Follow by Email

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

TV, the deductive method, and megachurches

The other night I watched an episode of the show _Seventh Heaven_, which I hadn't done for a couple of years. When my wife and I started dating, she was a fan of the show and I watched some episodes with her. But this happened to be the season that all the kids were dating a different person every week (and as likely as not getting engaged to boot, and then breaking up the next week), and I thought it was a bit too ridiculous. It's good when a show is clean and wholesome, but the titillation of a new boyfriend/girlfriend every week is just a G-rated version of the usual dreck. So, at least, I thought at the time.

But the episode the other night was quite interesting. Simon (the fourth of the seven children) is a rather annoying college freshman who has been having sex with a young woman from what appears to be a liberal megachurch, the "Chapel of Renewed Faith." She boasts to his parents Eric and Annie that her church has a class on teen sex that is "accepting," and taunts Eric (the pastor of a small community church of undefined denomination) with the fact that young people from his church are joining hers.

Now my impression of Eric's church has always been that it's decidedly mainline. It's quiet and respectable and generically Protestant. So the impression that the show gives (at least this episode) is that the lively, bustling megachurch with lots of teenagers is liberal about sexual issues, while the quiet mainline community church is conservative (Eric is clearly and decidedly opposed to sex before marriage, and encourages his daughter Lucy to start teaching a class on abstinence at their church). This makes a lot of sense, from an abstract, deductive point of view. You would think that in fact quiet old-fashioned churches that have trouble hanging on to their young people would be conservative, while bustling churches with titles like "the Chapel of Renewed Faith" would be liberal. This, after all, is what prophets of modern enlightenment like Bishop +Spong are always assuring us. If you want to attract the rising generation, you can't hang on to outdated notions of either theology or morality.

But in fact, as most people (but apparently not the writers of this episode) know, the reality is almost exactly the opposite. Far more likely than not, the megachurch with oceanic parking lots and Napoleonic armies of youth is trumpeting the virtue of chastity. The graying mainline church is probably more likely to avoid such a subject altogether, and hence to be condemned as "irrelevant." (Although my wife, who knows far more about mainline Protestants than I do, has just pointed out that in fact youth programs are frequently the most conservative part of a mainline church. Which reinforces my point.)

This is not particularly a criticism of _Seventh Heaven_. I was impressed with the episode, if only because Eric actually used the name of Christ, which respectable pastors in fictional TV shows rarely do. (He tells Simon something like, "You can't go from one casual relationship to another, because you have more than a casual relationship with Christ.") It's quite possible that the writers of the episode are in fact Christians, and that their blunder about the nature of obnoxious megachurches arose from an insider's bias rather than an outsider's ignorance. If I were writing a TV show, I'd be tempted to portray things that way as well. To me, a conservative mainliner with traditional tastes, the contemporary combination of conservative theology and morals with a total distaste for traditional style (particularly in worship) is acutely distressing. Lex orandi lex credendi. If your approach to the Christian faith is fundamentally pragmatic and driven by marketing forces, then you are not truly orthodox, however many conservative doctrines you proclaim. Fortunately, while there are relatively few churches like the Chapel of Renewed Faith, there are in fact a number of churches like Eric's.

The fact remains, though, that churches are far more likely to attract new members, especially young ones, if they are _less_ permissive. This has been shown well by a number of sociologists of religion such as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke. People are paradoxically _attracted_ to a church with high "costs," because it seems worth belonging to. I should add (as Stark and Finke generally do not) that churches can in fact grow and prosper without being conservative in moral and doctrinal teaching. Boldly liberal churches also seem to flourish. (I'd argue that such churches offer different kinds of "costs," and different kinds of rewards. The beloved and successful Methodist campus minister at Duke University, for instance, is an unabashed liberal and inspires college students by challenging them to work for social justice instead of earning millions as corporate lawyers.) The real losers, in our religious economy, appear to be churches that are too "mainline" to be brash about orthodoxy and too timid (or too orthodox) to be flagrantly liberal. In other words, the Chapel of Renewed Faith really might exist somewhere. It just isn't typical. Eric's church, on the other hand, which loses its young people because it is too embarrassed and respectable to talk about sex at all, is a fairly accurate and typical picture.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Stabat Mater

The seven sorrows of Mary, traditionally, are the following:

the prophecy of Simeon (a sword will pierce your soul);
the flight into Egypt;
having lost the Holy Child at Jerusalem;
meeting Jesus on his way to Calvary;
standing at the foot of the Cross;
Jesus being taken from the Cross;
the burial of Christ.

However, when we think of the sorrows of Mary we think primarily of her standing at the foot of the Cross. One of the most beautiful hymns of the Middle Ages commemorates this, and I've provided a link to it. You can read the hymn in Latin and English, and also hear it sung.

