Friday, December 23, 2005

What They Have Written, They Have Written

There's a general folk belief among skeptics in the unreliability of biblical texts, reinforced by the spatter of footnotes at the bottom of modern translations, and excised from the KJV versions that older people grew up with. Now in the OT there's more basis for this. There are areas where there is obvious damage to the Hebrew text. But these are not extensive, and they tend to be concentrated in certain passages and books. In the NT the issues are much smaller.

Of late there has been a lot of fuss about Misquoting Jesus, a book by Bart Ehrman that claims that the New Testament has been redacted (accidentally and on purpose) in the direction of supporting Orthodox doctrine against the competition. I haven't read this book, and I'm not sure how well I could really evaluate it, not being a scriptural scholar nor having ready access to the texts which would need to be cited in order to defend such a thesis.

I have managed to find this discussion of textual reliability in general, with some specific discussion of Ehrman's work (based primarily on a previous book, however). The impression I get from the article is that Ehrman's work is based on comparison of texts of different age; thus his conclusions are generally sound, but also largely irrelevant to readers of modern translations. The reason for this is that the translators, in working from the same text, tend to translate from the older (and presumably unchanged) version. Here and there in the crank-odox world one finds those who are fanatical adherents to the "Byzantine" text rather than the Nestle-Aland older versions favored by most modern translations, and this text (as well as the western Textus Receptus) are presumably subject to the errors/changes Ehrman discusses. As the article I cite comments, most of the small amendations pale against the larger surface message of the text, and anyone reading a modern, non-sectarian translation won't even see most of them. The media seem to be making far more out of this book than is justified.

Rick Laribee cites a dissertation which analyzes the variation in a single passage in detail. It should surprise nobody to learn that the analysis shows that almost all the variation involves easily correctable typos and other obvious errors. Indo-European languages such as Greek allow extensive error correction; the distance between meaningful variations of a text is typically quite large, and therefore requires substantial modification to get from one to the other.

There's really no getting past that the scriptural texts do intend to tell the same story which their authors intended to tell.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

My Bible! Mine!

One of the standard arguments one sees used in Orthodox arguments against Protestants is some variation or another of the following:
As if the Bible would or could exist without the Church's authority behind it.

This comes from the blog of Huw Raphael, who is an ex-Anglican-- not that I'm surprised at that. Indeed, one thing that strikes me is how often Anglican converts to Orthodoxy resort to arguing against a theory of scriptural authority which Anglicanism rejects.

See, the bible exists because people wrote it down. In the case of any part of the OT it is laughable to suggest that it was done at the behest of a church which did not yet exist-- at least not in the form of a visible organization. In the NT, the question is at least not utterly rediculous, but it's abundantly clear that the texts were written first and then recognized for their authority, and not the other way around. The New Testament texts were written within the church, but they were not written by the church.

Furthermore, the NT is shot through, from end to end, with the assertion that the church-- by which I mean, anyone or group claiming to speak for Christ-- can be held accountable to scripture. The best one can maintain is that the True Church always passes this test.

The real issue is the naive, hyper-Protestant view that one can interpret scripture outside of any tradition (and thus free of a church). The thing is, Anglicans since Hooker have agreed that this is impossible, so for ex-Anglicans to hang this albatross around their rejected church's neck is disingenious. Spong's error isn't total rejection of tradition. It is his acceptance of the tradition of modernism, and his theses don't hold together at all if that tradition is rejected.

In the bigger picture, anyone who is choosing churches on the basis of correct theology is in fact acting as their own authority. And conversely, Protestantism in the large is precisely the recognition that the Catholic Church departed along the way from the faith-- historic or not-- in ways important enough to justify separation. (And since some of those errors are also held to by Orthodox, similar separation is justified.)

All of this ties into lame ecclesiological disputation anyway. If utter theological obedience to one's church were demanded in Anglican churches, then this conversion would be illegitimate too. The irony, of course, is that Spong was made possible because Anglican churches do just the opposite.

I'm curious as to whether there is a patristic version of the argument, by the way. SO far I've only gotten this as a lay explanation, almost always from converts.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Punk Strunk

The other week I was in Borders, picking up a copy of Beowulf for my wife (ever stopped to consider that there's a connection between Grendel and Norman Bates?), and I came across a little white book on the new release tables.

Why business people speak like idiots

Within a minute, I knew I had to take this book home with me. It's all about the nonsense that is the usual language of business these days, where people have to say "leverage" instead of, say "use". And speaking of using, on Page 45 there is a neat little chart showing that the readability (using the Flesch score) of CEO letters to shareholders correlates quite nicely with how much trouble the company is in. That's news you can use.

It's interesting that, though they take a passing swipe and grammar and usage pedants, part of their message can be traced right back to Strunk & White. Here's what they say:

The third motive for obscurity is business idiots' relentless attempt to romanticize whatever it is that they do for a living. All of this romanticizing keeps the business world from talking about work and instead allows business idiots to pretend to be secret agents and quarterbacks.

And here's what White wrote:

[He] is speaking a language that is familiar to him and dear to him. Its portentous nouns and verbs invest ordinary events with high adventure; the executive walks among ink erasers caparisoned like a knight.

Obviously the standard of adventure has changed with the years. And maybe there's more hope for the message when delivered by Deloitte than by your English teacher.

At any rate, besides recommending this book for the office, I'm looking towards its theological application. Theology is laden with jargon, much of it of highly questionable significance. There's definitely something wrong with saying that God is incomprehensible and then burying this statement in a mound of polysyllabic dogma.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The 2 1/2 Foot Shelf at Notre Dame

Someone was quoting from some anti-Christian nutecase, and my wife happened across this:

Anti-Catholic Printed Material Collection (ANT)
University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA)
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Contents: Anti-Catholic printed material and printed material concerning anti-Catholicism: books, pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, offprints and printed ephemera.

