Thursday, September 30, 2010

Point of view and character: The case of Edward Ferrars

Some cold, hard facts about a male character who appears in a Jane Austen novel:

A young man becomes engaged under circumstances where the engagement must remain secret in order to prevent his being disowned and disinherited by his family. Within months of that engagement, the man realizes that his promise was rash -- as he later puts it, "an idle, foolish inclination." The engagement continues nevertheless. About four years later -- with his engagement still unbroken, and still secret -- he meets another young woman, with whom he spends a sufficient amount of time, and to whom he pays a sufficient quality of attention, as to lead this second young woman's family to wonder if she and the young man might be engaged.

Is that an Austen hero?

Just looking at that Joe Friday version of the first few chapters of Sense and Sensibility,* you'd probably say no. You'd say that maybe he's an Austen villain -- sort of a chaste Willoughby, a Willoughby-lite -- or perhaps an Austen buffoon, like the foppish Frank Churchill.

And you'd be wrong.

Over the course of the last few weeks I have had the difficult task of explaining to various people why Edward Ferrars is a good character, despite the not insignificant body of evidence against him. My usual line of argument -- sound as far as it went -- had been to plead his later conduct, which revealed him to be a man who stood to his promises, cost him what it may, and who manfully accepted the awful consequences of his imprudence.

But in arguing that case I realized something. Commendable as Edward's later action was, knowledge of it was not, at bottom, the reason I thought well of him and wished him happiness. My admiration for Edward, my wish that he be happy, my inclination to take his side in argument, were actually founded only upon these two things: First, I had the highest regard for Jane Austen, and great respect for her judgment -- and she, as narrator, evidently admired Edward Ferrars. Second, I had the highest regard for Austen's heroine, Elinor Dashwood, and great respect for her judgment -- and she admired Edward Ferrars.** Moreover, their admiration was quite absolute well before Edward's later action proved just how worthy of it he was. From first to last, their praises of Edward's virtues, and their readiness to cover his sins, ensured that I always viewed him as they did.

That is the awesome extent to which point of view affects character in a story.

* The secret engagement is a part of the man's backstory, which does not come out until many chapters later. I include it in the summary to place his conduct under appropriately critical scrutiny.

** The question: Does Austen admire Edward because Elinor does, or does Elinor admire Edward because Austen does? is an important one, but beyond the scope of this brief note.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Der Romerbrief: St Paul to the Romans

The pen is mightier than the sword.

About the year A.D. 57, a Jew from Tarsus wrote one letter to a fledgling church community in Rome. A few years later the Romans would execute its author, and subject that church to withering persecution -- to no avail. The church would survive, and would preserve, copy and transmit the letter across the world. Rome, the biggest and baddest sword-bearer the world had yet seen, would die and leave behind its artifacts, while the one letter sent to the Roman church would change the lives of millions of men and women and alter the course of world history more than once.

For example, over three hundred years after the letter was first published, a thirty-year-old African teacher of rhetoric named Augustine took it up and read from it in a garden in Milan, Italy. Reading one exhortation from the letter -- "put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires" -- he passed from death to life. The western world would never be the same.

Over a thousand years after that, a tormented Augustinian monk in Germany pondered the letter for many painful hours until he realized that "the righteousness of God" was not the terrible threat he'd supposed, before which he had long cowered, but a precious spring of comfort and confidence. Scales fell from his eyes, and before long he was nailing ninety-five theses to a door in Wittenberg. Europe would never be the same.

About four hundred years after that, a young Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, would expound this letter in a way that signaled a clear break with his theologically liberal teachers: he rather audaciously said that God is there and he is not silent. Barth's exposition, Der Romerbrief, would provide theological seed which would later produce the Barmen Declaration and the Confessing Church -- the faithful German Protestant resistance to the most ruthless sword-bearer of its day, Nazi Germany.

The Maker of the heavens and the earth has many tools at his disposal to shape the world. His most enduring marks have been left by the live coal from the heavenly altar, by which he sanctified the lips of his prophets and the writing hands of his apostles. Their words, in turn, have left deep and lasting marks in the course of history, compared to which the marks of the mighty sword-bearers proved faint and fleeting.

One letter the Apostle Paul sent to the church in Rome -- about, of all things, the righteousness of God revealed in the life, passion, death and resurrection of a man born in the small town of Bethlehem and raised in the smaller one of Nazareth, about God's faithfulness to his people Israel and his generosity in drawing Gentiles to share in his faithful promises to Israel -- soon proved mightier than the Roman sword.

And that epistle is the appointed nightly reading for the middle weeks of Trinity season. Happy weeks lay ahead.

