Updated: 6 days ago
Violence in the Bible- # 20
I have a number of videos of workshops by John Dominic Crossan, the noted Irish-American biblical scholar. He is an engaging and informative speaker. The most recent one I have is a workshop in which he discusses ideas from his book “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”. You can find a number of talks by him on YouTube if you like. I am certainly indebted to him for a number of ideas I have discussed in this blog, but I’ve usually drawn from other books in my library, not a lot from Crossan himself. This is an oversight that I must correct!
John Dominic Crossan was a leading member of the “Jesus Seminar” back in the 1970’s, along with the late Marcus Borg. Their work was based on historical analysis, because as he says in one of his videos, bad history leads to bad theology! The history leads one to the inescapable conclusion that Jesus led a movement of non-violent resistance to Roman oppression. But if Jesus was non-violent and he was an incarnation of the God of the Bible, what about all the violence in the Bible? A very good question!
In Crossan’s very helpful book he points out that there are several conflicting but co-existing themes throughout the OT (Old Testament). One of these is Violence/Non-Violence. Of course the history of the Jewish nation was one of continuous wars, so lots of violence there. But the counterpoint of non-violence is always there also. The truly wonderful book of Joel is a warning of the inevitable results of violence, but it also has a lyrical vision of a world of peace (where old men dream dreams)!. Sometimes the Jewish God is seen as a wrathful destroyer, sometimes as not. The God of the book of Exodus is one of the former, and we read of Miriam (the sister of Aaron) dancing for joy when all the Egyptians were drowned – surely not a case of loving your enemies! Or take Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon) which exhorts the reader to smash in the heads of the infant children of Babylon. But the altogether nastiest and most horribly violent book in the OT is the Book of Joshua. There is simply no way of pretending it tells us anything about God’s promise to his people. As it happens it is not even good history either!
So to read the OT we need to keep in mind the conflict between these two themes, violence and non-violence. Because it is a collection of writings by humans, and because we all have these two conflicting themes in our own hearts, it is not surprising that they appear in the literature of the Jewish people. But let me be absolutely clear: violence is NOT the inerrant word of God. Is there violence in the New Testament? Much less so but it is there. For example in Matthew’s account Jesus is supposed to curse the towns which did not accept his teaching, telling them that their fate will be worse than the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. I think we can agree that Jesus was not a man who preached vengeance, but there it is! We need not even dwell on the Book of Revelation.
John Dominic Crossan’s account of the mysterious history of the first 30 years after Jesus is one of the keystones in my library, and his books with Marcus Borg are really required reading for any serious Christian – or serious non-Christian for that matter. But in one of his sermons he zeroed in on what is really the essential core of the Bible (I’d like it read at my Funeral!). It is Psalm 82, God’s judgement on the gods (the ones we make for ourselves, I suppose). For they were supposed to care for the weak, the oppresseed, the poor and the sick but instead their care is for the rich and powerful. And because of that failure, the foundations of the earth are shaken!. Surely this is the truth we should hear in our own times.
Certainty in a Time of Fear-Entry #19
In an earlier blog I remarked on the undeniable collapse of churchgoing in our society. In fact, the loss of congregations is mainly evident in so-called “mainline” churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and so on. Take a trip up the valley on a Sunday and you will see that the parking lots of evangelical churches are quite full. So, one might ask, what do these churches offer that the mainliners don’t? In years gone by I had a relationship with a group of evangelical Christians while on sabbatical in Washington DC, so I am speaking from a bit of experience here. I was in fact quite impressed with my friends in the group, though not with all of of their beliefs. What their pastors offered to them was certainty, a rock solid foundation to their world view of course, but also a complete refusal to consider other views. Asking difficult questions was a definite no-no. Still, their strong sense of community and belonging was attractive to me. In case you wonder, we did go to an Episcopal church that year, which was also a wonderful community, but you could ask questions!
I believe that for me and for many people on our society the idea of certainty rings very hollow. I cannot pretend that the future for my grandchildren looks bright, when so much that appeared safe and secure in life was an illusion. We are probably contemplating a collapse of the environment in the very near future, in some places it has already happened. A new economic order has left the overwhelming majority of the world in poverty while a tiny few can spend billions on glossy toys. New diseases continue to emerge, millions of refugees populate the camps, and the prospect of another major war is with us again. To complete the four horsemen, serious shortage of food staples is also imminent. How ironic that when humanity has reached a summit of technological power, civilization is on the verge of collapse. This is not the first time in history when the old certainties have evaporated. But once long ago in western societies, the church in its various forms provided a beacon of stability and hope. Not any more, apparently.
.If there was ever a time when Christians have to re-examine Christianity, this is that time. We have to learn how to live with the questions, not pretend we have answers. As a matter of fact “Living the Questions” is the name of a publishing house in Arizona that produces courses on Christian renewal, enlisting the talents of a variety of progressive teachers from a number of American churches. I have several of their videos, and they do very well what I have tried to do poorly! A number of the folks featured in them are also contributors to “Sojourners” magazine, which is now in its fiftieth year of teaching its readers about apostolic love and justice. But these liberal voices are not the only ones. There are also the voices of reaction, often the loudest. These voices urge us to believe their supposed certainties. But certainty is not faith. We should remember that. Faith carries on when the future is most uncertain, and doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is fear.
So I do not want to join any organization that has all the answers. That goes for politics and religion, though I might consider going on Jeopardy!
The Cost of Freedom-Entry #18
So another so-called Convoy arrived in Ottawa, intent on disrupting the lives of its citizens. There was minimal news coverage, but I did see a group of individuals chanting “Free-Dom, Free-Dom”. I kind of think they believed that by doing so the government would be overthrown, the Prime Minister and Governor-General would be be put in prison and they would be able to anything they want because all the laws would be abolished. At least that’s the impression I got! It’s pretty obvious these folks don’t have a clue as to what “freedom” means in civil society. In case one of them asks, the four basic freedoms were enunciated by Franklin Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, freedom from fear. They probably don’t understand either that with civic freedom comes responsibility!
