This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

Antidoron.
Or: What to Do with Communion Leftovers.

I know this is going to sound somewhat odd, especially for Presbyterians.  But as my eucharistic theology evolves I have been thinking about the bread and the wine.  (I am using “wine” to refer to fermented and unfermented grape juice.)    

I was in a conversation with my Russian priest friend the other day, when he indicated that we can identify one’s eucharistic theology simply by noticing what they do with the leftover communion elements.  

In “high” liturgical churches — Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and perhaps some Lutheran — they are first of all careful to only consecrate enough of the elements for the number of people who will participate.  Then anything that is left over is consumed by the priest, or sometimes may be reserved for a future service.  In some places I even think leftover elements are buried. 

But, first of all, I have a problem with the practice of only preparing “enough.”  One aspect of the Sacrament is a witness to God’s abundance and generosity in creation and salvation.  This is hard to imagine when we have just a small amount of the bread and wine before us.

For instance, I get frustrated by baptisms that use as little water as possible.  I witnessed one baptism in which the pastor barely dipped his finger in the water and then shook it (!) so that by the time his hand reached the head of the person being baptized it must have barely been damp.  Presbyterians already have enough of a problem with matter and symbol and anything sensory.  We need to emphasize the water and use a lot of it.  We need to get wet!  By the same token the elements of the eucharist are not incidental.  It doesn’t have to be about the volume of bread and wine consumed, but it should be clear that God has provided more than enough!   

I mean, in nature, God is ridiculously promiscuous.  A single oak tree can produce like 10,000 acorns in a year.  So I don’t like the optics of just preparing enough for those present.  It makes God look cheap.  I don’t have a problem with having leftovers.  The issue is what to do with them.  

Now, I certainly don’t hold to the Roman Catholic view of “transubstantiation,” in which the elements somehow become physically the Body and Blood of the Lord.  One problem with transubstantiation is that it identifies realness with physical materiality.  I do hold to Calvin’s view of the “real presence” of Christ in the Sacrament.  For Calvin this is spiritual presence and therefore more real than mere limited, physical presence.  

At the same time, I do believe that the elements — and the people — are indeed changed in the Sacrament.  On the one hand, the elements become more than just ordinary bread and wine simply because of their use in the rite and that the sacred words have been spoken over them.  On the most basic level, this is like when a particular baseball becomes special when it was the one your child hit for a home run in Little League.  But this is even more special than that because we are saying words Jesus told us to say and doing things Jesus told us to do.

The bread and the wine are changed into more than special bread and wine.  While the elements certainly remain bread and wine, they do in some sense become, at the Lord’s command — “this is my body;” “this is my blood” — his Body and Blood.  This does not happen in terms of physics, but spiritually; not outwardly so much as inwardly.  

Jesus goes into this in some detail in John 6, where he states that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).  The Lord clarifies this teaching few verses later, when he says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (v. 63).  

When we remember that the inspiration for this discourse is the actual feeding of the hungry crowd on the hillside, we realize that the physical bread serves to ground and focus analogically and metaphorically the real bread which is Jesus’ presence and words.  The bread is not incidental and disposable any more than is the water of baptism.  Through these elements we remain rooted in creation.  Matter and bodies are valued precisely because of the sacramental freight they bear, showing us that God comes to us in and through what God has made, and not by means of some gnostic, anti-material, psychic fantasy.

Therefore, the elements do indeed become charged with God’s Presence for their sitting on this particular Table and having these particular words spoken over then, and being offered to these people with this intent and this these thoughts focused on them.  This change is fulfilled when the bread and the wine are actually consumed and interact with each participant.  Yet even the bread and wine left behind still carry this charge, even if unreleased.  

We do need to be conscious and careful about what we do with the leftovers, because my priest friend is right: it expresses something about what we believe about the bread, the sacrament, creation, and Jesus.   

