All posts from "July 2009"July 29, 2009
The great German reformer wrote rhyming versions of the Creed, Ten Commandments, and Lord's Prayer to wean the youth away from "love ballads and carnal songs."
The Church Laughs e-newsletter frequently brings me a chuckle. A couple of years ago the lead cartoon featured a pastor talking to his worship leader. "Okay," says the pastor to the guitar-clutching musician. "We'll do the rock service, but forget about rapping the Nicene Creed." (Oh, the challenges of "blended worship"!)
As soon as I had chuckled at the cartoon, I realized there was a historical precedent. Others had already had set the creed to rhyming, rhythmic verse, hoping to make it memorable for worshipers. Tobias Clausnitzer (1668) and Cyril V. Taylor (1941) are among the lesser known writers to attempt this. The most famous was clearly Martin Luther ("We All Believe in One True God," 1524).
Now Martin Luther didn't write rap. Rap is not just rhyme and meter. Rap is also improvisation (and therefore a vehicle for personal statement and an opportunity to show off just a bit).Yet Luther, like rappers, placed a premium on the words over the music. Among his many hymns were didactic songs that helped the people learn their faith.
Luther's Shorter Catechism is well known as a brief and digestible guide to the faith. It was organized around what he considered the basics: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar. If one understood these things, one could be an informed believer. One would be equipped to understand the gospel and to resist superstition.
It isn't surprising then that Luther would also write a hymn to convey each of these truths. The American Edition of Luther's Works comments on his Ten Commandments hymn ("These Are the Holy Ten Commands"):
We have become so accustomed to think of poetry as an expression of the personal feelings and emotions of the writer that we cannot conceive of a merely "utilitarian" use of poetry. Hymnody in our own age has been defined as "lyrical religion." We find it difficult to think of a merely didactic hymn without sentimental overtones.
But Luther proceeded from different premises. Very soberly he thought of the hymn as a means of instilling the Word of God in the people. While some of his hymns were born out of his most personal experience and reflected the struggles and victories of his own faith, others were mere versifications of the Catechism.
His setting of the Creed seems a little less didactic than the Ten Commandments hymn, because it is the bold declaration of a common faith.
We all believe in one true God,
Maker of the earth and heaven,
The Father who to us the power
To become his sons hath given.
But the didactic purpose is still blended with the joyous celebration of truth.
Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with additional truth (as in the brief excerpt above, where he inserted the idea from John 1:12 that we have been given the power to become children of God).
Luther wasn't just interested in teaching the faith; he was interested in teaching the young. He was worried about the things that seduce young people away from the faith. And so he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:
These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young - who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts - something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.
That makes him sound like one of the architects of Youth for Christ in the 1950s!
P.S. So what do I think about rapping the Creed? Well, the main thing I have against it is that rap isn't a communal form of expression, while the Creed is the statement of a community of belief. But if we all had a good enough sense of rhythm, we might be able to rap it together.
Concordia Publishing has published a 4-CD set of Luther's Hymns, Ballads, and Chants. You can here a short bit of "We All Believe in One True God" here and another excerpt of "These Are the Holy Ten Commands" here.
This blog post adapted slightly from a Nov. 27, 2007, posting on the Ancient Evangelical Future blog, applying the 2006 Call for an Ancient Evangelical Future and the legacy of Robert E. Webber to the life and mission of the church in North America.
Anglican agonies demonstrate the link between long history and deep conflict.
Now is not a happy time to be an Episcopalian, or an Anglican, or an Anglican who was until recently an Episcopalian, or any permutation thereof. After agreeing to a temporary moratorium on ordaining homosexual bishops, the Episcopal Church - the American branch of the Anglican Communion, so named because Anglican sounded treasonously English during the Revolutionary War - voted last week to lift the moratorium and begin developing a liturgy to bless same-sex unions. (Though the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop is, after the fact, claiming the vote didn't actually mean that.)
