Monthly Archives: June 2010

Vuvuzela: Definition

an instrument for making an annoying racket that instills a thankfulness in Jody that he is not a soccer fan, and only watched a little of the USA-Ghana game.  While still sad the USA didn’t win, he is not sad that he will not be hearing the vuvuzelas buzzing again any time soon.

In Praise of Freedom and Loving One’s Neighbors

Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. (Collect for Independence Day, The Book of Common Prayer p. 242)

The Flag of the United States

We are fast approaching another birthday.  Not my birthday or your birthday (though perhaps yours is close as well), but the birthday of the United States, the anniversary of the adoption of Declaration of Independence, appropriately called Independence Day.  This Fourth of July will mark the two hundred and thirty fourth year since the declaration was adopted by the Continental Congress.  Two hundred and thirty four years is a respectable amount of time.  It may only be a drop in the bucket in terms of length of existence compared to some nations, but it’s definitely a good amount of time for a people to live under a democratic form of government.  Our cultural roots in North America may not extend so far into history as some other nations, for instance, in Europe, but our stability as a republic is unmatched.  Not only that, but we have many accomplishments and freedoms to celebrate.  The honoring of individual liberty is part of the DNA of the United States, and through its influence, this trait has been shared with or expanded in many other nations.

In recent years some Christians in attempting to shine a light on some of the unhelpful ways the Church has accommodated itself to the culture, have pointed out an unhealthy link between certain patterns of thought masquerading as Christianity, which serve to prop up negative versions of nationalism or to blur the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the United States of America.  In an attempt to combat this “Constantinian” turn, these folks have called attention to the ways in which Americans, like the English, Germans, Russians, Holy Romans and Byzantines (pick a country) before us–and contemporary with us–have sometimes justified wrongful national ambitions and actions in religiously steeped language.  Since all of these have been culturally Christian nations, that language has often taken the guise of Christian speech.  This is a helpful critique, and one that we should always be mindful of–all nations (indeed, all human institutions and every one of us individually) have a drive to self-justify.  And yet we should not let a drive to prevent the baptism of national vices stop us from appreciating the fruits of a hard won and costlily preserved Godly liberty.  And I would argue that one of the positive things we Americans have inherited and expanded from our English forebears is a conviction that freedom is a gift of God, and that freedom rightly exercised is a virtue both private and civil.

The line that all Christians must walk is the one that recognizes our status as resident aliens, citizens of another country first and foremost.  The Lordship and claims of Christ subvert and overcome all earthly claims and yet, I would argue they are not necessarily opposed to all earthly claims, helping us to prioritize and–at our best–become loyal citizens, patriots and ardent critics of our nation.  This is the line that Christians have had to walk since Constantine made the faith a licit or legal religion–I might repurpose the term and call this the “Constantinian line” that Christians have to walk.  You see, it’s rather easy to determine one’s relationship to a state that is hostile to your beliefs, and the New Testament is clear: be good citizens and follow the law unless it conflicts with your faith, then be willing to die for Jesus.  It’s a much more difficult situation to define one’s relationship to a state that doesn’t persecute, but even protects you and your right to worship.  This is the tension that our Christian forebears had to deal with, as they went from a position of being persecuted, and therefore withdrawing from public life, to one of being a legal–even an official–religion and then called upon to take up roles in civil affairs that they had never participated in before.

The way that Christian communities have chosen to walk this Constantinian line is one that has helped define them throughout history.  There have always been more sectarian groups that looked with greater or lesser degrees of skepticism on the claims of the state; the Anabaptist tradition is one example (think of the Amish or Mennonites), as are some forms of revivalism and holiness traditions.  Anyone who has seen the old movie “Sergeant York” will have seen an example of a revivalism committed to Christian non-violence come up against the claims of the state (and, we can tell from the title, how things played out).  Movements, like individuals, have changed their stances over time–the Assemblies of God, for example, were officially pacifistic until the 1960′s.  Our own tradition, as Anglicans, has been less skeptical of the authority of the state, and, sometimes to our detriment, more willing to work with the nation (England, and later the United States among others).  On the positive side though, our refusal to absent ourselves from public life has meant that we have attempted to fulfill a calling to act as a conscience to the nation, calling it back to its own best principals, celebrating triumphs and mourning failures.