N.T. Wright's "The Big Read"; some thoughts on Elizabeth

I recently listened to a series of lectures that N. T. Wright gave on the gospel according to St Luke in a series called "The Big Read." They are really worth listening to; you may find them here. Tom Wright is an outstanding teacher of scripture; there may be some that have sharper eyes for particular trees, but no one I have read sees the forest like he does. And no one communicates as much about the big sweep of the story of the Bible in a few cogent sentences. Just a few comments in his introductory lecture on Luke have set me to thinking for many days now, and those thoughts have spun off and and produced others.

Each of the four evangelists writes, in his own way, the climax of Israel's story, and so they all start their work so as to connect it with what had gone before. So the first characters to appear in Luke's gospel are Zechariah and Elizabeth; Wright says of them in his first lecture that "they walk right out of the pages of the Old Testament." Which is true; they are Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, all over again. They are a couple counted righteous -- "walking blamelessly" is how Luke describes their life. They keep and are kept by their covenants with one another and with their faithful God. They are in every way good and admirable. But "they had no child . . . and both were advanced in years."

Luke proceeds to tell the story of the appearance of the angel to Zechariah in the Temple, of the angel's good news -- "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John" -- of Zechariah's disbelief and his being stricken dumb until John's birth. Significant as that story is, I'll pass over it to get to Elizabeth's response to the fulfillment of the angel's word:

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, "Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people."

I find Elizabeth's response so incredible that I have been turning it around in my mind all week, thinking about the kinds of habits of mind, and the kind of theology, that would produce the kind of character from which such a response would issue: no denial of long suffering and reproach, yet no "it's about time" bitterness; no pride, and no showboating before neighbors who'd undoubtedly been wagging their tongues about "poor, barren Elizabeth" for years.

From just this brief bit of her story, you can safely deduce a few things about Elizabeth.

First, she took her community seriously, even though doing so required that she endure its ugly side (is there any other way to take your community seriously?). Well she knew "her reproach among people." And she did not chalk it up to their sheer foolishness; had she long been saying to herself, "Whatever; Zechariah and I have more wisdom in our baby fingers than all our baby-popping friends have put together," she would never have responded to her vindication as she did. Even though she undoubtedly knew many things her people did not -- long and faithful suffering is an effective teacher -- she respected her people enough to care about their collective judgment.

Second, she took the real world seriously, though doing so required that she endure its pains (is there any other way to take the real world seriously?). Psychological comfort, isolated from the real world of time and dust and water and wind and bread and wine and other people, wasn't going to cut it for Elizabeth. Recently on Facebook there was a sad outbreak of the following status: "God sees you've been struggling with something. God says that's over." Zechariah and Elizabeth struggled with barrenness for years; they prayed long and fervently, with hearts clean as you'll find anywhere, and yet they still struggled. Had someone told them in the midst of their long suffering, "God says that's over," I imagine their response would have been an uncomprehending stare. And they would have been right. If we are pleased with introspective psychological comfort, we are too easily pleased. If we are pleased with private psychological comfort, and do not cry out for public vindication -- vindication of the name of God, vindication of our neighbors and, yes, vindication for ourselves -- we reveal that our spirituality is more Buddhist than Christian, that we have cultivated an unhealthy detachment from the good world that God made. Elizabeth cared about the real world, even when reality bit and repeatedly aggravated the sore spot in her life. She did not lap up psychological bromides, but held on to her holy discontent until the day good news arrived and its fulfillment was made manifest in her womb.

Finally -- and in tension with her holy discontent -- Elizabeth took the faithfulness of her God seriously. The one thing we spot in this text to distinguish Elizabeth and Zechariah from Abraham and Sarah, and from Elkanah*, is that Elizabeth and Zechariah never relied upon their own devices to produce children. They did not hedge their bets and trust anything in the created order to vindicate them, nor did they take their vindication into their own hands. They were simpler. They walked faithfully and humbly before God, and pleaded for a child. If that plea went forever rejected -- and at the point Luke picks up the story, it looked virtually certain it would go forever rejected -- they would go on walking humbly before God as they always had, trusting that even his perpetual "no" was a faithful and just decree.

These things are not easy to hold together: on the one hand, rest in the faithfulness and justice of God; on the other, righteous unrest in the hard realities of the real world, realities which, for a time, that same faithful God has decreed. Elizabeth -- may her tribe ever increase -- held them together. And so when the long-in-coming vindication did come in the form of her son John, she understood its meaning: the vindication came not from the world, but it was publicly manifest in the world, to be a blessing and sign of the glory of God for the world.