The exodus of conservative members and parishes already underway is sure to continue, along with an increase in expressions of anger, chagrin, and sadness on all sides. Oh, and there will be plenty of valuable church properties to wrestle over, too.
Although several other Protestant denominations have been agonizing over homosexuality for years now, Episcopalians seem to be tied in the tightest knots, an impression created in part because they make such great news.
I once asked an Associated Press religion reporter about what seemed to me excessive coverage of the Episcopal Church, and she pointed out that stories about that church usually involve sex, money, and power (Episcopalians make up 7 percent of the U.S. Senate, for example, though less than 2 percent of the American population), plus, just as important, Episcopalians helpfully tell reporters when and where to show up. Local dioceses have annual conventions. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States, the group that met last week, convenes every three years. Bishops from the entire Anglican Communion meet every ten years at Lambeth Palace in England. To get a sense of how handy this is for religion reporters, who are lucky these days to have jobs, let alone generous travel budgets, imagine trying to cover all the major developments in America's vast non-denominational universe. Where would you go? Whom would you interview? How would you know when you had done enough work to file the story? It's a whole lot easier to plan a trip to the next big church convention and report on whatever happens there.
An unfortunate consequence of the Episcopal Church's media-friendliness, and of its famously slow and involved deliberative process, is that a casual observer might easily conclude that all Episcopalians ever do is fight. Episcopalians themselves might feel this way; not being one, I will not presume to speak for them. But the Episcopal Church is not uniquely tormented by internal tensions, nor are such tensions necessarily malignant. According to philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, any institution that hopes to last must contend with conflict.
In his landmark book After Virtue (1981), MacIntyre defined a living tradition as "an historically extended, socially embodied argument, and an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition."
This is probably not the definition most of us would use. Family traditions - annual vacation spots, holiday foods, and so on - evoke warm, fuzzy thoughts. Vacations and holidays can occasion spats, or worse, but these are (one hopes) aberrations, not essential aspects of the traditions. Institutions, including churches, that promote their traditions usually do so to communicate stability, dignity, aesthetic richness, and monetary richness, certainly nothing so unseemly as squabbling. Think of the soothing voice on television, intoning, "A tradition unlike any other â€¦ The Master's on CBS." Soft music, verdant putting greens, smiling champions - no conflict there. The scene is placid enough to make the viewer forget the Master's is a fierce competition that every contestant save one will lose.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part (at least for now) bear all the marks of dictionary-defined tradition. The Church of England is the oldest Protestant denomination in the English-speaking world, ancestor and antagonist of Methodists, English Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. The Episcopal establishment in Virginia and surrounding colonies was every bit as old and firmly rooted as the Congregational establishment in New England. From stately signs out front to elegant windows behind the priest, countless Episcopal churches exude nobility, with the overtones of high ideals and high status intended. And yet the church is embroiled in an ugly, messy, knock-down drag-out fight. As MacIntyre would have it, this, too, is a hallmark of tradition.
If that is the case, if a living tradition not only must weather arguments but in fact is a sprawling argument, then who needs tradition? Haven't Americans, with their penchant for leaving behind Old World identities, denominational ties, and boring hometowns chosen the wiser course? Not so fast. MacIntyre posits that traditions provide context and meaning for human practices while also identifying goals - goods - toward which to strive. These are things worth thinking about, and worth arguing about. People who shrink the circle of their connections until it is scarcely larger than themselves still have to find satisfying answers to these questions, but they have to do it alone.
I find it very useful to think of churches, institutions, and traditions of all sorts as historically extended, socially embodied arguments. I like any interpretive lens that incorporates history, of course, and I also like the way this formula embraces real people and their often angular opinions. I am not a theologian or a philosopher, and my brain doesn't process abstractions well. But I certainly notice a brawl, on the evening news or in the archives of the periodicals I study, and I'm driven to figure out who is arguing what, and why, and what they believe is at stake. Conflict makes institutions flex muscles they would otherwise lose to atrophy, and it forces individuals to articulate beliefs that can turn to mush beneath presumed consensus. The saying goes, "It's all over but the shouting," but as I observe history unfolding, the shouting proves that "it," the living tradition, has a ways to go.