Presbyterians, unconsciously influenced by Zwingli (at best) and a knee-jerk antipathy to everything “Catholic” (at worst) tend to dispose of the leftover elements by three methods.  
  1. The worst practice, in my view, is to throw the bread in the trash and pour the juice down the drain.  This is wasteful and ungrateful even for normal bread and juice.  Who would dispose of perfectly good food this way in their homes?  This is a sign of our sinfulness, that we would take a gift of God — especially something he has made significant in our specific obedience to him — and simply decide it is now worthless and relegate it to the category of garbage.  If your child bakes you a cookie you thank them and at least pretend to eat it.  You do not toss it in the trash in front of them.  At the very least, let’s treat the leftover communion elements like the real food they are.  To throw them out in the face of a world hungry for both food and grace, is an abomination.    
  2. Another practice is to leave the bread outside for birds, and pour the contents of the cup out on the ground.  This is a little better, if done with gratitude, prayer, and consideration, in that it shows some respect for the elements and semi-ritually returns them back to nature.  On the other hand, in my experience birds are not always interested, and the bread just sits there getting weathered.  This can easily be seen as careless disposal, little better than throwing it in the garbage.  After all, “for the birds” is what we sometimes say about something we don’t value.    
  3. Still better is when the elements are either consumed or sent out with the representatives of the church to be shared with homebound people in the congregation.  Here is a good use.  But most churches would not do this every time the sacrament is celebrated.  (One church I served did send the deacons out with the elements after every celebration; I never hesitate to commend them.)  
The Eastern Orthodox have something called the Antidoron.  The Antidoron is bread that is blessed but not actually consecrated in the eucharist.  (They don’t use much bread in the actual eucharist.  The priest chops it fine, mixes it with warmed wine, and literally feeds it to the people by a small spoon.)  In some churches the non-consecrated bread is cut into cubes and sent out with the people.  The Antidoron may be given to anyone, therefore it is also a way to include non-Orthodox around the edges of the sacrament.

Once when I attended an Easter liturgy at an Antiochian Orthodox church, it was clear to the congregation that I was a visitor.  Parents must have pointed me out to their children as a worthy recipient of Antidoron, for several kids, after having received communion themselves, took some pieces and gave them to me on their way by.  By then end of the service I had almost more Antidoron in my cupped hands than I could handle.  I felt very welcome!

Would it  not be inappropriate to use a strategy like this with our communion leftovers?  That is, what if we Presbyterians encouraged participants to take some pieces of the communion bread with them as they leave and give it away as a sign of blessing and inclusion?

Taking the bread to shut-ins in the congregation is one obvious use.  We could also offer it to others whom we meet.  Who can say that this kind of sharing of the literal bread might not inspire some recipient to wonder and ask about the true Bread of Life, Jesus Christ?

Such a practice would indeed reveal something about our theology.  Giving away the bread reflects what we know about Jesus, who gives his life for the life of the world.  It would speak of God’s abundant love overflowing in creation.

+++++++

    
  


    




Wednesday, April 24, 2019

White Walkers.


Like many Americans, in our house we are spending our Sunday evenings watching the new and, apparently final, season of Game of Thrones.  The growing threat for most of the series has been the “white walkers,” an army of the dead which is gathering in the far north and moving inexorably south with the coming of winter.  The last few episodes have been about a) convincing the leaders of Westeros that this threat is real and not a fairy tale, and b) figuring out how to get the characters to set aside the complicated and vicious personal and family vendettas to unite and face this existential threat from the north.  The problem is that characters would rather cling to the stupid and petty nonsense that defines their lives and gives them a reason to keep killing each other, than let that go and deal with something that could destroy their whole world.

The author of the books upon which the series is based, George R. R. Martin, has noted the parallels between his work and the threat of climate change.  It is a sad fact of history that leaders tend to focus on short-term personal gains and successes, while ignoring or denying larger problems, even those that threaten the lives and well-being of everyone. 

Climate change is our white walkers: a comprehensive threat to our whole civilization.  Our leaders often deny this existential liability.  Even the ones who don’t deny it appear powerless to address it.  We continue our squabbles, competition, business, and wars.  We even press on with the very economic practices that caused the problem in the first place, at best convincing ourselves that the same thinking that got us into this mess can somehow extricate us.   

