Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, July 31, 2015

A new young political/literary talent rises (and he's a committed Christian, too)

Barton Swaim, author of the new attention-getting book The Speechwriter, is being interviewed right and left, including by our own beloved NYC/WNYC Brian Lehrer, and that is such good news. The book is about being a speechwriter for three years on the team of the Appalachian Trail-walking Mark Sanford, former governor of South Carolina. He describes his book as a comedy.

Barton is a faithful member of a Presbyterian church close to Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, SC, and I had the pleasure of lunch with him recently. He has been writing all along for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and other publications, but this new book puts him on the larger scene. He's a little bit like Ross Douthat but with a killer sense of humor.

This interview with him will give you the general idea:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Christian love in action

We should not romanticize or idealize any church. That includes the New Testament church of 2000 years ago, and, as I keep reminding myself, it includes the African-American churches. Sin worms its insidious way into every human heart and every human community.

And yet. I met a young white woman the other day who lives, by choice, in Harlem and attends a black church. She says that her (white) mother taught her that the African-American churches live closer to the heart of Christianity than any of the white churches. After reading about "Mother Emanuel" in Charleston, and after reading this story today (link below), I can't disagree.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Should obituaries and memorial services pass over hard truths?

An article in The New York Times today raises some interesting questions for the church. Quite a few people have told me that I am not the only one who objects to calling a funeral (or, increasingly, a memorial service) "A Celebration of the Life of...." This custom arose about thirty years ago. In the Episcopal Church, it is widely observed, in spite of the Prayer Book which calls the service The Burial of the Dead. People now say earnestly, "We are going to celebrate his/her life on (date)" instead of what we all used to say--"the funeral will be on (date)." It would be interesting to trace the origin of this new practice. I can't believe that it arose from serious liturgical reform. It is hard not to see in it the evidence of cultural denial in the form of "positive thinking,"

There is, absolutely, an element of joy and celebration in the Christian faith at the time of death.The service should indeed be a liturgy of the Resurrection. But resurrection from what? Death barely makes an appearance at today's services. In spite of (rather glib-sounding) assurances that grief is OK (from the introduction to the service in the 1979 Prayer Book), there is very little space for real mourning in the upbeat form of the service as it presently stands.

From the perspective of the traditional Christian understanding of Death and burial, there are at least two things wrong with "A Celebration of the Life of ...."

1) It passes over the universal Christian teaching that we are all equal in death, each of us as sinners in the eyes of God. I have written previously about the Capuchin rite which was used in Vienna for the last Hapsburg empress. The ritual requires a designated person accompanying the coffin to knock and when asked "Who comes there?" to say "Empress Zita of Austria-Hungary" and her various titles. The answer comes, "We do not know her." A second knock with the same question is answered with yet more titles, and the refusal comes again. The third time, the answer is "Zita, a sinful mortal." The door swings open wide.
2) The designation of the rite at time of death as" a celebration of the life of..." is a refusal to look at the hard facts about Sin and Death, which ought to be but aren't on everyone's mind because of the strenuous effort we make to suppress them. The liturgy at time of death, properly understood, offers a powerful opportunity to preach and celebrate the sacrificial death and risen life of Jesus Christ, rather than spending most of the available time celebrating the life of the deceased.

Therefore this article seems to me to present an argument for a corrective:

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Kamikaze literary critic assesses Obama's eulogy at Mother Emanuel

Those of you who don't live in New York or read The New York Times regularly might not know the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani. The literati of Gotham either bow low at her name or spit at it. I am in the first category, and have been for many years. I revere her, in fact. I depend on her quite a bit when deciding whether to read something or not.  She is the American-born, Yale-trained only child of Yale mathematician Shizuo Kakutani (1911-2004), who was born and educated in Japan.

I hang around on the edges of literary circles in New York, so I had hoped to meet her, but I gave up that idea when I learned, some years ago, that she is famously reclusive and does not go out much. She is hated by some, for the wrong reasons in my opinion. Her Wikipedia entry is a disgrace; it lists many of the vicious criticisms leveled at her while saying virtually nothing about her analytical mind, penetrating assessments, and widely admired, secure place on the New York literary scene.

All this is by way of introducing her account of President Obama's "eulogy" (hate that word and concept, but that's what everyone is calling it) at the funeral for Pastor Clementa C. Pinckney at "Mother Emanuel" church in Charleston last week. A lot has been written and said about it already, but for my money this is one of the best assessments we are likely to see. I don't think the sermon/speech really approached Lincoln's Shakespearean Second Inaugural, but even so, she--the daughter of a Japanese--has caught something deeply American, deeply biblical, deeply humane, about Obama's effort. Here is the link:

Friday, July 03, 2015

Biblical apocalyptic theology in full flower at Mother Emanuel

The "Norman Rockwell" photo (see the immediately preceding post in this Tips department) of the little girl and the imposing usher in the white gloves is now being seen around the world, but the little girl's family is well known among "church planters," of which there are a great many here in New York. Skylar's father is a prominent church planter, head of Infinity Church in the Bronx (if you are concerned that Christianity is dying in the Northeast, take a look at Pastor Dimas' Salaberrios' website).

There are several posts in my Ruminations feature which discuss the growth of an apocalyptic theological trend in New Testament studies. This Washington Post article about Pastor Dimas and his wife Tiffany (warrior woman) clearly discloses the apocalyptic scenario at work, for those who have eyes to see:

The apocalyptic vision of the New Testament may not be recognized here by its academic appellation, but it is powerfully alive in Charleston as the church of the Lord Christ advances in the armor of God to confront the principalities and powers on the ground, in the trenches, at the frontier of the battle against the Enemy of God's purposes. "For not with swords' loud clashing, /nor roll of stirring drums,/  but deeds of love and mercy/ the heavenly kingdom comes."

And a little child shall lead them.