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chaldean

“Liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here [in Iraq]. Islam does not say that all men are equal.” Amal Nona

You cannot state the truth more concisely than that.

Nona is a Chaldean Catholic archbishop who “doesn’t have a diocese anymore. He doesn’t have a church. ISIS destroyed all that, and his people are scattered. But he’s not afraid to speak forthrightly, even when ISIS was at his doorstep.” (“Happy Warriors”)

The Chaldean Catholic Church is no stranger to persecution. They are descendants of the Assyrians who maintained the faith through the Muslim conquest up until today. They are a courageous people, but that is not the subject I wish to address here.

As the archbishop alludes, the reason that Western nations have been utterly unsuccessful in transplanting democracy to countries with Islamic majority populations is that democracy is alien to their worldview.

To the literalist Muslim (i.e. those who accept the words of the Quran at face value), it’s ludicrous to claim that Christians are equal to followers of Islam. Even without appealing to detailed Sharia law, the simple notion that infidels should possess the same rights as the followers of Allah is foolish, or worse. They are dhimmi—second class citizens, at best and actively persecuted and martyred, at worse.

This is the default setting for Islamic nations. Just look at Turkey and Egypt, two nations with actual democratic governments. The terrorist Muslim Brotherhood continues to exert destructive influences in both, and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used the excuse of the recent coup attempt to further destroy the vestiges of democracy (e.g. free speech) which he has long been undermining. Egypt is currently enjoying a respite after removing Mohamed Morsi, a man with a similar, anti-democratic agenda.

Retired military analyst Ralph Peters recently penned a frightening (and I believe accurate) appraisal of where Erdoğan will take his nation.

The ragtag ISIS caliphate is merely the forerunner of the more ambitious caliphate to come. It’s coming in Turkey.

The immense and destructive crackdown underway in Turkey now, with at least 10,000 Turks taken into custody and as many as 100,000 others dismissed from their positions—not only soldiers, but judges, civil servants, police and academics—isn’t an end-game. It’s a beginning. . . .

Erdoğan didn’t need a reason for this pre-planned purge. He had his reasons and his lists of names. He needed an excuse. The failed coup was a gift.

Now we’re witnesses to the destruction of Turkey’s secular society and the forced-march reversion to religious regimentation and obscurantism, to intolerance and oppressive fundamentalism. This is the triumph of mosque over modernity, not of the rule of law, but of its supersession.

Professors have been forbidden to leave the country. The government demanded the resignation of all the deans of higher-level schools and universities. Book-banning is on the way, and book-burning wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

To those of us in the West, including numerous Muslim immigrants who have recognized the universal benefits of freedom of conscience and equal rights, the historic interpretations of government based on the Quran seem disconcerting. Part of the reason they seem unfathomable, is because we do not take the time to study them. Nor do we listen to the voices of minority populations who have been long subjugated and deprived of what we deem basic human rights.

Archbishop Nona, and others like him, need to be heeded. His warning about the challenge of translating democratic principles, points to the proper beginning place: education. It is no accident that the Muslim countries with the highest educations and most moderate (i.e. non-fundamentalist) adherents replicate democratic freedoms most consistently.

I consider the best course for promoting peace to be educating all people, and encouraging freedom of conscience, especially when it comes to religion and speech. And I recognize that the statement with which we began remains a vital fact that must be recognized at the outset of that effort. The following observation appeared in an article last year.

The lust for power corrupts religion, just as the quest for piety is vulnerable to hubris. As Cengiz Erdoğan, a CHP [minority political party] member who runs a car repair workshop, put it to me: “He’s power-hungry and he’s dedicated to the Islamist way.” Or, as C.S. Lewis once warned: “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

The principles guiding Democracies and Republics arose in the Western world. There they found fertile soil. Yet even here in the West, we see on a daily basis that democracy is fragile. Tolkien and Lewis scholar, Joseph Laconte, wrote an “optimistic” essay about the 2015 elections in Turkey. Erdoğan had been prevented from achieving an absolute majority.

The danger, at least for the moment, has been averted. . . . [Some Turks fear] Erdoğan’s early reformist talk was a mere façade for his hardcore Islamism.

That may be reason enough to cheer Turkey’s election results: they offer the hope that corrupted religion will find it harder to derail the nation’s experiment in democratic self-government. More than hope, of course, will be needed. For if secular authoritarianism has left the stage in Turkey, its religious counterpart is waiting hungrily in the wings.

Unfortunately, what political minorities in Turkey feared, is now coming to fruition, with a vengeance.

A Positive Postscript from the Chaldeans

Christianity rejects the notion that any person possesses greater worth than another. In the Christian world there are no castes . . . there are no dhimmi.

Each and every life is precious. In fact, the Good Shepherd is not content to keep the faithful ninety-nine under his protection, he leaves them to go out in search of the one—the individual one—that has strayed.