Image of Episcopal presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in Portland, Oregon, June 6, 2009, via Wikimedia Commons.
The thunderbolt of Bethlehem struggled with the need to synthesize classical learning and Christian truth. So did the brightest lights of the Renaissance and Reformation. And so do Christians today.
Guest blogger James Edwards is Bruner-Welch Professor of Theology at Whitworth College, Spokane, Washington. He is the author of The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition (Eerdmans, September 2009). Dr. Edwards is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a contributing editor to Christianity Today magazine.
If you spend any time in the great art museums of Europe you will see with surprising frequency a more or less stylized portrait of an emaciated monk in a wilderness den, often pummeling his body with a stone. I have been interested in this figure for a number of years, but rarely have I seen other museum visitors recognize or relate to the subject. The monk who captured the imagination of the Renaissance painters is St. Jerome, who lived from 345 to 420. I believe that Jerome should capture our imagination as well, and serve as an icon of our times.
In nearly all the portraits, Jerome is depicted as a tormented ascetic, praying, with his four hallmarks somewhere on the canvas: a crucifix, a skull (symbolizing meditation on mortality), a recumbent lion (which Jerome reputedly befriended by extracting a thorn from its paw and which may symbolize the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah 11), and a red cardinal's hat (symbolizing Jerome's status, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four great doctors of the Latin church).
Before considering why Renaissance painters memorialized Jerome in this way, let me summarize his life.
Born in Dalmatia (modern Croatia), Jerome became a prolific scholar, translator, biblical exegete, and father of the Latin Vulgate Bible. Augustine remains better known than Jerome, but even Augustine envied Jerome's scholarly prowess, especially his mastery of Greek and Hebrew.
Jerome studied at Rome, traveled to Gaul (France), and in his late twenties became a monk in Syria, where for five years he learned Hebrew from a Jew. He was ordained a priest in Antioch, and then went to Constantinople where he entered the theological galaxy of Gregory of Nazianzus, who was Patriarch of Constantinople; Gregory of Nyssa; and Amphilochius of Iconium. In 382 he was back in Rome as the secretary of Pope Damasus, where he made the friendship of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. From Damasus he received a commission to do what perhaps no other scholar of the day was capable of doing: to translate the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament into Latin, which had become the lingua franca of the day.
Completed in 406, Jerome's Latin Vulgate ranks with the Septuagint as one of the most influential translations of all time. Jerome had hoped - and he probably had a right - to succeed Damasus as pope, but he was passed over.
In disappointment he left for the East with a widow named Paula, and her daughter Eustochium. They arrived in Jerusalem in 385, and from thence journeyed to Egypt where Jerome entered briefly into the monastic settlement of Didymus the Blind. A year later, Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium returned to Bethlehem where they founded one male and three female monastic communities. For the last three decades of his life, Jerome's quasi-monastic cell, which today is commemorated beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, was a prodigious epicenter of exegesis, translation, hermeneutics, and history. He made supreme use of the great library in Caesarea founded by Origen and resourced by Pamphilus and Eusebius. He chronicled the history of Christianity to his day, wrote commentaries on many books in the Old and New Testaments, and contended vigorously for orthodoxy against Origenism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and Rufinus.
The church's debt to this brilliant, prolific, and influential scholar-monk is immense. Jerome was a thunderbolt, however, and conflict was a hallmark of his career. Indeed, he may have been one of those individuals who needed conflict in order to reach his zenith of his abilities.
