Monthly Archives: September 2009

Stanley Hauerwas on Grammar and Neighborliness

The following anecdote has been making its way around the internet. It comes to me via the Faith & Theology blog, and in turn came to him via Inhabitatio Dei, another blog. Whether it’s apocryphal or not, I don’t know, but it fits and is a wonderful anecdote regardless:

Stanley Hauerwas was at Harvard to deliver a lecture and, being there early and still needing to do some preparation, he set out to find the library. Not finding it, he stopped a student and asked him, “Excuse me, where’s the library at?”

Incredulous, the student responded, “Sir, at Harvard we don’t end our sentences with a preposition.”

Stanley paused for a moment and then rephrased his question in a more grammatically appropriate manner: “Where’s the library at, asshole?”

Sins of the… cousin?

The Last Judgment
.The Last Judgement.
  1. Let them vanish like water that runs off; *
    let them wither like trodden grass.
  2. Let them be like the snail that melts away, *
    like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
  3. Before they bear fruit, let them be cut down like a brier; *
    like thorns and thistles let them be swept away.
  4. The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; *
    they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
  5. (Psalm 58:7-10)

Yesterday I came across an article in The Age, an Australian Newspaper (HT: Touchstone) about the fact that some folks believe they’ve found 39 living relatives of Adolf Hitler. The majority of these relatives live in Austria while three live in the United States under assumed names (for obvious reasons). Those who live in the US are decedents of Hitler’s uncle, and they fled Germany as refugees from the Nazis.

I bring this up because it is a natural human reaction to want all memory of those who do evil wiped from the face of the earth. Consider the selection above from Psalm 58–obviously such sentiments aren’t new. That impulse, though, can itself be evil. Something that stood out to me in the article from The Age was this bit from the closing section:

”The American relatives have agreed not to have children to extinguish the saga of Hitler and stop living in fear, but have promised to publish a book before they die,”

If these cousins of Hitler don’t want to have children, that’s their business, but from the phrasing of the article it seems that they’re motivated more than a little by a sense of guilt. And for what? Guilt by genetic association? Isn’t that exactly what the Allies fought against? The way the article makes it seem, the family was under pressure not to continue the line, they “agreed not to have children to extinguish the saga of Hitler.” I have news for anyone that thinks such a decision will extinguish the saga of Hitler: it ain’t gonna happen, and it’s absurd and foolish to the extreme to believe it would. What Hitler did, he did because of his own sin–a sin that, by the way is not restricted to a specific genetic line–after all, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin weren’t relatives of Adolf, but they certainly have more in common with him than do two of his cousins who live as gardeners and one as a psychologist in the United states.

Eight Years After

Today is the eighth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01 and I’ve spent part of the morning reflecting 9.11Ribbonon that day and the subsequent years with their story authored so much by those attacks and our responses. On the one hand, I agree with Stanley Hauerwas who has maintained that 9/11 is not the “day that everything changed,” in the sense that–for Christians at least–everything changed in approximately 33 AD, over a three day period, when Jesus was nailed to a cross and later rose from the dead. That changed everything. I also agree that the initial response, the way in which people were encouraged to “go shop” was anemic and revealed a rot in our soul as a nation. a rot which, some might say, has been exposed all the more by the causes our current recession.

And yet. And yet at the same time, for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people, the world changed decisively on 9/11/01. A father or mother never made it home from work. A boyfriend who worked for the FDNY died while seeking to save another from the collapsing wreck of a skyscraper. A child in the daycare and never made it out, despite the efforts of a parent to reach them. A Franciscan giving last rites became the first recorded victim of the attacks. People fell with rubble from the sky and for those who saw, and for those who loved them, the world did indeed change.

Who can blame people for seeking a return to normalcy–even a normalcy identified with shopping–in the face of such a painful and terrifying experience. I certainly can’t.

In some ways I see September 11th as the day the old world reached out and dragged the new world back in. The myth of America as separate and above the rest of the world (terrorism, like political instability, is something that happens somewhere else, not here) was destroyed that day, and our policies, carefully developed to walk the line between securing our separateness while remaining engaged with the outside world in military as well as economic ways had to adapt. The myth was destroyed, but the desire still strong, along with the hope, of holding on to some of the reality of the safety and isolation we’d so long enjoyed from those other, less practical peoples on the globe.

September 11th did change things. It changed people’s plans, their hopes, their dreams, their lives in hurtful and dramatic ways. And it is in these individual stories, these individual lives that the true impact of this crime is revealed.

I’ve been rereading Rowan Williams’ Writing in the Dust, the book he wrote as he reflected upon his experience of being in New York City on that fateful day, and I would like to share part of it with you on this anniversary:

Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in their mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone they love. They do what they can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile. That moment of ‘making room’ is what I as a religious person have to notice. It isn’t ‘pious’, it isn’t language about God; it’s simply language that brings into the world something other than self-defensiveness. It’s a breathing space in the asthmatic climate of self-concern and competition; a breathing space that religious language doesn’t often manage to create by or for itself.