There is in the Bible — and in history — a repeated pattern that also applies here.  Idolatry produces injustice which produces disaster.  We see it with what happens to the Egyptians when they enslave the Israelites and so bring down those ten mostly ecological plagues upon themselves.  We see it when Israel and Judah, in turn, sink into idolatry which results in societal injustice and inequality.  The consequences of that are the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians and the exile of the Jews by the Babylonians.  And so on.  

Thus I don’t have to read the voluminous scientific literature and mountains of data to understand the threat of global warming.  I just have to notice the breathtaking idolatry of a global economy that puts money, growth, and the wellbeing of owners first, and how it spawns terrible injustices in terms of violent exploitation of people and planet, to realize that this will not end well.  Such circumstances have always brought down catastrophe.

The most granular and comprehensive examination of this is found in the book of Revelation, which we are now walking through together.  It is an immensely sad book, detailing the ultimate consequences of human idolatry and injustice.

And yet, at its core is a profound hope, which is finally realized in the last chapters of the book.  For the good news is that God and life and love and joy always win in the end.  And because they will in the end, we may participate in that victory in advance all along the way.  We can dissociate from the bad things happening around us, and witness instead to the Truth of God’s love revealed in Jesus, letting his power sustain us.

This is what is going on in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  This weekly participation in God’s life, given for the life of the world, grounds our faith, opens our eyes, and strengthens our witness to God’s love.  For this meal is the antidote to idolatry.  In it we connect in a very tangible and visceral way to two things:  First, we encounter the cross of Jesus, and through him identify with all the victims of injustice and terror, all the scapegoats, all those whose lives were taken in the name of someone else’s power and fear.

Secondly, and at least as importantly — and this is why we are doing this during the joyful season of Resurrection — the Sacrament is how God gives life to us.  It is, after all, a meal, a place where we are fed and a nourished, where we receive the energy we need for repentance and discipleship.  As the disciples’ eyes were opened to recognize in the breaking of bread the presence of the risen Lord with them, so may our eyes be opened to understand the living presence of Christ in ourselves and even in all things.  For he makes us one with each other, and with all.

Only this sense of oneness in love will get us through.  Expressed in acts of forgiveness, simplicity, acceptance, compassion, welcome, justice, and love, the body of Christ, which we both consume as individuals and are as a community, means that we present a different kind of life to the world. 

I do not know if the white walkers will be defeated on Sunday nights.  I do not know if we will avoid the dire consequences of climate change.  I do know that no matter what happens we have to live according to Jesus’ example and commandments.  That is, we have to approach everything with gratitude, gentleness, and wonder.  If that’s what we receive in the bread we break on Sunday mornings, we will be okay. 

Only Jesus’ life will save us.  So let’s live that life.
+++++++






Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The 6 E's.


In Matthew 11, some of the disciples of John the Baptizer come to Jesus to verify that he is indeed the promised Messiah.  Apparently his message and ministry are different enough from what John was expecting that they felt this question had to be asked.

In response Jesus simply has them look around at what he is actually doing.  They should then answer their question for themselves.  What Jesus says they will find is that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  These are the activities that Jesus and his group are doing and they validate his ministry as the Messiah.

Jesus is giving us here 6 marks of his ministry.  And his work is more than a health clinic.  Yes, people certainly are healed physically.  At the same time, these categories may be taken metaphorically for the kind of spiritual growth and wholeness that he brings into people’s lives.  

By extension, these 6 marks also summarize the healing work of the gatherings of his disciples, the church.  We need to be doing all 6 of these.  When they happen literally and physically, that is wonderful!  And it is at least as important that we focus on bringing these kinds of healing into people’s lives in still deeper and more comprehensive ways.

To help understand this, I propose 6 words that express how each mode of healing may be expanded to embrace the inner life and therefore an even more profound wholeness.  These are the 6 E’s:  

the blind see enlightening 
the lame walk empowering 
the lepers are cleansed embracing 
the deaf hear  educating
the dead are raised enlivening  
the poor receive good news enriching  

A church needs to be enlightening in the sense of opening people’s eyes so they can see the Truth.  Sometimes it involves facing harsh and difficult facts about ourselves, and therefore coming to see ourselves more clearly.  At the same time, it is revealing the Truth of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, and coming to see the world as a place of goodness, blessing, hope, and joy. 