Sept. 15--the Sorrows of Mary

Today is the day after the Feast of the Holy Cross, and in the Catholic tradition this is, fittingly, the commemoration of the Sorrows of Mary. Historically, this feast originated in 1668, although it drew on a longer tradition of devotion to Mary as the sorrowful mother of the suffering Christ. In the 13th century, a religious order, the Servites, made this devotion the focus of their existence as a community, and the September commemoration was a gift to the Servite order by the Pope. Mary's sorrows had also been commemorated in Germany and other areas of Europe since the late Middle Ages on a Friday during Eastertide. This commemoration was later moved to the Friday before Palm Sunday, and in the 18th century was established as a universal feast of the Catholic Church. Today, as far as I know, this commemoration is no longer celebrated in the Catholic Church (with the possible exception of the small number of parishes and missions that still use the old Mass), leaving Sept. 15 as the only commemoration of the Sorrows of Mary.

All this liturgical detail can be mind-numbing, and non-Catholic readers may wonder why I'm wasting time on it. I am, after all, an Episcopalian, and my own denomination doesn't celebrate Sept. 15. However, in my opinion this failure to embrace Marian devotion is a bad thing. Without getting into the question of whether all forms of Catholic Marian devotion are healthy, I think it's altogether to the good for us to be reminded frequently of the close link between Jesus and His Mother. This is important not because Mary is a semi-divine figure in between us and Jesus, but because she isn't. She is, like us, a believer who followed Jesus but often did not understand what that involved. She was confused and hurt by Jesus, as we are. And yet she shared in his sorrows and in his saving work, as we are all called to do. Whenever we think of Jesus we think of Mary, and whenever we think of Mary we think of Jesus. As with love and marriage, you can't have one without the other.

So when we have just celebrated the triumph of the Cross of Jesus, it is important for us to think of the woman who stood at the foot of the Cross, weeping for her beloved son who hung there dying for reasons she did not yet fully understand. Most of the sorrow of this world does not come from deliberate, heroic sacrifice. It is the sorrow of victims, caught up in tragedy against their will and without their comprehension. And yet, Christian tradition tells us that Mary rose to the occasion, offering herself fully to God and offering back to God the son she had received as a miraculous gift. Mary shows us the only way in which we can follow Jesus--by standing at the foot of his Cross, weeping for the suffering of the world. And yet, as we learned yesterday, the Cross is also the place of triumph, where the powers of evil have been defeated forever. And Mary, the Queen of Sorrow, is crowned by Christ as the Queen of Heaven. As St. Paul put it, if we suffer with Christ, we will reign with him. This is the heart of the Christian life.

Today is also Wednesday of Ember Week. Traditionally the Church has set aside four weeks in the year as times of fasting and prayer at each of the four seasons of the year. These "ember weeks" are celebrated on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and the autumnal Ember Days fall after the Feast of the Holy Cross. These are not frequently celebrated today, but they are a good way of marking the four seasons of the year. Traditionally, they are a time to pray for vocations to the priesthood, and they are a good time for all of us to think about our calling as Christians, whatever that may be. In my case, my calling is to write my dissertation (instead of writing this blog) and to teach a class on Ancient Egypt and another one on European encounters with Africa and Asia in the 16-17th centuries. Which I shall now proceed to do (after posting a link to the Stabat Mater, the traditional hymn associated with Mary's sorrows).

Late entry--Feast of the Holy Cross

I didn't manage to get a post in yesterday, but it was the Feast of the Holy Cross. This is one of those feasts that commemorates an important element of the Christian Faith but is not part of the regular yearly cycles. For those readers (assuming I have any readers so far!) who are not familiar with the traditional Christian liturgical year, there are basically two cycles--one of them based on the celebration of Easter in spring, preceded by the forty days of Lenten fasting and followed by the fifty days of celebration; and the other based on the celebration of the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 and following the events of Christ's life (and, in those traditions not pared down by the Reformation, the life of the Virgin Mary) throughout the year. So we get the feast of the Circumcision of Christ (or the Holy Name of Jesus, or the Motherhood of the Blessed Virgin) on Jan. 1, the Epiphany (commemorating the Visit of the Magi) on Jan. 6, the Baptism of Christ the next Sunday (or, in the Eastern tradition, on Epiphany itself), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on Feb. 2 (forty days after Christmas), the Annunciation on March 25 (nine months before Christmas), and so on.

Obviously, in this system the commemoration of Jesus' crucifixion comes on Good Friday (and to some extent on Palm Sunday). So why do we have another feast in September to celebrate the Holy Cross? Actually, the story of this feast begins in the reign of Constantine, when Christianity had been made a legal religion of the Roman Empire (not yet the one official religion, though it was heavily favored), and new churches were going up everywhere, sponsored by Constantine and his pious mother Helena. Helena took a particular interest in the (supposed) site of Jesus' crucifixion, where she built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the process, she discovered what was believed to be the Cross itself on which Jesus was crucified. (According to the legend, three crosses were discovered, and the one that had healing properties was recognized as the True Cross.)