Monday, August 22, 2005

In the Nature of a Wrench

James Kushiner blogs, over in Mere Comments:

Man in the West does not seem at peace with his biological nature and in many ways seeks to transcend it or frustrate it. He does not seem at peace with, say, the natural fertility of the sexual act.

But man seems to be at peace with the mechanization of himself. Perhaps it is because these changes have generally happened incrementally over time that he has gotten used to them. Many men think they must be good changes and believe that, just like evolution, these steps must be in the direction of evitable progress, a gradual improvement of the species.

Now, comments such as these set off my "liberal arts" detector. Those of us over on the technology end of the academy also talk about "appropriate technology" and the like; what we don't do is make noises of amazement that people seek out and use technology. Maybe it's because, as people who exert what mastery we have over the world, it is hard for us to imagine there is anything remarkable about what we've done ever since we were old enough to pick up tools.

But there's also that nagging matter of scripture. Technology as the fruit of mankind is prophesied at length in the first three chapters of Genesis; the ability to attempt to manage the world about us is one of the fundamental traits of humanity. On that both scripture and the world agree. And a mathematician such as myself sees the will to do nothing as simply a specific case of that management; it is yet an exercise of the will.

That is, in particular, why I find discussions of fertility and its control almost inevitably crippled by incomplete consideration. It is not just with steroids and rubber and the knife that we control fertility; in the larger picture, it is with vaccines and antibiotics and sanitation that we have made the biggest impact. I think that nobody would willing go back to a 17th or 15th century control of fertility through disease and war and famine.

The truth is that, yes, there are plenty of engineers out there who are completely blind to the implications of the devices they design. And unfortunately, there are as many lawmakers, and manufacturers, and writers and counselors who are blind. And there are many whose particular hammer is the universal tool-- engineers who can fix everything with technology, and writers who can fix everything with words.

But there are also plenty of people, all around, who do consider the implications of what they build or advocate. But they sin, and therefore do not think things through well; and the rest of humanity is so very cunning in their ability to pervert whatever the thoughtful people come up with. Thus it seems to me that one's "thoughtful" consideration is easily itself perverted into a sinful self-ratification. Nothing is more ironic than talk of the perils of technology, broadcast worldwide on the internet.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Obviously We're Looking For DIfferent Things

OK, so I have some competition in the how to do church websites department, with Tony Morgan's 10 Easy Ways to Keep Me from Visiting Your Church Because I Visited Your Website" (which I got to from titusonenine. And I notice his advice varies from mine in several significant aspects.

As I remarked earlier, people looking at parish websites do so with a variety of different intents. So, here I might be, heading off to Grainger, IN, and what would I (personally) do? Well, nothing that finds "Grainger Community Church"-- in fact, the very name indicates to me that (besides not being Episcopal) it's not going to do worship as I know it.

Which leads us to some of the points he drags out. A lot of them are common sense web design things, and while I hadn't thought about the "pink and doves" thing, he does have a point with that one. But then we come upon this:

Put a picture of your building on the main page. After all, ministry is all about the buildings. Ah, but buildings are about ministry, and the form of the building says volumes about what's going to happen inside. Everything about GCC's website-- but especially the few pictures of the building-- says "there will be no liturgy inside."

Which brings me to a point. There are three kinds of church visitors: people like me and (I must presume) Mr. Morgan, who are in town already knowing what kind of church they're looking for; people paying their respects (wedding, funeral, etc.) who most of all just need to be able to find the place; and raw seekers who maybe have no idea what they want. I'm not sure exactly what websites are supposed to do for the latter, partly because I haven't been one in any part of my adult life, but partly because it has always seemed to me that different people have sought along different roads.

Looking at websites like that of GCC or (another he mentions in a different post) Crossroads Community Church gives me a message, all right: there's no place for me, because I'm too old to go to rock concerts. And even when I was young enough, I would have used the internet (not available at the time) to exclude "community churches". And why not? Because

-- and this is the kicker --

by then I already knew enough to read all the theological decisions hidden in what people said about church. Ignoring the surface details of whether auditorium music will survive better than congregational hymnody (though I'll bet on the latter), there is theology hidden in the difference between what GCC says it does about church and what St. Paul's Random Episcopal says it does about church. And the funny thing is that protestant websites tend to be about hiding that difference to the degree that only the ecclesiological cognoscenti can discern what a parish is about. I happen to know that "community church" normally means "standard American evangelical theology", but what about the unchurched seeker?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Uncle Ed and Jack Spong

So, for some reason over at U.S. News and World Report they feel the need to interview John Spong again. Remarking upon this in titusonenine, one "Ted" says:

Every time I read an interview of Bp. Spong I can’t help but think of my crazy old uncle Ed. Ed was the guy who would sit in the corner at family parties, weddings etc. and talk nonsense - rant and rave etc. He was a bit of curiousity, people would look at old Ed and wonder if he was still sane. But Ed was old and so allowances were made. So it goes with Bp. Spong. Crazy old man that he is, and frankly at this point a bit of a circus-side-show like curiousity. Just ignore him and don’t let him get your dander up. Life is lonely in the “where are they now” file.

Well, I wish. Why can't the media get over this guy? Because he's an easy interview? Because they wish in their heart-of-hearts that he speaks for ECUSA? (He doesn't.)

Well before his elevation, the present Archbishop of Canterbury dissected Spong's idiotic theses. If Cantuar isn't good enough, who is?