A church needs to be empowering by enabling weak, disenfranchised, paralyzed, and “stuck” people to move.  This may be interpreted socially in terms of advocating for human rights for all, and also psychologically as getting people to change, move, develop, and grow in their own lives.  Here we could add a 7th E: emancipating: bringing the liberation and freedom from bondage, whether it be those in actual incarceration, or people suffering from psychological and other forms of slavery, like addiction.

A church needs to be embracing in making a point of including and welcoming people who are often otherwise excluded, rejected, barred, or isolated.  A church is a place of contact, intimacy, and embracing, where we care for each other and hold each other in love.  Indeed, a church reaches out to the outcast.

A church needs to be educating by telling the story of God’s love.  When heard, this story has the power to reshape what we hear.  Part of this is also about shutting out voices of hatred, bigotry, violence, exclusion, and falsehood.    

A church needs to be enlivening by drawing people up out of different kinds of lifelessness, despair, and fear.  In the name and by the power of our risen Lord the church is a source and agent of life.  Resurrection means uprising!  We witness to the wildness of God’s Spirit in the face of forces that would keep us docile and compliant as corpses.     

Finally, a church needs to be enriching by first of all allocating necessary resources to people who are in any kind of need.  The good news to the poor has specific content; it is not just words but also whatever they need for their physical needs, like food, shelter, health care, clean water, and other necessities, including money.

Here we have the Lord’s six marks of a faithful community living in the power of his Name.  I think all of these are expressed first of all in our worship; then the Light needs to shine forth from there into all the world, as we act by the power of God’s Spirit to bring change into people’s lives.

Paul+  

       

    



Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Dead Canaries.

We are surrounded by the unmistakable signs that we have mangled our environments — ecological, social, moral, economic, political, psychological — beyond repair.  We are unable to respond effectively to the inevitable coming catastrophes because over the last 500 years of Modernity we have systematically maimed our spiritual capacity by enslaving ourselves to ego at every turn.  We have elevated sins into “virtues” in an economic system that declares greed, lust, gluttony, envy, anger, pride, etc., along with every form of selfishness, to be good.  We have valorized wanton consumption, mindless pleasure, and irresponsible theft from both creation and the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable.  And we have deliberately mocked and thrown away every tool for real transformation and real freedom.  We will not avoid the consequences; they have already begun.

We are ankle deep in dead canaries and still insist on hacking away at the same shiny lode.  We are addicted to egocentricity, and we have forgotten, denied, or rejected any alternative.  We will kill the planet for the sake of our own self-gratification, which means, we know, suicide.  


Is there a better definition of nihilism?

Friday, February 1, 2019

Nostalgia vs. Relevance?



It seems to me that the church loses its direction and purpose when it becomes a church of yesterday… or of today.

If we are always trying to recover some perfect past, we are on the wrong track.  Many Christians fall into this pattern.  We lift up the ideally remembered church of some bygone decade or century and strive to reconstruct the church now on the basis of what was going on at that time.  Usually this involves a somewhat romanticized perspective on the past.  But this kind of church is all about, well, nostalgia.  If only we could get back to The Way We Were.  The Old Time Gospel.  A religious Colonial Williamsburg.

On the other hand, there is the church that wants to reject the past and retool for now.  It looks at its present context and seeks to shape its message and ministry to suit the needs, proclivities, desires, habits, and practices of people today.  Often this involves a somewhat romanticized perspective on the present, as if we are the vanguard of progress.  This kind of church is all about relevance.  It’s the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.

The war between nostalgia and relevance has characterized the church for my whole lifetime. It was acute in the 60’s and 70’s; it spawned the “worship wars” of the 80’s and 90’s.  Indeed, this is a fault-line slicing through the church since the beginning.  Paul’s opponents in Galatia were all about nostalgia for Jewishness; his opponents in Corinth were all about relevance to their Gentile context. 