* Elkanah had two wives. From three facts -- his evident affection for Hannah, Hannah's barrenness, and the fruitfulness of his other wife -- I propose the following as probably sound deductions: (1) Hannah was Elkanah's first wife, and (2) Elkanah took his second wife chiefly, perhaps solely, to produce children and heirs.

** All quotations from Luke 1-2 are from the English Standard Version.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Meditations on the General Confession IV: Devices and Desires

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. (1)
The General Confession opens with a sweet address: to our Father in the heavens, the Almighty One with absolute authority to pronounce judgments that silence the judgments of the lesser, stingier, nearsighted judges who surround us daily -- including the one we see in the mirror. And the high and mighty One who dwells in the heavens and does as he pleases is "most merciful." It is his good pleasure to give us the Kingdom (2). He gives a full day's wage to the workers hired at the eleventh hour (3). He welcomes the prodigal son home. He kindly holds out his hands to the prodigal's bitter older brother (4). Indeed, outbreaks of his generosity are liable to happen anywhere. He sends Elijah to a bereaved widow in Sidon -- a hotbed of Baal worship, where the people assumed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel had no business meddling (5). He later sends his Son to the same region to heal the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman (6). He sends Jonah, kicking and screaming, over five hundred miles of wilderness to call Nineveh to repent (7). He draws Ruth the Moabite to Naomi, and through her to Boaz (8), and Naaman the leprous Syrian to the prophet Elisha (9). The walls of the Kingdom are porous. Its agents go out to the ends of the earth, and its doors are open to all who would enter.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (10). Or, as Simon and Garfunkel have it:
Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on . . .
Blessed are the meth drinkers, pot sellers, illusion dwellers . . .
Blessed are the penny rookers, cheap hookers, groovy lookers (11)
And it's a good thing, too. For after the glorious opening address, the General Confession turns sharply to the sordid truth about ourselves: "We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts."

There are, I confess, few phrases in the Prayer Book that I enjoy more than "devices and desires of our our hearts." Had P. D. James not beaten me to it I think I would have taken a wicked delight in writing a novel with the title Devices and Desires (Miserable Offenders would pack a similar punch, but lacks the intrigue). "Devices and desires . . ." If anyone frets over the supposed inability of words to convey meaning with weight and clarity, please step out of the fog of postmodern deconstruction for two seconds and listen to that phrase: "devices and desires." Can its meaning really be doubted or mistaken? Does it not land heavy as a sledgehammer, and cut sharp as a scalpel?

But for all my delight in Thomas Cranmer's brilliant wordsmithing, there are also few phrases that inflict greater pain. For, sadly, I have been following the devices and desires of my own heart too much since . . . well, conception (12). "I want. I need. Pay attention to me." These are the thoughts that govern far too much of my interaction with the world. I want the universe to be all about me. I scream like an unweaned child when I don't get my way. I preen like a self-satisfied toddler on the toilet when it looks like I've succeeded in my potty-training. Granted, advancing age and years of education have lent these things a mask of sophistication, which enables me frequently to deceive the watching world and -- almost as frequently -- myself. God is not deceived.

And in some precious moments, he undeceives me. He does this through (among other agents) his prophets:
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (13)
And through his Son:
What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (14)
And through the Confession that opens the daily office: "We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts."

G. K. Chesterton once noted the absurdity of denying human sin, "which [we] can see in the street." But we really don't have to go even that far to see sin. Sartre correctly said that "hell is other people." He should have added, "hell is also myself." On a good day, it is right there -- in the sick and twisted devices and desires of my heart -- that I see the depth and power of hell with most horrifying clarity. And shudder.

I paint that stark picture to preempt the typical evasions. Like: "I really didn't mean to. I didn't want things to end so badly. I meant better in my heart." Alas, there is no weaseling off responsibility. I did not mean better, certainly not in my heart. We are culpable precisely because our bad acts -- thoughts, words, and deeds -- proceed from the heart. They can proceed from nowhere else. But there is, admittedly, a little more to it. The General Confession (rightly) softens the flashing neon "devices and desires" in its very first admission:

"We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep" (15).

Life is hard. And scary. And bewildering. And we are by nature small, needy, dependent creatures, whose vision is not always adequate to see where legitimate creature-comforts -- daily bread, for example -- will come from, or when they'll arrive. That is scary, and a frightened sheep will run every which way but the right way. So we may know, in times of relative peace, that our Father in the heavens knows what we need and will give it to us if we seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness (16). Scare us a little, though, and we'll go back to depending on those bad old devices and desires to give us what we need. That does not lessen our culpability in the least -- the lack of faith is nothing less than spitting at the generosity of a most generous Father -- but it explains how we can go so far astray. I don't usually get up in the morning consciously plotting to put my "devices and desires" in the driver's seat. Yet in the driver's seat they end up, because I'm a scared and stupid sheep.

