Back before I started the blog, I used to hang out at the Straight Dope’s message board, posting under a different name. But for some reason I never got around to reading Teemings, the e-zine that some of its members organized a few years ago. But I poked around it today and saw its latest issue included this remarkable piece by a young woman whose husband developed paranoid schizophrenia shortly after they married. It’s grim, but worth reading.
August 31, 2004
August 30, 2004
I was going to link to a long book excerpt that the Pontificator put up last week, but he seems to have taken it down. (Maybe he had copyright trouble?) The book is called The Mass of the Early Christians, and the excerpt described a third-century Mass from the point of view of an imaginary artisan.
The structure was similar to Masses today, but I noticed a few interesting things. One, everybody brought their own bread and wine for communion. The elders went and gathered them up during the time now reserved for the collection of money (the early churches gathered money as people were leaving). They then consecrated your bread and wine and fed you a bit at Mass, but you took the rest home for daily communion with your family through the week. I guess daily Masses later superseded that, as Christians were able to go to church out in the open (the folks in this excerpt were still sneaking around). Still, it’s curious given how some people today emphasize that communion must come from a common cup and loaf — that aspect of the Last Supper was ignored pretty early!
Another interesting thing was how the congregation was grouped into various divisions. There were regular church members in one area, catechumens in another, widows and orphans in their own section, and penitents in the back. There was another group mentioned whose existence I wasn’t aware of — the “hesitants.” They’d gone through the catechumenate, apparently, but were still wavering about actually getting baptized. Apparently a lot of this had to do with the fact that Donatism hadn’t been declared a heresy yet, so people were afraid of what would happen if they fell into serious sin after baptism. (The presence of the penitents suggests that some sins were forgivable, anyway; maybe it depended on the severity.) But when I read it I thought, hey, there’s a group I can relate to. I guess some things haven’t changed much.
(Via Dappled Things.)
August 26, 2004
If you were wondering what Beth was talking about in this post, it was the fact that she’d indicated I’d get a prize for answering her little quiz here. I hadn’t really expected to get one, but she sent it through the mail yesterday and — what can I say? — I’m a lucky girl.
Beth, I should explain, recently came out with a book of U2-related sermons by various pastors, and runs a blog on the same theme. She sent me a CD of bootleg recordings of U2 songs ranging from 1983 to 2001, which was compiled as a companion to the book. The band is OK with bootlegging so long as fans give them away rather than sell them, so nothing inappropriate is going on.
I’m generally not a big fan of live recordings, since they tend to be of poorer quality than studio recordings but don’t capture the feel of actually being there. But this collection is of surprisingly good quality, especially considering that it was made by amateurs, and has some interesting variations on the familiar songs. There’s a super-funky version of “Mysterious Ways,” a nearly a cappella version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” (since the whole audience is singing along, it hardly needs accompaniment), and a cut of the performance of “Walk On” from the ad hoc TV fundraiser that appeared a few days after 9/11. The last was especially a treat because I never thought I’d hear it again. I’d forgotten that they stuck on a “Hallelujah” chorus!
Many, many thanks to Beth for sending this. It’s another reminder that amazing and unexpected things keep happening in the blogosphere. Seeing as I’m now part of the peculiar bootleg “grace underground,” I feel obliged to, erm, pay it forward. Does any one of my loyal readers want me to burn a CD for them? I know there a few fellow fans out there …
August 23, 2004
Toward the end of my mother’s visit, we had a conversation which, she said, made my interest in Christianity “make perfect sense.” That’s pretty impressive since it still doesn’t make perfect sense to me, but this is how the conversation went.
She said one thing that vexed her was how, exactly, her own life would be different if she were a Christian. It occurred to me later that the first thing a lot of people would have answered is that she wouldn’t be divorced and living with a man to whom she is not married, but I didn’t think of that at the time. Instead, I agreed that her life has actually been pretty similar to that of a good church lady. She’s kind, compassionate, civically active, a good mother, and a good teacher.
But, I said, such middle-class visions of church life aren’t what draw me. I told her that if she belonged to a good church she would be less isolated than she is from people outside her family. I brought up Hauerwas’s example of a church where a pregnant teenager would be paired with an older couple who would raise both mother and child. I pointed out Telford’s promise of “unconditional friendship” to me, which he’s lived up to despite some very good excuses he could have used to get out of it. (And believe me, it hasn’t been easy for him.) It’s the refusal to protect oneself from others, physically or emotionally; the refusal to close the door on anyone.