In my view, both sides of this battle are wrong.  Both the relevance and the nostalgia parties capitulate to culture.  One capitulates to the culture of today, the other to the culture of yesterday.  Often this is expressed in the way each group valorizes the media and technology of the period they want to relate to.  The media — that is to say, the worship styles, music, iconography, vestments, language, theology, moral and political views, organizational practices, missional strategies — replace the message.  They can even become the message.  There are stained glass, organ, choir robes, hymnal churches; and there are praise band, projection screen, coffee-serving, Hawaiian shirt churches. 

Both the Church of the Way We Were and the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now have in common that they let themselves be defined and governed by externals.  What rules in them is the world.  And the world, in the most negative way the term is used in the New Testament, is dominated by ego, sin, and death.  That is the world Jesus overcomes and conquers.           

But neither of those manifestations of church is really about the gospel, which is that the Kingdom of God has come near to us in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom of God is always about the future and it always presents a challenge to human kingdoms, yesterday or today.  The Kingdom of God is within us, says Jesus, and to connect with it we will have to go within.  That is, instead of looking around us at the world and trying to shape ourselves, our message, our mission, our ministry according to what we imagine will appeal to or reflect the spirit of whatever age we are interested in, we will have to respond out of an awareness of who and whose we truly are in Jesus Christ.    

To go within is to connect with our deepest identity and destiny.  It is to connect with the Kingdom of God and the life of the world to come.  It is to be neither nostalgic nor relevant; it is rather to live in anticipation of the coming Reign of God, bereft of the divisions, injustices, violence, inequalities, and other products of our ego-centricity.

At their best, this is what the early church, and all reformers thereafter, sought to accomplish.  Not to recover an old thing; not to do a new thing; but to anticipate something that is coming.  Not to relate to this world, of today or yesterday, but to the world to come.  They were not always successful.  Too often they did just try to resuscitate the past or appeal to the present.  But the best reformers were not about the world of the past or the present, but the Kingdom of God.
+++++++



Thursday, January 31, 2019

Words Matter.

Recently I attended a ceremony calling itself a celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in which the Words of Institution were not said.  I suspect, giving the organizers the benefit of the doubt, that it was in this case an oversight due to a lack of coordination.  However, it is not the first time I have observed this happening in a Presbyterian meeting.

Our Book of Order does not have many rules about appropriate worship.  There are few “shalls” in the Directory of Worship.  But there are two important places where certain specific words are mandated to be pronounced. 
In the Sacrament of Baptism, the celebrant is required to repeat the Baptismal Formula from Matthew 28, and baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  This is not negotiable or open to pastoral or other discretion.  “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier” doesn’t cut it.  “In the name of the Holy Trinity” doesn’t either.  I know why ministers do this: they purport to be uncomfortable with calling God by exclusively male terms.  As I said to a pastor who was struggling with this language, “I appreciate your struggle; but when we administer a baptism, we say these words.  Otherwise, we’re just getting somebody wet.”  I say that because I believe we need to submit to the will of the Palestinian guy who was recently lynched by the Empire but who is now miraculously alive. 

In the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the celebrant is required to repeat the “Words of Institution,” from 1 Corinthians 11:23-26: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

The Book of Order actually requires reading the whole thing, but in the Book of Common Worship there are abbreviated versions that I assume are permissible.  Each of the four gospels has similar words when Jesus shares the bread and wine with his disciples at the Last Supper.  

I can only imagine why someone would deliberately leave the Words of Institution out of the Sacrament.  Perhaps it was an error, or done out of ignorance.  Then there is our Protestant craving for novelty or our allergy to some select kinds of repetition.  Whatever.  It is also possible that a pastor could be trying to get away from connecting the Sacrament to Jesus’ death, which some have lately decided to imagine as unnecessary, or a pernicious glorification of violence and suffering.  It is actually a neutralizing of violence and a radical and redemptive identification with us in love.   

But once again, if we don’t use these words in some form we are sharing no more than a little snack, not the body and blood of the Lord.  