If the opening admissions of the General Confession were turned into a horror flick, the one making them would be at once confessing to being the ghoulish villain and the guy who walks into the dark room without turning on the light. So we can be grateful the Confession doesn't stop there, but goes on to better things. Who knows? There may yet be a way to brighten the villain's thoughts. And, for once, the audience's collective "Man, flick the light switch!" might actually get through.

(1) The General Confession from the Order for Morning Prayer, from The Book of Common Prayer.
(2) Luke 12:32
(3) Matthew 20:1-16
(4) Luke 15:11-32
(5) 1 Kings 17:8-24
(6) Mark 7:24-30
(7) Jonah
(8) Ruth
(9) 2 Kings 5:1-14
(10) Matthew 5:3
(11) Paul Simon, "Blessed" (from Sounds of Silence, 1966)
(12) Psalm 51:5
(13) Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)
(14) Mark 7:20-23 (ESV)
(15) The prayer book here alludes to Isaiah 53:6
(16) Matthew 6:33

Meditations on the General Confession III: Mercy, Mercy Me

Almighty and most merciful Father . . .
The General Confession from The Book of Common Prayer.

I ended the last post with a hanging felt paradox: that the power of God is a comfort to sinners, and the mercy of God can have a terribly sharp edge. The paradox was too simple -- no attribute of any person, God included, exists independently of that person's other attributes. And our intuition -- that without mercy, the might of God is an unmitigated threat to us and leaves us no hope through confession -- is absolutely correct. The point was this: if we ask God for mercy, it helps to begin by reminding ourselves of the extent of the mercy available to us. And a necessary side effect of that reminder is that we'd better brace ourselves to be consistent in our response to his mercy, wherever it breaks out.

So just who is this one the General Confession calls "most merciful Father"? How ready is he to hear and respond with pity to a true confession? You probably know a story* that begins this way:
There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
The poorly named "parable of the prodigal son" is commonly oversimplified in general memory to the following, which is true as far as it goes: the younger son goes off, squanders everything sowing his wild oats, and then comes back and is mercifully received by his father. But there is more to it, much more. The parable, which Jesus primarily addresses to experts in law, reads like a law school exam question: packed into almost every phrase is some monstrous injustice, or some unthinkable mercy, that raises some issue which must be dealt with. Both sons grievously offend their father, heaping insult upon insult. And the father meets every last insult with extravagant grace.

Estates don't descend to heirs until someone dies. So the younger son's request, "give me my share of the estate," means, in effect, "I wish you were dead. I have no affection for you, no filial respect for you. I don't want to be part of your family. I just want your stuff -- my stuff -- right now." The younger son's circumstances may get worse. But his behavior hits rock bottom right out of the gate. This is a spoken kill shot.

But his father, again right out of the gate, meets the kill shot with mercy. Far from taking the expected action -- throwing his ungrateful son out bodily -- he endures, ungrudgingly, the anguish of dividing his life with his son. The usual English translation, that the father "divided his property," is too weak; the Greek (bios) that Luke uses to capture Jesus's parable more literally says the father "divided his life" between himself and his son. The father will drink from the cup of death to accommodate his son.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
The younger son, being a proud, stiff-necked, pity-spurning fool, doesn't come away from his rebellion unscathed. To the original Jewish hearers of this story, feeding pigs and longing to be fed with pods the pigs ate was hitting rock bottom and starting to drill. It took circumstances that desperate to wake the son up. Only when he had no alternatives did he think of home:

When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' So he got up and went to his father.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
It's noteworthy that the son resolves to pay his father the compliment of calling him "Father," but will not presume to ask to be treated as a son again. And that his planned confession lists the offended parties in the right order -- "I sinned against heaven and against you." But he has not yet totally surrendered: the son wants to be a hired servant; to do his father the justice of making restitution. Now restitution is a good thing as far as it goes, but the son's plan overlooks that he cannot put a price tag on his father's agony. To that extent he still doesn't see the full gravity of his offense; he knows he has wronged his father, but he still thinks himself competent to judge his wrong and his father's loss, and to sentence himself to repayment of squandered property. In short, he's still attached to some idea of right, and the desire to captain his own ship. With these things in mind he goes home.

