Monday, December 30, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin’

          Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.  Recently I came across a news story that had everything:  patriarchal men facing off against earnest feminists who were protesting male oppression and church traditionalism.  The story had liberated sexuality, violence, and people screaming in frustration who couldn’t take it any more.  It had a conference of 17,000 who gathered at the annual the National Meeting of Women in San Juan, Argentina to discuss violence, gender issues and abortion rights.  It had a burning effigy of the Pope, surrounded by crowds chanting slogans.  It even had topless women.  A journalist’s dream.  Why then has it not been all over the news?  After all, you can blur the topless parts.  Who wouldn’t eat up a story about earnest feminists assembling to discuss and denounce male oppression who find themselves confronted by horrid patriarchal men from the church?
            Maybe because the horrid patriarchal men from the church weren’t the ones doing the confronting.  It was the women who were doing the confronting, going topless and storming the Roman Catholic cathedral in Podomos, Argentina, the city where the conference was held, to inflict damage upon it in the name of their cause.  Last year 500 tried to storm the cathedral.   This year it was 7000 feminist troops who tried to storm the building.  You can read all about it hereincluding watching a brief news video.  In anticipation of this year’s storming, 1500 turned up to defend their San Juan cathedral from damage.  The men linked arms in a ring outside to prevent entry.  The women responded by going topless, shouting obscenities, molesting them, spitting at them, and spray-painting the faces and bodies of the men.  Yep, spray-painting, mostly their faces and crotches, some with Nazi symbols.  Oh, and chanting too.  What would a feminist protest be without chanting?  In this case they chanted, “To the Roman Catholic Apostolic Church, who wants to get between our sheets, we say that we want to be whores, transvestites and lesbians!  Legal abortion in every hospital!”  Wow.  Like I said, you can’t make this stuff up.  What were the men doing when all this physical abuse against their bodies was going on?  They were praying the Rosary.  Some were weeping.

To continue reading this article from The Sounding blog, click here….

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Just Imagine, John Lennon

In the world’s hagiology, it seems that untimely demise bestows a scent of secular sanctity, that those who die before their time are endowed with the status of saints.  Take for example the untimely death of Princess Diana.  Despite some remarkably unfortunate life choices (such as Dodi Fayed), she was instantly hailed as “the people’s princess” after her death in a Paris tunnel and paired with Mother Teresa (since they died within days of each other), some speaking of them walking hand in hand in heaven like two saints.  Serious comparison of the lives and choices of both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, of course, does nothing to lend support to the pairing, nor to the idea of Diana being the sort of saint that Mother Teresa was.  But untimely death brings with it an emotional response that often overwhelms moral discernment.   
            We see this in the case of John Lennon, who died at the age of 40 in 1980, gunned down as he and Yoko Ono were returning to their New York apartment.  He died of his wounds and was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital on December 8 at 11.07 p.m.  John Lennon was known for his advocacy of world peace, and became something of a poster boy for its cause.  As Wikipedia relates, “Lennon and Ono used their honeymoon as what they termed a ‘Bed-In for Peace’ at the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel.  At a second Bed-In three months later at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal Lennon wrote and recorded ‘Give Peace a Chance’.  Released as a single, it was quickly taken up as an anti-war anthem.  In December, they paid for billboards in 10 cities around the world which declared, in the national language, ‘War Is Over! If You Want It’. ” 
            It is hard to escape Lennon’s perennial message:  every year at the Christmas season we are treated to his rendition of  Happy Xmas (War is Over)” on the radio airwaves.  It always makes me think of his other perennial favourite, “Imagine”, which opens with the lyric:  “Imagine there’s no heaven.  It’s easy if you try.  No hell below us; above us only sky.  Imagine all the people living for today.  Imagine there’s no countries.  It isn’t hard to do.  Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.  Imagine all the people living life in peace.”  Lennon’s disdain for religion is here combined with his generation’s enthusiasm for peace, and the combination has found great resonance in the minds and hearts of many.  Lennon’s untimely demise has served to place his life and views beyond the pale of cultural criticism.  “Saint John” may not be easily contradicted.