It is this role as public conscience that I would argue we as a body of Christians are called to exercise, and in large measure this is most helpfully and fruitfully realized when we as individual Christians take up our roles in civic life as Christians, guided by the moral compass of our faith and calling our leaders–and ourselves–to account to the “better angels of our nature.”  This is where the true heart of Christian patriotism resides, not in justification of every act of the state, but in the love of neighbor that extends out to the love of home and nation.

The great philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre once compared being called to sacrifice for the modern bureaucratic state as something akin to being asked to die for the phone company (Ethics and Politics: Selected Essays Vol. 2, p 163).  If that were all our nation consisted of, he would be right.  But as any veteran will tell you, no soldier fights for a bureaucracy–at least not for very long–instead, people sacrifice for their neighbors, their loved ones, the people right next to them, the fellow members of their units, and those virtues of their homelands that they believe make life worth living, and which they believe are worth dieing for.  The heart of Christian patriotism is the love of neighbor, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends (John 15:3).”  The best way to honor these sacrifices, I believe, is to honor the virtues that have made this country worth sacrificing for.  Senator Carl Schurz said the following in 1872:

The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, “My country, right or wrong.” In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

These words echo very well the call of the Collect for Independence Day, which asks that we be granted the grace to “maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace.”  On this two hundred and thirty fourth birth day of our nation, let us give thanks to Almighty God for the many gifts and blessings he has bestowed upon our homeland, lets take this day and celebrate, enjoying the freedoms that have been won and held at so dear a cost.  And let us also, as faithful followers of Christ, exercise our calling to be in the world, not to retreat, and to work to make certain that this great and virtuous nation has not yet seen its greatest or most virtuous day, and that it remains one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Nostalgia for Pagan Virtue

Jesus blessing the Children
Jesus blessing the children

It might be hard to imagine something that would unite some elite antiquarians of the post-enlightenment period with some of today’s new age and neo-pagan groups, but many share a common sentiment: a distaste for Christianity and a longing for a return to the virtues of Paganism.  Of course, if you think about it, it’s probably not all that helpful to talk about “Paganism” as though it were one thing and not a multiplicity of beliefs and practices.  As one of my philosophy professors once told me, “it is easy to idealize that of which you’re ignorant,” so from that perspective it’s not all that surprising that folks would look beyond the bounds of western culture to an idealized and constructed form of “eastern spirituality” or to an imagined idyllic era of pagan virtue that had somehow been despoiled by the rise of Christianity.

This isn’t really a new phenomena; whether Julian the Apostate, Friedrich Nietzsche or a modern person, there have always been those who felt like Christianity was a step backward–whether that step backward was because Christianity was seen as too restrictive, too liberal, too worldly or too spiritual depended on the person.  Likewise, when talking about “paganism” you could be referring to popular beliefs, different philosophical schools, the official teachings of various traditional religions or mystery cults etc…  So it would be wrong to write the whole thing off, or lump it all together–stoicism and platonic thought  are not the same as devotion to Molech.  That being said, the rise of Christianity did alter the public morals of the ancient world (from my perspective, for the better), as the following story from the BBC illustrates:

Archaeologists investigating a mass burial of 97 infants at a Roman villa in the Thames Valley believe it may have been a brothel.

Tests on the site at Hambleden in Buckinghamshire suggest all died at 40 weeks gestation, very soon after birth.

Archaeologists suspect local inhabitants may have been systematically killing unwanted babies.

Archaeologist Dr Jill Eyers said: “The only explanation you keep coming back to is that it’s got to be a brothel.”

With little or no effective contraception, unwanted pregnancies could have been common at Roman brothels, explained Dr Eyers, who works for Chiltern Archaeology.

And infanticide may not have been as shocking in Roman times as it is today.

Archaeological records suggest infants were not considered to be “full” human beings until about the age of two, said Dr Eyers.

Children any younger than that age were not buried in cemeteries. As a result, infant burials tended to be at domestic sites in the Roman era.

Even so, say experts, the number at the Yewden villa at Hambleden is extraordinary.

{Read it all}.

Christianity challenged the morals of Greco-Roman society largely through the application of thought inherited from the Jewish tradition.  Christians became well known for their criticisms of the practice of exposing infants, abortion etc…  In his book When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, Odd Magne Bakke describes the challenge that Christians offered:

From the Didache and Barnabas onward, our Christian sources throughout the pre-Constantinian period reject these phenomena and condemn those who practice them.  Here, the Christian texts adopt Jewish thinking, as is especially clear in the Didache and Barnabas, whose authors have incorporated the tradition of the “two ways” into their own ethical instruction.  The commandment not to kill children, either in the womb or after birth, is seen in connection with the obligation to love one’s neighbor.  Like adults, children are regarded as individuals who must be taken care of.  It is interesting to note how in these early Christian writings the opposition to abortion, expositio and infanticide is rooted in the idea of God as creator: since the children are created by him, one must not destroy their lives, but must look after them.

