May-June 1990): 281]. Essentially, Elvis' image authenticates a consumer lifestyle to those most in danger of becoming alienated from its excesses. ...

Elvis' popular image functions religiously as a mediating symbol between the everyday lives of average Americans and the "transcendent meaning" of the alternate reality of consumerism [Peter Stromberg, "Elvis Alive?: The Ideology of American Consumerism," Journal of Popular Culture 24.3 (Winter 1990): 13]. "The deification of Elvis" by consumerism and the dissemination of Elvis' image through popular culture demonstrates the important function of celebrities in consumerism:

Celebrities are deities because they are the most significant mediators in American consumerism; like the Christian deity Jesus Christ they are at once human and God. They are the ones who participate in two worlds, the world we all live in and the world we all aspire to [Stromberg, ibid., p. 17].

But Elvis' popular image is unique in its abiding appeal. Because Elvis' pop culture image symbolizes the "American dream," it functions as a Christ figure in consumerism. As mediator between the two worlds posited by consumerism, Elvis embodies the larger, abstract reality of consumer culture. Spiritual experiences with Elvis personify consumer culture as warm and caring while simultaneously allowing it to transcend the ordinariness of everyday experience. ...

The documentary film Mondo Elvis underscores both the religious fervor surrounding Elvis and the grounding of Preslianity in consumerism. At the time of the funeral, a picture of Jesus, an open Bible, and an American flag with "God Blessed America! He Gave Us Elvis" were next to the grave. Gift shops across the street from Graceland sell souvenirs such as "Authentic - From Elvis' Yard - A Bag of Dirt from Graceland" and "Prayers Answered - The King Lives! - Elvis Sweat." Jim Miller points out in an article for Newsweek that "Elvis still gets mail - one or two letters every day" and that "Graceland ... draws more than 500,000 visitors a year" ["Forever Elvis," Newsweek (August 3, 1987), p. 48]. And every year on the anniversary of his death, a candlelight vigil is held in which thousands of fans, many openly weeping, place candles by the grave or under a statue of Jesus with Presley inscribed at the bottom. The vigil itself is highly ritualized. The "faithful circle Elvis' grave with lighted candles - extinguishing the flames with their first glimpse of the rising sun" [Neil Asher Silberman, "Elvis: The Myth Lives On," Archeology 43.4 (July-August 1990): 80]. ...

The traditional religious institution of the church has taken note of the rising devotion to Preslianity. Richard Corliss quotes the Rev. Robert D. Martin in Time on the rise in religious devotion to Elvis:

"This has all the markings of the rise of a new religions," says the retired Episcopal minister from Hernando, Miss. "Elvis is the god, and Graceland the shrine. There are no writings, but that could be his music. And some even say he is rising again. The August week is more like people going to Lourdes than to an entertainment event. People genuflect before his grave. Women have come to Memphis to deliver babies, claiming Elvis is the father and that he will come down from heaven when the boy is 16 to anoint him - sort of like Jesus in the Jordan River" [Richard Corliss, "The King is Dead - or Is He? The Elvis Cult has the Makings of a Rising New Religion, Time Magazine (October 10, 1988), p. 91].

The parallels between the pop culture story of Elvis and that of the Biblical stories of Jesus are striking, although not surprising given civil religion's use of Biblical imagery. Both Elvis and Jesus started in humble and poor settings, both attracted followings and gained widespread fame through their charismatic personalities, and Elvis was "crucified" by the pressures of the music industry as Jesus was by the Roman authorities. ...

... with the American dream becoming more difficult for lower middle class and working class Americans to obtain, making Elvis paradigmatic of that myth allows him to "exist from day to day in the fabulous world beyond" while simultaneously underscoring that he is "no different from you or I"; as "the divine mediator" of consumer culture, Elvis through his image proclaims both the possibility and the desirability of participating in the American dream of the consumer lifestyle [Stromberg, ibid., p. 16]. The materialism of the American lifestyle is thereby religiously justified. ...