Chaldean Christians have some of the most ancient roots in Christian history. Despite the fact that most the Assyrian Christians have been driven from their ancestral homes, and are unlikely to ever be allowed to return, they have retained their hope. That is because they do not place their faith in humanity or their own strength. The following description of Archbishop Nona comes from another article.

I’d even go so far as to say that before me is a happy man. Indeed, he tells me: “We were always a minority. We always knew it was not important what we have but what we do. The Lord shows us how it is important to be happy in all situations.”

He emphasizes that the Christian has no other identity than as a Christian. The Gospel is what you want to conform your life to, he says. “For us, we want to practice our identity. We are not another identity. Our identity is to live like Jesus Christ.”

There is no other life, he says, for a Christian. Christ becomes everything, and so there is no life without Christ. “I think all our problems lie in this point: that in our life, sometimes we forget to live like Jesus. It’s not theology, it’s reality.”

It is not difficult to hear echoes of C.S. Lewis in his words. And these come not from a mutual acquaintance between the two . . . rather from a common acquaintance with the Messiah.

In the end, it’s not about theology, philosophies or human political institutions. It’s about a Redeemer.

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The icon above is of Saint Addai (Thaddeus of Edessa). He was a missionary to Mesopotamia, and contributed to the Divine Liturgy used by much of the Eastern Church. The image portrays Addai presenting the Mandylion to King Abgar of Edessa.

C.S. Lewis & Brexit

June 28, 2016 — 8 Comments

brexitThe United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union has shocked the world . . . and it caused me to wonder just what C.S. Lewis would think of the narrow decision to reaffirm their national identity.

It turns out, I’m not the first to ponder the question.

A quick internet search led me to an interesting post by a British academic who addresses this very point. The political philosophy of the Inklings is not the focus of his essay, but in response to a question posed by Arthurian writer David Llewellyn Dodds, he writes the following:

Dodds: I don’t have a sense of what, if anything, the major post-1945 Inklings said about things like the Council of Europe, the ECSC, the EEC,and Euratom (all within Lewis’s lifetime), the Merger Treaty, the UK joining the European Communities (within which Tolkien lived his last nine months), and all the further developments through and within which Barfield lived. Has anyone surveyed this?

. . . I hope and pray the re-emergence of the UK from the EU will indeed be taken up to its own good, the true good of Europe, the Commonwealth, and the world, and in that the resistance to the ongoing strivings (conscious or usefully idiotic) for ‘the Abolition of Man.’*

Bruce Charlton: I think I have probably read all the relevant material about Tolkien and Lewis. Tolkien would certainly and Lewis very probably have been against Britain or England subordinating itself to Europe. About Barfield and Williams, I am not sure.

This matches my own sense of what Lewis and Tolkien would say about the decision to reassert the United Kingdom’s historical identity. They would applaud it.

While neither man was a supporter of the many excesses to which nationalism is prone, they would recognize the listless European experiment as the bloated and doomed effort it has become.

In The Screwtape Letters we witness how the Tempter skillfully recognizes that the abuse of any principle can twist it into something destructive. Since Lewis was writing during a global war (a reality in our modern world as well) he used the powerful dichotomy between patriotic supporter of the nation’s war and pacifist.

I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. . . .

Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the ‘cause,’ in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism.

The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more ‘religious’ (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here . . .

Returning to the Brexit column, which I encourage you to read in full, the author is Bruce Charlton. He teaches Psychology at Newcastle University and is a Visiting Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham.

Here are a couple of quotations to whet your appetite for his astute analysis of the political and religious climate in the United Kingdom.

Unsurprisingly, the situation seems to be that the majority of those with highest status, power, education and wealth (i.e. the Secular Left, Politically Correct Social Justice Warriors) want to remain in the EU—everybody else, not.

The referendum campaign in the mass media was overwhelmingly-dominated by Remain—but the effects of decades of corruption and self-destruction in this class was very evident—in that the Remain campaign held all the cards, but was ineffectual to the point of counter-productive in its tactics. . . .

One scenario is that pretty soon, the fickle, mass media-addicted majority will soon forget this vote, just like they have forgotten many other (should-have-been) highly significant events over the past decades. (The mass media, after all, are overwhelmingly in favour of Remain.)

. . . What will happen now depends on whether the majority vote is evidence of a positive and strategic resolve towards a new future for England: this would have to be some kind of ‘spiritual’ movement, a new destiny for the nation; because that is the only kind of thing which motivates large populations over long periods of time. I have said, many times, that net-positive change entails some kind of religious (and specifically Christian) revival—because I believe that ‘nationalism’ is a spent-force in the history of The West.

After further exploring the alternatives ahead, Charlton closes with a pertinent Lewis reference.

Either way, things have now ‘come to a point’ as CS Lewis put it (in That Hideous Strength)—the issues are becoming very clear, the sides are very distinct. The next few days, weeks and months will be crucial.