“But sometimes you just run out of resources,” my mother said, knowing whereof she spoke.
That’s the religion part, I said. If you are enmeshed in a community that way, you can call on more than just your own resources. And for some people, the Holy Spirit pulls more out of them than they think they can do — as one pastor I heard describe it, “To love even when it hurts. To love even when all is darkness and all is black.”
The fact that so few churches really live up to this, as I mentioned to Rob in the last post, keeps frustrating me. Part of that is, I think, that the structure of middle-class American life is basically designed to protect us from those cruel edges of the world where people have to call on such extraordinary reserves. Yet as the two examples I cited show, you don’t really have to go that far. It’s just that in my neighborhood, perdition tends to come by a thousand little acts of neglect rather than big flashy misdeeds.
I’ve been wondering if I should move on to some more radical church. I was thinking about the Mennonites, ironically, exactly when Hugo announced he was leaving them. I was also (again somewhat ironically given that post) thinking of looking into an intentional Christian community, which imitates the church of the New Testament. Jennifer mentioned the Church of the Servant King (described briefly on page 4 of this), but that has several drawbacks. Anyway, if anybody knows of any good communities like that I would be interested in hearing about them.
The conversation with my mother also brought to mind a theological concept I’ve been pondering lately. It’s the Reformed doctrine of “common grace” and “special grace.” Telford describes it down in page 22 of this article:
Common grace is divine favor shown to all human beings, regardless of their proximity to the Gospel. We might even call common grace “protological” or “primal grace” (grace from the beginning) and special grace “eschatological” or “final grace” (grace toward the end).
Mouw repeats a list of three forms of common grace promulgated by the Christian Reformed Church in 1924:
(1) the bestowal of natural gifts, such as rain and sunshine, upon creatures in general, (2) the restraining of sin in human affairs, so that the unredeemed do not produce all of the evil that their depraved natures might otherwise bring about, and (3) the ability of unbelievers to perform acts of civic good (Mouw 2001, 9).
Mouw pleads that these types of common grace should not be taken as comprehensive.
Special grace, meanwhile, is the grace given to believers in Christ. That gift is the Gospel, both as received and as lived out by Christians.
As the Mouw quote suggests, one purpose of the idea of common grace was to square the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity with the fact that most people aren’t totally depraved. But even if you don’t believe in Total Depravity, it’s an incredibly useful idea. If there’s one problem that I hear raised the most by nonbelievers against Christianity, it’s some version of my mother’s objection. She’s a good person, and she doesn’t believe in God. How does that fit into the story?
Without a clear idea of the distinct graces, the answers tend to go in two different directions. One is to take the view that the only grace is special grace, so if a good God favors only his followers, my mother’s goodness is illusory or irrelevant. This leads to an attitude among some fundamentalists and evangelicals that the only thing God must really care about is worship of himself — justification by faith to the max. This also, I think, encourages the apocalyptic attitude among the same groups that God must despise most of the world and will torch it any day now.
The opposite side understandably finds this appalling, and so elevates common grace to the level of special grace. This tends to lead to the conclusion that if all goodness is of God, and so many good people aren’t Christian, Jesus may not be so essential after all. The Unitarians brought this idea to its apex, but many liberal Christians seem to see Jesus as important only to the extent that he represents abstract virtues and truths (see Fr. Jake’s comment here, for instance).
Neither one of those answers presents a very compelling reason to convert. In the former case, God sounds like a megalomaniac dictator you wouldn’t want to worship. In the latter case, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to go on being a virtuous secular humanist (or a virtuous whatever-you-are). But they have something else in common: they relieve Christians of the burden of having to act different. As the Internet Monk lamented here, thinking God only cares about a confession of belief in himself makes discipleship in the rest of life pretty irrelevant. And if Christ is simply a road to a benign humanism, then you don’t really have to listen to the commandments that demand something weird that would alienate your fellow humanists.
