Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: January 2011

Movie Review: Sweet Land

Anna and I recently watched the movie “Sweet Land.”  This is not a movie you’re likely to have heard about, and as far as I know it wasn’t shown in the local Regal.  Nonetheless, I would say this is a movie that many people can connect with on several levels.

To begin with, it is a love story–though not a typical one.  At least it’s not a typical one for today and that is an important caveat, because, for the time and the place in which the film is set–a largely agrarian immigrant community in the upper mid-west (Minnesota to be exact)–this story is perhaps more typical than people today might expect.

It’s not a typical love story for today because it doesn’t follow the set pattern.  There is no chance meeting fraught with possibility and made to bear more meaning than chance ought to.  There’s no dating, no drama induced by misunderstanding only to be cleared up just in time for the marriage bells to ring.  Indeed, there are no bells.  There is no wedding–but there is the story of a strong and loving marriage.

“Sweet Land” is based upon the short story “Gravestone Made of Wheat” by Will Weaver, and while the movie differs from the short story, it still conveys the same sense of place, time and affection.  In the movie, Olaf Torvik is a Norwegian farmer whose parents have sent him a bride from the old country.  For the modern viewer it is likely to be this status as a “mail order bride” that stands out, or is seen as problematic.  In 1920’s Minnesota, with its large immigrant community (as with other immigrant communities) this is not the issue.  The community doesn’t bat an eye at the expectation that Inge, the young woman, would marry Olaf nearly as soon as she’s off the train.  For them, the problem rests in the fact that Inge is German and it doesn’t help that she doesn’t have the correct immigration papers or that her political affiliation has been incorrectly identified as “socialist.”

In the story of Olaf and Inge and the challenges they face, we catch a glimpse of an era in which the Lutherans in the US were especially sensitive to issues of nationality.  Whether it be the admonition “only English in the church,” or the concern to be seen as “American” and not by the nationality of one’s parents or grandparents.  It was in such a climate, during and after the first world war that the American flag made it’s first appearance in church sanctuaries as immigrant communities sought to demonstrate where their allegiance lay.  Also on display are economic concerns, with Olaf’s recurring statement–proven correct in this instance–that “farming and banking don’t mix.”

In the midst of all the trials brought about by forces beyond their control, “Sweet Land” brings out the moving story of two people’s commitment to one another and the love that grows in their marriage, transforming them into a patriarch and matriarch not only of their family, but also of a community that once rejected them.

I heartily recommend this film, and with a PG rating, it’s a movie that the family can enjoy together, perhaps even inspiring conversations about grandparents, great grandparents and how we came to be who we are today.

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Charles, King & Martyr

January 30th is the feast day of Charles, King & Martyr for many within the Church of England, as well as some around the Anglican Communion, including the members of the Society of King Charles the Martyr.   This is a particularly interesting and ambivalence-inspiring observance for Americans, given our own elevation of democracy to divine status. It is for this reason, of course, despite regular attempts, that Charles Stuart has never been on the official calendar of the Episcopal Church.

The long and short of it is that Charles I was a poor politician, and an ineffective ruler who is, by today’s standards, seen as despotic (though, of course, no more than many current petty dictators with whom we are happily allied!).  All the same, he was a sight better than the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (though the importance of Cromwell’s readmittance of the Jews to England shouldn’t be overlooked), and seems to have been a decent human being who was committed to his principles and his faith.  Because of this, it did not take the people of England very long to look with fondness upon the days of Stuart rule, as opposed to the equally oppressive (and much more stodgy) rule of the puritans.

I think the best summary of this that I’ve read is in JRH Moorman’s A History of the Church in England:

On January 30, 1649, the king was beheaded on a scaffold outside the banqueting-house in Whitehall.

When the bleeding head was held up, the cry of horror from the crowd drowned the derisive shouts of the soldiers.  During the trial and at the hour of death Charles had behaved with a quiet courage and dignity which had won many to his side, even among those who had been ready to take up arms against him seven years before.  Royal despotism was a bad thing, but military despotism was worse.  English people dislike the sight of blood; and the execution of a king sent a thrill of horror and detestation through the country which has never been forgotten.  It has been described as ‘a crime against England even more than against Charles’.  But not only did it outrage the deepest feelings of the country, it also alienated many who might have been Cromwell’s supporters, and thus made a restoration of monarchy and Church inevitable in due course.  The regicides little realized that in cutting off Charles’s head they were cutting their own throats.