Indeed, they shall.

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* You can read The Abolition of Man here.

The Nones Have It

June 1, 2016 — 23 Comments

noneThe arrival of the “post-Christian” Western world is ahead of schedule. Great Britain just passed the point where those with “no religious preference” actually outnumber those who profess to be Christians.

With Europe leading the way, can North America be far behind?

You know what makes this even more shocking? The results come from a survey where all the people claiming to be disciples of Jesus needed to do, was simply check a box. One wonders how many among that 48% would still claim to be Christians if they lived in Iraq.

Ponder for a moment the sobering title of an article in London’s The Spectator.

“Britain Really is Ceasing to be a Christian Country.”

The secularization of the United Kingdom was a matter of great concern to C.S. Lewis. And this erosion was well underway during his lifetime.

The truth is that although Lewis excelled as a Christian apologist (defender of the faith), it was not a role he coveted. He much preferred to write speculative fiction, literary criticism and devotional works.

Yet, because the need to reach people with the simple truth of the Gospel had grown so dire, Lewis felt forced to offer a persuasive rationale for belief. Consider the following description of his self-understanding. These words were written in response to a public attack of his work by a theologian. The final sentence bears directly on the subject of this column.

When I began, Christianity came before the great mass of my unbelieving fellow-countrymen either in the highly emotional form offered by revivalists or in the unintelligible language of highly cultured clergymen.

Most men were reached by neither. My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand. For this purpose a style more guarded, more nuance, finelier shaded, more rich in fruitful ambiguities . . . would have been worse than useless. It would not only have failed to enlighten the common reader’s understanding; it would have aroused his suspicion. He would have thought, poor soul, that I was facing both ways, sitting on the fence, offering at one moment what I withdrew the next, and generally trying to trick him.

I may have made theological errors. My manner may have been defective. Others may do better hereafter. I am ready, if I am young enough, to learn. Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? One thing at least is sure.

If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me. (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

It is the duty of each generation of Christians to share the faith with their neighbors. Likewise, it is the responsibility of each new generation of clergy to teach faithfully . . . and to live a God-pleasing life.

Whenever we fail to tackle the “laborious work of translation,” God is able to raise up another to do it. Still, men and women of the caliber of C.S. Lewis are few and far between.

May God have mercy on Britain, America, and all of those lands where we have taken for granted the heritage of faith bequeathed to us.

_____

If this subject interests you in the least, take a moment to read “Having Pity on Pittenger.” Anglican priest Dwight Longenecker describes a chance encounter with Dr. Pittenger decades after Lewis’ death.

I was alerted to this news account by Gene Veith’s fine blog, Cranach. The good doctor does an outstanding job of bringing newsworthy stories to the attention of those interested in Church and State relations.

Governmental Coersion

February 2, 2016 — 2 Comments

bookThe title of the book is provocative. And it’s message is sure to offend some. But at the same time, its theme will provide encouragement to those who resist the pressure to conform to the spirit of this age.

You Will be Made to Care is due for release this week. It’s subtitle describes its focus: The War on Faith, Family and Your Freedom to Believe. The authors are evangelical Christians who have also been active in the political realm.

I’ve never offered a formal “book review” on this blog, and this will sound decidedly “Christian,” so fair warning for whether or not you wish to read on.

Like the majority of evangelical Christians in the United States, Erick Erickson and Bill Blankschaen advocate what are commonly called “traditional” values. In essence, that means their position reflects the one that was normative in the country until the past couple of decades.

I must acknowledge up front that in light of my review, I will be offered a signed copy of the book itself. I mention that fact because integrity requires me to do so. At the same time, I assure you that my own integrity would not allow me to offer an insincere recommendation, for any inducement. (Besides, having written book reviews for several military and civilian publications in the past, I am aware of the fact that receiving gratis copies of the texts is not uncommon.)

The initial chapter of the book describes the rapid shift in American moral values during the recent past.

After decades of culture wars, failed leadership in both parties, and almost eight years of a progressive president committed to fundamentally transforming America, there’s a sense that we are no longer slouching toward Gomorrah, as Robert Bork famously put it, but rushing headlong toward inevitable decline.

The authors make a persuasive argument that not only are citizens now pressured to tolerate lifestyles with which they disagree (something we understand is a fact of life in a democracy) . . . they are increasingly being pressured to act affirmatively to support and promote those very alternatives. They will be made to care!

My Personal Experience

I served twenty-four years as an Air Force chaplain, with twenty two of that on active duty. The armed forces are considered a bastion of conservative culture. That’s a good thing when it comes to patriotism (something becoming less common in the general culture). It can have some downsides also, but they are outweighed by the stability that is provided for this community that discharges the most important responsibility of any government, protecting the nation (i.e. the people, and in the case here in the United States, of the Constitution itself which enshrines their rights).