There is though a serious religious aspect to freedom. Over the entrance to Victoria University in the University of Toronto, there is engraved a quote from the Gospel of John: “The Truth Shall Make You Free”, which was proclaimed by Jesus to a group of believers. It is used as a motto by a large number of universities and (believe it or not!) by the CIA. So then what does “Freedom” mean in the Christian context? What did Jesus mean by it?
This is one of those deep questions which are or should be at the heart of Christianity. Wikipedia indeed has a discussion of it, and there are two recent theological books on the subject (neither of which I have read). But one of the first serious treatments was from Richard Hooker, a 16th century Anglican priest. In his “Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity” he identified three foundations of true religion: Scripture, the historical practice of the Church, and human reasoning. As far as I know this triune foundation is unique to Anglicanism, and Hooker is rightly identified as one of the fathers of our denomination. In his life, according to his biographer Isaak Walton (!) Hooker was a model of humility and faithful service.
Freedom for the followers of Jesus does not mean what the convoy thinks. Rather it seems to mean freedom from enslavement by material things, freedom from the corruption of immorality and greed, freedom from the lies of those who would rule us by coercion or bribery, freedom from the tyranny of selfishness. It means freedom to seek a society of justice, compassion and love. It means, that is, the freedom to follow Christ. And that comes with a cost, the cost of total commitment.
If you think that cost is negligible, try watching the advertisements! Wouldn’t you really like that two hundred thousand dollar automobile? Wouldn’t you really like to live in that two million dollar luxury house with indoor pool and wet bar in the entertainment area? Shouldn’t you hire that lawyer who will fight for what you deserve? Of course you would and you should! And your drop in the bucket wouldn’t make any difference to refugees, wouldn’t do anything about the environment, wouldn’t matter much at all. Might as well spend it on ourselves. How about one of those new golf clubs that you can hit farther like the PGA pros?
Well you probably wouldn’t do all that. But you see, the advertisements precisely identify the chains that material society places on us. There are people who try to break the chains, and when you join them you find out how difficult it is. Difficult to do it alone that is, but there might be a way. We can start by building a community that wants to pay the cost of freedom. Maybe that has already started? I’m not sure what comes next. In these blogs I don’t have any answers, I just have questions.
A Question Answered - Entry #17
At the end of last week’s entry I left readers with a question. I would have thought the answer was obvious, but we’ll see.
A few years ago on Good Friday I presented a Chancel Play, performed by Sue and Derek Hawkins, Paula Hafting and myself. The text was the first chapter of a book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, by James Agee and Walker Evans. The book was perhaps the most significant piece of literature emerging in the American depression, even more powerful than “Grapes of Wrath”. Unlike the latter, the Agee and Evans book is not a novel but a documentary on the lives of three families of poor tenant farmers in southern Alabama. In Agee’s searing prose and Evans’ iconic photographs, the poverty and desperation of their lives endures for the ages. They had been robbed of everything but their essential humanity, compassion and dignity.
I did not change one word of the chapter, but only assigned actors to the voices of Agee’s prose. The performances by Sue, Derek and Paula were dramatic and moving, and I played just a modest supporting voice. I am forever grateful to them, and also to Canon Vaughan who had the courage to let me go ahead. Without further ado, I’m printing the last part of the play, which was read by Derek.
“(The Second Narrator)
And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain; and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
(Pause each time)
Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted;
Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth;
Blessed are they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled;
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy;
Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God;
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God;
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;
Blessed are you when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my name’s sake;
Rejoice and be glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”
So now you know who are the royalty in God’s realm.
Royalty in God’s Realm - Entry # 16 (previously published, 2013, Parish Matters)
I have been recently been reading through the epistle called I Peter, a book which doesn’t get a lot of exposure these days. It is chiefly remembered, if at all, for the passage “Your adversary the devil goes about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour”, an image which almost begs to be made into a sci-fi horror film! Some may remember the bit about wives being submissive to their husbands, and dismiss I Peter as another sexist tract. But this important letter is not about either of these things. It was apparently written from a Christian community in Babylon that was founded by Peter, but in spite of its name we are not sure who wrote it or when.
The recipients were small struggling Christian communities in what is now southern Turkey. I am indebted to Sojourners Magazine for the historical background as well as the title of this essay. In the first or early second century the Roman provinces in Asia Minor were major centres of agricultural wealth. Most of the land, wealth and power belonged to the wealthiest 2% - sound familiar? Their huge estates were worked by immigrants, displaced people and slaves. Native Greeks living in traditional villages with deep-rooted customs despised these outsiders with their alien ways. Yet in this society there was something about the Jesus movement that attracted these low social status people.
Peter has some good advice and some good news for these struggling churches. His advice was that they should live so that those in power would say “Look at these Christians, how upright and ethical they are”! He singles out slaves and women as the most powerless of the powerless, to become examples of Jesus in their own communities and their own families, and thus to win them over. Far from instruction to become submissive to authority, this is advice given to people who have no options. But more than that, he raises these outcasts to a sense of their own dignity and worth as royalty in God’s realm. They are the living stones of God’s house. This is good stuff, really good stuff.
I Peter is not about middle class churchgoers. It is a window on people who have completely dropped through the cracks, both of that time and ours. What kind of welcome do refugee claimants and immigrants receive in our society? Some of them get rounded up and sent to detention centres to wait while the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly through the paperwork. Unthinking bigots write to the newspaper complaining about undeserving foreigners being supported at taxpayers’ expense. Many of them are denied health care if they fall ill. And if they don’t suit the interests of the powerful, they are deported back to their “safe” countries, (like Mexico!). We could take political action on their behalf, but there is a more interesting question raised by I Peter. Look around the broader Church. Who are God’s royalty now?