            The question may be asked however:  what did John Lennon actually know about the true causes of peace and war, and about why nations wage war on one another?  More importantly, why are nations sometimes dissuaded from going to war?  It is unlikely that anyone was ever dissuaded from their own war-like impulses because John and Yoko famously allowed themselves to be photographed in bed together, or by reading their billboards announcing “War Is Over!  If You Want It”.  It is also unlikely that abolishing religion and countries would do the trick, for people sharing the same country and possessing no discernible religion still engage in war against others.  Of course when this occurs within the same country, it is called not “war”, but “crime”, but the interior war-like impulse is the same nonetheless.  War exists in the human heart, and neither bed-ins nor slogans can eliminate it from there.  Is there anything that can?
            If John Lennon had been able to truly imagine and think outside the politically correct box of his generation (or perhaps if he had read some Christian theology), he would’ve found that there is something which can remove war from the human heart and allow all the people to live in peace.  It is mentioned by St. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho.  In this work St. Justin writes, “We who were filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness have each throughout the whole earth changed our weapons of war—our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning hooks—and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.”  In other words, the religious impulse which Lennon disdained as the cause of war was actually the only thing capable of overcoming it.  The secularized scenario that John Lennon bids us “imagine” has never produced the longed for peace, however much some people may have wanted it.
            It is, of course, a bit much to expect that Lennon would have been familiar with the writings of St. Justin Martyr, which is admittedly a bit out of his field.  Closer to home for him however is the song “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen, which they performed in 1967 as a follow up hit to their previous popular song “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”.  In this Christmas song, the Red Baron is about to shoot down Snoopy in a World War I aerial dogfight when he hears the bells ringing from the churches below announcing Christmas Eve.  Touched by this and its implications for peace on earth, the Red Baron decides not to shoot down his adversary, but instead forces him to land behind enemy lines.  Though Snoopy expected that this was the end, he finds instead the Red Baron wishing him a merry Christmas and offering a holiday toast.  The song ends with them both flying off in opposite directions, refusing to fight on Christmas Eve.
            The song is not entirely fanciful.  It is based on the historical 1914 Christmas Eve truce.  On that evening, German soldiers began to sing Christmas carols and were joined by the “enemy” soldiers singing a few hundred yards away across No Man’s Land.  Soon they left their respective trenches and met in the middle, conversing, sharing drinks and cigarettes and personal tokens, and showing each other photos of loved ones left behind.  Some even played a game of soccer together.  The generals of both sides were emphatically not amused, and several soldiers were later court-marshalled for their part in the camaraderie.  You can see why:  it is difficult to persuade men to shoot others with whom moments before they were sharing a cigarette and swapping personal tokens.  It is difficult to persuade soldiers in the trenches to make other soldiers’ wives into widows and their children fatherless when moments before they had seen pictures of those wives and children.  Now, thanks to their common celebration of the birth of Christ, the other soldiers across No Man’s Land were not simply “the enemy” or dehumanized monsters, but simply men like themselves.  War had broken out in 1914 when healthy patriotism degenerated into unhealthy and fevered nationalism.  Peace broke out all along the front lines shortly afterward in 1914, when men remembered the origin of their Christian Faith and their common love for Christ.   Devotion to peace as a political abstraction played no part in this.  Devotion to the newborn Saviour did.
            Here is the only real hope for peace and for war being over.  True and lasting peace can never come from politics, from bed-ins and slogans, from plans and policies, for man is not fundamentally a political animal, and politics cannot heal the human heart.  Man is a spiritual animal, and healing for the human heart can only come from spiritual causes.  Only Christ can heal the human heart, and the birth of Christ announces the only hope for all the people living together in peace.  St. Justin Martyr knew that.  Even the Royal Guardsmen and Snoopy and the Red Baron knew that.  John Lennon did not know that.  Just imagine if he did.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A Church Obsessed?