God always has to be rediscovered. Which means God always has to be heard or seen where there aren’t yet words for him. Saying something for the sake of another in the presence of death must be one place of rediscovery. Mustn’t it?

Careful. You can do this too quickly. It sounds as though you’re gratefully borrowing someone else’s terrible experience to make another pious point. And after all, not everyone dies with words of love. there will have been cursing and hysteria and frantic, deluded efforts to be safe at all costs when people knew what was going on in those planes. and would anyone want their private words of love butchered to make a sermon?

It proves nothing. But all I can say is that for someone who does believe, or tries to, the ‘breathing space’ is something that allows the words of religious faith for a moment not to be as formal or flat or self-serving as they usually are.

Christ the Holy Silence
Christ the Holy Silence

The morning after, very early, I was stopped in the street in New York by a youngish man who turned out to be an airline pilot and a Catholic. He wanted to know what the hell God was doing when the planes hit the towers. What do you say? The usual fumbling about how God doesn’t intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of ‘policy’ on God’s part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrifical work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is. Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God’s refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which he doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of the Christian faith. He has made the world so that evil choices can’t just be frustrated or aborted (where would he stop, for goodness sake? he’d have to be intervening every instant of human history) but have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.

I do believe that; but I don’t think you can say it with much conviction outside the context of people actually doing the action and the prayer. In the street that morning, all I had was words. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t help. He was a lifelong Christian believer, but for the first time it came home to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crises.

Perhaps it’s when we try to make God useful in a crises, though, that we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment. Perhaps the words of faith will rise again slowly in that space (perhaps not). But don’t try to tie it up quickly.

Current Reading

I thought I’d take a moment to update everyone on my current reading.  I picked up a copy of N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision the other day and am ready to dive into it.  I have to say that I find his British understatement (and a seeming potshot at John Piper) in the preface to be somewhat humorous, and I thought I’d share just the first paragraph with you:

When I heard about John Piper’s book The Future of Justification: a Response to N.T. Wright, I was torn between two reflections.  On the one hand, as they say, the actor doesn’t mind whether he’s playing the hero or the villain as long as it’s his name on the board outside the thater.  On the other hand, there is a danger that if people typecast you as the villain the image may stick and you won’t get any other parts.  So, despite my initial reluctance to get drawn into the details of debate when I am really far too busy with other things, I eventually decided that an initial response was called for.

If you’d like to check out Justification for yourself, click the link below:

Against the “Christian” Entertainment Industrial complex

Worship is tricky business.  It is at the heart of the Christian life, and was important enough for God to give detailed instructions as to the appropriate manner, location, and form for worship in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible.  But worship itself, while properly focused on giving honor and praise to the divine, is also an anthropological undertaking.  As such it has always been governed to some degree by tastes, aesthetics, fads and the biases of those who participate or lead.

Transfiguration by Fra Angelico
Transfiguration by Fra Angelico

That the concerns modern Christians have about worship are not new is evidenced by the fact that many of the concerns of today are foreshadowed by the words of St. John Chrysostom, who as patriarch of Constantinople dealt with a congregation and populous no less cosmopolitan than those we deal with today.  Chysostom’s concerns include the perennial issue of irregular church attendance, but:

Irregular attendance at worship is not the only blight upon the life of the churches. Many regular worshipers at the two hour-long services enter with ostentatious displays of devotion, ritually washing their hands and stooping to kiss the porch as though, says Chrysostom, “constant churchgoing” in itself is the heart of religion.  Once inside, they employ exaggerated “gestures of body and loudness of voice” to display their devotion, some even “throwing themselves prostrate and striking the ground with their foreheads.” During seasons of fasting, many who do not observe the required discipline  still “where the masks of those who fast,” lest they be accused of impiety, and they ensure that they are seen at the “vigils and holy hymn singing” associated with great festivals. Such people, complained Chrysostom, “surpass the hypocrisy” of the Pharisees, and since they act “merely out of vanity,” the voluble prayers which issue from their “unwashed mouths” have no “earnestness or inwardness” and simply serve to annoy those around them. 1

What this demonstrates is the tendency of worship to become more about us than about God.  The worship of Chrysostom’s day, which was ceremonial in nature, attracted those who desired their own ceremony in honor of the self, and so they entered with great pomp and circumstance.  There are still those in churches today who attend for the reason of being seen, to be thought of as the “right kind of person.”  And yet, I would say that this is a motivation that is fast losing its appeal for many people.  Folks simply don’t need to be seen at Church to “make it” in society circles any more.  In fact, being seen as a Christian might be seen as a detriment.  But there are still people attracted to our own sort of “pomp” in the form of entertainment.

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