From 1662 to 1859 the execution of King Charles was commemorated in the calendar of the Prayer Book and special services were held each year on January 30.  Charles thus came as near to canonization as it is possible to be in the Church of England.  he stood as a symbol of the patient sufferer who lays down his life for his creed and for his Church.  He was certainly a good man and devout.  He had great courage and firm convictions.  In his own way he was convinced that he was doing what was right.  His father had taught him that the Divine Right of Kings was part of the will of God, and he had upheld this doctrine even unto death.  Such devotion to duty, such readiness to die rather than surrender his belief, is worthy of honour.  But his faith in Divine Right made him exasperating to others, especially his enemies.  His duplicity and irresponsibility, to which, in his own mind, he was perfectly entitled, to others appeared as sheer dishonesty.  To Cromwell there could be no peace for England so long as Charles Stuart was there to disturb it; hence the desperate remedy of a royal execution.  So Charles died; but with his death the fate of Puritanism was sealed and the Church’s future ensured. (Moorman, p. 240-241)

Further Reading:

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More on the history of World Christian Missionary efforts

One of my pet peeves is the ignorance and parochialism that characterizes Western Christian–particularly American Protestant–understandings of church history and mission.  Recently this came up in the oft-repeated refrain that the Eastern Orthodox Churches have somehow failed at missionary work.  While it’s true that the Orthodox churches have been hamstrung in regards to missionary efforts because of political situations in their homelands, and that some minority communities of Orthodox have become (with reason) more focused on simple survival than evangelism, it is an unfair criticism to say that they are somehow innately bad at missionary efforts, or that there is something in Eastern Orthodox theology that works against such efforts.

There are several books that would be helpful to the Western Christian attempting to gain a bit more insight into the history of our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters.  One is Scott Sunquist’s History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453 and Samuel Moffat’s two volume set (A History of Christianity in Asia: Beginnings to 1500 and A History of Christianity in Asia, Vol. II: 1500-1900).

But, without picking these up, you can get some information about Orthodox missions and the challenges they faced in the following text available on Google Books:
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The Anglican Rugby Scrum

This photo is from the ordination of my friend Jason this past Saturday.  I’m told that in the Roman Catholic Church, when a priest is ordained only the Bishop lays hands on them.  I’m thankful for the way we do it in the Episcopal/Anglican Church.  An older priest friend of mine calls this the “Anglican Rugby Scrum.”  I like it:

The Rugby Scrum at Jason Ingalls' ordination to the Priesthood on January 8, 2011

The Rugby Scrum at Jason Ingalls' ordination to the Priesthood on January 8, 2011

P.S. my talented photographer wife took this picture.  Check out her work on her photography site.

Accidents of History

Why is the dominant language in the United States English rather than French or Spanish?  Why is the dominant faith (at least historically) Protestantism of various stripes rather than Catholicism?  All of these things can be interpreted as the evidence of God’s favor, as a “manifest destiny” or they can be viewed as accidents of history.  I tend toward the latter in the sense that I don’t think the ultimate fate of the world and everyone in it would’ve been in the balance if the French had kept Louisiana, the Russians Alaska etc…

But what about the various traditions of Christianity.  Surely dominance in number of adherents says something positive about the missionary enterprise of the various bodies?  Is it true, because they are not well represented outside of their traditional homelands, that the Orthodox “suck at mission?” as one recent commenter put it?  I would say no.  It may be that the Orthodox (i.e. the Churches of descending from the Greek East and geographically located in Eastern Europe and Russia etc…) and the Oriental Orthodox (those Christian traditions centered in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, Iraq etc…) have been less involved in world missions than other Christians, but this is not, at its heart, an issue of an innate inability to evangelize, nor is it evidence that Protestants and Catholics have been particularly better suited to the endeavor.  Instead, it has been a matter of opportunity, and sometimes driven as much by feelings of competition or hatred of other Christian bodies as by sincere devotion to Christ.

Consider the fact that, during the medieval period, Christianity across the board, east and west, largely saw missions as the work of the Christian prince, and not as the work of the Church.  Protestants up through the 18th and early 19th century were largely dubious about missionary activities.  Evangelism for early Protestants largely consisted of convincing Catholics to jump ship.  Indeed, there was significant growth in Christianity over all in the 16th century, but Protestantism was largely unaffected by it.  As Alister McGrath says this in regards to Protestant interest in mission:

This early Protestant disinterest in mission was first noted by Gustav Warneck in the 1880’s.  His historical research convinced him that there was a simple explanation.  Although his observations have been qualified by subsequent scholarship, they have yet to be convincingly rebutted.  Basing his conclusions on a careful analysis of the sources, Warneck identified three reasons for Protestantism’s lack of interest in missions during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

  1. These early Protestants interpreted the “Great Commission”–the command to ‘go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)–as a task given to the apostles of the first century, not to their successors in the post-apostolic church.
  2. They believed that the end of all things was close at hand, so that there was little point in embarking on such an ambitious undertaking.
  3. It was their theological conviction that God could be relied upon to convert peoples in his own good time.