Please, Jack Spong: spare us!

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Emerald City: Home of Satan?

If it wasn't enough that Harry Potter was teaching kids to seek out black magic, now we have Amy Welborn ragging on The Wizard of Oz. Here, I think we definitely have run into a problem.

Fictional books and movies which seek to teach about religious belief are uncommon; those that intend to do so for children are quite rare. Much more commonly, it is the virtues that are the subject. So it is, clearly, with this movie. And in the scene with the wizard (which, by the way, is patently supposed to be preposterous) the message about the virtues is simple: you are what you do. Such a simple message, in fact, that Jesus teaches it in the parable of the sheep and the goats. Oh, and about self-reliance.

Ah, there's the rub. The difficulty is in the translation: "Oz the Great and Powerful" is a symbol for God; therefore the movie teaches that God is a humbug. Well, maybe. And maybe not. The symbol is more complex than that, for one thing. After all, their "prayers" to Oz-the-Powerful are answered-- just not in the way that they expected. How God-like! And further along in the movie-- well, once the balloon appears, God-symbolism is completely out the window.

The bigger issue seems to be this: in a secular movie, it's easy enough to teach against virtue, by accident or on purpose. It's easy to teach virtue on purpose. But it's exceedingly hard to teach specifically Christian principles, and next to impossible to direct people to interpret what they are seeing along specifically Christian lines.

With respect to Harry Potter, you have to be pretty thick not to notice that explicitly Christian symbols appear all over the place.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Space Aliens Seize NY Times

Over in her blog Barbara Nicolosi recounts a strange set of interviews by a reporter from the New York Times You can read her account of the interviews here and a follow-up exchange here.

The back-and-forth between the reporter's clueless paranoia and Ms. Nicolosi's sarcastic comebacks is amusing, but also depressing. Earth to NYT: everything is not about political power-- or for that matter, lifestyles of the upper-middle-class Manhattanite.

Another From Waiter Rant

See this entry: Nuc Dimittis

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Intrepid Scholar Discovers Forum Hell

Courtesy of titusonenine we have a posting from "Alan Mendelsohn" concerning Academic Flame Wars. Now, anyone who has a sufficient thick hide and has spent enough time on a religious forum or, for that matter, any on-line group where people take the topic Very Seriously has encountered the kind of behavior in his narrative.

Now, it seems to me that the employment discussion veered off the rails most obviously, falling straight into the pit of tolerance forsaken. A "reactionary candidate"? Suck it up! Learn to live with someone with radically different views! And a "Clarence Thomas"? In a literature department? The university in question is unnamed, but frankly English departments, on the average, impress me as a climate where W.E.B.deBois would come off as maybe something of a rightist. (Just my unenlightened prejudices at work.)

It's well-known that on-line interaction appears to lower the stakes for heated responses. There's a subtle twist in both incidents where things fall apart because people are told that they have to take sides. It shows up most clearly in the strike discussion because that's the issue that sets off the flaming-- I think somewhat accidentally. One has to trust, of course, in the narrative as recounted, but I think John's post contains a mistake which is found all over religious discussion.

The problem is that the potential strikers didn't have two choices; they had three. Perhaps he meant to say that the choices of non-involvement and denunciation of the other strike would be conflated by outsiders into denunciation. If he meant this, he was probably right. But it jeopardized the argument by placing allegiance ahead of discourse, and it's inevitable in any group of people who pride themselves on their rationality to react to such a maneuver with a flood of emotion.

Which is why religious arguments break down even more readily. In the midst of bunch of sinners, the transformation of opinion into sin is itself going to set off a whole lot more sinning. It is impossible to keep a religious discussion going if the participants cannot restrain themselves to talking about theology as ideas instead of moral justifications/transgressions.

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Figurative Illusion

Thomas Bushnell and (I think) Suzette Haden Elgin are having a sort of long-distance discussion about "literalism" in religious language, though I think neither of them really means that, um, literally.

English is a language which combines at least two different heritages of figures of speech. From its teutonic roots, we get a love of kennings, from its latinate roots, a love of rhetorical devices. Together they give us a tongue in which "figurative" speech is part and parcel of nearly everything we say. (I count at least 3 figures in the last sentence alone.) I'd count this sort of "figurative" speech as actually "literal" in the sense that it requires no especial decoding to comprehend.

When we talk about biblical language, it is common to talk as if it were figurative in the general sense of requiring this analysis. This is an exaggeration. Given the evolution of English in a Christian environment, it is only natural that biblical figures of speech become ordinary idioms. These become literal in the sense I used above.

Now, Genesis 1, if it is figurative, is so in a bigger sense this. I'm not too happy about the word "myth" as a term, but it does express what is going on here: instruction about the fundamental nature of the universe. If it is a literal recounting, it is so in addition to this teaching sense.

In the New Testament the problem becomes more serious. A Christianity in which Jesus' physical body remains dead and decaying in some grave is a different Christianity from ancient tradition in which that body is once again alive (albeit transformed radically). The second is "literal" and the first is not. There are, however, two complications.

First, there are the parables. As with Genesis 1, the most important point isn't the narrative itself, but what it is trying to say about God. There are those who deduce their way through their notion of Jesus' perfection to endorse the narrative truth too, but I am not impressed. The one place where it might have some real impact is in the attempt to work out what the next life is like from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

The second complication, and the one that 20th century theologians tended to play with, is that in talking about the passion narrative the evangelists use a lot figurative language in the sense of a sort of theological idiom. Perhaps the biggest bugaboo is the word "rise". There's a real theological dispute behind all the argument about the word, but it's confounded by several factors. First, when people start talking about a "three story universe", the image in their heads is really from The Divine Comedy-- an unabashedly poetic and figurative work. Prior tradition doesn't consistently present such a picture, as for instance in the medieval iconography of Christ the Geometer (again, a poetic work). I think it can at least be argued that scriptural use of rising and falling is more or less idiomatic.