          The love affair between the media and Pope Francis continues.  There is much to admire about the new Pope, such as his humble decision to take public transit, to answer his own phone calls, and to avoid some of the more gorgeous trappings of the papacy.  He is doing his best to strike a balance, placing the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic church (which he says that he continues to hold) in a broader context.  That is presumably what he intended to do when he confided to interviewers recently that he felt that the church must “talk about them [i.e. the issues of abortion, contraception, and gay marriage] in a context”.  The Roman Catholic church cannot focus only on these issues, and the moral structure of the church will “fall like a house of cards” if it does.  “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”  The media, which has decided that the new pope is radically different and much better than his more traditional predecessors, have seized upon his words as if he were back-pedalling on his church’s stands on these controversial issues.  I personally think that this is to misread the pontiff, and that he is trying to broaden the discussion, and not simply back-pedal.  But I would like to probe a bit further his statement that “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time” and the implication that the church is somehow obsessed with these issues as it speaks to the world.

To continue reading, click here.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Total Make-over of Jesus Christ

          I recently saw a brief debate on line, from the show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell”, featuring a debate about the existence of God.  The debate paired two stand-up comedians, Jamie Kilstein (arguing for atheism) and John Fugelsang (arguing for theism and belief in Jesus).  Although lacking in intellectual punch, the debate was good-tempered and funny in spots, as you might expect when it is arranged for two stand-up comedians to debate an issue.  John Fugelsang, a “Jesus believer”, must have had an interesting upbringing, since he described himself as “from an abnormally Christian background”, since he was the son of an ex-nun and a Franciscan brother.  Perhaps not surprisingly John was more keen on Jesus than he was on His Church.  Or, in his words, “I view Jesus much the way I view Elvis:  I love the guy, but a lot of the fan-clubs really freak me out”.  In fact Mr. Fugelsang’s defence of Christian theism involved a not-so-subtle denunciation of the Church as a way of distancing the figure of Jesus from the actions of others done in His Name.  It is a common-place in apologetics to admit that much that is done in Jesus’ Name and under the Christian banner has been appalling and is in no way expressive of authentic Christianity.  But as Mr. Fugelsang continued his rapid-fire apologia for Jesus, it was apparent that the Son of God had undergone a rather dramatic and extreme make-over.
            When John hit his stride, he asserted that the “fundamentalist Christians” (left unidentified, and cowering in the shadows) overlook “the fact that Jesus was pretty much the most extremely liberal guy ever, in history”.  By liberal, our apologist meant that Jesus “scares the hell of the conservative, even today” because He was a “peaceful, radical, non-violent revolutionary who hung out with lepers, hookers, and crooks…[He was] anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer…never anti-gay, never anti-abortion, never anti-premarital sex…a homeless, Middle-eastern, Jew!”  It was quite a performance.  I wish I could preach like that.  People were impressed.  Even Mr. Kilstein admitted that he would like to hang out with someone like that Jesus.
            The problem is that the Jesus proclaimed by Brother John has undergone such an extreme and total make-over that He is hard to recognize as the One we read about in the Bible.  I grant John’s point that many people in the American religious right have co-opted Jesus for some of their causes in a way that is not appropriate, and that it is at least possible that Jesus might not bless every single right-wing position.  But the irony is that Mr. Fugelsang is doing the exact same thing in the service of the left-wing.  Where, the Bible-expositor in me asks, did Jesus say anything about the death penalty, or public liturgical prayer?  Where did he talk about homosexuality or abortion or pre-marital sex in such a way that one could conclude that He was “never anti-gay, never anti-abortion, never anti-premarital sex”?—though concerning this last, we might conclude that since He condemned looking lustfully at a woman (Mt. 5:28) we might expect Him to be decisively unenthusiastic about pre-marital sex.  In fact Brother John has re-cast the Biblical Jesus to conform to the Jesus he would like to have, one who supports the left-wing causes so dear to him and to liberals generally.