Because the president is the commander in chief, and the executive branch controls the military, it is vulnerable to excessive interference. One form of this comes in “social engineering,” where the political powers impose revisions they deem appropriate, with little or no regard for the utility or ethics of that intervention.

In some cases this is a good thing. The Republican dictate that African-Americans should be allowed to serve in the military was one such triumph. Another came more than eighty years later, when President Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948.

In 1994, President Clinton implemented a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to allow homosexuals to serve in the military. This simply formalized the existing reality. However, in 2011 President Obama removed the ban to public practice of this previously “alternative” lifestyle. But this has not proven adequate for those who would “make others care.”

Through aggressive indoctrination and ruthless suppression of any competing voices, social engineers press forward their goal of eradicating any “traditional” voice on this subject.

And here is where Erickson’s and Blankschaen’s warning becomes most frighteningly accurate. When they have stilled any contrary voices, they notch the pressure up one more degree and say it is no longer sufficient to tolerate a given activity, now you must actively support or even celebrate it.

The pressure is being ratcheted up on chaplains even as you read this. The goal of some would be to purge all evangelicals from the ranks, and replace them with clergy from religious bodies that affirm the new policies. Either that, or dispense with chaplains altogether. After all, to many inquisitors of the new age the very notion of the world having a Creator is itself archaic and regressive.

Do Not Despair

This book would not be worth the read if it merely diagnosed the disease. But the authors also offer a remedy.

Now is not the time for quitting. Now is the time for engaging culture strategically with an understanding of the times in which we live and a reinvigorated faith in God. Now is the time for building up our own faith and intentionally surrounding ourselves with a community that shares our beliefs. These may well be “times that try men’s souls . . . Such times can produce a new generation of heroes because they offer an opportunity for clarity, authentic community, and courageous leadership.

C.S. Lewis, whose words and thoughts frequent the columns here at Mere Inkling, waged a cultural battle during his life. He paid a price for his defense of the Gospel and of traditional values. He was ridiculed for his “simple” faith that trusted the words of Jesus and the Scriptures.

Lewis knew the truth of the Lord’s warning. “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)

Lewis did not bemoan this fact. Rather than be shunned into silence he championed the truth. This book advises we follow the same course (and even includes a couple of pertinent Lewis quotes). The following sounds like something that Lewis would have written if he were alive today (in either Europe or America).

In addition to supporting live-and-let-live legislation and leaders who demonstrate the courage to stand for your freedom of conscience, there is really something much more basic to Christianity that each of us should do as citizens—love your neighbor. I don’t mean love them in some sort of philosophical or esoteric way, but really and truly connect with the people in the community in which you live and do good to and for them.

Right now the publishers are offering a special incentive to preorder the book. By going to this link, You Will Be Made to Care, you will find details about the bonus materials. It’s quite an eclectic list, including a collection of devotions, a sermon entitled “The Believer in the Public Square,” an audio collection, and a PDF cookbook. (Invite me over if you decide to make some of the cappuccino knots; they look delicious.)

A Final Lewis Thought on Government Oppression

I recently read some correspondence between C.S. Lewis and fellow writer Idrisyn Oliver Evans in 1954. Apparently Evans had taken a government job that involved the oversight of some government publications. Lewis’ fictitious titles are entertaining and insightful.

You inflict, as well as suffering, the punishment of Tantalus in your description of your new job. I can’t imagine what sort of books that library contains. Is it titles like Seven Ways of Spoiling a Landscape, The War Against Agriculture, Amenities are Bunk and Liberty: Its Cause and Cure? But I expect you would commit the sin of Tantalus if you told me.

Liberty: Its Cause and Cure. Brilliant!

Lewis was not able to preserve the letter he received, but we do have a copy of this subsequent letter to his friend. I was taken aback by his comment about the civil service. Lewis must certainly have been writing in the context of governmental bureaucracy and the growth of regulations restricting freedom.

The previous criticism, quoted above, is referred to in passing, but Lewis hastens to note it included a “grain of seriousness.”

The words are sobering, especially for those of us who align with civic institutions. And they provide a fitting close for the review of a book warning about the government’s growing predilection to use its coercive power so that we would all be made to care . . .

There was a grain of seriousness in my rally against the Civil Service. I don’t think you have worse taste or worse hearts than other men. But I do think that the State is increasingly tyrannical and you, inevitably, are among the instruments of that tyranny . . .

A Trivial Windstorm

November 29, 2015 — 10 Comments

bellsIt’s amazing what we can accomplish during a multi-day power outage. Over the Thanksgiving holiday I learned a few new religious tidbits you may find interesting as well.

Several years ago I obtained a copy of Catéchic, “the Catholic trivia game” by Tyco®. While the power was out, I read all 1,000 trivia questions. It proved to be an interesting diversion.

The question of whether or not considering trivialities is a waste of time was addressed by C.S. Lewis at the outset of WWII.