The other problem is that the words that people talk about using instead also are figurative idioms. Take, for instance, Tillich's use of the word "ground". (OK, the translation of Tillich.) It has a dozen primary meanings in the dictionary, never mind its appearance in countless idiomatic phrases. Their derivation from the literal meaning of the surface and substance of the earth suggest connotations of fundamental support-- good-- and unchanging stability-- bad.

That leads me to the suggestion that what most people would call a "literal" reading, I would call perhaps a "naive" reading. That is, they readily sort out the idioms and poetry and the parabolic language quite naturally, and while they may not be able to verbalize it they have a pretty good-- and consistent, with a certain limit-- notion of which is which.

The limit within they are consistent is of course their interpretational tradition. The literalist tradition is that which is confrontational about various issues against another viewpoint which is not naive. To keep this post from turning into a book, I'll cut off here with the observation that being knowing can, unfortunately, lie in knowing what isn't so.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

No Adults Need Apply

Courtesy of titusonenine we have this report from the Telegraph about a church in England which is tearing apart because of the rector's replacement of the standard BCP service with what is being called "happy-clappy" liturgy. Anglicans and Catholics everywhere are familiar with this sort of story-- heck, Catholics in the USA have had to suffer through this for decades.

What's most interesting about this story, to me, is the emphasis placed on how the normal service is passing away, to be replaced forever by this new way of doing things. For instance, in the first sentence the vicar is attempting to "modernize" his services. Pews are contrasted with "flexible seating" (i.e., stacking or folding chairs). Then there's the statement from the diocesan spokesman: "Sometimes a church may believe it right to move in a particular direction, which may involve taking risks and perhaps unsettling or upsetting some."

That statement is, of course, vacuous nonsense, justifying anything at all. It matters entirely why people are unsettled or upset; chances are, some of them may have good reason for their reactions!

A glance at the parish's excessively well-concealed website does not give an age for the rector, but unless he is the victim of early balding and grey hair, I'd guess he's at least in his middle forties. (His curate looks older still.) Maybe England is behind us in the USA, but unless one wants to use "modern" in condescending contrast to "post-modern", there's nothing really very modern about this style of service. It's squarely in the evangelical (in the American sense) tradition.

"Condescending" is important here because the whole premise is that younger people want this sort of service style. It's an overgeneralization, of course, but there's that other problem: young people grow up. The happy-happy, "always Easter and never Lent" style is (a) a bit dated already (it can be traced straight back to evangelical/RC circles of thirty years ago) and (b) rather patronizing, as though young people aren't ready for any of the serious part of religion. What young people really want is to be treated as the adults that they think they are. Meanwhile, the people who are old enough to be their parents, which is to say, those running the parish, are tempted into indulging themselves in the fantasy that they are young again (no), with it (definitely not), and oh so sensitive to their childrens' needs (not too likely).

And while I'm at it, there's another juvenile problem here: this service style definitely doesn't "play well with others". I don't know what English hymnals look like these days, but the 1982 ECUSA hymnal has a huge range of material from practically every musical tradition on earth. Spirituals, plainsong, psalter tunes, sacred harp, Lutheran chorales, Russian hymns and English folksongs sit side by side in the pages and on the service sheet. The organ or the piano steps up and accomodates them all. But for some reason, "contemporary" music won't fit in.

Unfortunately the very beautiful African choral music wasn't well known enough in the 1970s to make it into the hymnal. This is indisputably contemporary stuff. But to fit into the "contemporary" service, it has to be dumbed down. The problem? It's a capella, and it's sung in parts. This is apparently too grown up, so the tyrannous guitar has to take over the song leading, and everyone has to sing the melody, like school children.

It's time for contemporary music to grow up. Have the courage to sing what generations of men and women sang for centuries before.

Richard Kew on the Mess We're In

Sometimes it seems impossible to find a blog where the positions are not dittohead dogmatic and extreme. Anglicans in particular seem to have to choose, all too often, between "when's the next bus to Rome?" Anglo-Catholics and "Robinson! Robinson! Rah, rah, rah!" liberals.

Thus, it's a pleasure to come upon Richard Kew's The Kew Continuum, and particularly this entry:

The Reclaiming of the Church

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Sense of Betrayal

Word has come to me that Alvin F. Kimel, Jr. is leaving the the Episcopal Church and intends to seek ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. You can read his announcement of this here.

As a few of you may be aware, Al was my parish priest for something like a decade. He married us, and he baptized my eldest son, not to mention giving me communion nearly every Sunday for those ten-odd years. I've been watching his "progress" on his blog with increasing annoyance, to the point of exchanging a couple of e-mails when he started telling everyone to bail out of ECUSA.

I suppose I should have expected his abandonment of his church; everything in his blog pointed to this. But dammit, it still hurts; the more I think about it, the angrier I get. What are you going to tell me you were doing, Al, when you celebrated the eucharist, Sunday after Sunday?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Talking About Some Other Generation

Well, our rector is about to go off on a sabbatical to explore the emerging church. This has become the current hot thing, as attested to by Christianity Today; its proponents love a certain style of cultural-commentary jargon, and say "postmodern" a lot.