Warneck’s third point is well illustrated by a famous incident involving William Carey (1761-1834), later to be one of the most important British missionaries to India.  He began to frame the idea of a missionary calling after reading Captain Cook’s account of his voyages in the South Seas.  Yet few shared his enthusiasm.  In 1792 Carey proposed–to general astonichment, it seems–that a group of Baptist ministers in Northamptonshire discuss “the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations.”  An older minister rose and rebuked him: “Young man, sit down.  When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” (P. 175-176)

The great explosion of missionary endeavors in the late 18th, 19th and 20th centuries can largely be attributed to a rediscovery of the importance of the Great Commission for individual Christians, who then set about forming missionary societies.  At the same time, I don’t know that Protestant missionaries would’ve had the support from the general public and yes, from their governments, if national interests hadn’t come into play.  Like it or not, Western Christians, even when they decided that individual Christians might have the responsibility to evangelize, still depended upon colonial expansion, and the military that went with it, to support and defend their missionary endeavors.  This, of course, is not far away from the way in which the Russians evangelized the Georgians by building the Caucasus Line, a series of Monastery-Forts along the Caucasus mountains, housing monks and the military.


Why then might someone say that the Orthodox Churches performed poorly at mission work?  I think the statement is fairly euro-centric… perhaps even Amero-centric (is that a word?  I suppose it is now).  The Orthodox actually did expand their missionary efforts around the same time that Protestants were coming out of their shell–indeed, as with competition with the Catholics spurring Protestant mission, competition with and emulation of Protestants and Catholics by the Russians in particular, spurred Orthodox missionary efforts.  But, Russia never had the same level of sea-power as some of her western European counterparts, and so, they went across Asia and Siberia into Alaska.


The persecution of the Orthodox Churches was mentioned by a commenter on the original thread, to which one should add to that the persecution of the Oriental Orthodox.  I believe that saying that the Orthodox “suck at mission” is to embrace historical accident as indicating something positive or negative about a particular tradition of Christianity.   The Orthodox did evangelize, they simply did it differently.  The history of this region of the world is one dominated by tyrannies that have made it surprising that the Christian faith actually survived at all, whether enduring suppression by the Mongols, by the Ottomans or by the Soviets. Also, to criticize the entire Orthodox Church for the plight of the serfs in Russia is a little anachronistic and overlooks the issues of history that are still plaguing democracy in Russia. (A great book to look at in terms of the effects of living under totalitarian regimes on civic responsibility is the book “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy”. Basic argument: societies without trade and civic involvement, such as that inspired by the Italian city-states, the Hanseatic league etc… have a very difficult time transitioning to democracy).

But, more than anything else, a look at some statistics might help us consider the relative success of missionary efforts, as well as the historical situation that made such success possible.  The following chart from Wolfram Alpha shows a rough estimate of the number of Christians of various stripes around the world.  the numbers may vary from some that you’ve seen, but they are close (the number of Catholics in particular is somewhat smaller than the 1.3 billion I’ve seen elsewhere):


estimated adherents

Looking at the numbers above, would anyone say that Baptists, for instance, sitting at almost 40 million (some estimates go as high as 70) “suck at mission?”  What about Methodists at around 30 mil?  Anglicans at 70-something?  Then why would someone say it about the Orthodox, with around 90 million Russian Orthodox (and anywhere from 160-300 million Orthodox all around?).  I know some folks will read this and say “but they aren’t all *real* Christians.”  Aside from the arrogance of such a remark, one could simply say that the ratio of commitment to self-identified membership is likely to be similar, and that cultural Christians are all over the place.

The fact that there are as many Orthodox as there are, especially given the political situation in those areas during the most rapid expansion of Christianity in world history (in the 19th and 20th centuries) is pretty amazing if you ask me.

Just something to think about… with slightly different turns in history, the chart above could look completely different.

Note: I couldn’t include this map in my comment below, so I’m adding it here.  Refer to my response to Carson for context:

Number of Baptist Adherents globally:

A Form of Godliness…

When I was in college I attended an interesting lecture by Professor Michael Budde, who teaches political science at DePaul University.  The lecture was entitled “Jesus on the Job: The Corporate Exploitation of Religion,” and drew, I’m sure, on much of the research that went into his book (with Robert Brimlow) Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business Is Buying the Church.  During that lecture, I remember Budde talking about a phenomenon that I considered–and still consider–very interesting.  Not only that, but something that is in evidence all around us if we choose to look.  Basically Budde argued that advertisers love the fact that America is such a strongly semi-churched society.  In other words, advertisers appreciate, and bank on the fact, that Americans are generally familiar enough with religion–specifically Christianity–to be attracted by religious language, imagery or echoes of either–but are not faithful enough to recognize blasphemy.  As I said, you don’t have to look hard in our society to find evidence of this.  Donald Miller has spoken about similar things in the past when he’s compared the different perspectives of Canadians and Americans regarding something as simple as dish soap.  In Canada, for the most part, dish soap is labeled as such–dish soap.  In the US dish soap–nor anything else–can simply be what it is.  Instead, via advertising, dish soap becomes something more, something almost transcendent, an item that will make your life better, restore your thinning hair and make you attractive to the opposite sex.  It’s not just dish soap… it’s never just dish soap.  It’s something more.

Well, I think I’ve just seen an ad that is, as with so much else in our society, utterly blatant about this sort of thing–let me know what you think:

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