Monthly Archives: August 2010

Pomp and Circumstance

On Friday I attended the Chief of Navy Chaplains change of office and retirement. It was quite the event. Bands played, sailors and marines marched, cannons saluted. There were so many generals and admirals present I was seeing stars, literally. At the reception after the ceremony, I noticed something about myself: I spent a lot more time talking with admirals and captains than I did with anyone else. I barely had time to say hello to lieutenants I knew, much less the waiters and other civilian employees who were serving us. Later on, when I read the gospel lesson for today, I was convicted.

In Luke 14:7-14 Jesus told a parable in which he said, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor. . . . Go sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’” (8, 10). There’s something intoxicating about being near power. It is ironic that the less power you have, the easier it is to get drunk with the wine of your own self importance.

To the hosts Jesus said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (13, 14). Over the weekend my family and I hosted a newly selected admiral, an old friend of mine from the reserves. Nothing wrong with that, but am I also willing to roll out the red carpet for a lowly midshipman or enlisted sailor? And when have I ever intentionally sought out the financially impoverished and physically handicapped to show them hospitality?

Echoing Jesus’ sentiment, Benjamin Franklin said, “To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.” Lord, grant me the nobility to show humility in my dealings with others. Amen.

For more thoughts on humility see my blog post The Descending Way.

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People First

James Tissot (1836-1902), Christian Healing an Infirm Woman on the Sabbath, Brooklyn Museum

I like rules and I hate it when people don’t follow the rules. But there are times when rules should be broken, especially when someone’s health or well-being is at risk. I remember taking a group of college students to a big event one time and there was a moveable barricade on the sidewalk, causing people to step into the street with a steady flow of busses. I moved the barricade to allow people to walk on the sidewalk and was rebuked for it by a security guard. I’d like to say I remained calm and explained the situation coolly and rationally. I didn’t. I yelled at him that he was an idiot and would get someone killed, that it was called a sidewalk for a reason, because that’s where you’re supposed to walk, and told him to get his supervisor so I could show her what an unthinking, reckless boob he was. I could have handled the situation better, but I was right and I knew it and the cause was important enough for me to risk a confrontation. He was entrusted with public safety but he was making people do something very unsafe because he was so bound up with his rules.

Jesus faced a similar situation one day when he was in the synagogue. The story of his healing an infirm woman is only found in Luke 13:10-17, and it’s the last time we read of Jesus being in the synagogue. He used this opportunity not only to cure the woman’s ailment but also to point out the hypocrisy of the rule-bound leaders of the synagogue.

Jesus healed a woman who was bent over and couldn’t straighten up for eighteen years. She didn’t ask Jesus to heal her. Nothing is said about her faith. As far as we know, she was just there minding her own business when Jesus called her, put his hands on her, and freed her from her disability.

Jesus said that Satan caused her condition. Most post-Enlightenment Christians don’t think in such terms. Satan was also blamed for Job’s misfortunes. It brings up that perennial conundrum of why bad things happen to good people. At least some tragedies can be accounted for by the presence of real, sentient evil beings. It may not fit with our modern mentality but the alternative is an irrational universe, which isn’t any easier to accept.

It’s troubling to think that God let the woman suffer for eighteen years just to prove a point when he could have healed her at any time. “Theodicy” is the attempt to justify what God does. Thorton Wilder’s classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey explores this theme of why “acts of God” befall certain people. The novel begins, “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.” An inquisitive friar named Brother Juniper investigates the lives of the five victims, confident that he’ll discover a divine reason for each untimely death. In the end he fails in his task and is burned as a heretic for his efforts. Questions about why bad things happen can be asked but not satisfactorily answered in this life; that’s a lesson as old as the Book of Job but still relevant today.

When rebuked for healing the woman, Jesus called his accusers hypocrites for caring more about their rules than people. He used imagery of binding and loosing to show the reasonableness of healing on the Sabbath. Who wouldn’t untie his ox or donkey and lead it to water on the Sabbath? Why shouldn’t this woman be loosed from her ailment that bound her for so long? It was a powerful argument and it put the legalists to shame.

The problem was that Jesus’ adversaries loved their rules more than they loved people. They got God’s values backward. People come first. The book of 1 John puts it like this: “For he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen” (4:20). How do we show our love for God in the way we treat our fellow human beings?