In addition to spiritual experiences, some people express their devotion to Elvis by dedicating their lives to him. One woman interviewed in Mondo Elvis provides an excellent example of this type of religious devotion. While in the military, she married, and soon afterward saw Elvis in a movie. She then declared to her husband that she loved another man and that he would just have to accept it. He later became so furious over her love for Elvis that he divorced her. One of the grounds for divorce was "excessive devotion to Elvis Presley."

When her youngest daughter died, she buried her with a copy of "Burning Love" in her hands and wearing the same dress the little girl had worn when Elvis brought her on stage at a concert. Following the funeral she went to an Elvis concert and claimed that her sanity was restored by the show's end. And when Elvis died, she remembers thinking "what are we gonna do, how are we gonna live? He's gone" (Mondo Elvis). She promptly left New Jersey to live in Memphis so she could "be with Elvis." The film makes it clear that Elvis is a spiritual presence for her. As another woman in the documentary described it: "If you really believe in Elvis, if you are a good person ... [and] if you follow God ... Elvis can heal you" (Mondo Elvis).

The life of this woman demonstrates the reality of genuine religious devotion for the popular image of Elvis. It legitimates her daughter's death, the collapse of her marriage, and her very world view. Her devotion provides a context of meaning and validation that transcends the everyday world. In this sense it is best understood as religious. This woman has literally given up everything for Elvis. On the surface, the price for her devotion appears to include estrangement from the larger social world and alienation from her family.

Yet it must be emphasized that she shares the consumer lifestyle with the larger social context. Only her explicitly religious expression of it as Preslianity places her on the fringe of society in the eyes of other people and to adherents of more "respectable" faiths. That the pop image of Elvis provided this connection to a "higher reality" reveals that, far from being completely alienated from the world, this woman has actually reintegrated the values of consumer culture at a different level of human experience. Those who call devotees of Preslianity "extremists" or "fanatics" would do well to examine their own participation in the rites and rituals of consumerism and to remember that the emergence of new forms of religious consciousness are usually met with hostility and derision by those identifying with the established institutions of society. ...

However, popular culture's legitimation of consumer values through the image of Elvis is accomplished by masking those aspects of Elvis' life that could lead to disillusionment with Preslianity and to challenging the values of the consumer status quo. The popular image of Elvis veils the darker side of the singer's lifestyle. Jim Miller highlights this dark side in Time Magazine:

To the uninitiated, the cult of Saint Elvis must seem ludicrous. Here, after all, was a pill-popping junk-food addict who enjoyed shooting television sets and didn't think twice about jetting to Denver for peanut-butter sandwiches. Yet for all of his fabled excess, Elvis, if anything, has only grown. He's become a complex figure of American myth: as improbably successful as a Horatio Alger hero, as endearing as Micky Mouse, as tragically self-destructive as Marilyn Monroe. There is the saintly Elvis who loved his mom, gave away Cadillacs and ... all but walked on water. And then there is the Rabelaisian Elvis - a hungry good ole boy whose ability to satisfy his every whim, from synthetic opiates to Eskimo Pies, eventually killed him [Jim Miller, "Forever Elvis," Newsweek (August 3, 1987), p. 48].

The popular image of Elvis is what Jim Miller calls "the saintly Elvis." By spreading this image, consumerism intentionally fails to reveal the essence of the singer's early image: that of a rebel against white, Protestant social norms. In a highly ironic manner, consumerism has transformed Elvis into a paradigm of the very social values his early stage presence undermined. More sinister is the cover-up of Elvis' excessively consumeristic lifestyle. Implicit within Preslianity is a theodicy that denies the reality of Elvis' dark side by hiding it from critical scrutiny.