The nice thing about the common/special grace distinction is that it helps distinguish what is Christian without condemning everything else as Satanic. I hope that if more people imbibe this idea they’d resist the urge to slap the label “Christian” on whatever they approve of. No, traditional family values and government welfare programs are not Christian. They can benefit people, but they’re common graces, not special graces. And I would venture to say that people outside the faith aren’t buying for one second that they’re Christian, because they know from personal experience that you don’t have to believe in Christ to believe in them. Back when nearly everyone in Western society was Christian people could elide that distinction, but no more. We nonbelievers have high standards these days, and if Christians want to win us they will have to exceed them.
August 21, 2004
The workshop leader then asked an intriguing question. Where did we, who had grown up middle-class and white (all of the attendees were people of European descent and from middle-class backgrounds) in one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations of the world, “position” ourselves in these verses? Did we consider ourselves as one of those who was humble and hungry or as one of those who was proud and rich? She explained that Liberation Theology tended to interpret the Bible from a communal perspective rather than reading it as a text that was designed solely for an individual’s personal illumination. Thus, if we viewed these verses at a purely individualistic level, most of us might think of ourselves as one of those whom God protects and loves; or at least as one of those who was on the side of the “little guy” (along with God) against the powers (of the world). Yet, when taken from a larger, systemic perspective, as a group we easily could be lumped in with those labeled “proud”, “strong”, and “rich” for, after all, each of us had lived and continued to live a relatively privileged existence compared to the world’s “humble”, “poor”, and “vulnerable”.
Several people were unhappy with this interpretation. They asserted that God viewed everyone equally; that is was unfair to “lump” all Americans into the same group; that the notion that the Divine shows a “preference” of one group over another was antithetical to Friends’ belief that everyone had the Inward Light within them.
Believe me, you don’t have to go to a Quaker workshop to have conversations like that. They happen in college sensitivity training courses all the time. And I remember, when I went through that, feeling the same resistance. It wasn’t my fault that I was born a white American doctor’s daughter any more than it was an African peasant’s fault that he was born in that situation. Why should I carry the guilt?
Looking at it in terms of guilt, however, is probably not the right way. The secular liberal approach that I encountered in college tended to isolate guilt in the privileged classes, and imagine oppressed groups as living in a kind of Rousseauian innocence until those straight white males came along and ruined them. But the doctrine of original sin doesn’t accept that, and it seems to me a check into the reality of marginalized peoples affirms that sin is universal.
So what’s up with the Biblical language about scattering the proud and dragging rulers from their thrones? Does that mean we’re going to be thrown into hell for belonging to a privileged group? Not necessarily. The humbling that God inflicts upon Bible characters, as well as Israel itself, more often serves their own sanctification than it destroys them. It was painful for David to lose his child, for Paul to be blinded for three days, for Israel to suffer its defeats, but it all paved the way for salvation.
The point I think Yoder was trying to make is that in the fallen world, the rule of one person over another is generally a reflection of sin rather than the original divine plan. The mistake rulers make is when they don’t recognize this, and think their power is a foolproof sign of God’s favor. (I’ll leave it to others to dissect the implications for Bush’s belief that God meant for him to be president.) For people like me and Joe who just happened to end up in the ruling class, the mistake is probably in clinging to our own innocence, which becomes its own sort of pride. Joe points this out at the end of his post:
I wonder how often I have made my political and social views into idols so that I can feel that I am on the “correct” side of an issue. At a broader level how many times do we (liberal) Friends in the U.S. think of ourselves as being on the side of the “little guy” fighting “against the powers” when, in fact, we might actually be on the other side of the equation, which includes self-righteousness, sanctimoniousness, pride, and privilege? Do we truly believe that there is a greater Truth than our own political and social views?
So such small hands links to this piece. I see it and, on a whim, email it to Telford, thinking it will amuse him. He loves it and emails its author, Michael Spencer, telling him so. Michael starts looking around Telford’s site, and is sufficiently impressed that he decides to interview Telford and run it here. Ain’t blogging grand?
August 20, 2004
Tmatt at Get Religion has a terrific post about U2, which includes his reminiscences about interviewing the band 22 years ago for a local paper. He links to a fascinating L.A. Times article that looks closely at U2′s songwriting process:
“Songwriting comes from a different place,” he [Bono] continues. “Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That’s when magic happens.” …
Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio — a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff — then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the actual construction of the songs. The grueling give and take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.
When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they’re going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.
“We’re tough guys,” Clayton says. “We know we’ll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time.” The Edge is fond of repeating the band’s private joke that it’s “songwriting by accident.”