The Normal Christian Life - Entry #15
The title of this essay is also the title of a remarkable little book by the Chinese evangelist, Watchman Nee. I’ll get back to him shortly. The question is, and it’s not a trivial one, what is the Normal Christian Life and is it possible to live it? This question has engaged serious thinkers, saints and martyrs since the Resurrection. Do not suppose that you or I have an easy answer. Some might think that the life of the early Christian communities described in the Book of Acts provides the model we seek to emulate, but in fact that is an overly simplistic answer and it is not a tenable one, because as early as 50 AD we discover in 1st Corinthians that their community was rife with factions and quarrels. The blunt truth is that there has never been a “normal” in the sense that the broader church understood or achieved it. But there is an ideal that some have struggled to live.
So then, Watchman Nee. I am surprised that so few of my Anglican friends have heard of him, but his thought and books are pretty well known by folks in the evangelical community. Nee was active in southern China just before and during the war. He was a leading member of a small group of committed Christians called “The Little Flock”, and he spoke often in various churches. The remarkable thing about his books is that he didn’t write them directly! They were transcribed immediately after his homilies from the notes and memories of those who heard them, though I believe Nee edited and approved them. When you reflect that he delivered his remarkable insights extemporaneously and without notes, you have to simply marvel. “The Normal Christian Life” is a commentary on Ephesians, and reveals a profound understanding of its message. Watchman Nee survived the war and continued to preach in the communist state, but he was arrested during the “cultural revolution” of the sixties and confined under terrible conditions in a prison camp in northern China, where he contracted tuberculosis. He died shortly after his release.
There was an echo of Nee’s life in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Though he had probably never heard of Watchman Nee, his books converged remarkably on the same themes and ideas. Like Nee, Bonhoeffer was a Christian martyr. His book “The Cost of Discipleship” approaches as closely to my question as does Nee’s book. I would say that these works by these two men who never knew each other are like spiritual pivot points for Christians. And so finally, what is the “normal life” they wished their readers to strive for? It is following Christ. Only Christ lived the Normal Life, and we can only follow him.
I suppose that most people would find that as hard to understand as I do. The Christian Life for most of us consists of doing good works, helping good causes, sacrificing our own interests for the sake of others, worship and prayers. Yes, these things are all good, they are all worth doing, but they are not the Normal Christian Life. Lots and lots of people who have no Christian beliefs do all or most of these things. What separates us from the world is only Christ. It is what Bonhoeffer meant by Costly Grace.
Of course there are huge obstacles to the Christian life. Not the least of these has been the allegiance of the institutional church to political power. The colossal disaster of the residential schools came from just this betrayal of Christ. It was not the first time, nor the last. Any dispassionate observer of the right wing of American society recognizes a sham and destructive “christian” religion at its root. But in the life of us ordinary mortals there are obstacles just as daunting, the support systems of society so comforting and necessary, but so tempting as well. Not all of us are called to be martyrs. We are though called to try to understand better what following Christ means in our own lives. There is no formula for that.
The Passion of Christ (2) - Entry #14
Crucifixion as devised by the Romans was the apex of hideous death. The miserable victim was nailed to the cross with spikes through his wrists and ankles. If he slumped down he could not breathe, but if he raised himself up the pain was unbearable, so the (naked) wretch alternated between unspeakable agony and suffocation until his last awful moment. Talking other than screaming was definitely not possible. Sometimes the attending soldiers were so filled with pity that they would break the victim’s legs so he could not raise himself up and so died a swifter death by suffocation. This indeed was the intent of the Roman soldiers at Jesus’ crucifixion, but he had already died.
I present this grisly description to indicate that Jesus was well aware of what was coming. Like everybody he would have seen crucifixion victims hanging on crosses by the roadside, corpses picked clean by the crows. Did he really intend for this to happen to him? I don’t know. Perhaps he had expected that the Last Day and the coming of the Kingdom would occur, but since that had not happened he was under no illusion about his fate. In Luke’s version of the night before his arrest, probably the most believable account, Jesus was simply afraid, praying that God would deliver him. But it was not to be. The silence with which he endured the sham trial and abuse was courage born of fear. And then the Passion. There was no casual conversation with the two crucified thieves, no appointment of John as his foster brother, no eclipse of the sun, no earthquake, no ghosts roaming the streets, no splitting of the temple veil – these are all just stories made up decades later. There was just agony. How can we think of that and not weep in horror and sorrow?
What followed was an act of rare kindness by Pilate, in allowing the body to be taken down and placed in the tomb. It had to be done the same day, because Jews were not allowed to do any physical labour on the Sabbath (the next day). That it was permitted at all shows how incredibly important Jesus had been.
When I was young, and went to church in a Catholic parish, there were as in all Catholic churches the Stations of the Cross around the walls, and one walked slowly around, considering each one in turn. That was a very good thing to do, and I have never forgotten it. In one of the Anglican parishes we attended there was a temporary hanging of a set of Stations courtesy of the then rector, but they were only up in Holy Week, I have not seen them since, but it would be good to go through the exercise again. I sort of miss it. In this week, at the end of a difficult winter for me, I need to think a little, listen to a little Bach on the CD player, read something real. I’m not quite ready for Easter.
The Passion of Christ (1) - Entry #13
What are we to understand about the passion of Christ? Of course we are familiar with the orthodox interpretation, but not all interpreters are happy with it. Let’s begin with the arrival in Jerusalem the week before Passover. What you may not know is that the governor, Pontius Pilate, had arrived in Jerusalem earlier that week, not to worship particularly (he was of course a pagan) but because it was the most important week of the year in his capital, the week when Jews from around the empire converged there. He simply had to be there to assert Roman authority. So he arrived in maximum pomp, riding a stallion and accompanied by armed soldiers. When the already famous Jesus arrived riding a lowly donkey, everybody in Jerusalem knew what was happening: he was openly mocking the governor. The acclaim of the people that we celebrate on Palm Sunday was very real. The religious authorities were terrified, because an uprising was possible that would result in carnage and the destruction of the city and the temple. It had to be nipped in the bud.