Plainly the father hasn't been seething in the meantime, reciting to himself the things his son ought to say it he dares show his face around town again. And here as everywhere else, the father casts aside anything like dignity and convention. He runs -- as women and children, but not fathers, did back then. The father dramatically "falls on his son's neck" and kisses him. Stunning as that is, he's just getting warmed up.
And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
In response to his father's astonishingly affectionate greeting, the younger son begins his prepared remarks, but, significantly, stops before getting to the restitution part. He only acknowledges the sad truth about himself, and leaves it at that. He finally relinquishes any pretense that he is able of his own strength to make things right. How could anyone who has callously wounded such a generous father speak of repayment? He makes his confession, and leaves judgment to his father.
But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
For the son's bare feet, a sign of his poverty, the father gives sandals; and the best robe and ring (the family signet ring, probably) signify the father's full acceptance of his son back into the family as an honored member. Killing the fatted calf means that this is to be the party of parties, with the whole village to be invited. The villagers would have wondered at this, since the father was basically taking upon himself the dishonor the son brought upon the family. But the father does not stand on ceremony: how can things be otherwise, since my son has come back from the dead?
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.
Having welcomed his prodigal son home, the father now takes an unkinder cut from his firstborn, which is worse than the younger son's because it's given in public. The family would have been expected to greet the guests from the village; for the firstborn to refuse is for him to publicly disown the family.

The father is nothing if not consistent: instead of having the elder son bound and brought in to face judgment, he again goes out to meet a rebellious son. And not to command his son, but to plead with him.
But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
Just as his initial cut was unkinder than his younger brother's, so is the firstborn's response to his father's grace, which is the unkindest cut of all to this point. He acknowledges neither his father nor his brother (contemptuously called "this son of yours"), and prefaces his complaint with the word "look." He has not come to his senses; he does not see himself or his father or his situation clearly. He is blinded by his own bitterness at having worked with apparent diligence and faithfulness but not received the advances -- one third of the father's estate, and now the fatted calf -- that his brother had received. He cannot see his father's generosity to him, or what his speech makes plain: that he, just as his younger brother once did, loves his father's property but not his father.

Again, this speech was not a back room deal; many of the guests would have followed the father out of the house and would have heard the son's words. So the father, again publicly lowering himself, overlooks his son's insult and labors patiently to bring his outwardly obedient but utterly wayward firstborn to his senses.
'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'
Don't miss the opening words: "My son." There are a couple of Greek words for son: one is "huios," the more formal, legal term, the other "teknon," a term of tender affection. Luke uses "teknon" to capture our Lord's meaning. The father does not accept his firstborn's rash disowning of the family; he loves his son starting from his address. Then he speaks of the grace of companionship: "You are always with me." And he labors on: "my property, my living, my very life, is yours for the sharing, and -- isn't this great! -- that includes your found brother." The father scorns all shame and will not be thwarted from seeking above all the restoration and peace of his family.

So how does the elder son respond to this last entreaty? We don't know. The cliffhanger ending here is masterful, with Jesus in effect saying to the Pharisees and lawyers to whom he told the parable, and by extension to we who overhear today, "the doors of the kingdom of God are thrown open. Tax collectors and prostitutes and all manner of those who squandered the inheritance are coming to their senses, and going in to dine at the feast. Your God and Father is glad to welcome them. So are you going to stand outside and grouse about, indeed publicly decry, his generosity? Or will you go in to your Father's party with your brothers and sisters and be happy?"

Jesus understood his Father to be "most merciful" -- indeed, reading the parable through, we might say that it is "his property always to have mercy."** This relentless mercy tends to produce one of two responses: wonder and gratitude on the one hand, a bad case of the sulks on the other. The General Confession begins by calling us to recognize the mercy of God as an inexhaustible wonder, in light of which we can admit plainly, without guile or rationalization, every bit of dirty dirt we carry, from our unshod feet to our tangled hair. ***

* Luke 15:11-32 (ESV)
** From the Book of Common Prayer Communion liturgy
*** The above look at the parable of the two sons and their compassionate father traces, almost to but hopefully not to the point of plagiarism, the respective analyses of Kenneth Bailey and Timothy Keller. I haven't quoted either, and do not think I have borrowed any of their words, but their expositions have so impacted my thinking about this parable that my thoughts on it are closely intertwined with theirs. If anyone spots unattributed quotes, it's because they were that well-lodged in my brain. I will gladly credit their words anywhere the credit may be due.