As a matter of fact, though, this feast does not only commemorate the finding of the Cross in 326. There is in fact another traditional feast of the Invention (i.e., finding) of the Cross on May 3, although this is no longer widely celebrated. The date of Sept. 14 actually derives from the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335, but the celebration of this feast became popular largely because of an incident in the history of the Byzantine Empire (i.e., the Eastern Roman Empire) three centuries after Constantine. In the reign of the emperor Heraclius, the Persians invaded the Empire, captured Jerusalem, and carried off the relics of the Cross as a trophy. In 626, Heraclius managed to defeat the Persians and recover the Cross, which was then solemnly "elevated"--that is to say, displayed publicly in Jerusalem for the people to venerate.

So what does this feast mean for us, in a world where most of us are rather suspicious of Constantine and the legal establishment of Christianity? Why are we celebrating this ancient notion of the Triumph of the Cross--the pomp and ceremony of Imperial Rome mustered to celebrate the torture and death of a Galilean peasant? Isn't this ironic and even hypocritical? Furthermore, both the story of the finding of the Cross and the historical incident of its recovery by Heraclius are marred by anti-Jewish violence. According to the legend, Helena imprisoned all the learned Jews of Jerusalem and coerced them into helping her find the cross. One of them agreed to cooperate, and eventually converted to Christianity as a result. In the reign of Heraclius, the Jews had sided with the Persian invaders, and in retaliation Heraclius tried to force all the Jews in the empire to become Christians. (This of course failed, and it was more or less an anomaly in the history of Christian treatment of Jews, sorry as that history is.) So aren't we simply perpetuating the legacy of Christian intolerance and triumphalism by celebrating the Exaltation of the Cross?

No, I don't think so. However we have distorted the meaning of the Cross, it remains at the heart of what we believe as Christians. And although we have succeeded in perverting the Cross into a symbol of our desire to rule and dominate, its presence at the center of our faith remains a witness against that perversion. There is always an intrinsic conflict between the symbol itself and the way we have used it. The Triumph of the Cross does not mean that the Cross becomes a golden trophy of empire. The Cross (however much we may try to hide the fact) always remains a bloody symbol of torture, a reminder that the Kingdom of Christ is never the same thing as the empire of the world. To follow Christ is to give up the desire to dominate and coerce. Reigning with Christ means reigning, like Christ, from the tree of the Cross. It means identifying ourselves always with the victims, with the sufferers of the world, never with the conquerors.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
Because by your Cross you have redeemed the world.

Monday, September 13, 2004


After years of hanging out on message boards and engaging in endless (and usually fruitless) religious discussions there, and a couple years of reading and commenting on other people's blogs, I've finally decided to launch my own. It turned out to be very easy, using the Blogger software. The name "Ithilien" is probably self-evident to anyone familiar with _Lord of the Rings_. Ithilien is the border province betwen Gondor and Mordor. It's a beautiful place, still unspoiled by the ravages of the Orcs. But it's also a place of warfare--if Sauron wins, Ithilien will become a smoking wasteland like Mordor. And already the filth of Mordor is beginning to seep out into the forests of Ithilien.

If all the words spilled on the Internet every day by me and other fools like me are to accomplish anything, then it must be this--that occasionally something we say weakens in some slight measure the forces of Mordor; reclaims from filth and stench some grassy spot beneath the trees; or perhaps gives aid and comfort to a pair of straggling hobbits, on their way to Mordor with a heavy burden.

The name I have chosen to sign my posts is from that other mythology we call the history of the Church. Cardinal Gasparo Contarini was a Venetian diplomat chosen cardinal in 1535 as part of an attempt to reform the Catholic Church. He was involved (behind the scenes) in negotiations with the Protestants at Regensburg in 1541, which proved to be the last best hope of bringing about a reconciliation. (They reached an agreement on justification, but this was rejected by both Luther and the papacy; and Contarini refused to allow compromises on the Eucharist, which doomed the negotations.) He was one of the few figures of that time whom just about everyone on both sides were forced to respect. He loved the Catholic Church deeply, but was aware of the value of some of the Protestant critiques. He had an experience of God's forgiving grace after going to confession on Holy Saturday, 1511, and this shaped his reforming activity. In other words, he embodied the kind of evangelical Catholicism that I believe to be the heart of the Christian tradition. And so I like to use his name as an alias on the Internet, as a way of declaring where I stand.

I am, of course, not a cardinal or a Venetian diplomat (the former you had no doubt already dismissed as unlikely, and the second is now impossible--at least in the sense of "diplomat for the Republic of Venice"). I am not even a Catholic, in the sense of being in communion with the See of Rome. I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Religion at Duke University, writing my dissertation on Martin Bucer's interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. More on that perhaps in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that Bucer was one of the leading Protestant Reformers, although he's hardly a household name. I am a member of the Episcopal Church, but my background is in the "holiness movement" within the Wesleyan tradition (again, I will explain more about this another time). I am currently living in New Jersey and attending Episcopal and Methodist churches simultaneously, since my wife is United Methodist. (We go to the Episcopal church at 8 and the Methodist church at 10--yes, this makes for a busy Sunday morning!) I am also teaching Western Civ part-time at a local state university (and need to cut this short so I can go teach my class!)

This blog will be mostly devoted to religious subject, with occasional forays into literature, politics, and any other subject that takes my fancy. I will post some links to other websites as I have the time (and as I figure out how to manage this thing).