It was then, the temple authorities who intervened, not the Romans (although Pilate would have acted soon). It would not have been possible to arrest Jesus in public. There would have been a riot. Nobody knew where Jesus was staying, and they had to find a time when he was vulnerable, so that’s where Judas comes in. Only one of the inner circle would know where Jesus could be arrested. Once they had him they could move to eliminate the problem. Now we come to a puzzle, which John Dominic Crossan identified in his analysis of the passion. How was it possible that the people of Jerusalem could wildly welcome Jesus one day, and less than a week later demand his crucifixion? The answer is, they didn’t. Crossan carefully calculated how many people were telling Pilate to crucify him The answer is, nine! No, it was not the Jews who crucified Jesus, it was Pilate, who would have done so in any case, with the collusion of the small clique who ran the temple.
I will return to the Passion in next week’s blog, but meanwhile there is a small point to clear up. Though it is not completely clear in the gospels, many or most people think that the Last Supper was a Seder meal, the Jewish meal commemorating the hurried exodus from Egypt. But the recognized authority on the liturgy, Dom Gregory Dix (in “The Shape of the Liturgy”) did not think so. It was another kind of religious gathering altogether. When Jesus told his followers to remember whenever they broke bread, he was not talking about a once in the year meal. He knew that they would meet again and soon for just such a meal, and He made sure they would understand its significance. And so we understand it two millenia later. The Last Supper was the most important event in the gospels before the Resurrection. That’s why we re-enact it symbolically every week.
Carrot Cake Canoovah - Entry # 12
Thus says the Lord Jehovah: you shall kill and roast a young he-goat and you shall eat it all, entrails, skin, hooves and horns. You shall leave none of it uneaten.
Hmmm. I don’t think I’d like to worship He-goat Jehovah. Maybe a leg of goat would make a tasty entree, but the entrails, skin, hooves and horns? I think not! But is there an alternative? As it happens, there is. In the writings of an ancient tribe preserved in the library of a monastery deep within the Sonar desert, I discovered the revolutionary commandments of Carrot-Cake Canoovah! The monks were kind enough to let me copy down a bit of the sacred text!
Thus says the Lord Canoovah: You shall take six young carrots, plucked from the ground in the first month of harvest. Old carrots stored in the crisper you shall not take, neither shall false baby carrots produced with a lathe be taken, but fully grown carrots fresh plucked from the earth. You shall wash the earth from the carrot roots and cut the green tops from the carrots, but you shall peel not the skin of the carrots. Then with a sharp cleaver you shall mince the carrots finely, but if there is no cleaver then a cuisinart shall be used, but the cleaver or cuisinart shall be newly bought, never used for chopping liver.
You shall take a bowl of fine porcelain and mix the minced carrots into a dough with wheaten flour, and sweetest sugar, and water, and the powder of baking, and you shall bake the dough in two square pans. You shall not bake the dough in round pans, for a round carrot cake is an abomination unto me. When the cakes are baked they shall be fastened together with icing, and the top and sides shall be covered with icing. You shall also take jelly beans to place on the cake. These shall be new fresh jelly beans, not the old jelly beans left over from Hallowe’en, and you shall set aside the green and yellow jelly beans, for only the red jelly beans shall be placed on the carrot cake. But the green and yellow jelly beans you may eat.
Then shall you cut the cake with a sharp knife, and the corner pieces you shall take to the high priest. Take care that each corner piece shall have two jelly beans. The high priest shall offer the corner pieces to the Lord Canoovah, but if the Lord wills he may eat the corner pieces himself. But the rest of the cake you shall eat, you and your wives and your children and your concubines, that your days may be long in the land the Lord Canoovah gives you.
Rabbits, Eggs and Easter - Entry #11
Welcome to the “mad March days”. It was this term which sent me on an internet excursion which led to unexpected discoveries. March madness (insanity) originally referred to Easter Bunnies, more specifically to European Hares (Lepus europaeus), who begin a sort of mating frenzy around the months of March and April, and who are often observed chasing each other around and engaging in boxing matches with their front paws. No, really, it’s true! The March Hare appears in “Alice in Wonderland” along with that other well known icon of insanity, the Mad Hatter. These latter gentlemen became insane not because of lust but from inhaling mercury vapour, mercury being used in the making of felt and felt hats.
The connection with eggs apparently arose because hares do not live in burrows, but rather fashion temporary hollows in open country called “forms” in which they lurk during the day (except in March), and in which baby hares (called leverets) are born. Coincidentally at the same time of year European Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria) lay their eggs in shallow depressions in the ground, and the country folk supposed that the birds were using the hares’ homes for their nest. Hares were somehow associated with the Germanic deity Eostre, goddess of light and the dawn, who was celebrated in a spring festival called Eostremonath (Easter Month), now April. Early Christian missionaries were not slow to recruit local talent to their team, so that is how we came to have Easter Bunnies and Easter Eggs. The existence of Eostre is known from only one source, the history of England written by the Venerable Bede (672-735), but there is no doubt that she is rooted in very ancient folklore.
Christian myths aside, Easter Month is traditionally associated with fertility and new life, and eggs have been a symbol of fertility since the dawn of time, obviously because life emerges from them. Diligent city fathers these days prohibit the keeping of backyard flocks, but in my youth in small town Ontario most everybody had a chicken coop and boys and girls could easily witness eggs hatching and baby chicks running under the protective wings of mother hens, yet another of life’s joys suppressed by political correctness. The Tinkers kept chickens in the days of our youth and every Easter decorated some of their eggs in more or less intricate designs. We were inspired by the ancient Ukrainian tradition, which seems very appropriate right now.
For most people these days, chocolate Easter eggs are about all they know about the most important Christian event of the year. I am very confident that readers of this blog have a much deeper understanding of Easter than that. Christ is risen, and though the meaning of the Resurrection has been obscured by centuries of violence and war it is still there. Maranatha!