Peter Stromberg's analysis of consumerism as ideology is relevant here. After defining consumerism as religion, Stromberg comments on the reason why consumerism's kerygma (as proclaimed through advertising) that "the potential consumer ... will be a changed person if the product is acquired" passes largely unnoticed in American society:

The reason for this is that we are all believers. Consumerism is so convincing that it seems not an ideology bu a simple fact. Is it not true that wealth can purchase comfort? Is it not reasonable to believe that through consumption a person can enter a more comfortable world, a relative utopia? Have we not seen it ourselves, to some extent perhaps experience such a transformation as our own fortunes have improved?

Comfort, however, must be distinguished from perfection. The world of the advertisement is not so much comfortable as lacking any discomfort. Thus while the ideology of consumerism seems reasonable in the face of actual experience - indeed every religion must do this - it offers a perfect version of the future that belongs not to the realm of economic realism but rather to that of fantasy [Stromberg, ibid., p. 13].

The negative side of Elvis' life is denied to shroud the potentially destructive "fantasy" of "the ritual nature of our economic activity" and its excesses [Stromberg, ibid, p. 13].

Excerpts from Charles Bryan Owen, "Preslianity: Religious Devotion to Elvis Presley in America," The Wittenberg Review: An Undergraduate Journal of the Liberal Arts 3/2 (Fall 1992): 101-118.

Here is Elvis impersonator Artie Mentz, who is featured in the documentary film Mondo Elvis and whose story I cite in my essay:

And here's the real thing:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Making God Credible

How do we make God credible? The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Williams, offers a biblically grounded response to that question in his All Saints' Day sermon:

Witnesses establish the truth by giving evidence. It really is as simple as that. When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died. The saints are the people who recognise that arguments will finally not win the day. God does not make himself credible by argument. God does not respond to our doubts, our intellectual querying, our uncertainty, by delivering from Heaven a neatly annotated list of logical propositions with which we cannot disagree. (I'm afraid that Professor Dawkins can bang on the doors of Heaven as long as he likes if that is what he expects to happen.) God deals with us by our life and a death, by Jesus. And God continues to deal with us by lives and deaths that make him credible, that make Jesus tangible here and now. All those people who flocked into Westminster Cathedral a couple of weeks' ago to pay their respects to St Therese of Lisieux were recognizing that in her Christ became tangible for her generation and for ours and that is what the Saints do.

Do we think it is impossible to live a Christlike life in this or that setting, with these stresses or those, in the presence of dark evil and deep suffering? If we doubt it, it is not argument that will settle the matter: it is the bare reality of life lived in a Christlike way in such circumstances. In the very early Church, local congregations would write eagerly to one another to describe the sufferings they'd been through and the martyrs who had glorified God in their midst. They were telling one another, 'It is believable. We have seen and touched with our hands, the word of life. We have seen lives lived in desperate and reckless generosity to the point of death, and God has become credible afresh to us in those lives. That was the exchange, the common currency of the early Church and I suspect that the faith of the Church catholic – let alone the Anglican Communion – would be a bit different these days if our main currency of exchange was to let one another know how God had become credible to us. ...

So at All Saints' tide we give thanks that God in Christ has made himself credible; credible in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus; credible in the lives of those in whom Jesus has come alive. And we thank God for that extraordinary promise: that the great Saints of the Communion of Christ's body depend on us as we depend on them in growing together. ...

We need to tell the stories of the Saints to remind ourselves what is possible and within any Christian family. We need to tell the stories of those who have made God credible to us. And within our Anglican family we need to go on telling a few stories about those who have shown us that it is possible to lead lives of Catholic holiness even in the Communion of the See of Canterbury! We need to be reminded of what we have to be grateful for in the lives of those who within our communion and fellowship have lived out God's presence and made him credible here in this fellowship with these people. God knows what the future holds for any of us for any of our ecclesiastical institutions, but we can at least begin with what we can be sure of; that God has graced us with the lives of Saints; that God has been credible in this fellowship with these people. This church with its very particular place in the history of the Church of England is one small but significant facet of that great mystery and that great gift. And at times when the future seems more than usually chaotic and uncertain, it doesn't hurt simply to give thanks.

