KB Categories Archives: Miscellaneous

The Christian Tradition of Suffering: An Exhortation to Contemporary Protestantism

D.H. Williams:

sufferingOne cannot read the New Testament and a great many patristic texts and not discover that a common denominator to all who followed Christ was the experience of suffering; whether in the forms of rejection, hatred, deprivation, or some sort of persecution.  Beginning with the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-10), the imperatives for a blessed life offer us a self-portrait of Jesus, who is himself the Blessed One.  This portrait shows an identification with poverty, gentleness, grief, hunger, and thirst for uprightness, mercy, purity of heart, a desire to make peace, and the signs of persecution. At the same time, Jesus promises, “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).  What is the disciple’s response?  “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (or hurt you), so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

From the gospel accounts to Acts to the earliest records of Christian executions, the church was born into a tradition of persecution and martyrdom that formed its identity.  The faith of the “chosen people” was essentially a religion of suffering and martyrdom.  The twin aspects, suffering and bearing witness went hand in glove.

Thus far, surveys of retrieval theologies make no mention of this issue, which is a serious omission, since there is a superfluity of literary evidence to show that suffering for and with the Christ who suffered through persecution was a central part of the early church. This facet of Christian experience is just as much a part of the theological inheritance as any other theology.  In all the presentations and dialogues on theological retrieval taking place, westerners who rarely suffer on account of their faith, are in danger of forgetting this elementary feature of the church’s distinctiveness.  But what is meant by such a retrieval unless we are in the midst of a church enduring some form of persecution?

 

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Bells

bellsDuane Arnold:

I’ve just returned from a brief business trip overseas that took me to Paris. It is a city that I have grown to love over the past 30 years and that I have visited, often for long periods of time, almost every year during those three decades.  While there, I often have the opportunity to write and reflect.  This year, those reflections were more focused as an old friend at the Sorbonne asked me to meet with his post-graduate seminar group to talk about the state of the American church and its politics in light of the recent election, a subject that has been extensively reported upon by European news outlets.  Thankfully, I had some materials near at hand, so a great deal of preparation was not involved.  As usually happens, however, sometimes the lecturer learns more than the student in the process of teaching.

France, while culturally Roman Catholic, is a secular state.  Churches and, indeed, church institutions receive few special privileges apart from a certain measure of tax exemption.  France is considered to be one of the most irreligious of all countries. According to a survey undertaken in 2010, a full 40% of the French population answered that “they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force,” with only 27% stating that they believe there is a God. The other 27% believe that there is “some sort of life force or spirit.”  The remaining 6% “do not know.” On any given weekend less than 5% of the country’s Roman Catholics will attend church. Protestants (mainly Reformed evangelicals) make up less than 2% of the population, just behind the 3% who are adherents of Islam. As an example of the secular nature of French society, getting married in France is a wholly civil function which takes place at a municipal office, while a subsequent religious service (or none) is wholly the decision of the couple and the tenants of their faith community. Since 2013, the same rules apply to same-sex marriage.

It is clearly a different landscape than that of the United States, which most French reporting portrays as “obsessed with religion.”

All this was on my mind as I prepared to meet with the seminar group. Although my French is less fluent than I could desire, the small group of twenty-somethings around the table were patient and understanding. I presented the latest figures from Pew Research on the state of the Church in the U.S., referencing the decline of mainline denominations, the apparent support of evangelicals for the current administration, and a range of other topics. Afterwards, a lively discussion ensued. There were, as always, a number of questions about the availability of teaching positions in the U.S., as there are fewer and fewer posts available in France. I then, sadly, had to inform them of the difficulties being encountered by American universities and seminaries.

As we were preparing to end the session, I took the opportunity to pose my own question to the seminar group. I asked, “What is the greatest challenge you are facing?” Now, after the previous discussion, I was expecting the participants to talk about tuition, teaching posts, etc. After a bit of silence, however, a young man in the group spoke up and said this:

french cathedral“Dr. Arnold, we are facing the death of historic Christianity in Western Europe. It is clear that this decline has spread to the United States and the Western Hemisphere at large. Like a pandemic, the decline morphs and changes as it spreads and then returns to its place of origin. The evangelicals in the United States are ‘ahistorical,’ dependent not on a reasoned or historic faith but on marketing models largely derived from totalitarian propaganda systems which value only experience. You cannot answer their claims, because the claims have no basis in either history or reason. This kind of evangelicalism is also in Latin America and has spread, returning to Europe in a virulent form. They will only allow the ‘history’ that bolsters not a reasoned or compelling argument, but only a marketing statement. It is the religious equivalent of ‘Make America Great Again.’ The worst part of this is that like all marketing and propaganda, it only lasts for a generation. At the end, we will be left with nothing that speaks of an historic, reasonable Christian faith. We are afraid, Dr. Arnold, that we might be the last generation to know this faith, talking only to each other.”

I carried that young man’s reflection with me through the remainder of my time in Paris and the flight home.

Earlier in the week, a thought had struck me, which I shared with a friend. Through the kindness of a colleague, I had stayed in a condo carved out of a portion of a seventeenth century Musketeer barracks in the midst of three churches and a religious-based hospital with a chapel and a carillon.  In that condo, I constantly heard the bells ringing out from the churches and the hospital chapel.  It struck me that for hundreds of years, people, ordinary people, would have known what the various bells meant– the call to Church, the Angelus, the Words of Institution, the end of church, etc.  Today, however, although the bells still ring, now no one knows what they signify (except for a few antiquarians like me and a limited number of the faithful).  It is sort of like us– we say words to the world around us, but society no longer knows what the words signify.  We know the words (and argue about them) but the world at large has no idea.  We’ve become the bells– sounding lovely and sacred, but devoid of meaning to a society at large which has abandoned faith– as we keep speaking only to each other.

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The Relationship of Systematic Theology to Liturgical Theology

old-booksMarc Brown:

Introduction: The Issue

I have always been interested in why there are so many types of theology: systematic, biblical, historical, liturgical, etc. As a pastor who plans and leads worship in the local church, I have spent much time pursuing an understanding of liturgical theology. For good reason, many pastors with whom I have served have been more familiar with systematic theology. Do these disciplines connect? If so, how do they connect? Or, are these two areas of theological reflection separate from each other?

To address my questions, the purpose of this paper is to discover and discuss the similarities and differences between systematic theology and liturgical theology. Through examining the pertinent texts and lecture material, I will formulate an initial understanding of the identity and purpose of systematic theology. Next, I will explore several opinions as to the definition and purpose of liturgical theology. I will consult ideas from several liturgical theologians representing different church traditions so that a wider consensus may be attained. Then, I will compare the identifying characteristics gleaned from these opinions to the identity and purpose of systematic theology. Finally, while providing points of support and disagreement, I will offer my own understanding on the matter.

Positions

Many theologians have attempted to define systematic theology. Some of their definitions include…

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A Litany of Little

 

Donald Richmond:

My wife and I have just enjoyed another anniversary. Celebrating this event has also encouraged me to reflect upon the entire sweep of our meeting, dating, engagement, marriage and honeymoon.

largeOur honeymoon was spent in Scotland. The preparative process was simple, direct, without any fuss or bother. We threw some clothes in two knapsacks, drove to the airport, boarded the plane, and arrived in England, then in Scotland, nine hours later. Joy!

This is no longer what happens. My wife now packs her bags for a solid week, fills two trunks of luggage that could each serve as a small home for newlyweds, unpacks, repacks, decides upon what she should not take, and finally padlocks her bulging luggage for the journey. Of course, as the dutiful husband who only totes a knapsack, I carry her semi-trailers as well.

Often, when we finally board the plane, I look lovingly at my bride and cry, “DUDE, WHERE IS MY WIFE? WHAT DID YOU DO TO THE WOMAN I MARRIED?!” That is, in other words, what has happened to my knapsack wife? What has happened to the freewheeling vagabond, the would-be “hippie,” I married? I want my knapsack wife back!

I am still of the opinion that we only need a little for our travels. A knapsack over the shoulder will do, unless we are journeying for a month on the Camino De Santiago. But, of course, that would be a rare exception. On most occasions, a little is enough.

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The Glory of God

foot-washingDuane Arnold:

What is the glory of God really like? The glory of the infinite and eternal God who rules and sustains the universe?  Men had longed to know.  Now the veil is drawn aside: the glory of God is like Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. It is the glory of a God who humbles himself.  Think how God humbles himself in his relations to the world, in the humble birth in the manger at Bethlehem, in Calvary, in all his gentle and patient dealings with ourselves.  In that humility of God we see what the glory of God is like.  –Michael Ramsey

Last week, I sent a photo to a friend.  I scanned it and sent it in an email.  Looking at the picture as I took it from the scanner, I saw the date on the edge: “Feb. 71”.  Forty-six years ago the two of us were standing together in a Christian commune in Oregon, after having moved from California.  Yes, the commune was legalistic, pretty light on formal theology and in many ways an aberration from the norm.  Looking at our faces, however (faces with no lines, creases or wrinkles, but topped off with a great deal of hair), we looked happy.  I’m not sure why we were happy, as we possessed nothing.  We had no ambitions apart from sharing the Gospel in the college community where we were located.  We had no claim to fame or notoriety.  The work we engaged in to support the community, such as planting trees, or picking crops, or demolishing vacant houses, was back breaking.  The food, while usually plentiful, was plain.  In truth, we were probably living a life closer to the early Franciscans than we might have imagined.  Of course, we would have had no real idea about that. You see, even though we knew that there was an early Church (we read about that in our Bibles) we were also pretty certain that everything else of importance started a long time before 1971, probably around 1969!

Looking at that photo, however, there was something “authentic.”  There was a sense of family.  When I called my friend, “brother,” I meant it.  There was also a humility in thought and action.  While the leaders of the movement might have had grander schemes, the rest of us formed a community of which Francis or Bonhoeffer might have been proud.

As it happens in such situations, we eventually all went our different ways, but we carried the experience with us.  While I cannot speak for others who have had this or similar experiences, for myself I have been left with a somewhat jaundiced view of what is considered “success” in the life of the Church today.  For myself, this is especially odd, as even though I’ve served in some very humble situations, I have also had the opportunity to serve through the years in a variety of institutions, cathedrals, endowed churches and, by and large, have been well compensated. Yet, in all these situations and circumstances, I’ve carried a “compass.”  Now, there have been many times I have not consulted that “compass” when it would have been good to do so.  Nonetheless, the “compass” has been there.

The compass of which I speak is the knowledge that, most often, God is not found in the grand and the glorious.  More often, God is to be found in that which the world, and society at large, finds to be of little value or, indeed, that which society at large excoriates.  You see, the God we worship “all glorious above,” is a God who only reveals himself to us in humility.  We find him, not in a Hallmark card version of the Nativity, but in a dank cave, with perhaps a bit of fresh hay laid over the filthy feeding rough for the animals, wrapped in discarded rags.  Imagine the smell, the dirt, the desperate refugee parents begging for a place in which Mary can give birth– and there we find the Glory of God.

A Cambridge professor in theology in the thirties used to say that he wished that once a year in high summer a bull could be sacrificed in the courtyard of the college, so that his divinity students could understand what a sacrifice meant – the distress of the animal, the panic in the eye, the sounds, the agony, the blood, the flies, the smell of death.  Once again, this is where we find God revealed not in mere humility, but in humiliation.  The scourging and buffeting, the hard wood of the cross, the rusted nails, the thorns, a young mother watching her son die an agonizing death– and there we find the Glory of God.

A leader knows his death is imminent, he plans a last evening with his followers. The dust and the dirt of the city lay upon them all.  Rather than seeking the comfort and solace of his friends as betrayal and death looms large, however, he assumes the role of a servant and after the meal he wraps himself about with a towel and, one by one, Individual by individual, he kneels before them and washes their feet– and there we find the Glory of God.

All too often, I have identified the glory of God with that which seemed appropriate in the eyes of society and the values of the country in which I was living.  All too often, I have identified the glory and the greatness of God with the larger church, the greater attendance, the better school, the next degree, the respect of the community, financial well-being, the next book published, or even, a good report from the doctor after the last examination.  And, while none of these things are harmful in themselves, this is not where we will find the Glory of God.

Too often, I have failed to reference my compass.

Yet, I find that I am not alone in my failure to reference that compass.  Church leaders make common cause with politicians to sit at the table of power and influence.  The so-called “prosperity Gospel” continues to be foisted upon believers, even from the steps of the U.S. Capitol.  National greatness is aligned with Christian aspirations. Numerous Christians endorse policies to benefit the wealthiest among us while scorning the poor, the immigrant and the refugee.  Christian leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., boast of carrying concealed weapons as a show of power and align themselves with the most vulgar expressions of misogyny.  And all this is done, by their own pronouncements, for the “glory of God.”

Maybe some of these have never had a compass, or if they did, maybe they mislaid it. I know that I have, from time to time.

So, I return to the picture of those two young men and I try to remember the heart, the ideals, the compass that we shared.  Yet, I have to tell you, I’ve had a gift that has made it easier for me.  After 40 years of not having seen or spoken to each other, I reached out to that long ago friend and for these last number of years, our friendship has been renewed and, if it is possible, enhanced.  Moreover, he still possesses that very same heart, those ideals and that compass that has also guided him through the years. It seems a simple thing to have happened, of no consequence to the great or the powerful… almost too humble a thing to be noticed… yet, it is there we find the Glory of God.

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Rebuild the Church

rebuild_churchDuane Arnold:

“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

Politics had ripped apart the Church.  The disputes had grown so rancorous that both sides were willing to resort to violence.

The world had become one of fabulous wealth for the one percent and a descent into poverty for everyone else.

Now that the Church had joined itself to political power, it felt free to strike out against dissenters with an almost fanatical ruthlessness.

Meanwhile, the Middle East was coming to pieces, with a resurgent Islam driving Christians from areas where they had lived for generations. It had become so dire that other global powers were now prepared to send troops to the trouble spots.

As large farming conglomerates bought up family farms, rural areas descended into poverty, and small churches, beloved by generations of believers, fell into ruins and dotted the landscape.

A young man of 22 years of age used to seek out these small ruined churches as he hiked through the countryside. He was a deep disappointment to his parents. They had given him everything.  He on the other had, had done very little.  He was not interested in his father’s business enterprise and rejected the offer of a job. He had considered joining the military, but backed out at the last moment. He had become enthusiastic about social work, but after his parents found out that he had taken money out of the business to finance what he was doing, they considered filing charges against him and had decided instead to throw him out of the house. Today, as he visited a small ruined chapel, famous for the bits of art that remained, including an Byzantine styled painted cross, he heard a voice speak to him three times, “Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

The young man was Franceso di Pietro di Bernardone, known to us as Francis of Assisi, and the year was 1204.

Biographers of Francis always recount this as a turning point in his life and almost immediately move from what Francis heard in that small ruined chapel to his wider universal mission to rebuild the Church.  In doing this, however, they miss a salient point : “What did Francis actually do after hearing the voice?” We know what he didn’t do. He did not pick up a rock and throw it in anger and frustration at the pitiful state of the church. No, he started picking up stones and laying them one atop the other. He began to rebuild the Church of San Damiano. The greater work, arose out of the simple singular work of rebuilding the Church where he was– right then, right there.

Today, in the United States we are in a state in which politics has ripped apart the Church.  A minority of voters elected a thrice married, lying, schoolyard bully who knows little, if anything, of the Christian faith, and evangelicals were a large part of the equation. Say what you will, the public perception of evangelical support for Trump is real and is being continually bolstered by the members of his so-called Faith Advisory Council and the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. If Trump succeeds, evangelicals will own it. If Trump fails, evangelicals will own it. If Trump is impeached, evangelicals will own it, and they will own it for years to come, not only further alienating younger people, but the majority of the country who voted against him.

As the perception of evangelicals being joined at the hip with Trump becomes firmly set in the minds of most Americans, the other manifestation of “Church” is that of historic denominations, whose steeples and towers are simply part of the American landscape, and those denominations, almost without exception, are in real trouble, if not failing altogether.

I have watched my own old denomination, The Episcopal Church, become something that is almost unrecognizable as a Christian entity over the course of just thirty years. Perhaps it began with the illegal ordination of women in 1974, being done without the consent of the General Synod. (I am not speaking here of the theological issue of women’s ordination, only of how it came to be accomplished). Or maybe it was the election of the first openly Gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003 in defiance of the views of the wider Anglican Communion and the Lambeth consultative process.  My guess, however, is that it is something far deeper. If I had to speculate, I would say that it was a smug self-satisfaction within both the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in America that given money, endowments, property, pensions and positions, these churches simply could not fail, no matter the cultural issues that might arise from time to time. Worse than that, good men and women allowed it to happen until they too realized that they had passed the tipping point and that what had been lost, could no longer be recovered. The very heart of the church was gone.

If it were only a matter of the Episcopal Church it would be a tragedy, but the same story may be told of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, indeed, the Presbyterian Church, USA.  The United Methodist Church as well has passed its tipping point and is beginning its descent into the maelstrom. We will watch the UMC as sexuality issues tear it apart. We will watch as American Methodists fight for budget control over against the rising tide of conservative African and Asian Methodists. We will watch as clergy retire with fewer and fewer clergy available to take their place. We will watch as smaller churches close and seminaries merge hoping for survival. Yet, in the end, as aging congregations fade from the scene and all the attempts to reach “young people” come to naught, we will be left with only memories of what once was, is no more, and will never return from the obscurity and shadows into which a once great denomination will fade.

Of course, there are those associations and denominations slightly less known to the public at large. Some readers will be aware of the difficulties experienced by the Calvary Chapel Association and the Calvary Chapel Global Network.  While both claim descent from the Christian youth movement of the late 1960s, each group has morphed into faith communities far removed from their origin.  Regardless of issues concerning polity, structure, finance, pastoral accountability and all the rest, each group now occupies the borderland between mainstream evangelicalism and fundamentalism and have grown increasingly reactionary with the passing of years, along with many other similar independent churches. Through these last number of years, a singular pastoral and didactic style, pioneered by Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, has been codified into particular “distinctives” with little appreciation of the historic Church, scholarship or, indeed, an appreciation of other traditions, moving it further into an identity which, in truth, is more closely aligned with the fundamentalism of the1920s. As the current leadership ages and disappears from the scene and particular pastoral scandals come to light, the long term viability of both groups is uncertain, especially as the number of adherents continues to diminish and as a portion of the leadership is openly identified with the far right of American politics.

Then there are those groups, once identified with mainline denominations, that are separate from the larger denominations either through history or in protest.  The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and  the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod exemplify this for Lutherans.  Both were born of immigrant populations, both are neo-confessional and both are wholly at odds with other Christian bodies who do not subscribe, not only to an inerrant Bible, but with the additional provision that the Bible is only rightly interpreted in the light of the Lutheran Confessions.  Their isolation may be witnessed with regard to even praying with those outside of their denomination, for the LCMS bars its clergy from “worshiping” with other Christians. As a result of this, a LCMS pastor in Connecticut was asked to apologize by the president of the denomination (and did so) for participating in a prayer vigil for the 26 children and adults killed at the Newtown elementary school. Another LCMS pastor in New York was suspended for praying at a similar vigil in 2001, 12 days after the September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in which 2,996 people were killed and over 6,000 were injured.

The casual observer, looking for what it means to be a Christian, just having the most simple and basic idea that Christians love one another and pray together, especially in times of tragedy, might well wonder what sort of insanity they are witnessing. Meanwhile, we parse another Greek verb and argue over the right interpretation of 16th century documents that have no claim to inerrancy or divine inspiration.

Separation, lack of charity, building of fences and mutual suspicion have become endemic in American Christianity. Liberal churches drive out conservatives and conservatives regroup and build the walls higher, pushing out supposed liberals in their midst. Even the definition of “liberal” and “conservative”  differs as you slide along the scale from left to right and back again, with people constantly pushing to the extremes. Mix this with politics, liberal or conservative, and it becomes a deadly brew, alienating large segments of an unchurched population. All the while, churches, both liberal and conservative, are aging and dying at an unprecedented rate. If you believe that you or your church is immune, you are sadly mistaken. Whether newer Church bodies such as the Anglican Church in North America (formed in protest to the policies of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Canada) will learn the lessons of the past remains to be seen.

Of course, this is only to speak of Protestant America.

The Roman Catholic Church is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It is the largest Christian body in the United States. Yet even here the story is similar. Losing over 12 million adherents in the course of a decade, the only real growth being experienced is through immigration. This growth, however, comes with a caveat: The vast majority of second generation immigrants do not remain in the church. Priests are in short supply and are aging to such an extent that a crisis looms on the horizon. The religious orders which once staffed Roman Catholic educational institutions across the nation are dying and, within our lifetime, many will be only a memory. The innate tribalism of American Roman Catholicism mitigates against meaningful evangelism and growth and, therefore, most converts come through marriage, not conviction of conscience. In an attempt to slightly “expand the tent” of the church, Benedict XVI, established an extra-territorial diocese for the Anglican Ordinariate, allowing a place for married Anglican clergy and, it was hoped, their congregations, to join the Roman Catholic Church.  It was to have a distinctive Anglican liturgy. The purpose was to bring the riches of the Anglican patrimony back to Rome. In the main, however, those attracted were ritualists who, in many cases, preferred the Latin Mass. Currently, the Ordinariate is more interested in celibate clergy… and another opportunity for outreach is lost.

Finally, there is the Orthodox Church with its rich and ancient tradition. In the late 1970s , it appeared as though evangelicals looking for a home, might find it in Orthodoxy. Peter Gillquist, once of Campus Crusade, had established house churches, mainly in the Chicago area, eventually forming a group called the Evangelical Orthodox Church. They were steeped in church history and considered Orthodoxy their natural destination. In 1987 Gillquist led 17 churches with a combined membership of about 2,000 members into the Antiochian Orthodox Church as a distinct body named the Antiochian Evangelical Mission with a vision of attracting other evangelicals to come along.  Once within the hierarchical confines of the church, however, continued outreach flagged and by 1995, the group was absorbed into the standard diocesan framework. All this is to say, Orthodoxy may be an option for some, but it will not be an Orthodoxy tailored to evangelicals, Anglicans or Reformed. It will be Orthodoxy with its own hierarchy, culture, politics and traditions– and it will not change to suit you. Even here there is a shortage of priests and almost a quarter of these clergy are uncertain about the future of Orthodoxy in this country. Moreover, the Orthodox churches in America (some 20 National bodies and 6 Oriental bodies) struggle with ethnicity and, it must be said, are very much bound by national cultures in their orientation.

So, here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century looking at a landscape of uncertainty, dying churches, split denominations, and politicized Christian movements.  We look for the Church and, like Francis, we are confronted with broken walls, smashed windows and scattered stones, with a single cross remaining, reminding us of what once was. But do we hear the voice?

stones“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

Like Francis, I believe we have to set aside the idea of a “great life work” and, instead, deal with the stones that are lying on the ground in front of us.  I’m not asking you to change the world.  I’m asking you to pick up one stone, walk with it over to the broken wall and set it in place.  Then, walk back, find one more stone, walk it over to the wall and set that one in place… and keep doing it, one stone at a time.  This is not about hiring an architect, commissioning a feasibility study, organizing a fund raising campaign, getting three bids from construction companies and then deciding if it’s a good idea.  The stones are lying at your feet. Pick one up…

“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

Many have been hurt by the church. I understand that, because I’ve been hurt as well. Pick up the first stone. Go to church. Find one that fits you as well as one can and go. If the pastor ignores you, seek him out and introduce yourself. If you can’t find a church in the first instance, start one. Find one other person who feels like yourself, make a time to meet at Starbucks on Sundays.  Bring your Bible, or prayer book, or devotional and talk together. Share your needs and pray together. Maybe even find one or two more. It may not be St. Paul’s Cathedral with a choir, but for you, right now, it’s church. Then, together, find a body of believers that all of you can join. Pick up the first stone.

Church, however, is not just about what we receive, it’s also about what we give.  Pick up the second stone. Find a place to give of yourself.  God has given you gifts to share. You have the ability to give a cup of water to someone who is thirsty.  When you find a church, ask what you can do. You might have half an hour to go visit someone in a nursing home and bring some comfort.  There might be a church, that’s not even yours, but that has a ministry to the homeless that has need of volunteers.  There are opportunities all around us to share the love of Christ in practical ways. Pick up the second stone.

“…Go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”

If it is going to happen, we have to do it ourselves. We can’t simply wait for someone else to provide us with the “perfect church”… the “perfect opportunity” for service.  With God’s help and God’s grace, it has to happen here and now starting with each one of us. If we cannot stand the hate speech of some, we have to speak of Christ’s love. If the separation of Christians is something we find scandalous, we must reach across the divide. It can be done. It must be done. God give us grace and strength to pick up that first stone, not to throw in anger or frustration, but to build.

 

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The Imitation of Christ: Original Art by Donald Richmond

Donald Richmond:

Self Portrait: Donald Richmond

Self Portrait: Donald Richmond

The Imitation of Christ, purportedly written and/or compiled by Thomas á Kempis, is one the most beloved and important books within the Christian corpus. It has been said that, until relatively recently, it outsold every other book except the Bible. Although this has now changed, the text is a treasure trove of Christian philosophy and living that is appreciated by every major Christian tradition– including the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The first copy I ever saw was a 1954 edition, published by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood, that my mother had when I was a child. As I could not read at the time, I remember paging through the text and being deeply moved by the images which accompanied this particular publication. These images changed my life. Later, when I eventually learned how to read, the words shaped and changed who I was and how I thought. Apart from the Bible and my Prayer Book, The Imitation of Christ has been my constant companion for almost forty years.

Several months ago, I was impressed by these words from the twelfth chapter of the first book of á Kempis’ four-part collection:

“In the cross is salvation

In the cross is life

In the cross is protection

In the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness

In the cross is strength of mind

In the cross is joy of spirit

In the cross is the height of virtue

In the cross is the perfection of sanctity.”

These words, albeit modestly abridged from the Challoner edition (Tan Books), began to stir within my heart and imagination. Within a short time, I began producing images related to the quotation.

What you now have before you (below) is a selection of these images– and a bit more. I hope that you will enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed creating them–  and this with the equal (if not greater) hope that you, too, will adopt á Kempis’ classic text and apply it.

Kempis-Richmond-In-the-Cross-there-is-Salvation

Kempis-Richmond-In-the-Cross-is-Life

Kempis-Richmond-In-the-Cross-there-is-Protection

Kempis-Richmond-In-the-Cross-is-the-Height-of-Virtue

Kempis-Richmond-In-the-Cross-is-Perfection-of-Sanctity

Kempis-Richmond-Eye-of-the-Needle

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The Broken Baroque

Donald Richmond:

Duomo-detail-SicilyAccording to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI), in his masterful The Spirit of the Liturgy, the Baroque represents a crucial period in the history of the Church, liturgy, and the arts. It is, according to Benedict, one of the three acceptable artistic frameworks for effective catechesis and liturgical renewal. This said, and not underestimating Benedict’s heart or mind, the Baroque poses significant problems for Protestants. Contrary to Benedict’s Roman Catholic assertion, the Baroque represents a broken system that militates against the fundamental premises of the Protestant agenda. (In fact it might also be argued that it militates against a broadminded understanding and application of Vatican II).

The Baroque emerged as an extension of Catholic renewal in response to the Protestant Reformation(s) throughout Europe. Any appreciation of Baroque liturgy and arts, most especially when considered within a catechetical setting, must be attained through understanding this historic context. As such, when it is evaluated within this framework, it is decidedly counter-Reformation in its priorities, principles and practices. And, importantly, these are precisely why Protestants– even High-Church Protestants– must reject the Baroque narrative while certainly appreciating, in some way, Baroque aesthetics.

There are at least three reasons for rejecting the Baroque as a theological enterprise:

"Sacrifice of Isaac." Caravaggio

“Sacrifice of Isaac.” Caravaggio

The Baroque presents a questionable ecclesiastical perspective. A case in point are the paintings of Caravaggio. There is no doubt about Caravaggio’s tremendous talent. His mastery of light and shadow is almost unparalleled. Nevertheless, his paintings reveal a dangerous orientation. In order to effectively view his works, we must step back twenty to thirty feet. If we were to get too close, all we would see is great masses of color– often unclear and untidy. Proper viewing, proper perspective, requires that that the viewer step back and step away from the visual narrative. And this is precisely the point. Protestant Theology, on all fronts, is based upon a “come unto me” perspective. The Church, and Jesus Christ himself, are meant to be intimately approached without the militating and mediating necessity of distance. The Roman Catholic Church at the time was trying to reinforce the doctrine of a holy (that is untouchable and unassailable) perspective about the Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholic theology, as gloriously but dangerously expressed through Baroque arts, was saying that we must keep our distance, and that it is only this distance (as moderated, mediated and occulated by Holy Roman Catholic Church) that provides proper perspective. That is, albeit briefly, Baroque Art seeks to present an Old Testament (the giving of the Law that required not touching the Mountain) orientation, whereas the Protestant perspective was more in keeping with the Sermon on the Mount (Christ’s disciples came to him). The Law, the Roman Catholic perspective artistically applied, implied “do not touch.” The Gospel, the Protestant perspective, implied “come unto me.” In other words, the Baroque militates against biblical, ecclesiastical, and relational accessibility.

Pope-benedict-XVI-Celebrates-MassFurther to this, the Baroque presents a questionable perspective on biblical simplicity. When we view Baroque art, or hear Baroque music, it is complicated, cluttered and excessively ornate. It is, in my opinion, highly distorting and distracting. It is affected in its Theo-speech, both liturgically and artistically. Does this not reflect, most especially under Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure, an excessive form of Roman Catholicism that sought to return the Church to a pre-Vatican II, which was Tridentine, mentality? The liturgical changes approved by His Holiness shortly before his retirement illustrate this. Is the vessel used at the Eucharist a “chalice” or a “cup”? Although this illustration may appear to be a “splitting hairs” argument, it is not. There are distinct theologies undergirding both the “chalice” and the “cup.” Chalice, reflecting a distorted perspective, presents a Baroque orientation that again asserts affected dignity and piety. Similarly, and supporting my thesis, is this retired Pope’s retrograde interest in the pallium and Prada. These, along with the re-assertion of the so-called “Extraordinary Rite,” that is a more Baroque Rite, illustrates Pope Benedict XVI’s affection for the affectations of the Baroque. His pontificate, personality, and theology were known by a marked distance and inaccessibly very much in keeping with his Baroque proclivities.

These are in stark contrast with a biblical, and far more Protestant, perspective. Protestant reform sought to return the Church to biblical and liturgical simplicity. Complications and additions, both biblically and liturgically, and on all counts, were minimized. One example of this is Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer as opposed to the far more complicated Roman Catholic rites and rituals. Cranmer sought Protestant simplicity and accessibility, whereas the Roman Catholicism of the time militated against such an orientation and perspective. The so called “stripping of the altars” (E. Duffy), although lamentable and at times politically charged, can also be understood as a means of removing every distortion and distraction that might hinder a genuine and unmediated (broadly speaking) encounter with God. A far more contemporary example of this is when I was asked to help a Roman Catholic parish of 2,500 families for about three or four months. What I found was that the established rituals of Roman Catholicism complicated, and frequently prevented, the establishing of God-centered relationships. Ritual trumped relationship although, ideally, good ritual always enhances healthy relationships. This, in essence, and although removed by time, reflects how Baroque art rejects theological and liturgical simplicity.

Ceiling (detail). Chiesa del Gesu (Rome)

Ceiling (detail). Chiesa del Gesu (Rome)

Finally, the Baroque presents a questionable perspective on anthropology. Baroque content, color, clutter, and clouds also obscure the biblical perspective regarding “man.” To look at a Catholic Baroque painting, or Baroque architecture, is to look at man in the act of aspiring. (I think Baroque music also reflects the same theology of ascension/sanctification/glorification). Often in these images, saints are centrally depicted– and often ascending through blue clouds accompanied by chubby cherubs. Although intended as inspiration to evoke emulation, as “the greatest sorrow is not to be a saint” (J. Maritain), the images often communicate a theology of works over grace. There are, of course, exceptions to this assertion.

"Ascension of Christ." Rembrandt

“Ascension of Christ.” Rembrandt

Why is there a preponderance of mystics, martyrs and saints? Why this emphasis upon ascension? While a diversity of reasons may be cited, they share a common theme contrary to the Protestant doctrine of grace. Although rather simplistic in its analysis, mystics displace the doctrine of revelation, martyrs displace the doctrine of Christology, and saints displace the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers.” As well, and central to all of this, the idea of ascension suggests a doctrine of achieving instead of a doctrine of receiving. To be sure, this is an exaggeration (*see note below). There is a proper place to be given to mystics, martyrs, saints, and ascension. Mystics alert us to the need of genuine encounter over rote religion. Martyrs assert that Christ and his Church are things for which to live and die. Saints do help us appreciate the need to lead exemplary lives of holiness. Ascension, in keeping with the writings of Thomas á Kempis, asserts that “as is our purpose, so will our progress be.” That is, it is important to be spiritually attentive. There must be method to our passionate madness. These are all important. Nevertheless, within a Tridentine-Baroque perspective, they displace the Gospel narrative of underserved grace. As such, “man” is again left to strive without satisfaction and the Roman Church, and its extreme view of the Sacraments, is elevated as the exclusive means of meaningful meditation. While anachronistic, the Baroque asserts (again as articulated by Emeritus Pope Benedict) that art and the saints are the Church’s most powerful apologetic. Within a Tridentine-Baroque framework this cannot be denied. But what beliefs and behaviors are they defending? How are they offering a defense? Why are they offering such a defense?

As might be guessed, I am not an expert on Baroque art and liturgy. Nevertheless, a significant part of my theological education has been focused upon the intersection of the arts, liturgy and catechesis– and this, partially, through a pontifically-approved institution. I began ruminating on these ideas shortly after I studied with this institute and, later, with one of its instructors. But when a friend asked me my thoughts on the Baroque, I decided to put them to paper.

I am not opposed to Roman Catholicism. I was raised and educated within the warm and welcoming embrace of this robust Christian tradition. I have a deep and abiding respect for Emeritus Pope Benedict. I have enjoyed reading his liturgical and catechetical works, and derived many benefits from them. I enjoy Baroque art as Baroque art– but not liturgically or religiously. As such, if I have any “axe to grind,” it is an “axe” of caution. In this age of renewed liturgical interest, among both Romans and Genevans alike, we must be careful about blithely or ignorantly accepting or rejecting either fixedness or flexibility. The weight of Emeritus Pope Benedict’s (or any other saintly scholar’s) intellect and piety does not automatically provide tacit approval to every form of artistic expression used in a liturgical setting.  In this case, the case of the Baroque, he is wrong. Benedict’s Baroque predilections only serve to remind us that even “good” religious art may not always be utilized in a liturgical or catechetical setting.

 

*One exception is Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Here, erotically depicted, is a mystical experience that was entirely generated by God. However, in Bernini’s sculptural interpretation of this event, the sexual emphasis far outweighs the spiritual message. To be sure, as has been said by Charles Williams, “flesh speaks as spirit speaks, but spirit knows of what it speaks.” This said, however, Bernini’s sculpture illustrates an eroticism which is the dangerous underbelly of the Baroque ascension narrative.

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