Now, I think talking about "generations" is a bunch of hooey. I'm looking at some of the websites of these places-- and they are "cutting-edge" in the annoying way of not using a normal name for anything and using a lot of Flash animations-- and I'm noticing a consistent pattern about the leaders of these places: they're all about my age or a little older. I'm guessing that their kids are all middle-to-high school age because, like me, they waited until they were almost thirty to have them. And I'll bet their kids don't think their parents are cool, because there is nothing less "cool" than parents who try to be their children.

Me? When I came home from high school, I called up the local Episcopal parish to find out what time services were. (I went to the 11:15 service-- the only time fit for old ladies and college students.) By the time the founders of Cedar Ridge Community Church were getting organized, I was singing in the choir. Not too long after, I was going to a different parish which was shortly packed with young families. Cool? No! It was a by-the-book Rite II BCP sung eucharist sort of place, with standard hymns which we sang in parts.

One thing one sees around the net is that everyone has a program for saving The Church by changing how we do church. There are plenty of arch-traditionalists out there, for example, who want to pick some ideal liturgical praxis and stay there. This can work in a limited fashion but it inevitably runs up against the problem that, being reactionary, it is too much dictated by what it believes the current culture to be.

It's the progressive movements, though, that age worse. The leaders of the emerging churches are going to grow old, and they are going to lose touch with the "current". Another ten years, and their churches are going to be the churches of the old fuddy-duddies. Indeed, I'm looking at the emerging church materials and seeing merely the latest reinvention of the American evangelical style-- a style that is based in amnesis, not anamnesis, and which to me seems of the world, not in it.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Stipites Mundi

Bishop Bennison, Episcopal ordinary of Pennsylvania (i.e., Philadelphia), has put forth another rather perverse discourse, as recorded in titusonenine. This piece has been analyzed all over the traditionalist Anglican world, but I particularly like the epithet from RatherNot blog: stipites mundi, the "blockheads of the world".

His entry is rather long, but worth reading in full. My reaction to Bennison's tornado-strength spin of "Catholic" is to roll my eyes, but it's nice to know that someone else out there sees how stupid this stuff is.

Mind you, there are traditionalist blockheads out there too-- perhaps later I will point out some. But the Latinate phrase was too good to pass by.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Scent of Religious Discussion

We're not making this up:

Try the new scent: Polemic

Note that the bottle is apple-shaped; I think it signifies Eris, goddess of discord.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Oolon Coluphid and the Anglicans

Richard John Neuhaus has another Oolon Coluphid moment in his latest Rome Diary entry. Now, he's been declaring Anglicanism dead for years, a practice he admits irritates some of us:

"But the immediate question here is whether, as correspondents allege, I am habitually scornful of the Anglican communion."

Well, he has been not only scornful; he has tended to assume a tone which I can only describe as smart-aleck. Yes, it's entertaining to harp on the latest "epatez les orthodoxes" escapades of John Shelby Spong, but after a while the sheer irrelevance of his "faith" to the average Episcopalian is grating.

Also grating are Neuhaus's references to Newman, whose example he followed after a fashion (in Neuhaus's case, the conversion was from being a Lutheran Pastor). Newman left; Keble did not. And indeed, if the threatened disintegration of ECUSA takes place (and with the public statements of the various parties, this seems assured) the supply of Anglican converts may dry up, as traditionalists may no longer have anyone to flee.

But in any case, we are obviously in media res. The story of Anglicanism is not only not over, it is approaching a crisis which, one way or the other, will change its character forever. Neuhaus doesn't know the end of the story, nor does anyone else on earth.

And while I'm at it: the comments on the princely wedding were tacky. I can only imagine that the issues of Prince Charles' sins would be, for Rowan Cantuar, a matter for the confessional, and not properly the subject of public discussion.

(a tip of the tippet to titusonenine for bringing this to my attention)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Blogs in the Sacred Grove of Dead Trees

The story of the Revs. Melnyk has gotten a bit hard on the brain of late, as Rev. William Melnyk, having repented of his Druidism, has more recently recanted his repentance, and even more recently repented of his recantation of his repentance. Confused? So am I.

What's interesting about this is how this whole saga has largely been played out as an internet affair, with the MSM serving largely as a footnote. So now the Philadelphia Inquirer has weighed in with the latest change of heart, and as the GetReligion guys have pointed out, they've got the basic story utterly wrong.

What I find curious is the emphasis on the "conservative watchdog groups". Frankly, I think that Christianity Today practically qualifies as MSM, but the fact is that us bloggers quite gleefully chased all this down because it was fun and because the Forces Of Evil were so flagrantly incompetent in covering their tracks. Everything one needed to know was out there, if one were only to look for it. Somehow a pretty straight recounting of what we found (and I was one of the researchers, I'll confess to that) has gotten turned into a fairly vague and inaccurate expression of conservative opinion. It seems that it's OK for the Inquirer to pretty much ignore a story in its own backyard (its first article on the issue wasn't published until November 5th, eleven days after the story hit the web) but not OK for the rest of us to pursue the story on our own.

Will the Inquirer print a correction? Stay tuned....

The Excluded Middle

Thomas Bushnell has a blog entry about the unhappy fate of moderate positions on a certain class of social issues. To some degree I agree with what he says, but I think the subject needs deeper consideration.

Beneath his argument is a certain moral analogy: that issues of race, gender, and sexuality are, with regards to equity, essentially similar. I'd call this a conservative viewpoint in the sense that the primary contending positions have given answers in each of these three issues that assume this similarity. Bad guys said they were similar in that each issue was determined by essential differences in race/gender/sexuality; good guys said they were the same in being determined by essential equality.