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Colors and Shapes

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81.

Two weeks ago my wife and I went to see The Phillips Collection in DC for the first time. It was well worth the $12 price of admission and has given me a lot of new art experiences to reflect on. By far the most popular draw in the museum is Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Fully half the patrons were packed into the small room, gawking at the painting. It seems that French impressionism is comfort food for the modern museum visitor. And why not? Impressionism is bright, beautiful, painterly, and accessible. It speaks a language that people can understand without translation.

Feeling a bit claustrophobic near the Renoir, I wandered passed the German Expressionists and climbed the stairs where I was confronted by an art exhibit that I haven’t stopped thinking about. It’s called “Relation to and not yet (homage to Mondrian).” (The name includes a hat tip to the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.)  In what was formerly a dining room I found something for my eyes to feast on.

Large, glossy, monochromatic panels lined the walls—one bright red, another blue, another yellow. As I approached I saw that they were each inscribed with a different geometric pattern. These minimalist paintings were done by Kate Shepherd, an artist I had not previously heard of, but who now has me as a new member of her growing fan club.

Shepherd’s images remind me of Jean Arp woodcuts from the 1940s like the ones below, though her gallery in New York City assured me that she was not influenced by or even aware of them. I also learned that her works are quite pricey and she’s hardly unknown to art connoisseurs, only wannabes and neophytes like me. Fortunately, collectors of modest means can score a signed print of hers for as little as $800 from Pace Prints. Hands off the one titled “Red Sea in a Puddle of Light.” That one’s mine.

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Canon Fodder

Gospel of John Fragment, Papyrus 52 (ca. 125 CE), John Rylands Library, Manchester, UK

“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill famously observed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Christian church. In the early fourth century as Christianity triumphed under Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, Eusebius wrote his authoritative Ecclesiastical History, which created the image of Christianity as an orthodoxy community under the leadership of a continuous succession of theologically orthodox bishops. That narrative went largely unchallenged until the twentieth century.

Seventy-five years ago a German theologian named Walter Bauer published his book Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, which replaced Eusebius’s triumphalist vision with a more realistic picture of Christian origins. Like abstract art Bauer’s image of the Christian past was a lot messier than earlier ones. Christianity was initially more diverse and less dogmatic than previously assumed. In recent years North Carolina Professor Bart D. Ehrman has popularized Bauer’s thesis in the English-speaking world.

If the church was more diverse in its infancy than previously thought, how can we be sure that it picked the right sacred texts? Protestants insist on the primacy of biblical over institutional authority, but ask Protestant pastors or theologians why the 27 books of the New Testament are the correct ones and they’ll sing a Catholic tune. They’ll quote church councils and church fathers like Athenasius’s Festal Letter of 367 CE, which was a product of the pivotal fourth century, as was the Nicene Creed.

In 1945 Egyptian farmers at Nag Hammadi discovered an earthenware jar with a dozen ancient books made of papyrus. These books contained fifty-some Gnostic texts, used by an early sect of Christianity. Among these was the famous Gospel of Thomas, which contains “the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded,” according to its opening words.

Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton, has made a career of studying the Gospel of Thomas and other Gnostic texts. She is the author of Beyond Belief, a thoughtful book in which she compares the Gospel of Thomas with the canonical Gospel of John and finds the former more to her liking. Pagels rejects the church of Eusebius and his heirs with its dogmatic creeds and exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. She finds more comfort in a non-creedal, pluralistic faith—one that is more in line with Thomas’s Gospel than John’s.

Part of the problem with any reconstruction of early Christian history is the limited number of sources outside the New Testament. We just don’t know exactly how widespread Gnosticism and other sectarian movements were. The scholarship of Bauer, Ehrman, Pagels, and others provides a healthy corrective to the monolithic view of Christianity during the first three centuries. So much so that we would be better off talking about “Christianities” rather than a singular unified movement when referring to the earliest period of church history. Then as now, diversity is both a strength and weakness of Christian religion.

As a Baptist I don’t believe anything simply because a church council or bishop decreed it. On the other hand I’m no conspiracy theorist and I’m not ready to take a cut-and-paste approach to the biblical canon. Just because the victors wrote the history books, that doesn’t mean the vanquished are right.

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