Human Meteors - Entry #10
An early spring day is the perfect time to write an essay, especially after suffering through a miserable winter. This reminds me to remind my gentle readers that an essay is just the musings of a rambling mind placed between the bookends of a Beginning and an End. The Essay (it means ‘attempt’) was invented by Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), who was not hampered by the physical limitations of a blog. He taught all future essayists including me how to write precisely. The Beginning tells you what we are musing about, which in this case is three Human Meteors. The End tells you to stop reading!
Human Meteor is a term I made up for those remarkable creators who seem to have no obvious antecedents, and whose work is so perfect in their own idiom that there is really no way to improve on it. Actually there is (or was) a comic book character called “Human Meteor” but he has no relation at all to this essay. Non-comic book Meteors are those miracles of humanity, who make us realize that we don’t understand our species very much at all. They don’t have a neat and tidy Beginning, Middle and End, they just Are, if you get my drift. Eric Clapton has a definition of human meteors which I like a lot: “They come out of the Zone”.
Clapton was writing about the first of my Zone people, Blind Willy Johnson. Johnson was raised in abject poverty by an abusive alcoholic father and a vicious stepmother who deliberately blinded young Willy by pouring lye on his face, just to spite her husband. The boy survived and became one of the greatest gospel blues composers and singers of all time. Profoundly religious, one of his songs is out there in the cosmos somewhere on the Voyager spacecraft, singing to the stars the story of what humanity could be.
There’s no doubt about the next Meteor, Vincent Van Gogh. About other artists there can be written accounts of their development and their influences, but Vincent just happened. You can look at his paintings and find yourself in a different place than you were before. His compelling personality can be glimpsed in his letters and the accounts of his life by his brother and friends, but we can never find the place he painted in “Starry Starry Night”. It came from the Zone.
The last of my examples is the writer Richard Brautigan about whom I have written before. His life and work are described on an extensive Wikipedia page. Another who came out of a miserable life of poverty as a child, Brautigan invented his own unpredictable style, and taught a generation of readers what it means to Wonder, and a generation of writers how to see the world with an innocent eye.
And now dear reader we come to the End, and it is a sad one, for all three of these gentle souls died alone, unknown, rejected and poor, two of them by their own hands. Willy Johnson, Vincent Van Gogh and Richard Brautigan brought to this world a little more meaning and beauty than it had before them. They came to us like meteors, burned brightly in the sky, and were gone.
Love and Living - Entry #9
I thought it was time to write a serious essay on the subject of Love. It is worth some thought, for in spite of its central role in life, or maybe because of that, love is pretty often misunderstood, disparaged, mocked, threatened and generally endangered in our world. It is also the single most common theme of literature, poems, art, music and film. What it comes down to really, is a decision to share one’s life with another person or with other people, “till death us do part” as the old marriage vow goes, But that decision is as complicated and different as human beings themselves.
I will begin with a quote from Thomas Merton, the 60's icon, Trappist monk, poet and prophet, one of the most important writers of our time. In his little book “Love and Living” he had this to say. “Rooted in the biological riches of our inheritance, love flowers spiritually as a response to life in a perfect encounter with another person. It is a living appreciation of life as value and as gift.” He goes on to write “When people are truly in love, they experience far more than just a mutual need for each other’s company and consolation. In their relations with each other they become different people: they are more than their everyday selves, more alive, more understanding, more enduring and seemingly more endowed. ... But (love) remains impossible as long as we are the prisoners of our own egoism.” And therein lies the problem.
Love is endangered because we are bombarded with clever, persuasive invitations to pander to our own selfishness. “That is why the advertising imagery which associates sexual fulfilment with all the most trivial forms of satisfaction creates a mental and moral climate that is unfavourable to love” (Merton again). Love is endangered because of exposure to models of human relationships which are basically selfish, or which are so unrealistic as to guarantee disappointment. It is simply amazing that most young people find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and learn how to love another person. Some fall by the wayside, particularly sometimes, young people who are drawn to love another of the same sex as themselves. For though sexual relations are indeed part of love between a couple, they are a subset of the act of loving. What a terrible obstacle it is to learning how to love, if a person is told that this subset is not only all there is, but is intrinsically wrong.
Yet love somehow survives. One of the most moving and accurate testimonies to its power can be found in an unexpected place, the obituary columns of the daily paper. Here we read a summation of people’s lives at their close, and how often do we find that their chief and most important accomplishment was to build a life of loving relationships with their spouse, their children, their grandchildren and their closest friends. There are plenty of single people too whose story tells in plain and unadorned words, that in their life they were surrounded by and entered into genuine love. Their lives were lived well.
“So all you seekers who believe love lives, stand up and let it shine” (Bruce Cockburn).
The Gospel of John - Entry #8
I briefly mentioned the Gospel of John last week. It brought to mind a few points I have been mulling over for a long time. The New Testament has a lot of Johns! Besides John the Baptist there was John the son of Zebedee, John the author of the Gospel of John, John of the two Epistles, John of the Book of Revelation. We don’t know much about any of them, but there is no evidence that they were all the same person, contrary to what many believe. This Gospel was pivotal in the evolution of orthodoxy in early Christianity. It appeared around 120 CE, and it was not universally accepted. The text was championed vigorously by Irenaeus who was bishop of Lyons, France from about 160 to 190 CE. For an easily accessible and readable account of the arguments, quarrels and downright fights over its acceptance I strongly recommend Elaine Pagels’ book “Beyond Belief”.
The Gospel of John had a number of agendas. The first was to establish that Jesus was not just the adopted son of God, as asserted by the Gospel of Mark and St. Paul’s sermon to the Athenians, but he was in fact, God. It opens by declaring that Jesus was the Logos, the Word which was One with God. The term “Logos” is one of those Greek philosophic ideas, encompassing Knowledge, Logic, Meaning, Purpose, Understanding and a whole lot more. The fact that it is so Greek makes one wonder how a Jewish fisherman came to understand it, but let that pass. A further agenda was to establish that the beliefs of Gnostic Christians (the Coptic Church) were wrong. Noteworthy in John’s account is the singling out of two of the Apostles, Thomas and Philip, who were lacking in faith. Not surprisingly, the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip were two of the foundational documents of Gnostic Christianity! (They were re-discovered in the Nag Hammadi cache).