For race, the equality position won. But this position has continued to be dogged by actual inequality in outcome, leading to more social problems to be fixed. This in turn has led to more radical solutions. So now the conservative position is that the law does enough now and there is nothing more to be done, the radical liberal positions vary but include such notions as reparations, and there is a quite assorted middle which thinks that the current structure of rights and laws is mostly OK but which considers a wide variety of activity or leeser modifications. (The old conservative position is now reactionary, and in practice isn't expressible in public anymore.)

The situation for gender is more extreme. The "bad" inequity positions have never been quashed, and since physical differences are more than skin deep, it has been harder to get people to agree that they don't matter. In the mass of different views it's a bit arbitrary to pick out a middle, but on one end might cite certain religiously derived views limiting women to the household, and on the other radical feminists who like to entertain the notion of parthenogenesis. There is a lot of room between these positions, and perhaps the center is to be found in the acceptance of the larger principle that employment should derive from actual ability and nothing else; that net differences between men and women should be accepted; and that the basic physical differences between the sexes prevent utter equality and that therefore some other standard of equity has to be proposed.

What strikes me about the difference between these "moderates" and those in Bushnell's examples is that the field of their "moderation" is different. Bushnell's "moderates" are compromisers; these moderates need not be.

That presents a problem with regards to same-sex marriage because there are really two questions involved. One is the metaphysical discussion of marriage, and this does indeed tend to bar a middle ground. The other, however, is the relationship between marriage and the state, and this is very much contested and allows plenty of room for a range of opinion. To help confuse matters further, in the USA this relationship requires compromise. One cannot keep "covenant" away from "law", not unless one is willing to completely bar the law from recognizing any kind of legal obligation arising out of a marriage. That would be an extremely radical position, of interest only to domineering, wife-dumping men. Thus, whatever position eventually prevails will be, on some level, a compromise.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Culture From APLM

That's the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, a sixty year old group associated with ECUSA which started out as a body for liturgical renewal. Well, they seem to have branched out.

It's not up on their website yet, but in The Witness there is a statement from their April 2005 meeting in Estes Park CO. It's all about homosexuality, and while some of it makes cogent comments, some of it walks right into Christ and Culture problematic theology.

Consider this passage:

It is no coincidence that most of the bishops and provinces of the Anglican Communion who oppose the ordination of homosexual persons, or the blessing of their faithful relationships, are opponents of the ordination of women and the welcoming of infants at the eucharistic table as soon as they are baptized. All of these practices upset the hegemony of men in the church, and are painful for those who cling to privilege and power. No one likes to relinquish power, and it is never easy.

That curious word: hegemony. To someone of my age, someone who paid any attention to this stuff in college, it sets off an alarm. It's the language of the politicized radical chic of a quarter-century ago. Now, GC and the people who formulate positions for it-- people like the members of APLM, as it happens-- are in the hegemony business, if anyone in the church is. It also seems to me that I hear an certain frustration that they can't extend their hegemony over, say, Anglican churches in Nigeria.

But more of an issue is this language in its totally secular usage. It was, after all, the preferred language of radical feminism. In that context, it was never accurate. Individual men do not gain hegemony simply by being male; individual women are not utterly barred from power over men simply by being female. This language was always subject to the criticism that it legitimized institutional elitism, because it was indifferent to the actual differences in power among actual men and women.

In being imported into theological language, this business about giving up power was added to it. This added a note of hypocrisy to the whole endeavor, because the acts of those who espoused this line of thinking, when it came to General Convention, was not only very much to wield power, but also to spread alarm about the danger of the opposition getting power back!

Likewise, the various struggles over parishes which have hit the papers over the years have largely been about demonstrations of episcopal hegemony as exercised by liberal bishops. In the Diocese of Washington, for example, the issue was Jane Dixon's instance on a show of her power in forcing visitations upon parishes. She even said as much.

Now, I don't like the Donatist edge to this either. For better or worse, Vickie Gene Robinson is a bishop. He may be a bad bishop, and a scandal, but for me he's not on the same level of scandal as Spong. Nevertheless the conclusion of the statement borders on the disengenuous. The problem is that the theological innovators are determined to use the power structures of ECUSA to advance their positions, whether or not the rest of the communion objects. Being cut off from the rest of the communion is the natural result of this. (I think their invocation of the Donatists is overstated, BTW: I see no sign that the communion is broken any worse than it is broken between ECUSA and the Catholic church.)

Sunday, April 17, 2005

"Liberal" and "Conservative" Considered Problematic

Fairly early on in this series of exchanges, Thomas Bushnell clarified an entry on his blog with the following response:

"They claim to be conserving church over and against culture, when actually they are trying to conserve older culture against change."

Well, I don't think so. The word "conserve" here is the problem.

For one thing, we're a bit out of date with the terminology. Within the last year the one party has taken to calling themselves "reasserters" and has labelled the other side "revisionists". This is still not really acceptable because they've stuck the opposition with a pejorative, but at least they've put some distance between the current conflict and the French Revolution. And these labels do get at what the one side perceives as the fundamental issue.

At this very late date there's almost nothing to "conserve" about conservative culture. I'm just barely old enough to remember-- somewhat-- how the late '60s changed everything. What I do remember, and what I see looking back at materials of the time, is that there was most definitely a liberal establishment (see "the Johnson administration") and that for the most part both it and whatever there was of a conservative establishment were remade to the point of destruction in the turmoil of 1968 and subsequent years.

As far as cultural conservatism is concerned, there is plainly a nostalgia for an image of, oh, a certain vague picture of late '40s-mid '50s society. But race doesn't figure actively in this picture-- for that they jump directly to 1968, and at that point they become the radicals and the "liberals" become the cultural conservatives.