What did the Renaissance find so appealing in Jerome? It was the conflict itself of a man who loved both the Christian faith and the pagan classics. Jerome had a terrifying dream of standing before Jesus Christ on judgment day and being rejected from salvation because of his love for the classics, and especially Cicero. Jerome's intermittent and not entirely successful pursuit of the ascetic lifestyle was an attempt to purge the influence of paganism from his life. In its attempt to synthesize humanism and Christianity, the Renaissance found a mirror image in Jerome. The conflict of Christian versus classical, Trinitarian monotheism versus pagan polytheism that contended for the soul of Jerome also contended for the soul of Europe in the Renaissance.
There have been times when the Western church seemingly came close to resolving the conflict between the pagan and Christian. Dante's synthesis of the classical and Christian worlds in The Divine Comedy was one instance, and the post-Reformation world of Protestant "state" churches was another.
An idealized depiction of the evolution from the classical to the Christian worlds can be seen in Augsburg, Germany. On one wall of the magnificent town hall, twelve large frescoes of Greek and Roman rulers are faced by complementary frescoes of twelve rulers of Christian Europe on the opposing wall. The counterpart of Julius Caesar is Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Caesar's motto is Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"); Charles V's is Veni, vidi, vicit ("I came, I saw, He [=God] conquered"). It looks providential: Caesar is the pagan forerunner of Charles; Charles the Christian fulfillment of Caesar.
The fitful romance between classical and Christian has never led to formal marriage, however, at least in the Latin West. The soul of the West continues to be nourished by the pagan and Christian, the Renaissance and (Counter) Reformation, but they stand in tension with one another. Go to Paris: in the Louvre you'll feel the sensual attraction of paganism; in Notre Dame you'll sense the spiritual attraction of Christianity.
In America the tension is present in other ways. The pagan current manifests itself in the ubiquitous temptation to put our ultimate trust in human idolatries such as advanced missile systems, the hegemony of athletics, or the lure of science as the arbiter of the only truth that matters. But a Christian and salvific current is present as well, as manifested in the ongoing debates over the meaning of the gospel for issues such as abortion, infanticide, torture, homosexuality, divorce, and utilitarian and militaristic ends of human life.
As long as we live in a fallen world a complete synthesis of gospel and culture will not be possible. Indeed, whenever it is attempted, the gospel is inevitably compromised. My own life repeatedly bears witness to the tension between the two worlds. Perhaps yours does too.
Ponder again the urbane scholar-monk in his wilderness den. A skull - our impending mortality; a docile lion - the majesty of the powerful and untamed in nature; the cardinal's hat - a reminder of the ministry of the church in the world for good; and above all, the crucifix - the symbol of the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world. Jerome seems to be a necessary, if uncomfortable, icon for our own day.
This article originally appeared in The Edwards Epistle, Spring 2009. To subscribe to The Edwards Epistle contact the Rev. Phil Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: St. Jerome by Albrecht Durer (1521) from the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, via Wikimedia Commons.
Historian Charles Hambrick-Stowe appeals to Calvin for UCC reform.
The deluge of tribute articles reminds us that John Calvin's 500th birthday is right around the corner. This week, Christians around the world will observe July 10, 1509, as a turning point in world history. The man who ridiculed relics and requested no tribute in death might shudder at the notoriety. But he would certainly appreciate learning how his voluminous writings have circulated the globe and equipped generations of gospel ministers.
Calvin might also like to know that his life's work still beckons church leaders today to call for reform. Historian and pastor Charles Hambrick-Stowe appealed to his legacy to encourage reform-minded mainline ministers during the UCC General Synod on June 28. A scholar with impressive breadth of expertise, Hambrick-Stowe now shepherds the flock as senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Speaking for the Faithful and Welcoming luncheon, Hambrick-Stowe reviewed the heart of Calvin's theological vision for ministry and recapped what Congregationalists have lost by neglecting this key component of their heritage.
Calvin taught that salvation comes by faith alone through Jesus Christ, not by anything we do, Hambrick-Stowe explained. He bowed to the authority of Scripture, not to the papal office. And he sought to reform both the civil sphere and church life under a God who exercises sovereignty over all things. Yet the mention of Calvin's name elicits shrugs and shame in the UCC today, Hambrick-Stowe lamented.