Whenever I hear the laments of Christians that “things are getting bad,” I can’t help but think about what they were like before the rise of Christianity.  This doesn’t make the slide any less negative, but it does provide hope: if public ethics were challenged and changed in the past, they may be in the future.

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What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?

Jesus heals the posessed
Jesus heals the Demoniac

The healing of the Gerasene Demoniac has to be one of the oddest episodes in the New Testament; it’s certainly one of the most memorable.  Who wouldn’t remember a bunch of demon-possessed pigs running off a cliff?  That’s not something you see everyday.  (Also, it always leaves me feeling a little ambivalent about BBQ).

As odd as this episode is–indeed, because of its oddity–it has captured the imaginations of Christians for centuries.  In the early church hymns were inspired by it.  One of these deals with the affliction of the demoniac, saying “Then a man bereft of reason, /dwelling in sepulchral caves,/ bound with cruel and grinding fetters and/ with raging frenzy torn,/ Rushes forth and kneels in worship, as the saving Christ draws near.” (Prudentius, Hymn 9)

This hymn gets at the heart of the matter.  It may be a strange situation, but the importance of it is defined by the fact that in this narrative we see “the saving Christ draw near.”

It is important to understand is that Luke intends his recounting of this event to stand as the second in a series of three miracle stories displaying the authority and power that Jesus exercises.  These stories stand as a sort of triptych to the authority of Christ.

The healing of the demoniac is bookended by Jesus’ calming of the storm, a demonstration of power over the threatening and chaotic natural world (Luke 8:22-25) and the raising of Jairus’ daughter which demonstes his authority over disease, and even death itself (Luke 8:40-56).  Like the other two stories, this story is about Jesus’ power and authority.

But I think Luke would be disappointed in us if we didn’t take note of some other important features of this section of his Gospel.  This story recounts a unique instance in that it is Jesus’ only journey to a predominantly Gentile area.  They travel “across to the other side of the lake” (8:22), and come to the country of the Gerasenes, which we’re told is opposite Galilee (v. 26).  So the presence of the swine is explained by the fact that this is not simply an area where some Gentiles lives, but an area in which they made up a majority.

It’s also important to consider the fact that while this was an area where the population was dominated by Gentiles, but that it was also an area that was part of biblical Israel.

So we’re faced with this strange occurrence.  Jesus comes across the lake, having stilled the waters, and reaches the other side only to be immediately confronted by a man in dire circumstances.  Luke gives us a heart-wrenching description of the man’s life.

“For a long time” we’re told, “he had worn no clothes…” not only that, but “he did not live in a house but in the tombs.”  Later, we’re told that  “he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles” when the demons seized him “he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.”

This man was so totally alienated from others that he has been deprived of some of the most symbolically fundamental elements of humanity, clothing and shelter, to say nothing of self-control and reason.  Chained, perhaps partially for his own protection, but probably out of simple fear, he is driven away from society to live among the dead.

I’m not sure what could make this a more pitiable situation, a more hopeless way of living.  But with Jesus comes hope.

It is remarkable how many elements of ritual impurity and uncleanness there are in such a short narrative: the country of the Gentiles, the tombs, the swine, and of course the demons.  All of this serves to highlight the fact that something extremely important is happening here.

Some commentators, in attempting to explain the casting of the demons into the swine, argue that perhaps Jesus allows the demons to enter the pigs as a way of passing judgment on the fact that there were people within the bounds of biblical Israel who were not being faithful to the Law.  I have to say that it doesn’t sound very Jesus like.  But maybe the idea is not a complete loss.  Maybe this is about Jesus taking back some territory, leading a dawn raid.  Maybe this is about Jesus saving someone for the Kingdom, not of earthly Israel, but of God.

The context of these three stories is the demonstration of the extent of Jesus’ power and authority.  Here, Jesus enters the territory of the Gentiles and, before he even speaks to the demoniac, he has commanded the demons to leave the man (Luke 8:29).  This sets up the conflict, with the man falling down at Jesus’ feet, I might even say compelled to kneel before Christ.  At the same time, the demons within him, recognizing Jesus’ authority, but still hoping to negotiate, cry out and ask to be allowed to go into the swine.