Meditations on the General Confession, Part II

"Almighty and most merciful Father" begins the General Confession. Like so many Anglican collects, the prayer starts by addressing God, and, specifically, by addressing God with some truth about God. This isn't just so much Monty Python-esque pious flattery or grovelling, nor (worse) an attempt on our part to get from God the gold sticker on the theology exam. When we speak with anyone, it is good to begin by reminding ourselves with whom we are speaking. If we do not, the chances of our saying something clear or just or edifying drop precipitously. What is true of conversation in general is equally true of prayers addressed to God.

The author of the General Confession addresses God as "Almighty" first. Surprising, perhaps, considering that when coming to God confessing the deep stains of sin on our hands and in our hearts, his power probably is not the first attribute of his to which we would instinctively look for comfort. But there it is, first. Why?

I can think of two reasons: first, unless God is almighty, he may not be the proper person to hear our confession; second, if God is not almighty, his mercy may prove ineffectual.

The first issue is a question of jurisdiction: If we are going to confess our crimes, why should God be the one to hear the confession and decide how to treat it? For years I asked this question whenever I read David's prayer in Psalm 51: "Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." David was repenting of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Did he overlook the fact that he had taken Uriah's wife? Did he forget his deceit to Uriah, his craftiness in sending Uriah to his death?

No. This is clarity, the sign that David has finally risen again after long tossing and turning in the sleep of death. His offenses, lethal to Uriah, injurious to Bathsheba and to David himself, were first and foremost sins against God, the God who created Uriah, Bathsheba, and David, the God who made Uriah and Bathsheba one flesh in marriage, the God whose image Uriah bore when David struck him down by trickery. David ungratefully forgot who it was that made him king in Jerusalem, who had promised that his throne would endure forever. And he scoffed at the greatness of the giver of the Sixth and Seventh commandments, as he would not have done, had he not first forgotten the First: "I am the LORD your God; have no other gods before me."

So God -- who made heaven and earth, and mankind in his own image, who graciously enters into covenant with his people and gives them the law -- is the party chiefly offended by any transgression. As such he is the proper person to whom we make our confession and appeal for mercy.

But even if God is the proper person to whom sins ought to be confessed, has he power to carry out his judgments? The answer can be a blanket "yes" only if God is almighty.

Job, who suffered horribly and took a long, unsentimental look at his sufferings, concluded by saying to God, "I know that you can do all things. No purpose of yours can be thwarted." Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, said to them many years later, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." Hannah, after long years of torment and barrenness, prayed thus after bearing Samuel:

The LORD is a God who knows,
and by him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength.

* * *
The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up.
The LORD sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's;
upon them he has set the world.
Especially pertinent when considering confession is the fact that God's might to effect his decrees in the world extends even to the ability to silence the potentially endless self-recriminations of a restless conscience. John says, "Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything." So whenever we reproach ourselves -- for our unkindness, our short temper, our foolishness and cowardliness and laziness, for not being better parents, better spouses, better friends, better at our jobs, for not making more progress in our arts, hobbies and fields of study, for not being richer or fitter or more powerful or better-looking -- John tells us that God sees all this far more clearly and extensively than we do. And that when our misfiring conscience just won't shut up, God, who is greater than our conscience, can silence it. The question "can I forgive myself?" can be an agonizing one. But its importance, so overblown when we install ourselves as judges in a cramped hell of our own making, vanishes like mist before the rising sun if we step out into the real world, which is bigger than our provincial concerns, and where it is utterly plain that we lack ultimate authority to judge ourselves.

So much for the power of God to hear confessions and effect his decrees. What of the mercy of the one who we Anglicans address as, and all our Christian brethren know as, our "most merciful Father"?

God's mercy, in the abstract, is a more popular attribute than his power. I say "in the abstract" because any warm affection for his mercy quickly turns cold when God forgives people we don't like much, or mows us down because we are oppressing recipients of his mercy. In that way, his extravagant generosity often reveals to us our own stinginess -- but reveals it as something which is also forgivable, and something we can, by his grace, grow out of. In this way, as in others,

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.

Meditations on the General Confession, Part I: Introduction

Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind In Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.

The General Confession from The Book of Common Prayer

Fans of the The Princess Bride will remember this scene: Inigo Montoya, having been defeated by the Man in Black in the duel by the Cliffs of Insanity, is back on the outskirts of Florin City, drunk, resisting the Brute Squad's efforts to get him to leave town. "I will not be moved," he says. "Vizzini said when a job went wrong you went back to the beginning. Well, this is where I got the job. So it is the beginning. . . I am waiting for Vizzini."