The whole idea that everything is up for grabs and I may customize the liturgical expressions of the church to suit my theological agenda is rampant in Presbyterian worship.  It is in our DNA not to have a “set” liturgy; our tradition was born in an act of resistance to Anglican domination, with their required, State-approved service books.  We wanted the freedom to go with the spontaneity of the Spirit!  I get that.  (Of course, Calvin and even Knox did have “set” liturgies that were apparently repeated weekly.  Continental Reformed churches had service books.  It is mainly the English Presbyterians, and subsequent evangelical influences, that had this idea that the Spirit could work through an individual in the moment better than in a group through a tradition.)  
At the same time, the church is also always about what is happening forever, which we hear in Scripture, and to which our worship must remain tethered, lest it drift off into the neverland of somebody’s personal agenda.  Another characteristic Protestant liability.  Our Directory allows for plenty of room for creativity and spontaneity.  I take advantage of that myself in composing liturgical material.  But when we do as a communion insist that a line not be crossed, I recognize the wisdom of not crossing it.  Ultimately, it is the Lord’s font and table, not mine.  I have to find in myself at least enough humility and submission to acquiesce to the will of the larger church on these important, but for us rare, points.

And it is not just for the sake of mindless Book of Order legalism.  The actions of the Sacraments are integrated into and grow out of stories.  Identical actions connected to different stories become different actions.  Maybe we need to make it easier for ministers to shift their affiliations to denominations that do not have the same understandings that we do.  Surely there is a church somewhere in which it is okay to use whatever words you want in the Sacraments, connecting them to whatever story you like.  Maybe they even have a pension plan.  In this church, however, we explicitly want to stay connected to the New Testament, especially in these peerless means of grace, the Sacraments.  Here, at least, should we not just do as we are told?  For once?
+++++++


Saturday, January 5, 2019

Ad Fontes.

One motto of Modernity was “ad fontes!  That is a Latin phrase which means “back to the sources!”  In the 16th century it was a call to recover original texts, not filtered through tradition.  Tradition, in fact, was increasingly considered inherently corrupting.  
The Reformation was built on this sensibility.  Seeking to bypass and override the institutional church and its tradition, the Reformers went back to Scripture as the only source for faith and religion.  

Ad fontes has been the basis for much of biblical studies over the last 500 years, culminating perhaps in the successive “quests for the historical Jesus” of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Repeatedly, what these researchers came up with was a “historical Jesus” who looked and thought suspiciously like the ones doing the quest, who were almost invariably white, male, middle-class academics.  

Historical studies use criteria established by the researchers.  Since these people have rarely done any serious spiritual work, but have been laboring in academia for years, they remain unconsciously under the grip of their own ego-centricity.  This is revealed in the absurd hubris involved in what they are doing to begin with, imagining that they can unearth a pure, objective, original text at a distance of millennia.  And it is compounded by an academic environment featuring intense pressure to find and publish something new.  For Modernity is nothing if it is not a quest for novelty.  Which means that what gets marketed as a return to the original sources is actually just the latest new take on what the original sources are and say.  So there is this contradiction between “older is better” and “newer is better.” 

But: Who decided that the original sources were better than what has been passed to us through tradition?  Who decided that the original sources were available at all?  Who decided what methodologies to use in supposedly accessing them?  Where do those methodologies come from?  Who gains and who loses from this project?   

Can we step outside of tradition at all?  Is not the historical approach just another tradition, built not on faith but on a secular, skeptical (not to say cynical and nihilistic) methodology?  


What is true is not what some academics have deemed to be “earlier;” it is what is in tune with Jesus Christ, who is himself the Truth.  If later editors and redactors were more aware of the gospel than the writers of earlier drafts then we should go with the later, more developed and evolved view.  If a particular reading was considered and treated as inspired by many generations of faithful Christians, how does its inspiration get nullified by a decision of some academics, some of whom may not even attend church?  

       Whose book is it anyway?
+++++++

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Virgin Birth Is True… Whether It Happened or Not.

In the Times the week before Christmas Nicholas Kristof interviewed William Lane Craig about the Virgin Birth.  Craig is a philosophy professor at Houston Baptist University.  His entire response was to say that it really happened, and to point out the historical sources: Matthew and Luke.