Every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. (The Weight of Glory)

Lewis’ point is well made. When we contrast the matters which occupy our minds and energies with the things we ignore—including our eternal destiny and whether we are drawing closer to our Creator or drifting farther from him—the things of this world grow dim.

Perhaps that will be slightly less true in the case of trivia gleaned from the history of the largest denomination in the Christian Church.

Test Your Knowledge

A few questions were dated, not surprising I suppose, since the game was copyrighted in 1991. What was surprising is why they would choose to include questions about the names of prominent American archbishops of that decade, knowing it would date the product.

Question: Who is the Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas?

Answer: Archbishop Patrick Flores

Comment: He was historic, being the first Roman Catholic bishop of Mexican American heritage, and service as archbishop was lengthy (1979-2004), but the question as posed has passed its expiration date.

Name the Native American woman who may soon be canonized.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha

Tekakwitha (1656-1680) was canonized in 2012 and led a tragically short but interesting life. She was an Algonquin-Mohawk, the first Native American to be canonized.

Most other questions remain valid.

What is the name of Emperor Constantine’s decree that legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 A.D.?

The Edict of Milan

Bravo. As a student of ancient history and a Constantinian numismatist, I am pleased to see this vital moment in church history acknowledged.

Was St. Francis of Assisi a priest?

No

Good one! Most of us who’ve studied medieval history would probably get that right, but I assume the majority of Christians (Protestants, Catholic and Orthodox) would likely err on the side of ordaining Francis.

Which pope authorized the use of torture during the Inquisition?

Innocent IV

The irony of his chosen papal name is almost torturous. Admittedly, it was an improvement on his given name, Sinibaldo Fieschi.

A fair number of questions about ecclesiastical paraphernalia appear. To advance in the game, it helps to know your patens, piscina, and cinctures from your purificators, pyxes and cruets.

Is a “stermutatory” a piece of furniture found in a church?

No. A stermutatory is something that makes you sneeze.

That said, if some of the pews have grown so musty that they aggravate worshipers’ allergies, wouldn’t they qualify?

Some of the trivia provides arcane information sure to surprise one’s peers.

What is a cardinal who observers believe may have a chance of becoming pope called?

Papabile.

Nice to know . . . Now I just have to think of a way to work that into a typical conversation.

Seriously, using a word like this to show off one’s knowledge of obscure things reminds me of a passage I read many years ago attributed to St. Hereticus.* It offers satirical advice on how to upstage others in religious conversations.

The Superior Knowledge Gambit (not for beginners). Easier to illustrate than explain:

Opponent: I think my interpretation of the church has full historical precedent in Augustine.

Self: (starting hesitantly, but gradually gaining assurance until the final words are spoken with complete authority, in an ex cathedra tone of voice): But surely, much as I admire your exposition, really now, which interpretation of Augustine’s do you mean? There are at least five (eyes to the ceiling for a brief moment of counting), yes five . . . (pause, then confidently) There are at least five interpretations of the church in Augustine’s extant writings. (Give ever so slightly more emphasis to the word “extant.”)

. . .

Help from St. Augustine. A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of Opponent. Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and that not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine.”

Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .

Or,

Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.

Self:Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate your point has been made.

Well, that is enough trivia for one day. In my next post I’ll discuss some more substantial literary and theological concerns that emerge in the questions. Until then, one final trifle to entertain.

What 1975 film tells the story of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail as a comedy?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Some Python humor is too irreverent (or even blasphemous**) for my tastes, but this historic fantasy is one of my guilty pleasures. (I especially love the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog which can only be dispatched by the “holy hand grenade of Antioch.”)

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* The Collected Writings of St. Hereticus by Robert McAfee Brown. An irreverent look at many aspects of ecumenical life in the mid twentieth century.

** Some (perhaps much) of the Python corpus leans towards vulgarity, but if you still enjoy the humor—and you are offended by blatant blasphemy, avoid reading the lyrics to their song, “All Things Dull and Ugly.”

There is a more positive connection between Monty Python and C.S. Lewis, however. John Cleese recorded The Screwtape Letters in 1995, lending his voice to the devilish “author” of the correspondence.

csl glassWhen C.S. Lewis was contacted for permission to publish a recent sermon in a distinguished collection, he confessed an “impious” hope.

Lewis, of course, was not a pastor. He was instead a highly regarded professor. Nevertheless, due to his mastery of public speaking, and his unapologetic faith, he was invited to preach on a number of occasions.

This particular sermon had been delivered at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, on 22 October 1939. The Student Christian Movement had already published it in pamphlet format with the title The Christian in Danger.*

Lewis ends a lengthy 1940 letter to his brother Warnie by mentioning the request, almost as an afterthought.

Did I tell you that someone wants to include that St Mary’s sermon of mine in a collection of (save the mark**) Famous Sermons?

Famous English Sermons would be published by Thomas Nelson in London later that year. The anthology was edited by Ashley Sampson, who had asked Lewis to write his volume The Problem of Pain.