Read it all.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Have You Been Born Again?

Fr. Stephen offers some thoughts on this question from an Eastern Orthodox perspective:

There is an assumption among a number of Protestant Christians that to be “born-again” is the equivalent of a particular decision (which the Orthodox would term “repentance”) at a particular time in which we repent of our sins and ask Jesus to be the Savior of our life. Repentance is indeed Biblical, as is the phrase “born-again.” However the conflation of the two, in which a particular response at a particular time (always and necessarily at the “age of accountability” or later) is equated with the “born again” in Christ’s conversation with Nicodemus recorded in the third chapter of St. John’s gospel. That conflation is of very recent vintage, a Biblical interpretation dating back to the origins of the Evangelical Movement a few hundred years back. That is to say – it is a novel idea – not an item of Christian revelation.

There is nothing within the actual text of Scripture that requires such an interpretation. Indeed, Christ’s use of the phrase in St. John’s gospel, makes specific connection with “water and the Spirit.” The traditional interpretation of the phrase “born-again” has in fact always been to equate it with Holy Baptism. St. Peter’s reference to being “born again” (1 Peter 3:3-5) where it is written that God . . . “has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, . . .” is another reference to Baptism – for it is specifically in Baptism, St. Paul tells us (Romans 6:4-6), that we are united to Christ’s resurrection. This is the faith of Orthodox.

However, such a belief carries within it an understanding that Holy Baptism is more than a “mere symbol” or an “empty ritual.” It is the means given to us by Christ through which we are united with Him. It is also the understanding of the Church that the gift given to us in Holy Baptism should be continually received by us in the life of faith. But being “born again” is not to be reduced to a “spiritual transaction.”

At the heart of the matter is the question of what it means to be in relation to God. How is it that we are saved? What is the goal and purpose of the Christian life? Some versions of modern Christian thought have offered radical departures from classical Christian teaching – making salvation external to our life (in various forensic models) – or grounded in various transactional accounts (with emphases on our ‘decision’ for Christ).

Salvation is union with God through Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is Trinitarian. It transcends the will though it includes the will. It transcends the will just as the will is not the ultimate seat of our personhood. It includes the will just as the will is an important aspect of our existence. Those who have exalted the role of ‘decision’ in our salvation have also unwittingly diminished the personhood of those in whom the will is diminished (the unborn, the mentally impaired, etc.). The exaltation of the will, it would seem, is a by-product of a culture in which the most important role of human beings is as consumers. Salvation in Christ is not a product for our consumption. It cannot be marketed or reduced to something grasped by the will.

I think these are wise and generous words from Fr. Stephen. I also believe they overlap with The Book of Common Prayer's theology of Baptism. And while I do not wish to negate the importance of subjectively appropriating what has been objectively accomplished by Christ on the cross for our salvation, I also believe that we must not minimize the objective truth of Baptism by subordinating it to the human will. As I've noted elsewhere:

It is objectively true ... that I am "sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 308). It is objectively true that this happened for me on April 27, 1969 ("Good Shepherd Sunday"). And it is objectively true that this happened before my first birthday and thus before I was capable of making any kind of response to the gift of salvation I received in Baptism.

On the other hand, it is also true that, once I got a bit older, I became (and still am) capable of making the choice of saying "no" to this objectively given gift by traveling "to a distant country" and squandering my inheritance "in dissolute living" (Luke 15:13). Or, perhaps less dramatically, I can benignly neglect the gift, assuming that there's nothing I need to do to cooperate with God's work of salvation, putting the gift I've received on a shelf or in a closet, letting it gather dust while I go about the business of being the Lord of my own life.