I rolled my eyes in frustration.  Claiming that the Virgin Birth “really happened” neutralizes it into the absolute irrelevance of a distant historical event which means nothing to us today.  It is an artifact.  Nothing more.  It is merely asserted to have happened by smug, self-righteous, credulous Christians.  As if deciding that it happened is all that matters.

The “did it really happen” argument is pointless because there is no way to answer it.  It just devolves into an endless and moronic “tastes great/less filling” shouting match.  Even if proof could be available one way or the other, it misses the meaning of the stories.  Indeed, I wonder if the real point of historical arguments isn’t to neutralize and deflate the truth.  For deeper and higher truths may only be communicated by means of myth, story, image, symbol, ritual, metaphor, and poetry.  These are exactly the means of discourse that Modernity has ruled out of hand as lies, superstition, fiction, and fairy-tales.  (Actually, even many fairy-tales communicate more truth to us than a lot of historical analyses.)

To reduce a story to history is to kill it.  It is to render it a dead past event, something dissectible and disposable, something we can change according to our present agenda.  The demythologizing project of Modernity was always intended to undercut truth, so that self-serving propaganda may be inserted in its place.  And the most effective way to do that is to evaluate a story based on its “historicity.”  Thus the “did it really happen” question is taken for the only measure of truth… and it just so happens that it is unanswerable.  In this way the Modern Age systematically replaced truth with fake news.  That is, we denigrated and devalued the myths and stories that convey truth to us, and instead fed us the glorified advertising copy which often passes for historical analysis.  What call history — and often science — is always filtered through the subjective, ego-centric, thoroughly biased consciousness of the observer.  In the end it’s all entertainment. 

Once we have hit the impasse of, “yes, it did happen,” vs. “no, it couldn’t have happened,” we have nowhere else to go.  And we have failed to listen to the story itself.   

In terms of the Virgin Birth, it is not about history or gynecology.  One person who understood the story was anti-slavery activist, Sojourner Truth.  When challenged by male religious professionals who attempted to silence her, she pointed to the story of the Virgin Birth.  Christ comes into the world by God and a woman, she said; a man had nothing to do with him.  Therefore, one meaning of the story is that God’s entry into the world is an explicit contradiction of a world order that privileges maleness.  It is an inherently anti-patriarchy narrative. 

And that’s just one political meaning of the story.  There are meanings that go even deeper into human identity and destiny.  Meister Eckhart talked about how it shows God being born in each of us.  Karl Barth noted that it tells us that humans do not have the power to bring God into the world.  And then there is the whole question of the Incarnation, and its meaning in terms of the relation of Creator to creation.  “God became human so that humans might become God,” is the way the early Christians talked about it.

And so on.  All of which is lost if we focus exclusively on the tiny, pointless, and unanswerable question of whether it happened or not.  

Caving in and allowing the Modern world to define truth for us is what is killing faith and the planet.  I used to think that Christianity was courageous for applying historical analysis to its core documents and history.  Maybe.  Certainly we may have gained a lot of helpful knowledge about the context of the Scriptures.  Certainly we have liberated the gospel from some forms of self-serving institutional oppression.  But at the same time we have lost way too much in this exchange.  And too often what we were left with was even worse, if more subtle, forms of institutional oppression.  

Fortunately, we did not lose the stories themselves.  In spite of attempts to extract and dissect, slice and resect pieces of the Scriptures, the texts remain.  And the faith remains.  Because in the end reality wins.  Truth is.  Propaganda, fake news, advertising, and “history” all collapse for lack of any purchase in reality.  But the Word of the Lord endures forever.  (It is not by accident that the approach of scholars to the text is identical to the approach of the petrochemical industry to the planet.  Extract, waste, consume, and profit is their approach to everything.)

The late Phyllis Tickle related how she once talked about the Virgin Birth story at a conference.  One of the young servers at the hotel overheard her, and approached her later to observe that the Virgin Birth story is “too beautiful not to be true, whether it happened or not.”

Exactly. 
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