Lewis’ modest “impiety” was revealed in the rest of his announcement to his brother. He confesses to that common human fear of being upstaged by the other works in the collection.

I am divided between gratification and a fear that I shall be merely made a fool of by appearing in the same book as Bede, Latimer, Donne, Taylor etc. However, let’s hope that I shall be divided from them by some good 19th century duds!—but I grow impious.

How easy it is to relate to Lewis’ concern. As I moved from assignment to assignment during my military career, I subconsciously hoped I was relieving someone who had left room for me to excel . . . and, simultaneously, that as I left my recent assignment my performance would not be outshined by my successor.

Better, in my mind, to be proceeded and followed by 20th century duds. (Forgive me, Lord.)

I doubt C.S. Lewis and I are the only people to have shared that impious thought.

Still, recognizing the impiety is the beginning of purging it. I tried to make it a practice to pray for those who followed in my ministry wake. That they would be successful, and that the men and women entrusted to our spiritual care would be blessed by their ministries.

I must confess, though, that when my literary work has been placed in direct juxtaposition to that of others, I have not been so eager for theirs to be better received than my own contributions. Not that I wish upon anyone that they would be a dud, but merely that their eloquence not put my own humble efforts to shame.

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* The sermon is found in The Weight of Glory with the title “Learning in War-Time.”

** “Save the mark” is an exclamation that connotes a sense something is unbelievable. It can even be dismissive, but that would not be the sense in which Lewis uses it here, since it is obvious he regards the request as a humbling honor.

The World’s End

October 20, 2014 — 9 Comments

christ arisenMany years ago, while attending seminary, I was invited to preach at a Pentecostal congregation in my home town. One of the conversations I had that day taught me more about the importance of sound biblical preaching than every homiletics course I ever took (combined).

Lutherans, I must admit, are not big advocates of “end times” concerns. The reasons for this are far too complicated to address in a brief column now. Ironically, however, although we confess our confidence that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” every week, we seldom talk about the details of that arrival.

At the aforementioned service, I did preach on the second coming of the Messiah. And, to distill it down to a single message, I suggested that the Scriptures teach us to live in a sort of tension. We should live with a conscious awareness and urgency that the parousia could happen at any moment . . . and, prepare for the future as though the return of Christ (and subsequent new creation) will not take place for another thousand years.

Shortly after the service ended, a woman approached me and shared how she “wished she could have heard that sermon thirty years earlier.” She related how different her life would have been.

She said in her youth she had longed to attend college, but she never did . . . because she knew Jesus would return before she graduated.

When she and her husband bought a home, she wished the property had some fruit trees, but she never planted any . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they bore fruit.

Saddest of all, she told me that when her children were born, she never raised them to become mature adults . . . because she knew Jesus would return before they grew into the men and women they became.

Nearly forty years later I am more convinced than ever that living with the “tension” I described is the proper course of disciples of Jesus.

So, how does this work out in reality?

While a few of us know people who become so preoccupied with the end of the world that their lives go askew, it’s the other error to which most of us are prone. We tend to think that the return of Christ bears little or no connection to the age in which we live.

We are so preoccupied with our present responsibilities and dreams that we invest precious little time in contemplating how these things will matter in the scope of eternity.

I highly recommend to you a recent article on this subject that will remedy this dilemma. Andrée Seu Peterson, a gifted writer I have commended before at Mere Inkling, reminds us all of the fact that Jesus’ second coming may be just around the corner. Andrée writes:

Who would have thought that after centuries of modernity, beheading would once again be a means of persecuting the people of God? Does it not send a chill up our spine to read all about it in Revelation 20:4 even as we hear about it on CNN? “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.”

C.S. Lewis famously described two errors people fall into when considering the occult. Either we get caught up in unhealthy expressions of the supernatural, or we dismiss the reality of demons and their destructive agenda altogether.

I believe humanity’s impulsive nature makes us vulnerable to the same extremes when it comes to the final days of the world we call home.

I strongly encourage you to read Peterson’s article here, as a timely reminder that you were created for far more wonderful and amazing things than we can ever know in this life. Even the best this world offers is but a hint and a foretaste of what awaits those who trust in God.

Any Name But That

August 18, 2014 — 7 Comments

jesus nameThis week I read one of the clearest descriptions of the gospel I have ever heard. It appeared in an article written by the most (how do I put this mildly?) daunting professor I have encountered in my Doctor of Ministry studies. “Intimidating” would also work . . .

But his brilliance and rapid fire delivery of thought-provoking concepts is not the reason for me mentioning him here. It is his ability to cut through the confusion, and express simply the essence of the good news, the Christian hope, the gospel.

I’m not pandering to him, mind you, because my grade for his systematics course was filed long ago. It is simply that Joel Biermann said extremely succinctly, something that I have always attempted to emphasize in my own ministry.