What we call political conservatives today are a creation of the middle '70s. By that point the dogma of liberal progress was firmly in place, and it remains the centerpiece of that party. "Liberal" and "conservative" simply remain in place as position labels from, oh, about 1933, but it would be idiotic to ascribe the liberal or conservative positions of the former era to present-day "liberals" and "conservatives".

All camps want to "conserve" their own values. The label is not a substitute for the actual positions.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The G Word

I'm suprised find I've never made an entry here about the issue of church names, because it's one of the basic issues of dealing with, um, Catholic/Orthodox (or Roman/Eastern) ecclesiology. The marketing strategy of these names is obvious and when these names are taken at face value one has to be fanatically careful about maintaining a distinction between "Catholic" and "catholic", and then beating everyone else about the head and ears to maintain it as well. The alternative-- finding other names for the bodies-- just never worked out, and at least one can fall back on the position that the legal names for the bodies in question have a certain standing.

With regards to sexual orientation the problem is much, much worse. Even the phrase "sexual orientation" has problem presuppositions built into it.

Historically the self-terminology for what these days I think I'm supposed to call blacks has been heavily driven by the co-option of these terms into racial epithets. As a result one can date black institutions by their names. With words like "gay" the situation is more complex. Bushnell is wrong if he thinks that the word is neutral; kids around here use it as a pejorative. I'm also a bit surprised that the semiotics of seizing the epithets of persecutors and claiming them as one's own are being ignored. It's an interesting technique, and whether it will succeed in the long run will be interesting to see. In the meantime, it puts a curious color on the way "queer" keeps popping up in his discourse, and on the threat to label me a "breeder".

This last term is an unabashed pejorative. "Straight" people don't use it as a self-description-- at least, nobody I know does. "Queer"? I don't use that word either-- at all. As with "gay", the word is so contaminated with the subtext of sexual deviancy, flaunted or decried, that its denotation is useless. What's odd is this objection to the phrase "homosexual men". It's hard for me to understand the assertion that this is a pejorative, when I specifically chose it in an effort to escape connotation. The message I read from this is that I am not to be allowed that escape.

Well, maybe. At any rate, whether or not this is being a distraction, I'm tired of fighting it. As long as you're willing to sign off that I mean no pejoration by it, you can be "gay" if you want.

Thursday, April 14, 2005


Thomas Bushnell has made another blog entry concerning the "Christ and Culture" discussion. Now, much of the tone of what he writes invites objection, notably the phrase "the queers are taking over". If want to say it for yourself, do so; don't even vaguely imply that I said anything like it.

As far as Louie Crews' seat on the Executive Council, the entry borders on disingenuity. You can check his church resume for yourself, but the picture I read from it-- and I first encountered him almost twenty years ago-- is that of a prominent and influential member of the church establishment. When I see Todd Wetzel or James Staunton or Jack Iker on the executive council, I'll be much more impressed by its balance. As it is, prominent liberals are represented, and prominent conservatives are not. It's hard for me to believe that anyone who pays any attention to ECUSA politics can deny the significance of seating one of Integrity's founders on the EC.

And that suspicion brings me to the main point. Theology as rationalization is all over the place; if one's opponents are doing it (and they often enough are) then onesself (or at least one's allies) are probably doing it too. Talking about motivations is always a dangerous opening for rationalization.

I'm not utterly convinced that the conservatives are that reactionary; I personally don't feel any moral nostalgia for a 1956 in which my parents had been married for one year. I can understand the longing for a "return" to a public culture was more directly informed by a "Christian" perspective, whether or not the image of that culture is historically accurate. Conversely, the language of enlightenment humanism is constantly on the lips of the liberals, but the Christianity of this language is at least debatable.

And "cultural"? Well, of course; one of the things that people use to draw lines around cultures and subcultures is shared values. And one of the chief of these is differentiation from those outside the subculture. My experience of theological discussion in general is that issues of inclusion and differentiation contaminate such discussion very heavily. I'm either supposed to see the liberal side as controlled by their unwillingness to accept traditionalist theological principles, or I'm supposed to see the conservative side as controlled by their theological principles. As far as I think I am applying theological principles, I don't get either side, so I personally have to believe this way of differentiating the sides is just not where the discussion is coming from.

The Standard Arguments

In the on-going "blog vs. blog" discussion I'm having with Thomas Bushnell, he's done one of the standard things one sees on "liberal" side: replace "homosexual" with "negro". Personally, I think it would have been a lot more apt to replace it with "Latino" or "Mexican"; after all, I live in the middle of the negro/Afro-American/black problem, and my father is from North Carolina. Somehow I have to doubt that New Mexico and California offer quite the same perspective.

Be that as it may, this is an old mode of argument. SO-- d'ya think someone might have formulated an answer by now? Of course they have! But Has anyone ever convinced anyone else? It hardly seems so.

The obvious answer is that race is a very poor analogue for homosexuality. Even leaving aside the important issue of nature vs. behavior, the reality of class structure is utterly different. Washington DC (and for that matter the area as a whole) has a very visible black underclass; but it also has a black upper class. The black underclass is extremely segregated, but then, so are latinos and for that matter poor whites. Do male homosexuals mostly live in a similar underclass? If they do, it's not very visible.

Even running the clock back forty years, it's hard for me to see the parallel-- and I should point out that forty years ago I was in Montessori school. I've never attended a segregated school in my life.

Surely I'm not the first person to make these observations. It bugs me that discussion of these issues all too often takes the form of trading ritual arguments. The similarity of race and sexuality is a corollary, not a lemma, but it seems that we never get to confronting this.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

That "Christ and Culture" Thing

Thomas Bushnell is none too happy with Richard Kew's thesis on denial. He specifically focuses on the issue of "culture" in his condemnation.