I can reject the gift of God's acceptance of me. But even if I reject that gift, I cannot destroy it. "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 298). The wayward son can always return to the Father's house. The neglectful can always return to the gift, blow the dust off of it, unwrap the package, take it out, and put it to its God-given use.

Have I been born again? Yes, indeed, I have been born again. I was born again - united with Christ in his death and resurrection, born into God's family the Church, and given the gifts of forgiveness of sins and new life in the Holy Spirit - when I was baptized on April 27, 1969 at Tunica United Methodist Church in Tunica, Mississippi.

And if you've been baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, you've been born again, too.

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

RCL, Proper 27B: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Click here to listen to the sermon.

When I was in Jerusalem about a year ago, one of the things I enjoyed the most besides visiting the holy sites was people watching. People from all over the world were thronging through the narrow streets of the Old City, speaking different languages, wearing different and sometimes exotic dress, with skin colors ranging from pale white to deep, rich browns and blacks. Swimming in this sea of humanity, it was easy to be distracted and miss out on details. But sometimes small things would catch my eye, like the children who had just gotten out of school that were toting their Spider Man book bags home. Or the many scrawny cats that prowled around the streets. Or the young Jewish woman who was looking down at the Western Wall from a terrace, reciting Psalms, sobbing and shaking, tears streaming down her face as though she had just witnessed the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

Walking in the midst of so many people, I can imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and his disciples when they were in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the Passover. That was a time of year when scholars say that as many as 100 to 250 thousand visitors from around the Roman Empire descended upon the Holy City, overwhelming its population of 80 thousand like a tidal wave. It would have been easy to not notice things and people small and quiet. But in today’s gospel lesson, we see that Jesus’ hawk-like eyes don’t miss a trick.

Jesus and his disciples are hanging out in the temple watching people drop coins into the treasury. Mark tells us that many rich people put in huge sums. Since there was no paper money in those days, all of those coins would probably have made quite a racket when dropped into the treasury. That would make religious giving a great opportunity to call attention to how pious you are. But then a widow shows up. Unlike everybody else, she puts in just two small coins worth about one sixty-fourth of a day’s wages. In they go, making hardly a sound.

Nobody else notices except for Jesus. When he sees what this widow does, Jesus points her out to his disciples. “Did you see that?” he says to them. “This poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they’ll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn’t afford” (Mk 12:43-44, The Message). “She put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44 NRSV).

In Jesus’ day, a widow was a nobody. Widows had no social standing and were completely dependent on others for survival. The word that Mark uses to describe this particular widow suggests that she was a beggar. Her existence was literally “hand to mouth.” And yet, she gave what little money she had to the temple treasury.

Traditional interpretations suggest that since this poor widow’s gift was a true sacrifice, and since the rich gave at no cost to themselves, the giving of the rich doesn’t count for much. It’s the poor widow who models for us what it means to be good stewards of our money and possessions. She shows us that it’s the spirit of our giving and the sacrifice we’re willing to make that really count in God’s eyes. Do we give out of compulsion or out of gratitude? Are we willing to go beyond comfortable giving? Are we willing to follow this poor widow’s example by giving until it hurts?

We do well to not easily dismiss this interpretation. As one commentator notes, “Few people will do without their pleasures to give a little more to the work of God,” and “there is nearly always something we hold back” from God.[1] That’s probably true, but there’s a big problem with reading the widow’s action this way. It’s certainly the case that Jesus has described what she did. Out of her poverty, she gave all she had to live on. But nowhere in this passage does Jesus offer a single word of commendation for what she’s done. He doesn’t praise her. He does not say, “She didn’t hold anything back, she gave away all she had to live on and that’s a good thing. You should do that, too.” And Jesus definitely does not say, “If you’re poor, God wants you to give away what little you have to live on.”