In the Anglican prayer book, the orders both for morning and evening prayer start with the General Confession. So it is the beginning. It is, however, the beginning in more than that obvious way. When a job goes wrong -- which it does, to a greater or lesser extent, every day -- it is the place to go to be reminded of, and corrected and strengthened by, basic truths: about God, about ourselves, about our need. In just these few words, all the purpose of the Lenten season is manifest. So it will be the primary object upon which I meditate in these upcoming weeks.

A brief word to any readers before I begin: I am not distinguished by any particular skill in reading or parsing sentences, less so by skill in actually living in a manner which reflects and honors Jesus. I hold no teaching office in the Church, and have no inherent authority gained by virtue of advances in learning and holiness. These reflections are the notes of a student, taken first for his own benefit, posted here in the hope they may be some help to fellow students. Whatever value the notes have is a happy reflection of the fact that the General Confession is the beginning, and it doesn't take much progress to reach the beginning -- only the progress of turning around after you've gone off in the wrong direction.

The confession begins by addressing God: "Almighty and most merciful Father." Those five words cannot be skated over quickly. If they are not true, the rest of the confession is of no value whatever. If any of them is untrue, then eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

A few meditations for Maundy Thursday 2009

The "maundy" in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin mandatum, "commandment." The reference is to Jesus's words to his disciples after the last supper, his washing of his disciples' feet, and the departure of the betrayer Judas Iscariot. He said, "a new commandment I give you -- that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are to love one another."

Generally commands don't permit questions, but this command invites, even begs, this one: how exactly is it a new command? Hadn't the disciples heard Moses's command, "love your neighbor as yourself"? Narrator John doesn't leave us hanging, but works the answer into his skillfully woven account of Jesus's table- and walk-talk. John has already recounted Jesus's foot-washing and his charge, "if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet." Foot-washing was a slave's job; the only thing more shocking than Jesus's command that his disciples wash one another's feet is that he actually washed their feet. Later, John tells us that as Jesus walked with his disciples from Jerusalem and through the nearby Kidron valley, he told them, "greater love has no one than this: that he lays down his life for his friends." The idea is that followers of Jesus are commanded, in love, to voluntarily lay down status, rank, privilege, and even life itself, for one another, exactly the way Jesus did for us. That is the new commandment.

The grounds and the implications of this new commandment are particularly hammered out in John's account of the Maundy Thursday dinnertable dialectic between Jesus and Peter -- hotheaded, think-out-loud Peter. Peter was the one who at the foot-washing spoke the question everyone else must have been thinking: "Do you wash my feet?" Then he went one better and emphatically refused the foot-washing: "You shall never wash my feet. Not ever." Submitting to the menial service offered by his master was too much and he balked. But when Peter finally consents to have Jesus wash his feet, he plays one-up again and says, "not my feet only, also my hands and head!" One commentator* wrote that Peter's response here is like "improving" a u-turn by adding another 180 degrees. Peter, who is nothing if not a natural leader, cannot simply accept his master's service to him, perhaps because he starts to see that in so doing, he'll be swallowing a total inversion of all his ideas about power and leadership. He would have to take his first steps into a world -- in the gospels called "the Kingdom of God" -- where the new commandment was not just a nice lofty ideal, but, simply, the sensible way of life.

Peter's denials of Jesus are often chalked up to simple cowardice. The gospel accounts of Maundy Thursday don't let us get away with such a shallow analysis. Peter was utterly sincere when told Jesus, "I will lay down my life for you." But he didn't know what he was saying, and he got the roles exactly reversed. It would first be Jesus's part to lay down his life for Peter, the part of the greater to lay down his life for the lesser, the leader's part to lay down his life for his follower. Peter doesn't get this. And so he's sort of in the shoes of an attentive first-time viewer of an M. Night Shyamalan film, just before the film's climax: he knows the events well, up to this minute, but he still has no understanding of the story.

* Lesslie Newbigin

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas 2006

At the end of the year, I find it refreshing (and a bit frightening) to come to a holiday that points to the most momentous bit of news the world has ever heard. Assumed familiarity with this news, and the legion of pressures and distractions that engulf us, have dulled its impact. The dullness, however, is ours. The news is sharp and weighty. The first recipients of this news—an odd cast of characters, including a Jewish carpenter living in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town in Palestine, a teenage girl from the same obscure town, a pregnant senior citizen, a group of shepherds, an old man named Simeon, an elderly prophetess, and a group of Gentile astrologers from the east—did not miss the weight. Witness Simeon’s response to the message: "My eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel" [Lk. 2:30-32, ESV]. Nor did the first hearers miss the sharpness. Look at the old man’s words to the teenage mother: "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed" [Lk. 2:34-35, ESV].