            It is an old strategy.  It seems that everyone who hates the Church loves its Founder, and everyone wants Jesus on their side.  Thus the Communists hailed Jesus as the first Communist, and the Nazis hailed Him as the first National Socialist (and an Aryan at that).  In this venerable Search for the Historical Jesus, everyone re-makes the Lord into whatever suits their current fancy, by both suppressing some parts of His teaching and blowing up and intensifying other parts.  And of course all players in this game assume without argument that the historical Church is out to lunch, and has of course misunderstood and distorted the true Jesus.  Thus one can make a Jewish Jesus, a Muslim Jesus, and now a Liberal Jesus.  If one is desperate enough for attention and book sales, one can even make a Zealot Jesus. 
            I would suggest that the method whereby Jesus is made over is fundamentally flawed.  That is, one should not airily assume that the movement which He created and the men who wrote down His words and preserved them without a break for two millennia have nothing to say about what Jesus was actually like.  The cavalier dismissal of the first and second century Church is a little weird, when you think about it.  At the very least one could conclude that if the apostles who actually knew and wrote about Jesus could not understand Him, then it is unlikely that we can understand Him two thousand years later simply by reading their (supposedly) flawed apostolic memoirs.  If the first century apostolic Church could not “get it”, there really is no hope for anyone else getting it.  But as it is, there is no reason to think that the men who spent time with Jesus day in and day out, who were trained by Him and entrusted by Him with His mission and message, were incapable of “getting it”.  It does not take a great deal of faith to conclude that the apostles were able to preserve an authentic picture of Him, for after all, they were with Him for quite a while.  I would rather therefore trust the Church’s consistent and two-thousand year old picture of Jesus, than trust the most recent make-over.  Mr. Fugelsang may be a great comedian.  But here I find that it is his portrayal of Jesus that is the most funny.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Constantinian Authenticity: Eleona

          As we have seen from previous posts, in her book Christians and the Holy Places:  the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, Taylor argued that none of the churches which Constantine built in the Holy Land were erected on authentic sites—not the buildings in Mamre, Bethlehem, Golgotha or on the Mount of Olives.  Here we examine her arguments about the Eleona church on the Mount of Olives.
            It will be helpful to first examine the ancient claims for the authenticity of the Eleona church, which the ancients thought was built over the cave in which our Lord sat with His disciples Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mk. 13:3), when He revealed to them the mysteries concerning the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the end of the world (recorded in Mt. 24, Mk. 13, and Lk. 21, the so-called “Olivet Discourse”). 
            In the early fourth century, Eusebius wrote in his Demonstration of the Gospel (6.18), these words:  “Those who believe in Christ from all over the world come and congregate [in Jerusalem] to learn together the interpretation of the capture and devastation of Jerusalem, and that they may worship at the Mount of Olives, opposite the city.  According to the common and received account, the feet of our Lord and Saviour truly stood upon the Mount of Olives at the cave that is shown there.  On the ridge of the Mount of Olives He prayed and handed on to His disciples the mysteries of the end, and after this He made His ascension into heaven”.  In his Life of Constantine (3, 43), Eusebius also writes as follows:  “The emperor’s mother also raised up a stately edifice on the Mount of Olives in memory of the journey into heaven of the Saviour of all.  She put up a sacred church on the ridge beside the summit of the whole Mount.  Indeed a true report holds the Saviour to have initiated His disciples into secret mysteries in this very cave.”
             Also we find the Acts of John, an apocryphal work written probably in the beginning of the third century.  In this Gnostic work, John flees to the cave on the Mount of Olives where he has a vision of Jesus.  The Acts of John is a strange work, one of a number of Gnostic texts produced by extremely heterodox communities that flourished during that time.  How heterodox?  The author of the work denies that Christ left footprints when He walked, since He was not truly incarnate.  So:  pretty heterodox, enough so that the mainline Church would have little to do with it.