The Gospel is the good news, but it is not just any good news. The Gospel is a word of liberation and encouragement, but it is not just any word of liberation and encouragement. The Gospel is a wonderful event and a joyful experience, but it is not just any wonderful event and joyful experience.

In other words, when it comes to defining the Gospel, it is vitally important that we move past vague ideas or general notions and grab hold of the central thing. The central thing is Jesus.

This is a truth too many fail to understand. Sadly, this is true for some “inside” the Church as well as outside of its doors.

Goodness is good. Generosity is wonderful. Encouragement is precious. Courage is noble. Love is (almost) divine.

Yet none of these are the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus. In him the world discovers every good thing from the hand of God the Father, our Creator.

Jesus is indispensable. Without his holy name, the “faith” would simply be a praiseworthy “religion.” Without Jesus, it could instruct how to live, but it could not redeem.

It is precisely this point—the name of Jesus—that makes the Gospel objectionable to some. “Care for the sick,” some say, “just don’t mention that name.” On other lips we hear “The Church does lots of things that benefit the community, but please don’t mention that name that offends people.”

They arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life. . . .”

And someone came and told [the High Priest], “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people. . . .”

And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts of the Apostles, chapter five).

C.S. Lewis knew quite well that Christianity is all about Jesus. Without him, the person Jesus the Christ, whatever passes for the “Church” would merely be a noisy gong. Lots of “religious” talk would remain . . . but the Gospel would be absent.

“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story. The things He says are very different from what any other teacher has said. Others say, “This is the truth about the Universe. This is the way you ought to go,” but He says, “I am the Truth, and the Way, and the Life.” He says, “No man can reach absolute reality, except through Me. Try to retain your own life and you will be inevitably ruined. Give yourself away and you will be saved. . . .”

“Come to Me everyone who is carrying a heavy load, I will set that right. Your sins, all of them, are wiped out, I can do that. I am Re-birth, I am Life.” (1950 essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?”).

In the same way as the apostles, C.S. Lewis, my seminary professor, and all of those who have entrusted themselves to the grace of God in Christ, know the name of Jesus is not optional. In fact, it is all about the name.

For it is Jesus, and him alone, who is the alpha, omega and the whole of the Gospel.

Suspicious Séances

June 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

lincolnsDid you hear about the séances that were held at the White House? It’s true, but it’s not recent news. They were conducted for Mary Todd Lincoln, and her husband, the president, apparently joined in attendance at some of them.

The Lincoln’s had lost their eleven year old son Willie to Typhoid in February 1862. Nearly all historians describing Mary’s grief accurately use the word “inconsolable”.

Since the Lincoln’s were not Christian, Mary sought the illusion of comfort in spiritualism, a thriving movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Spiritualism typically contends that the spirits of the dead survive in a manner where they can, and do, communicate with the living. This interchange is typically facilitated by a “medium,” someone particularly attuned to the “spirit world.”

Mediums sometimes allow themselves to become physical vessels for these spirits.

Christians either dismiss such experiences as fraud, or as demonic possession. Which depends on their own worldview. Some Christians dismiss the spiritual realm, while others recognize it is quite real.

C.S. Lewis would be in the latter camp, as his preface to The Screwtape Letters amply illustrates.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Christians who acknowledge the spiritual warfare which is waged beyond our physical senses understand the meaning of Paul’s words: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Returning to the 1800s

The reason I have been thinking about Mary Lincoln—who would later be institutionalized and attempted suicide—is because I’m finishing up an article for the online journal I edit about the military chaplaincy. It’s called Curtana: Sword of Mercy, and the new issue will be posted by the end of the month.*

The specific article relates the story of Ellen Elvira Gibson (Hobart),** who was the first woman chaplain in the American military. She served a Wisconsin regiment, and her story is nothing short of fascinating.

Hobart was a spiritualist, and “ordained” by a group of the same who banded together to provide just such credentials. Interestingly, although she gave hundreds of (paid) lectures in a spiritual “trance” state, she would ultimately reject spiritualism. She turned to a more radical and secular “freethinking” as spiritualism was waning in popularity, but still a formidable presence.

Chaplain Hobart would gain renown in anti-Christian circles for her book The Godly Women of the Bible by an Ungodly Woman of the Nineteenth Century. Numerous atheist websites cite a quotation from the volume. “The abominable laws respecting [women in the Bible] . . . are a disgrace to civilization and English literature; and any family which permits such a volume to lie on their parlor-table ought to be ostracized from all respectable society. . .”

Contemporary readers will find it odd that one of the reasons spiritualism received a warm welcome in Europe and America was precisely because it seemed to offer measurable, “scientific” evidence of the afterlife. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Faust writes:

To an age increasingly caught up in the notion of science as the measure of truth, spiritualism offered belief that seemed to rely on empirical evidence rather than revelation and faith. If the dead could cause tables to rise, telegraph messages from the world beyond, and even communicate in lengthy statements through spirit mediums, an afterlife clearly must exist. Here was, in the words of one popular spiritualist advocate, ‘proof palpable of immortality’” (180-81).

