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

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?
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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?
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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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