The most important aim of the Gospel was to establish the Church of Rome, i.e. the Petrine church, as the only true church, and the custodian of the Apostolic Succession (I’ll return to that!). In the beginning, there was only one central church, the one in Jerusalem. It’s head was James, who was one of Jesus’ brothers (he had several and a few sisters too). It was to James that St. Paul went to get approval for the baptism of Gentiles. Peter was there in Jerusalem at the time, and evidently supported Paul’s view. All the evidence from the time acknowledged James’ supremacy. Not so the Gospel of John. Peter was supposed to be the first bishop of Rome and hence established the apostolic authority of his successors (the second bishop was a man named Linus). To nail this point down, John has Jesus saying to Peter three times, “Feed my sheep”. So we know who was in charge!
So let’s get back to the Apostolic succession. John’s Gospel triumphed, and orthodoxy was enshrined in the church of Rome. Only bishops in the direct line from Peter could make new bishops, priests and deacons. Unfortunately for us, Anglican bishops do not qualify. The Roman Catholic church is locked into the doctrine that Anglican Orders are invalid, and there doesn’t appear to be any way they can get out of it! Thankfully in most of the wider church there is tacit agreement to just ignore this inconvenient fact.
Anti-Semitism Runs Deep - Entry #7
Dr. Harry Shachter was chair of my university department in the 80’s, and an old friend from my undergraduate days. Harry is a true polymath, for he was at the same time a brilliant biochemist, a part time emergency physician, a gifted administrator, and a trained musician who sang in the Toronto Mendelsson Choir. And he was Jewish. We met regularly for coffee and to discuss departmental business. At one such occasion the Mendelsson Choir was rehearsing Bach’s St. John Passion, and Harry remarked to me in passing, “Wow, I now know where anti-semitism started!” He was partly right, for the gospels of John and Matthew both recount that the blameless Pilate wanted to release Jesus but was intimidated by “the Jews” who demanded that Jesus be crucified. Nonsense of course, but it’s in the Gospels so it must be true. Not!
Anti-semitism received the imprimatur of the church around 370 CE. One of the non-negotiable demands of the bishops at the time was that Jews lose the civil rights they had previously enjoyed under Roman law, and be prohibited from living in Christian cities, and so it came to pass! The fate of European Jews was sealed for the next millenium and a half, with one notable exception: in Moorish Spain the large Jewish population lived amicably with the Muslim majority. But when the Moors were finally driven out of Spain in 1490, the Jews had the choice of converting or leaving. Most left. The remainder were treated to the mercies of the Inquisition.
The word “Ghetto” has an interesting origin. In the sixteenth century money became increasingly important, nowhere more so than in the mercantile republic of Venice. The Jewish bankers with their network of credit were essential to the Venetian merchants, but there was a problem, because of course they could not live in the city! Fortunately there was an unoccupied island in the lagoon which had formerly been the site of iron works. Its name was “The Foundry” or in Italian, Ghetto! So that was where the Jewish bankers (like Shylock in Shakespeare’s play) set up business, and everybody was satisfied. Not! Ghettos were a shameful fixture in almost every European country, and (de facto) in the US and Canada as well.
Until the 20th century anti-semitism was deeply embedded in Christian churches and in some cases still is. The Anglican communion was definitely not squeaky clean: up until the revision of 1959 the Book of Common Prayer featured a Collect for the Conversion of the Jews. As a lad I used to visit my grandmother who ran a lodge and restaurant in Balm Beach Ontario, on the shores of Georgian Bay. Next door was a tennis court, featuring a prominent sign saying “No Jews Allowed”. (As a six year old I had no idea what that meant. There is a photo of that sign in our family archives.) Prejudice against Jews was a feature of life in Toronto the Good back in those days, but the pious Protestants in the Orange Lodge also extended it to Irish Catholics and other minorities. Good days!
A Successful Revolution - Entry #6
I’m not going to weigh in on the civil unrest currently happening, though I could! Instead I want to discuss how a wide reaching revolution took place in the Roman empire in the 4th century. At the beginning of that century a powerful government was in place which dominated Europe from Turkey to Britain. The civil society was buttressed by a well formed religion, which funded impressive temples and shrines and sponsored literature which was widely read by an educated population. Many of those writings survive today and are taught in Classics departments. A very small minority of dissidents, no more than 5% of the population, refused to accept the civil norms, and they were vigorously suppressed by the authorities. But at the end of that century those dissidents had become the dominant group, and the religious structures which had endured for a thousand years were gone. Now how in the world did that happen?
Of course I am writing about the rise of Christianity, and as with many great social upheavals the answer is complex. There were many factors contributing to it. Let’s discuss a few. Perhaps the most obvious one is that there were inspired and persuasive leaders. We know who most of them were: the original apostles, Paul, the gospel writers (not just the four in the canon but a number of others), Polycarp, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Athanasius, and others. Their writings too survive, and their teaching was persuasive. But it found a prominent and influential home: the Jewish synagogues!
Recall that Judaism had a special place in Roman society. Alone among conquered nations the Jews had a privileged religion and did not have to worship the emperor. They were allowed to have their own religious rulers, and besides the temple in Jerusalem had places of public worship throughout the empire, all the way from Asia Minor to Spain. Moreover in the first and second century there was a renaissance of Judaism which was progressive, humane, persuasive and attracted huge numbers of converts. This movement was very disturbing to early Christian leaders, and the Epistle to the Galatians was a direct attack on Judaism. They need not have worried, because the communities in the synagogues were extremely open to the new Christianity, which was basically rooted in Judaism for two hundred years. Jesus was first and foremost Jewish, and the Christian God was the Jewish God. Want to know more? Try reading “Abraham’s Divided Children” by Pheme Perkins, readily available on Amazon.