Our cultural marketplace sells many bromides that pose as the Christmas message. Let us not be fooled. The real thing is hearty food, bracing drink, and fresh, crisp air. It is the news that God's eternal Word of life was made manifest, that his express image was stamped, definitively, into the tender medium of a baby’s flesh, so that through him we might receive pardon and healing, and our world would be renewed.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The opening of John's first letter

1 John 1:1-4 (ESV):
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— [2] the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— [3] that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. [4] And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

John's summary of what he has to say about Jesus drips with a sober awe and joy. He is careful to note the very concrete evidence upon which he founds the astonishing conclusion that "this is the word of life." He saw the evidence, he heard it, and he touched it--because it was all wrapped up in his dear friend, Jesus the Messiah. And the only conclusion John could reach was that this dear friend was "the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us."

John will not, however, rest content with his own fellowship with Jesus, or with his own joy in Jesus. The fellowship and joy must be shared. Invitations must be issued. And that is precisely what John does here: he says, "come enjoy fellowship with us. Look over our shoulders and behold the word of life made manifest in my friend. In seeing him, and in knowing him, you will have fellowship not only with him but with his Father as well."

And when we ask, "why, John, do you invite us to do this?" he says, "so that our joy may be complete." At first that sounds strangely self-centered--John and his fellows are writing to complete their own joy, and not that of their readers? But another moment's reflection makes us grateful that the one issuing the invitation is so excited about the fellowship into which he invites us, and that he is so eager, so happy, to have us. And that kind of joy, the kind which is consummated in sharing, is very contagious.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Illuminating article on evangelicalism/emergent in NYT

On Easter Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting article by Michael Luo on the current state of evangelicalism, describing some of the developing political and theological divisions. You can read the article here.

The most interesting and illuminating part of the article is the description of the theologicical disputes between the emergent and (traditional) evangelical camps. Often reporters for secular newspapers and periodicals will either overlook the substance of theological disagreements, reduce them to politics, or fail to report them accurately. While Luo certainly doesn't provide a nuanced presentation of what the argument is all about (to be fair, he didn't have the space to do so), the article strongly indicates that he has at least begun to see what is going on here. Look at his summary sentence of the issues:

"[The emergent movement/conversation] emphasizes reading the Bible as a narrative, perfect in its purposes but not necessarily inerrant; de-emphasizing individual salvation in favor of a more holistic mission in serving the world; even making evangelicals less absolutist on whether people from other religions might find their way to heaven."

Despite the false dichotomy of the first point (one can read the Bible as primarily narrative and inerrant), Luo has accurately identified the hot-button issues raised by the emergent conversation and accurately distilled much of the teaching of emergent, or at least its most visible spokesmen, in this one sentence.

Moreover, although the article's clarity decreases in what follows, the obscurity actually illustrates the true, and generally counterproductive, obscurity of the emergent debates. For example, after noting (correctly) that emergent's speculations have made many evangelical leaders "nervous" that emergent will "water down the theology," Luo quotes Albert Mohler as saying, "It's over the question of the nature of truth." That is indeed a big issue, but the reader is given little to work with in discerning exactly what Mohler meant--we don't, for instance, hear Mohler identify the "It" in question, or hear what he thinks the competing visions of truth are. The reader is left to guess, though, that Mohler was charging the emergent folks with promoting relativism, because Luo next reports that emergent leader Brian McLaren denies the charge that he is promoting relativism. To the contrary, McLaren asserts that his intent in leading the emergent conversation is to rescue evangelicalism from the jaws of its "fundamentalist elements," to avoid "polarization," and to find a genuine "third way." Luo does not identify--probably because McLaren didn't either--who the "fundamentalists" in question are, what the "polarization" is about, or the courses between which McLaren is attempting to navigate a "third way." Throwing about vague and inflammatory words like that is not helpful, but has become sadly typical in the debate over emergent (and emergent proponents and critics share the blame).**

Let us seek better things, casting aside the sin of using words just to win arguments. Contrast how the Word of God works: He is the light who has come into the world to save us from the domain of darkness, driving smoke and darkness away; and he is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We who are being conformed to his image should aspire to wield our words like bright candles and sharp scalpels--shedding light along the narrow way, cutting with surgical precision to kill sin and save souls.

** NOTE: To be fair I should point out that the phrase "fundamentalist elements" was not a verbatim quote from Brian McLaren himself. Those were Michael Luo's words, and whether they accurately reflect what McLaren said I do not know. If not, then at least in this instance he should not be charged with throwing about vague and inflammatory words.