Returning to the Inklings

One of Lewis’ dearest friends was Owen Barfield. Sadly, the two remained separated throughout life by their religious beliefs. Barfield had helped Lewis come to believe in God (i.e. theism) but could not journey with Lewis on to Christianity. Barfield, instead, became one of the greatest of Anthroposophist evangelists.

Anthroposophy possesses elements of philosophy, but is also inarguably a religion in its own right. It also holds a view of the afterlife distinct from both Christianity and historic spiritualism.

But the nature of the religion created by Rudolf Steiner (which evolved from his involvement in Theosophy) is not the subject of our reflections here. However, if one is interested in learning more about Owen Barfield, a 1992 documentary can be viewed here.

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The image above is a famous example of “spirit photography” taken by William Mulmer, who made it popular. He was once placed on trial for fraud, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

* I may delay publication of this particular article since the issue will already carry the biography of another chaplain.

** The reason “Hobart” is bracketed, is because it was her married name at the time of her military service. However, the marriage was short lived, and most of her life she went by “Ella E. Gibson.”

Rescuing Orphans

April 14, 2014 — 17 Comments

orphansWar is a terrible thing. It should be avoided at (nearly) all costs. As C.S. Lewis wrote during Hitler’s atrocities, “If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful” (“The Conditions for a Just War”).

I was writing this weekend about one of the sad consequences of war—the creation of orphans. As an adopted child of God, I possess deep compassion for children without parents in this world. Over a decade ago I was privileged to represent the United States Air Force at the dedication of the Korean War Children’s Memorial.

When I contacted the coordinator of that event, Dr. George Drake, he provided me with the photograph above, which shows the speakers that day. Drake appears to the left, and yours truly is in uniform, to the right. The primary speaker was Chaplain Russell Blaisdell, center, who saved the lives of at least a thousand Korean orphans during the war, delivering them from almost certain death as Seoul fell to the Communists. (My next post will reflect on his heroism and humility.)

The war in Korea was horrific. The frontlines swept across the peninsula, leaving desolation and tragedy in their wake. The number of orphans created by the violence was legion. In the cruel ebb and flow of the conflict, many perished. Still, even in the crimson terror there were expressions of mercy and grace.

Chaplains often led the way in reaching out to the children, but their efforts would have accomplished little if the compassion of the common Soldier, Marine, Sailor and Airman had not moved them as well to make sacrifices to care for the children.

Chaplains who serve in Korea today have maintained the strong bonds of support for orphanages that was so vital to the wartime chaplains represented by Blaisdell.

During my year in Taegu (Daegu), I coordinated the ministry of the airmen at Taegu Air Base in partnership with Love and Hope Orphanage. Love and Hope has a unique role, caring for the least of the least . . . children with serious physical and/or mental handicaps. There is little room for them in most societies, and Korea is no exception.

Orphans are made not by war alone, of course, but by a variety of tragic confluences of suffering. Some lose parents to accident or disease. Today, we find the greatest number of orphaned children in various parts of Africa where AIDS has devastated local adult populations. Similarly, following natural disasters such as major earthquakes and tsunamis, many orphans are left alone in the rubble or receding waters.

Some children flee abusive homes, or are rescued from dangerous environments; in one sense these were orphans even before their legal bonds with cruel predators were severed.

Many causes account for the existence of orphans. And, as long as we live in this fallen world, orphans will be among us. This is why we must never forget that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV).

C.S. Lewis was well acquainted with the sorrow of wartime violence and the shattering of families. A veteran of World War I, he saw many friends perish just as they were embarking on adulthood. After World War II, one of his many correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria, who operated an orphanage in devastated Italy

In 1951, Lewis sent his friend a newly translated copy of the first book in his Chronicles of Narnia. He invited the priest (who would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church less than fifty years later) to pass the book on to one of the orphans in his care.

I am sending you my tale recently translated into Italian in which, frankly, I have rather played than worked. I have given my imagination free rein yet not, I hope, without regard for edification—for building up both my neighbour and myself. I do not know whether you will like this kind of trifle. But if you do not, perhaps some boy or girl will like it from among your “good children.”

While I imagine the volume remained close to the future “saint,” I trust that Lewis’ powerful tale delighted many of the young children in his care.

As Chaplain Blaisdell says about caring for innocent children, the act itself provides more than sufficient reward. Formal recognition is not required, and may in fact detract from the intrinsic satisfaction that accompanies the giving of oneself in service. Ninety-nine percent of those who sacrifice for the widow and orphan remain essentially anonymous to all but God, and this is just fine. (You can read more about the Kiddy Car Airlift and who received credit for it here.)