Just as important as the synagogues were the homes of main stream and wealthy Roman citizens, many of them women by the way! These literate and humanistic people were increasingly dissatisfied with the state religion, and open to the equality and love of one another so evident in Christian communities. The letter to Philemon is a window into that gentile world, but so is the first epistle of Peter to the churches in Turkey. (I have written about the latter before in one of the Parish Matters newsletters.) Not least of these Christian women was the mother of the emperor Constantine, who was probably more of an influence on him than his supposed dream! For a hundred years before Constantine the homes of wealthy Christians were the buildings in which people met to share a meal, to read the latest writings, and to pray and encourage one another. Now here’s a fun fact: the standard architecture evident in practically every church building from Westminster Abbey to St. Luke’s Annapolis is directly derived from the layout of an Etruscan Villa, which was the fashionable house design in the second century! It was those houses in which the church gathered, and we gather in them today!
Will there be a significant return of western society to the christendom that was the norm as late as the 1950’s? I doubt it. The institutional church in all its manifestations is collapsing as quickly as pantheism collapsed in the fourth century. Will there be a re-birth of a dynamic and progressive Christianity, another five percent, that can transform society from within? Maybe. It’s kind of up to us.
Life Together - Entry # 5
The title of this essay is also the title of a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was written in Germany just before the second world war for an underground community of students learning to be pastors of subversive Christian communities. Like most things in Germany the Lutheran church had been taken over by the nazis and used to preach their doctrines of hate. It was not difficult for them, because there was already a thread of anti-semitism dating back to Luther himself. The nazi “Deutsche Christen” organization took over the church which had been the official state religion.
A determined minority of progressive Lutherans, among whom Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller were key figures, founded the anti-nazi “Confessing Church”. Bonhoeffer could have escaped the war but instead returned to Germany in 1935 to organize secret seminaries for the Confessing Church. “Life Together” is the classic account of a Christian community. In essence it does not ask “What should we believe?” but rather “What should we do?”. The answer to that question led Bonhoeffer and many others to imprisonment and death. During the time before his arrest Bonhoeffer also wrote his best known book “The Cost of Discipleship” a study on the Sermon on the Mount.
I am not the greatest Christian. I have both those books, and they are hard reading. They set out a standard and a cost for the normal Christian life that I do not know if I could meet. But once long ago we (Sheila and I) did become part of a community that tried. It was the Toronto Cursillo movement (now defunct). Cursillo is/was an ecumenical lay movement drawn mainly but not exclusively from the Catholic and Anglican churches.
Cursillo encouraged and enabled people for ministry in their own life and circumstances. The community met regularly to share in witness, prayer and communion. The movement was founded in Spain in the 1940’s and spread throughout Europe, the United States and Canada. There have been several spinoffs, such as the Logos program which ran for a few years in this diocese. I was involved in that too until it was ended.
There is or was in fact a small Cursillo movement in Nova Scotia. One of its leaders was the late David Reid, once a rector of St. Luke’s. It has not been possible for us to connect with that movement because it is mainly a Halifax group, but I often wish I could have. Thinking about it again, and thinking about David as I wrote this blog, I wondered if a new and renewed church would even be possible. It might not look much like the mainline churches we go to now.
I still hope and believe that a real rebirth of a revolutionary and transforming Christianity is possible within the Anglican communion particularly, because I have actually seen it happening elsewhere. Perhaps this blog will reach someone who hopes for it too. I’m listening.
On Plagues and Grief - Entry #4
During this year of the plague I have had the opportunity to dive into my library and read or re-read a few of the thousand-odd books residing in piles or shelves around this old house (I have never counted them). One of them was Daniel Defoe’s “Diary of the Plague Year” which is really a must-read (it’s still in print after almost 400 years). But that’s not the subject of this essay.
Each night after the chores are done, I have taken to re-reading Emily Dickinson’s poems. The volume is an inexhaustible mine of meaning. Some may know that I have become an amateur scholar of ‘Dickinsonia’, and a few attended a lecture on her poems I gave a few years ago. In my days as a newspaper columnist I often included references to them in my weekly ramblings. So the plague is an opportunity to return to an old friend. I read one or two poems each night, then re-read them and reflect on them. Sometimes I discover one that has an unexpected impact on me, like a spiritual hammer blow. A few nights ago came one such.
The poem in question begins “On such a night, or such a night, Would anybody care”. The poems are in the public domain, this particular one may be read at <https://www.frasi-celebri.net/frasi/NTQwMTM/>. The poem is a response to the appalling mortality of children in the mid-nineteenth century. In Cynthia Wolff’s biography of the poet she quotes a contemporary statistic: one half of infants died before they were eight years old, only one out of three lived to fourteen, and only one in four lived to twenty-one. Can you begin to imagine the burden of grief carried by families in those days? If you can visit a pioneer graveyard, like the one for example in Perotte, look carefully at the dates on the stones. Almost a third of them are the graves of children under sixteen.
The poem in question does in fact refer obliquely to children’s graves, the little figures in each knoll. Perhaps it was written after the funeral of her little nephew Gilbert Dickinson who died of typhoid at the age of eight. Perhaps in the cemetery in Amherst she saw the numerous graves of children. How awful it was that all the happiness and potential of childhood ended in such emptiness and grief. I hope you will find and read the poem and think on that.
I have had two very close friends who lost a child. I can tell you from experience that there is no grief as deep or lasting as theirs. There is no "answer" to the death of a child, Christian or otherwise. It leaves a permanent scar in the soul that we who have not experienced it cannot share. If such a terrible thing happens to someone we love, all we can do is be there for them. Maybe that’s all we are called to do.
More Beginnings. - Entry #3
In the last entry in this blog I mentioned that early Christianity was extremely diverse in its beliefs and practises. Not only were they a diverse lot, they were positively addicted to writing about their faith! Prof. Ehrman, whom I mentioned last time, put together a very accessible volume of these texts in English translation, and it is a revealing record of the earliest beliefs. We might think that the New Testament as we received it is a factual account of the origins of our faith, but it is really the only survivor of the many Christianities and the many accounts of the 300 years following Jesus’ life.