"For many decades now in our denomination, Calvin has been seen â€“ at best â€“ as an embarrassment, the crusty old uncle that you wish would stop coming to family gatherings," he explained. "If Presbyterians still wanted to engage in conversation with Calvin that was their business, we were too progressive-minded for that and it wasn't too hard to ignore him as we adapted ourselves to modern, more supposedly relevant ways of thinking."
Today, the UCC engages in a wide variety of social reform efforts, exercising belief through charitable behavior. This activist tendency stems from the Calvinist legacy, according to Hambrick-Stowe. Yet something is missing, he insisted.
"But â€“ and this, it seems to me, is the spiritual problem of the United Church of Christ â€“ our commitment to faithful living is no longer rooted in a theology of redemption," Hambrick-Stowe said. "In many places and at many organizational levels of the church, the very concept of justification and sanctification are ignored or even rejected as obsolete, meaningless, or hurtful doctrines. Salvation is construed as getting in touch with your true self, perhaps especially your true gendered self, so if there is a theological emphasis at all it is on the doctrine of creation (â€˜God doesn't create junk') and, with regard to Jesus, the doctrine of the Incarnation, God-with-us, validating us just as we are. But . . . the Fall? Atonement? Reconciliation of sinful humanity with the God of holiness? Word that Christ died for our sins? Who in our churches knows what any of this means anymore?"
What a treasure it would be if, centuries later, Calvin's ecclesial descendants rediscovered his gift for pairing justification with sanctification. These are the great truths of Scripture that launched a Reformation 500 years ago and bring reformation still today.
"This is not dry doctrine, not mere dogma," Hambrick-Stowe said. "It is a vital expression of the Christian narrative. Our story as believers. God's story of human redemption. As preachers, when we get people into the biblical narrative, that gospel gets into the people. God's story becomes our story. Throughout the world people are finding hope in this gospel and as that happens churches are thriving. That is the hope for our people and our churches, whatever the future of the United Church of Christ as a denomination."
Public domain image of John Calvin: Leipzig 1854 via Wikimedia Commons.
Where shaving was accompanied by psalm-singing and bloodletting was more frequent than bathing.
Last week was a good one: we spent it at our friends' Wisconsin cabin, enjoying swimming, boating, fishing, tubing, and even a close encounter with a bald eagle.
What made the week even better was the book I took with me to relax with on the dock as our kids swam. This was Christopher Brooke's The Age of the Cloister: The Story of Monastic Life in the Middle Ages (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist/HiddenSpring, 2003).* A few samples:
The razors for shaving were kept by one of the monks under the chamberlain's jurisdiction, locked in a box in the cloister near the door to the dormitory. At the appointed time he organized a group of monks in two rows in the cloister, one row to shave, the other to be shaven, and the task was performed to the accompaniment of a psalm. (79)
"â€˜As to our baths,'" says a chronicler, "â€˜there is not much that we can say, for we only bath twice a year, before Christmas and before Easter.'" (79)
Once a month or so all the monks had a blood-letting and a holiday, when they could enjoy the less arduous, more relaxed routine of the infirmary, where meat might be eaten and a briefer round of services attended. (80)
In every large community the fishponds were vital, providing some relief from the salt fish that seems to have played a heavy role in the monastic diet. (81)
Brooke, an emeritus Cambridge University professor and leading medieval scholar, gives us a sympathetic portrait of monasticism largely between 1000 and 1300, prefaced by a basic narrative of the history of monasticism from its roots in Egypt through the founding of Cluny around 900, and concluding with an epilogue moving the narrative beyond 1300.
I appreciated not only Brooke's clearly careful scholarship, but also his affinity for his subject. The Age of the Cloister provides a welcome antidote, for example, to William Manchester's World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. The latter book uses the time-honored technique of telling a ripping yarn and along the way confirming readers' worst prejudices about the history of the church. As of this writing, it sat at #720 on the Amazon sales rankings, while Brooke's beautifully and overall accurately written book sat at #72,540. Yet another sign of the collapse of Western civilization.