It’s possible, given the association in the ancient world between knowledge of someone’s name and having power over them, that the demons were identifying Christ by name in a vain attempt to save themselves.  “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me” (Luke 8:28).  In response, Jesus forces the demon to give his name, only to discover that there isn’t simply a single demonic entity, but a “legion,” a number possibly in the thousands.

It’s at this point that the herd of swine “are introduced” as one commentator notes “by way of the concession requested by the demons.  Jesus allows the transfer of the demons into the swine with the result that they, like the demoniac before him, are ‘driven’ (v.29) into self-destruction.  They are driven to their death, whereas, through their influence in his life, the demoniac had been relegated to an existence among the dead.”

The destruction of the pigs, while seemingly strange, provides an opportunity for the possible breadth of demonic destruction to be appreciated, and by extension, for the story of the demoniac’s deliverance to be witnessed to by others, namely the swineherds who spread word in the city about what has happened.  As St. John Chrysostom put it: “He [Jesus] did this so that you might know that the demons would have done the same thing to human beings and would have drowned them if God had allowed them to do so.  But he restrained the demons, stopped them, and allowed them to do no such thing.  When their power was transferred to the swine, it became clear to all witnesses what they would have done to persons.  From this we learn that if the demons had the power to posses swine, they also could have possessed humans.” (Discourses Against Judaizing Christians 8.6)

In the end the man who had been deprived of so much, has it restored to him by Christ.  Where there is now hope where there was none, salvation where there had been only torment.  When the people come to see what has happened, after they hear the news of the swine, they see the amazing change in the man.  “He had been uncontrollable, but now he is sitting at Jesus’ feet; he had been naked, but now he is clothed; he had behaved as a demented man, but now he is in his right mind.  His position [at Jesus' feet] portrays [the new calm that characterizes him] in direct contrast to the behavior formerly characteristic of him.  It also indicates his submission to Jesus and his status as a disciple.  Luke presents the former demoniac as a learner, sitting at the feat of his teacher.  His former condition of nakedness had symbolized his lack of status, his alienation from other humans; similarly, his clothes now signal his acceptance.  His former

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as  a maniac has been replaced by self-dicsipline and [...] dignity.” (Joel Green)

Ephraim the Syrian

As I wrote in the beginning, this is a very odd story.  But it is also a hopeful message, and it is in many ways familiar.  Many of us find ourselves afflicted by forces beyond our control.  While we may not characterize them as demonic, they can serve to alienate us from one another and from God–and to that extent they are, indeed, demonic.  We can find ourselves lonely, frightened, angry.  In times like today, when the economy is in such a challenging position, some of us may struggle with the inability to make ends meet, the loss (or postponement) of retirement, a feeling of helplessness.  For some these feelings could be heightened because of disaster, such as the recent floods, or by tragedy such as the death or illness of a loved one.  Regardless of the challenges we face, we can take heart in the fact that Christ has not come for a select few, but has instead come into the world crossing boundaries, bringing people together and expanding the Kingdom of God while promising everlasting life to each one of us.  We too can trust that if we throw ourselves at Christ’s feet, whatever our trials, he will be with us, offer us hope and bring us ever closer to him.

We must never forget that the man out of whom came a Legion of demons, was brought back to his right mind, and was sent out by Christ to share the good news of his salvation.  In many ways he was the first to carry the message of Christ to the Gentiles, to demonstrate that the love of God extends to all.  Because we are inheritors of this mission, we are also inheritors of this promise, and this deliverance. Amen.

Finally, consider these powerful words from a hymn by Ephraim the Syrian:

“Look too at Legion: when in anguish he begged, our Lord permitted the demons to enter into the herd.  He asked for respite, without deception, in his anguish, and our Lord in his kindness granted this request.  His compassion for the demoniac is a rebuke to the demons, showing how much anguish his love suffers in desiring that humans should live.  Encouraged by the words I had heard, I knelt down and wept there, and spoke before our Lord: ‘Legion recieved his request from you without any tears.  Permit me, with my tears, to make my request.’ (Hymn 12.8-9)

What a great quote

Apologies to any Libertarians/Randians out there, but this is just too good:

“There are two novels that can transform a bookish 14-year-kld’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large chunks of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel. The other is a book about orcs.” – “The Value of Nothing” by Raj Pate

{HT: The Distributist Review}