The process really fits the way the music comes out. On the upside, few bands capture raw emotion quite as effectively as U2 (at least for me). On the downside, I’ve long noticed that the band’s big musical weakness is its lack of melodies. There are prescious few U2 songs you can whistle to yourself and come out sounding like a tune. (Not surprisingly, the few that you can whistle include their greatest hits.) The band relies on an enveloping sound and mood, which, when it works, really really works.
I wonder what this means for how long the music will outlast the band itself. A good melody becomes a folk tune, passed around for centuries, and I suspect a lot of Beatles songs are headed that way. On the other hand, a lot of classical music has hung around quite a while relying on sound and mood without any particularly strong melodies. Will my grandchildren be interested if I tell them I saw U2 in the Oakland Coliseum in 1997? We’ll see …
I’ve made a few additions to the blogroll lately, all of them pastor blogs: Among the Ruins, Michael Spencer and Along the Way. The last is by a minister in Troutdale, Oregon, a picturesque little town east of Portland where we stopped on our trip and received very helpful advice about visiting the Columbia River Gorge.
The Columbia Gorge, by the way, is one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. Its best-known landmark is Multnomah Falls, but there are quite a few waterfalls and scenic vistas just about everywhere you turn. (It’s also home to fields of the flower after which I named myself, but since it blooms in the spring they don’t look like much right now.) Although the Northwest has had an unusually dry summer and it wasn’t as lush as usual, it still could hardly have been more different from my last excursion to Joshua Tree. No question about which is my natural habitat.
August 18, 2004
As if my last post weren’t grim enough, I now find out that Josh Claybourn has lost his mother at the age of only 49. Wow. Does anyone know how it happened?
And finally, anyone curious about what Telford looks like will be happy to know that he’s put his picture up on his front page. It’s a good picture and it does look like him, unlike the photo he sent me before we met that didn’t help me find him at all. (He actually identified me first, perhaps on the theory that a new young woman looking around hopefully in the church lobby was probably me.) But for some reason, whenever I look at it I start giggling. I guess I’m in a weird mood.
While I was away I missed Lynn’s announcement of her father’s death. By the time I got back the funeral had already occurred; she describes it here. It was not a surprise, certainly, but it must have been difficult nonetheless. So I send my extremely belated condolences.
I was thinking about death on my vacation, actually. I mean, not constantly — it was a great vacation, really! But I kind of got the shivers when we arrived at the house near Portland where we stayed the first two nights, which belongs to my great-uncle and his wife. When I was four years old we visited my great-grandparents, who also lived in the Portland area. The next year my great-grandmother was dead from breast cancer. It was, really, my first experience of death, and I remember I was greatly distressed by it. The fact that I’d only visited her once didn’t make a lot of difference. When you’ve been alive for that short a time, you haven’t seen that much of anybody! But even at that age, I had that instinctive human sense of family. She was my great-grandmother. She was part of the order of my life that, at that age, seems eternal. But then that order was ruptured.
My great-uncle’s house really brought back the visit to my great-grandparents’ all those years ago. I was so young that I don’t exactly have memories of it — when I think back to that age I have trouble sorting out memories from fantasies and dreams. They all seem to be made of the same mythic fabric. But there was something about the look of the house, the age of it, the lighting, that seemed to give substance to those increasingly ghostly images. My mother thinks that perhaps we visited that house on the same trip, and my mind is blurring together the homes of the various elderly relations we saw. But either way, it was like walking into the scene of a recurring dream, and reminded me that my archetypal great-grandma really existed and really died.
I remember a dream I had not long after that, which my mother also remembers me telling her about, that a kitten we had just adopted had grown old and ill and her fur fell out whenever we touched her. I suppose I was beginning to realize the universality of death — even our new young kitten would one day grow old and die, just as my great-grandmother had. All this came on the heels of an even greater disruption in my life, when my family had moved from Pennsylvania to California. It may be the hardest thing to learn, this transience of life, because something in us from birth seems to crave the eternal. What can we rely upon, what can we trust in this world of constant change? Belief in God seems to help many people in that regard, although some say it can make it more difficult because they have to find a way to go on trusting him even as such things happen. It makes me wonder what I want to believe, wonder what I can believe, in the midst of it all.