I see in this an error of reification. There's a sociological tendency to talk about Culture as a coherent organism, but this image is false, and the way that people talk about it indicates the falsehood.

At the moment it's easier to talk about this by looking at the liberal side, using everyone's favorite test case: homosexual men. What does the culture say about this? Well, obviously it's going to depend on who you ask. Once the Leviticus-quoters on the one hand and the homosexual lobby on the other are removed from the picture, I suspect that there remains a very large party which has a gut aversion, and a somewhat smaller but still large party which may or may not disapprove but has a "live and let live" attitude.

Looking at the Episcopal Church, it's hard not to miss the connection between the homosexual lobby and the church administration. (For instance, Louie Crew holds an Executive Council seat.) Widening out a bit further, it's pretty clear that they travel within a subculture in which subscription to the righteousness of homosexuality is a unquestioned and indeed unquestionable presupposition. Does this drive theology? In my opinion, it does.

Bushnell's implicit identification of church theological conservatives with American political conservatives is very much more problematic. Within the Episcopal Church itself that identification is mostly false. They simply don't travel within the same subculture. Indeed, one of the most obvious elements of the condemnation of fundamentalists is the streak of sheer snobbery that runs through it, a snobbery that accurately reflects class differences between the two subcultures. All of this shows up all over the internet. Good upper middle class people "affirm" male homosexuality; bad middle-middles (including especially social-climbing businesspeople who dare to think that their money means something) are "homophobes" (and there's clearly a condescending class difference manifest in that faux clinicalism).

When I look at Louie Crew, I see a person of some privilege, and I see someone who presumes to direct the course of the "culture". (As a matter of record: he taught at the same private boarding school that I attended.) What I'm hearing, very loudly, is the complaint that the "culture" refuses to follow where they lead. Its very much the complaint of an establishment that is in denial about its right to lead.

Does the Olive in the Martini Break the Lenten Fast?

What with all the inane posturing about theology out there it's nice to come upon some actual application. You should read Waiter Rant anyway, but particularly this story about Hamburgers and God.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Richard Kew on Denial

YOu can see this at titusonenine, or at the Kew Continuum.

I can only add that so much of the theological discussion on the net falls right into this. People spend endless hours, for instance, arguing for the ecclessiastical sovreignty of this or that church or bishop, as though any such talk was going to influence the actual, very real divisions. Creationists waste disk space thinking that they can show that evolution is unscientific. And to crown it all, infallibility seems to be omnipresent.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Trackback.... Must have trackback....

I've switched over to Haloscan in order to get trackback for this blog. Unfortunately it means that, for now, the older comments aren't visible. I'm going to see if I can overcome this problem.

Update: OK, the old comments seem to be there after all. Hmmmm. Now if I can make sure the trackback is working right....

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Church Websites Revisited

I was looking at some parish websites using the parish locator from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington website last night. I have some other comments to add about designing these.

When setting up a website it's important to remember that the whole world can see it. Therefore, a lot of the people who look at it will not view it from the perspective of a parishioner or even a neighbor. For example, last night I became interested in the histories of the various parishes. Guess what? Lots of parishes had a section on their history, but there were plenty that didn't. This is something that people from great distances will be interested to read (provided it is kept to the point).

Then there's the bandwidth issue. I have DSL at home, and still I find that lots of these websites are slow to load. There are still plenty of people out there on dial-up (and likely to remain so). It's annoying to have to wait for heavyweight images and objects which don't provide content, especially

  • big stock photos (or for that matter, any big images on the home page)

  • Java applets which do ordinary functions (e.g. buttons)

Stick to standard names for things. They are "service times", not "when we gather". And please, get someone who isn't color-blind to look at your website. I ran across one last night that had blue letters on a red background, and my eyes shimmied for several minutes after I closed the page.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Average Age Urban Legend

If you're an Episcopalian, you may have been told that the "average age" of Episcopalians is 57.9 (and "rising rapidly"). Where does this number come from?

Well, it doesn't appear to come from anywhere, at least not from some actual study. It's also (in the mouths of other denominations) the average age of Methodists and of Presbyterians. And its pairing with an average age of US residents (a number given anywhere from 35 to 40) is utter nonsense.

The Canadian Census people do in fact collect pretty detailed info about religious affiliation and age. Their reports give an average age of about 50. There is a group called US COngregations which also does some study work along these lines. They report an average age for all US worshippers of about 50. A report they prepared specifically for the Methodists gives similar numbers.

These last two, by the way, show why the comparison with the average age in the USA is nonsense: they do not count children under age 15 at all.

I took the liberty of exchanging a few messages with C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research at The Episcopal Church Center. He wrote back:

"I have been unable to find the source of this number. I suspect that it is actually an estimate of adult Episcopalians from a national survey. Obviously, including children would lower the average age. I have tried to develop an estimate using known percentages of members 60 and over and demographic age distributions of the population. This is somewhat speculative, but I am sure that the actual average age is around 47 or 48 rather than 58."

and later:

"By combining Faith Communities Today data for the Episcopal Church with a census population pyramid I get an estimated average age of 49 in 2000. That is an estimate, of course, but any figure in the high 50s is highly suspect."

As for "rising rapidly", even if not a single Episcopal baby were born nor a single person converted, the average age could not rise by a year every year. The aging of the population is counterbalanced, to a degree, by the dying off of older members.

So why do people repeat these numbers? It's because they want to alarm people with the notion that their church is dying out. The reality is that large denominations tend to have population distributions that reflect that of the nation as a whole: a fairly uniform distribution of members across age groups. There is of course a dip in teen to 20s attendance, but its effect is not so dramatic as this.