Perhaps an example a bit closer to our possible experience helps drive the point home. Suppose you knew someone who lived on a fixed income, or someone so poor that she didn’t know where her next meal was coming from, and you found out that she had given away everything she had to live on. What little money she had is gone. Now there’s nothing left to pay the rent, or the electric bill, or to buy groceries. Even if she did it for the best of reasons, would any of us really say, “Wow! That’s awesome! What an inspiring example for me to follow and to commend to others!”?

And would it really help if we found out that she had given everything she had to live on to the Church? Would it make any positive difference if we discovered that someone in a position of religious authority had convinced her that giving everything she had to live on to the Church is God’s will? That God would be pleased if she did that and would reward her for it? And what kind of religious institution would be willing to accept everything she had to live on? What kind of religious institution would persuade society’s most vulnerable to give a gift that renders the giver absolutely destitute?

Questions like these are appropriate in light of the fact that Mark links the story of this poor widow with Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes. Capable of reading and writing, the scribes were influential interpreters and teachers of the Law. They were lawyers for the ruling class of the day. And like the other religious and political elites, they benefited from the income generated by the Temple. It was to that income that this poor widow, in her very small way, contributed by giving everything she had to live on.

Mark links this poor widow’s giving to Jesus condemnation of the scribes for “devour[ing] widows’ houses” (Mk 12:40 NRSV). While strutting around town in their long, flowing robes, courting favor in the synagogues and seeking seats of honor at parties, the scribes are stealing from the poorest of the poor what little they have left to live on. They exploit the weak and defenseless to line their own pockets, defenseless persons like this poor widow. And then they add insult to injury by equating evil with the good, cloaking their exploitation of the desperately poor and needy in the pious mantle of religious observance.

So when Jesus says to his disciples that “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury,” he’s not holding her up as a role model (Mk 12:43 NRSV). He’s offering an astonished lament at the perverse injustice of what he’s seeing happen right before his very eyes: a daughter of Israel participating in her own exploitation by supporting a corrupt religious institution at the possible expense of her own life.

The story of the poor widow giving away everything she had to live on to the temple is a tragic reminder that religion can be used for evil, oppressive purposes. It’s a reminder that vulnerable people can sometimes buy into a theology that undermines their dignity and takes advantage of them. This story also shows us that using religion to exploit the poor and the helpless enrages our Lord. It calls forth his strongest condemnation. And it breaks his heart, especially when it’s done in his Name.

We live in a world filled with poverty, abuse, oppression, and exploitation. And we live in a world in which our Christian faith sometimes gets used to do the very things to others that break our Lord’s heart. And yet, we know that the very same faith that can be twisted and manipulated to pilfer poor widows can also be used to feed the hungry, build houses for the homeless, care for the sick, befriend the lonely, and extend a hand of fellowship to those the world writes off as worthless. Harnessing our faith’s capacity for such life and dignity-affirming good is a crucial part of the Church’s mission of spreading the message of hope, love, and justice we have received in the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are charged with persevering against evil, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and respecting the dignity of every human being. May we faithfully carry out this charge by refusing to be nice, meek and mild in the face of injustice by sharing our Lord’s outrage over this world’s exploitation of the weak and the helpless. May we place a higher value on serving the poor, the weak, the sick, and the lonely than on institutional maintenance and self-preservation. And may we make the sacrifices necessary to practice what the New Testament calls “pure and genuine religion,” which is “to take care of orphans and widows in their suffering, and to keep oneself from being corrupted by the world” (James 1:27 TEV).

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark Revised Edition (The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 302, 303.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Open to the Bible

Something happens when the Bible becomes an object of formal study. When we approach the Bible in the way that an historian approaches the letters of Napoleon, for example, we distance ourselves from it. The Bible becomes a detached object of attention, like cells on a glass slide under a microscope. We become judges of what we see. Yet if God still speaks to us through the Bible, and if it does contain words of correction and instruction for us, then we have to be open to a different way of seeing it. We have to be open to letting the Bible also become the measure for us.

Stephen Holmgren, Ethics After Easter (Cowley Publications, 2000)