Despite his essential sympathy with them, Brooke does not always spare the warts and flaws of his subjects. He acknowledges, for example, that both the strength and the weakness of Benedict's Rule lie in his "vision of the abbot, who is assumed to be both a notable spiritual director and a master in handling human relations." Brooke concludes succinctly, "Such men are rare." (49) Bernard of Clairvaux, too, comes in for appropriate critique on his less-than-charitable treatment of various opponents.
Along the way, Brooke corrects stereotypes:
The writings of the early monastics were full, above all, of "pleas for moderation."
Contrary to popular opinion, "learning never became a normal characteristic of any medieval religious order or of any large group of monasteries." However, the monasteries did tend to have some of the best libraries in the West, thus "when men of a scholarly turn of mind grew up in the cloister, they could thus sometimes find the food they needed to hand." (52)
"The attack on worldly distraction in Cassian or Bernard's Puritanism was not coupled with distrust of all human emotions and values. In the most fundamental sense of the term, in their interest and belief in human capacity and human emotions, both were humanists." (42)
Yet though perhaps "humanists" in this sense, despite their program of "heroic effort," the monastic teachers were no Pelagians. They "saw the whole process of man's perfectibility within the economy of divine grace." (43)
The book is also full of important distinctions: the Benedictine traditions such as that at Cluny were not properly speaking "orders," as the mother houses did not hold much legislative or executive authority over their "daughters" (by these lights, the Franciscans and Dominicans were really the first true monastic orders). Though often muddled, the terms monk, friar, and canon refer to three different realities: The monk is a cloistered individual, almost always in the Benedictine tradition; the friar a non-cloistered, mendicant member of a religious order; the canon a secular (that is non-cloistered, parish) priest who nonetheless lives a "regular" life - that is, lives according to a rule.
The fourth chapter, "Life, Work and Prayer," is alone worth the price of admission. Here we get a clear sense of the monastic routine, in which "from soon after midnight till late in the evening the bell rang every hour or two to summon the monks to the office." We confidently list Matins, Lauds, Prime, Tierce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, and Compline as "the monastic hours," but Brooke tells us that though medievals had hourglasses and sundials, we don't know to what extent they used them, and it is fairly clear that those offices were rung not on exact clock-hours, but simply at fairly regular intervals. (70-71)
There is much more to discover in this book. Chapter 6 shows us how cloister and world interacted. Chapter 7 details the monastic impact on that intellectual and cultural revival now commonly called "the twelfth-century renaissance." Chapter 8 opens to us a monastic tradition that existed in parallel with the Benedictine one of the cloistered monks: the life of the priestly canons under variations on a Rule originating from Augustine. Chapter 9 is dedicated to the Cistercians, chapter 10 to the crusading religious knights (e.g. the Templars), 11 to the women who headed their own monastic houses ("abbesses" and "prioresses"), and 12 to the rise of the Premonstratensian and Franciscan orders.
Throughout, Brooke shows us fascinating ways in which the plans and ruins of monastic buildings, when taken together with key texts, illuminate many aspects of the monastic life. He brings this material together with particular clarity and insight in the book's third part, which begins with tours of "three of the most evocative monastic sites in Europe" (235): Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, England; Mont Saint-Michel in France; and Sant' Ambrogio, Milan. He concludes this section with a survey of the "monastic map of Europe" as it stood in 1300 and an epilogue tracing monastic developments since that year.
*The Age of the Cloister had two earlier incarnations: as The Monastic World, 1000-1300 in 1974 and as Monasteries of the World 1000-1300 in 1982. In all three versions, it is graced by plates of monastery floor plans and photographs of monasteries by Wim Swaan. This newest edition contains some updates (including, helpfully, new sources in the bibliographic notes section) and an introduction covering advances in monastic history since the first edition.
Image: Cloisters of Essen Minster, Essen, Germany. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons.