Friday, December 2, 2016

A Merry Hipster Christmas!

If you haven’t yet purchased a Hipster Nativity Set, you might be too late—despite their $129.99 price tag, they are flying off the shelves, even at a limit of three to a customer.  The set includes the traditional figures, but all in a distinctly hipster form.  Joseph has a man-bun and is taking a selfie.  Mary is holding a Starbucks latte in one hand, making a peace sign with the other, and is making a duck-face.  (The selfie, when she sees it, will reveal that her sweater has slipped off one shoulder, revealing the top of her bra.)  The Magi are arriving on Segways with Amazon gift boxes under their arms.  The shepherd is working his iPad.  Even the cow and sheep (edged out of the tiny manger-stall) are doing their bit:  the sheep is wearing a hand-knitted sweater and the cow, eating gluten-free feed, bears a “100% organic” seal.  The figures are, appropriately, plastic (sorry:  make that “handpainted polyresin”).  A merry Hipster Christmas to you!
            Given all this provokes the question, “What exactly is a hipster anyway?”  Help from the oracles at Google reveal that “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter…‘hipsterism’ is really a state of mind, also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities.”  Note please the last bit:  “fashion sensibilities”.  That about says it all.  I would suggest that hipsterism is all about self-absorption and a desperate desire to appear cooler-than-thou.  Like all fashions, it is fleeting and quickly dated.  History textbooks will one day refer to them, if at all, in the same footnote as the Hippies.  But while they last, they provide a large and easy target for satire—which is of course the whole point of the Hipster Nativity Set.  Nervous Christians should not imagine that the Hipster Nativity Set is targeting them or their faith.  The real targets are the hipsters and hipster Christians.  If it has any theological point to make (which is doubtful) it is that hipsterism does not easily combine with Christianity and that a Hipster Christian might even be a contradiction in terms.
            Does the Hipster Nativity Set offer any lessons to the Orthodox and to Christians of a more traditional mindset?  I think there is one lesson to be learned from this odd faddish gift before it passes into history—namely that holy things should not a co-opted for purposes of satire.  I appreciate the desire to satirize the hipsters, and to generally let the air out of anything too over-inflated with a sense of pretentious self-importance.  But Christian symbols should not be dragooned for this task, for the symbol is more significant and holier than the task it is called to perform.  Using a Nativity Set to satirize a social movement would be like using a Bible as a door-stop, a priestly vestment as an oil-rag, or an icon as a drink coaster.  Door-stops, oil-rags and drink coasters are perfectly wonderful and necessary, but holy things should be spared such tasks and not put to uses which violate their holiness.  The seasonal Nativity Set, though perhaps humbler and less holy than the pages of Scripture and the colours of an icon, are still nonetheless symbols of the Faith.  To an outsider at least, a Nativity Set represents the Christian Christmas; it is a kind of three-dimensional icon.  As such, it possesses its own kind of holiness, and ought not to do service for something as ephemeral as social satire.
            For that is the problem with the Hipster Nativity Set—what is satirized is ephemeral and passing, (as is therefore the purpose of the satire), while Christian symbols refer to things transcendent and everlasting.  Those symbols cannot be used for lesser purposes without diminishing them and offending their sanctity.  Piety will instinctively recoil from the Hipster Nativity Set, just as it will from the use of icons in political memes, and for the same reason— something holy is being high-jacked in the service of something secular.  It is perfectly acceptable to satirize the hipsters, or to poke fun at politicians, or at any group badly needing a healthy dose of reality.  But Christian symbols should be above such uses.  They refer and transport us to another realm altogether, a place beyond passing fashions and passing politics.   They speak to us of a timeless Kingdom, and take us into a land where things requiring satirization cannot enter.  A Nativity Set brings us from our world to Bethlehem, and from there gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.  And with that vision to nurture and inspire us, who needs satire?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Holy Hatred

          Lately I came across an interesting bit of theologizing.  The author (who shall remain nameless) spoke of his love for Psalm 139 (“one of my absolute favorite psalms”).  In it he said that “right smack dab in the middle of this Psalm, King David calls for God to slay his enemies and declares that he has nothing but hatred for them”.   He refers, of course, to verse 21:  “Do not I hate them that who hate You, O Lord?  And do I not loathe them that rise up against You?  I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies”.  The author contrasts this attitude with Christ’s words about loving one’s enemies, and characterizes the voice of David in this verse as “the sinful voice of a human”.  Though he says we ought not to “throw the Old Testament out, nor read it flatly without any discernment”, and though he asserts that though “Psalm 139 is full of inspiration”, he still says, “David’s own paradigm comes through.  It’s all [David] knows in his time.  He can’t yet apply the awareness of his divine belovedness [sic] to his enemies”.  The upshot is that we must “pick and choose in the Bible.  Always pick and choose Jesus”.  That is, for him some bits in the Scriptures are devoid of inspiration or authority, and ought to be jettisoned since they are merely the voices of sinful humans, men incapable of rising to a divine standard.  If something in the Old Testament mirrors the Gospel counsel in the New Testament, it may be allowed to stand.  If not, out it goes.  It is not the sinful Old Testament author’s fault however; “it’s all he knows in his time”.  It is an extraordinary bit of exegesis, worthy of the heretic Marcion himself—or perhaps of the Biblical sceptics that made German theological liberalism so famous in the last century.
            It is difficult to deal with the author’s exegesis in any depth, since his thought is not clear.  Since he may or may not be capitalizing pronouns referring to God (e.g. “David calls for God to slay his enemies”), it is hard to be sure of his meaning:  does he assert that smack dab in the middle of the Psalm King David calls for God to slay David’s enemies, or God’s enemies?  The immediate contrast with Christ’s counsel to love one’s own personal enemies would suggest the former, in which case his exegesis is simply wrong.  King David declares his hatred not for his own foes, but for God’s foes—that is the point of saying that he regards them as if they were his own enemies.  If he was talking about his own personal enemies, the verse would make no sense—of course one regards one’s own foes as foes.  The point was David’s zeal for God, which impelled him to make God’s cause his own.  Though those men were not David’s personal enemies, he regarded them as if they were in his zeal for God.
            This bit of confused theologizing is significant because many people fall into the same trap of regarding bits of the Old Testament as unworthy, unspiritual, immoral, and (frankly) as rather embarrassing.   No less a thinker than C.S. Lewis looked at the cursings in the Psalter as something unfortunate, embarrassing, and to be explained away (in his otherwise wonderful book Reflections on the Psalms).  But a view of Old Testament Scripture which declares that “Whoever relaxes one of the least these commandments and teaches men so shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven”, and that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void” (Matthew 5:19, Luke 16:17) will not so easily jettison chunks of those Scriptures.   Neither ancient Marcionism nor modern Biblical liberalism are live options for the Orthodox.
            And make no mistake:  the offending bits are indeed large chunks.  Our unnamed author spoke of his favourite Psalm 139, but similar citations could easily be multiplied.  Many other parts of the Psalter extol holy hatred of unrighteousness and disgust at those who promote it.  Take for example Psalm 119, so valued by the Orthodox that it is constantly used in Matins.  Look at verse 53:  “Hot indignation seizes me because of the wicked who forsake Your Law”.  Or look at verse 113:  “I hate double-minded men, but I love Your Law”.    Or verse 136:  “My eyes shed streams of tears because men do not keep Your Law”.    Or verse 139:  “My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget Your words”.  Or verse 158:  “I look at the faithless with disgust because they do not keep Your commands”.  Such an abundance of antipathy in a psalm which has won such a place in the liturgical tradition of the Church cannot be so easily dismissed by simply suggesting that “it’s all the Psalmist knows in his time” as if the Holy Spirit found the task of inspiring a sinful Psalmist too daunting.  We cannot jettison it as unworthy.  The solution to our perceived dilemma must lie elsewhere.
            One thing the unnamed author never did was to inquire what the word “hate” meant in the offending verse.  He apparently assumed that it meant “to plan to hurt, to retaliate, to strive to inflict pain and misery, to slay”.  Christ indeed forbids such a lust for revenge and for gleeful infliction of pain upon one’s personal foes.  We must not try to hurt our personal foes—bashing them over the head or keying their car—but simply pray for them and commend them to God.  But there is no evidence that the Psalmist in Psalms 139 or 119 was talking about that kind vengeful action.   
We may begin by asking what the word “hate” actually means in its Biblical context.  Briefly, it means to categorically and emphatically reject.  Thus Christ tells us to “hate” our father and mother and wife and children and even our own life if we would truly be His disciples (Luke 14:26).  Obviously He does not mean one should entertain personal loathing for our family or try to hurt them.  He means that if it comes down to a choice between family and Christ, we must categorically and emphatically reject all the members of our family and their appeals to family loyalty, and choose Christ instead.  To hate=to reject.  That is also the meaning of God’s declaration in Malachi 1:2-3 (quoted in Romans 9:13):  “I loved Jacob but I have hated Esau”.  God did not loathe Esau personally.  He “hated” him in that He rejected him as bearer of Abraham’s covenant, and confirmed that covenant to his brother Jacob instead.
Understanding this allows us to return to the Psalter with fresh eyes.  David (and the author of Psalm 119) were not declaring that they personally loathed wicked and evil men and wanted to hurt them so much as they decisively rejected their evil ways.  David was declaring his decision to shun their wicked ways however attractive they might have been and to choose righteousness instead.  That is why immediately after saying that he hated God’s foes with perfect hatred, he went on to say, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!  Try me and know my thoughts and see if they be any wicked way in me and lead me in the everlasting way”.  He hated wickedness when he found it in wicked men, and also when he found it in himself, which is why he asked for God’s help to root it out from his heart. 

The odd exegesis with which this blog began provides a cautionary tale.  We do not have the liberty to “pick and choose in the Bible”.  It is all God’s Word and must be accepted as “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  If something seems to be unfortunate and embarrassing that is almost certainly a sign that we are missing something and not understanding what it is really saying.  The Psalter contains many examples of holy hatred (as do the letters of St. Paul—see for example 2 Corinthians 11:13f, Galatians 5:12, Philippians 3:2, 18f).  Let us imitate this holy hatred and reject decisively the wickedness that abounds in our world.  Such a wicked way may also lurk in our own thoughts and hearts.  Let us pray that God may search us and root it out.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

In Praise of C.S. Lewis

November 22 is the anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, and in honour of the day I would like to offer a book review on a book about C.S. Lewis, The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, edited by Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward and published (as the title indicates) by Cambridge University Press.  It consists of a variety of essays by a variety of authors, and they deal with such varied topics as Lewis the Scholar (examining him as literary critic, literary theorist, intellectual historian), Lewis the Thinker (examining his views on Scripture, theology, gender, power, violence) and Lewis the Writer (examining his various famous literary works, such as the Ransom Trilogy, the Chronicles of Narnia and his poetry).  This list of chapters, culled from the index, is not exhaustive; the book is very thorough and, as one would expect from the University of Cambridge Press, very scholarly.  Nonetheless, some of the reviews of Lewis’ thought reminded me of something Lewis himself wrote regarding a review of Sir Walter Scott’s work—namely that reading the review was “like reading a review by a jackal on a book written by a lion”. 
       In particular I took exception to the comments offered on Lewis’ views on gender and on violence.  The examination of Lewis’ views on gender, written by Ann Loades, made me wonder if her main topic was not Lewis but feminism, since she began with a lengthy recital of the church’s progress towards and a defense of the ordination of women, and it was not until about two pages in that she got around to really looking at Lewis.   It appears that her aim was not so much explaining Lewis’ thought as refuting it, and that her irritation with his views got the better of her.  Her long section on “Lewis on the Ordination of Women” reads like the opposing voice in a debate.  The footnotes to her essay provide a wealth of access to feminist writings, including She Who Is: the Mystery of God in Feminist Discourse.  A riveting read perhaps, but one with little relevance to her assigned topic of C.S. Lewis.
       It was similar with the chapter on Lewis’ views on violence.  The bias of the editors may perhaps be reflected in their choice of reviewer—namely Stanley Hauerwas, a noted pacifistic writer from the Anabaptist tradition.  (One blog describes him as “contemporary theology’s most well-known and provocative voice for pacifism”.)  A section of his review entitled, “Why Lewis Was Not a Pacifist” is followed by another entitled, “Why Lewis Should Have Been a Pacifist”.  Once again, we see not an examination of Lewis’ thought so much as its attempted refutation.  It’s bit thick actually, given that the volume purchased was The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, and not Cambridge Argues with C.S. Lewis.  I bought the book because I wanted to read about Lewis’ theology, not that of Hauerwas.   It would be as if one bought a book bearing the title The Essential Stanley Hauerwas, and opened it to find that it was filled with arguments as to why Hauerwas should have been an Orthodox admirer of Byzantium. 
       It is, I suppose, one of the drawbacks of mortality that one can no longer write an answer to one’s critics after one is dead.  Too bad, because Ms. Loades and Mr. Hauerwas desperately need answering, and Lewis could have done it with grace, elegance and deadly effectiveness.  But what goes around, comes around.  If the works of Loades and Hauerwas are still read by countless readers half a century after their repose, no doubt someone will write a refutation of their thought, perhaps under the dubious title, The Oxford Companion to Ann Loades and Stanley Hauerwas.  If so, I am sorry that I will not be around to read it.
       My concern here is not to defend the lion from such critics, but to suggest why the works and example of C.S. Lewis still have relevance for us today.  It is true that much of what he wrote and spoke to live audiences is dated.  In his Broadcast Talks, given over the BBC in war-time, and later published as part of Mere Christianity, he addressed the common man of his time.  The common man of wartime England was very different from the common man of the 21st century England (or North America), and doubtless if Lewis repeated the exercise today, he would make different assumptions about how much the common man knew about Christianity and alter his approach accordingly.  That is the problem with being up to date—it also results in being very quickly dated, and no one knew this better than C.S. Lewis.  But much—I would say most—of his work remains valuable and of enduring validity.
       In particular, I would like to focus on three characteristics of Lewis' apologetics in which he continues to offer us an instructive example and in which he has set the bar very high.
       First, in his apologetics, Lewis concentrated on what all the various Christian traditions had in common—what he called (borrowing the phrase from Baxter) “mere Christianity”, the massive core tradition shared by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Evangelical Protestants and Orthodox.  (We Orthodox were not quite invisible to Lewis at Oxford; he knew and appreciated Orthodoxy through his friendship with Nicholas Zernov.)   It is always tempting to major in minors, and to argue in-house topics before the watching world.  Such arguing may be useful in advancing inter-Christian unity and dialogue, but it makes for questionable apologetics.  The world does not need to be treated to our arguments with the West about the Filioque.  If a worldling comes to believe that Jesus is the Son of God who sends His Spirit upon His people, then we may take him for coffee and talk about the procession of the Spirit from the Father alone.  But not until.  Like Lewis, we should stick to the basic Gospel in our kerygma to those not yet converted.
       Second, Lewis was not shy about telling the common man that he must repent and believe the Gospel and become a part of the Church.  He observed that in past days, everyone assumed that all citizens were Christians, whether they were in fact or not.  Now that hostility to Christianity had become more widespread (in Lewis’ time, and how much more in ours), the fog had lifted from the two opposing camps and real fighting (i.e. argument) could begin.  As he wrote in his essay on Christian Apologetics, “A century ago our task was to edify those who had been brought up in the Faith:  our present task is chiefly to convert and instruct infidels.”  Lewis reminds us that our “present task” is chiefly evangelism.
       Thirdly, Lewis excelled at using reason in his proclamation of the Gospel.  He did not disparage the use of emotional appeal, but he refused to discount the value of reason as well.  Especially today, when the mass of people are trained to react to slogans, and have trouble following any sustained argument longer than can be contained in a news-hour sound bite, the appeal to reason is all the more important. 
       C.S. Lewis is long gone.  His books remain, to be valued by appreciative believers or targeted and pilloried by the unappreciative in turn.  Lewis himself would be the first to insist that he was not the issue.  The issue is not the apologist who now lies in a grave in Oxford, but the Saviour who lives and reigns at the right hand of God.  I would cheerfully praise C.S. Lewis.  And imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.  Let us praise him by following in the apologetic path he has blazed, not necessarily slavishly following his every conclusion, but boldly proclaiming the Lord whom he loved.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Feast of the Entrance

November 21 commemorates the first time the young girl destined to be the Mother of God entered into the Temple at Jerusalem.  Though now long gone, the Temple must have presented an awe-inspiring sight to the young child, with its white stone glistening in the Judean sun, its vested priests, its blowing trumpets, its smell of incense, the crowds of fervent praying worshippers, and the smoke arising from its altar of sacrifice.  There is no historical record of her thoughts and feelings at that first visit, but if she did ask the question, “What is all this about?”, the Christian answer (later learned after the Annunciation coming about a decade later) would have been, “Actually, it’s all about you.” 
The Temple was a house for God so that He might dwell among His people and that they might enjoy access to His saving presence.  It was also a pledge and a prophecy, a silent promise in stone of the time when God would come and dwell among them in the flesh.  As the great and glorious Temple contained the covenantal presence of the heavenly God, so the flesh of the young and humble adolescent virgin of Nazareth would also contain that presence.  She would become the living temple for the incarnate deity, and He whom the heaven of heavens could not contain (1 Kings 8:27) would dwell in the tiny space of her young womb.  Though she would continue to live in the humble obscurity of her hometown, her womb would become more spacious than the heavens.
            The simple narrative of her entry as a toddler into the Temple has been adorned by Christian writers.  In works such as the Proto-evangelium of James (i.e. a story containing a kind of prequel to the Gospel) Mary is portrayed as someone who was well-known to all Israel.  At the age of three she is escorted into the Temple courts by “the daughters of the Hebrews” each one carrying a lighted lamp so that the child will feel happy entering the Temple as her new home.  “And Mary was in the Temple of the Lord as a dove that is nurtured, and she received food from from the hand of an angel”.  In this story, Zachariah the high-priest leads her into the Holy of Holies, and she remains in the Temple until she turns twelve years old, when she goes to live with Joseph, who was chosen by lot to guard her as her husband.
            Reading the entirety of the Proto-evangelium makes the discerning reader aware of the poetic and legendary nature of much of the writing.  In this wonderful story one encounters devotion and love, not sober history, as is apparent from the fact that Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist, was not in fact the high-priest, but simply a priest.  (In the Lukan narrative, he is among those who draw lots to burn incense in the Temple—something the high-priest never did.)  But no matter:  truth comes in many forms, poetry as well as history.  And by telling us that Mary dwelt in the Holy of Holies, the story tells us something fundamental and abidingly true about her.
            The Holy of Holies was the inner heart of the Temple, the place where the Ark of the Covenant once rested (it was lost and destroyed when the Babylonians sacked the Temple centuries earlier; the Temple later built after the return from exile and still later enlarged by Herod remained empty of the Ark.)  As the inner shrine, it was the place where God’s earthly presence resided, the epicenter of divine holiness in the world.  No one was pure and holy enough to enter there—even the high-priest himself could only enter there once a year on the Day of Atonement, and even then he must bring with him the blood of sacrifice (Hebrews 9:7).  But according to the tale, Mary could enter there—the lesson being that Mary, as the one destined to become the Mother of God, was holier than all the other children of men.  God Himself would dwell within her flesh even as He dwelt in the Holy of Holies.  The Holy of Holies, like the rest of the Temple, was all about her.
            Why should all of this matter to us today?  Just this:  her holiness could not only protect her in the Holy of Holies, it now protects us too.  Holiness is what adds power to prayer, and effectiveness to intercession.  God does not listen to sinners, to those who defy and reject Him, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does His will, God listens to him (John 9:31).  Mary is pre-eminently the best worshipper of God and the one who truly did His will.  Accordingly, God listens to her.  All Christians live within a network of mutual intercession:  you pray for me and I pray for you and we all pray for each other.  This network includes the saints, so that we also ask for the prayers of Saints Peter and Paul and Nicholas and Athanasius and Herman of Alaska.  And standing at the head of this mighty heavenly army of intercessors is the holy Theotokos, she who is more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.  Her holiness is our shield and buckler, and we can take refuge in her matchless intercession.  She no longer stands within the courts of an earthly Temple, however splendid.  She now stands within the courts of the heavenly Temple, next to the very throne of God, sharing that splendour as our heavenly Sovereign and Queen.  The Feast of the Entrance into the Temple is something more than a mere historical recollection.  It is a call to prayer, and to our confident reliance upon her love and intercession for us and for all the world.