Besides their belief in Jesus of Nazareth, one of the main realities for these Christians was that they were persecuted. There is a positive litany of martyrs, all of whom willingly suffered grisly deaths at the hands of Roman authorities. It was this courageous conviction that is the real reason that Christianity spread so far and so rapidly. In about 300 AD the population of the Roman empire was about 60 million, of whom it is thought about five per cent were Christian. A hundred years later after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, that number had risen to half of the population!
The fourth century was also the period in which Christian beliefs were consolidated into the creeds. We use the Nicene Creed dated to 365 in our worship, but you can also read the (fairly baffling) Athanasian Creed in the back of the Prayer Book. By the way, the so-called Apostles Creed was not written by the Apostles, it was composed in the seventh century by order of the Emperor Charlemagne who thought the Nicene Creed was a bit too complicated for use in worship.
In the fourth century too the collection of writings in the New Testament began to take shape. The bishops at the time were under the impression that these had all been written by people who knew Jesus or had lived in the time of the apostles. They were not always right: for example it is now known with considerable certainty that six of the epistles attributed to St. Paul were in fact, well-meaning forgeries. But what happened to the epistles and gospels that were definitely not included? A great many of these were sacred texts in the Coptic churches of North Africa, and these communities were appalled that their scriptures were to be burned as heretical. So one of them sealed up their scrolls in jars and buried them in a well in Nag Hammadi, a town in Egypt, where they were discovered 1500 years later. It is an ironic fact that we have the original manuscripts of these scriptures, whereas we have none of the original New Testament documents, and the ones we have are extensively redacted copies!
How It All Began - Entry #2
A few years ago, on a winter walk in the forest with my dog, I suddenly realized I did not know where I was. Fortunately it was snowy, and we could see our footprints, so we were able to retrace our trek back to the parking lot and head for home. Well there’s a cute little analogy for you! If we really want to know where Christianity is going, one way to find out is to go back to where it started. What was it like in the beginning?
I am indebted in these essays to Elaine Pagel’s short book “Beyond Belief”, and to somewhat longer books by John Dominic Crossan (“The Birth of Christianity”) and Wayne Meeks (“The First Urban Christians”), and also to a couple of DVD courses I have by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman (“Lost Christianities” and “From Jesus to Constantine”). These scholars have dug deeply into what evidence exists about the origins of the Ecclesia (the Church), Note that I say ‘origins’, not ‘origin’: there were many origins and they do not stack up in a neat line, rather they were a tangled web of beliefs and practises.
The most surprising thing I discovered in the literature is that by the second century AD the majority of followers of Jesus lived in North Africa, not in Palestine or Rome! We know a lot about them for a curious reason which I will go into in a later blog. They produced a variety of spiritual texts, the keyword being “Spirit”. One view of the historical Jesus was that he was a Spirit Person, i.e. a person filled with the divine spirit, (not a divinity himself). The beliefs of these sects were extremely varied and some, like the Gospel of Thomas, seem very attractive even today. Like the Pauline communities, which we know about from the letters of the Apostle Paul, we can call these communities “proto-churches”.
How did so many people come to be Jesus-followers and in such different ways? We don’t really know, but from the Gospel of Matthew we do learn that Jesus sent out missionaries to preach the good news. There were obviously many more of them than the twelve apostles! Some of them must have travelled to the Roman cities in North Africa and shared their first-hand knowledge of the Master.
As disparate as they were, these lost Christianities did have some important things in common. First they all understood that they were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and they saw his life and teaching to be a unique window into divine truth. This teaching meant a radical equality of all his followers, an emphasis on caring for each other, and above all in Sharing with a capital S! It also meant a rejection of the state religion of the Roman Empire, which soon got them in real trouble. We’ll go on with this mini-history in the next blog.
More About Christianity Later
Readers of my old Annapolis Spectator column will no doubt recognize the title of this essay, which is an introduction to a new feature on St. Luke’s website. In the future this will be in “blog” format, so you can comment, disagree or otherwise react to these thoughts.
Let’s begin on Christmas Eve, 1961. Sheila and David, a young engaged couple (we would be married 5 months later) were attending midnight service in St. Mary Magdalene church in Toronto. (Yes, it really was at midnight in those days). It was the first time we went to church together and I remember it well: the glow of candles, the marvellous voices of Healey Willan’s choir, the majesty of the Prayer Book service, the old familiar readings and carols. The church was full, but by arriving an hour early we found seats. It was a magical night. No doubt similar services (minus Healey Willan) were taking place in churches in Nova Scotia, which were likewise full. If you were young in those days you probably thought your church would last forever.
Well it didn’t. We in Annapolis don’t have to be reminded that six of the seven local Anglican churches are closed, sold or torn down, or only open occasionally for an old home service. It’s not just us. You no doubt saw that the two flagship Acadian churches in Clare, St. Bernard and Ste. Marie, are both closed and likely will be demolished. Most of the big churches on the Acadian shore are likewise disused. It’s a similar story in other denominations: people are just not going to church any more.
For objective observers this does not come as a surprise. Shortly after our Christmas Eve mass, the Anglican church of Canada commissioned the noted author Pierre Berton, to take a dispassionate look at the state of the church. His report, “The Comfortable Pew” came out in 1966. Reading it now it is clear, though he did not know it, that he had identified the seeds of collapse. He was not alone. A few years later another seminal study “The Once and Future Church” published by the Alban Institute (an Episcopalian/Anglican think tank) drew similar conclusions. More recently you may remember a book that scandalized some people, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die” by the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong. The insights in these and other essays were not just theoretical. Like it or not, they were omens of the future, a future without the church we once knew.
I don’t know about you, but even if the institutional church is disappearing, I’m not ready to discard Christianity just yet. But I am interested in thinking about it. Perhaps others who read these thoughts are too. Let’s talk.