            Taylor fastens upon this last text, since it is earlier than the works of Eusebius and those who came after him.  She takes the author of the Acts of John to be writing simple fiction out of whole cloth, with no historical reference, and she asserts that this story later became fixed in the minds of mainline (i.e. Orthodox) Christians, such as Eusebius and those living in the fourth century.  For her the writer of the Acts of John imagined a cave and later Orthodox generations believed this story and imagined therefore that there must have been a genuine cave on the Mount of Olives where the Lord instructed His disciples.  Thinking without justification that there must have been a cave, they fastened on one of the many caves in the Mount of Olives as the cave, and that is the cave to which Eusebius referred.   Thus the cave over which the Eleona church was built has no historical authenticity.  It was simply one cave among many on the Mount of Olives, but there is no reason to think that our Lord ever was there, or that He taught in any cave on the Mount of Olives.  The whole story, for Taylor, finds its origin in the unhistorical fiction of the Gnostic Acts of John which later Orthodox generations were stupid enough to regard as historical.
Once again Taylor presupposes as tremendous amount of gullibility on the part of the ancient Fathers.  Even apart from this, it is extremely unlikely that Eusebius or anyone in the mainline Orthodox church in the third and fourth centuries would have given any credence to a work as weird and heretical as the Acts of John.   Taylor tries to blunt the Church’s violent opposition to such heretical groups by saying, “There was a less clearly defined dividing line between the two wings of the Church [i.e. Gnostic and Orthodox] at least among the mass of ordinary believers, than the chief theologians of the day would wish to concede’ (Taylor, op. cit., p. 147). 
This is misleading in the extreme.  Since the mid-second century, people such as Irenaeus drew a sharp dividing line between the mainline Church and the many Gnostic sects.  Labelling the many Gnostics sects and the one great Church as “the two wings of the Church” is nonsense.  In fact each of these “wings”—i.e. the single great Church and the many competing and mutually-contradictory Gnostics sects—detested each other, and had nothing to do with each other.  Taylor’s rewrite of history is breathtaking.  This mutual detestation between Gnostic and Orthodox makes it supremely unlikely that any text denying that the incarnate (or not-so-incarnate) Christ left footprints would be read in the Church as an authentic historical source.  And anyway Eusebius does not trace the tradition regarding the cave to a single text, either Gnostic or Orthodox.  He traces it to “a common and received account” which had spread to those “from all over the world”, and to “a true report”.  That is, he traces it to received account from the common people of the area handed on by tradition that the Lord instructed His disciples in that cave, and it is on this basis that the Gnostic Acts of John used that bit for their story in the first place.  For why else would the Gnostic author of the Acts of John thought of a cave as the site for the Olivet Discourse?  For the Gospel account says nothing about a cave.   The reference to the cave in the Acts of John presupposes a prior tradition, which it used for its story, and which was preserved by later generations as “a true report” in the Orthodox Church.  Making a fictitious Gnostic story the source of the cave locale presupposes not only a lacuna of popular memory, but also presupposes cosier relationship between the Gnostic sects and the mainline Church than we know existed.   There is therefore no reason so doubt Eusebius’ statement that the Eleona church was built over the same cave identified by earlier popular local witness.
As with Taylor’s mistrust of the local traditions preserved by faithful about the Mount of Olives, so her mistrust of local traditions regarding the Zion church in Jerusalem as the site of the original upper room, and the sites of Nazareth and Capernaum.  In general Taylor believed that Christians before Constantine had no interest in visiting the holy places, even if they could somehow travel to Palestine.  She also believes that by the time Christians did come to value holy sites in the fourth century, all local knowledge of their specific locales had been lost.  As we have suggested, this is to assume that the conversion of Constantine and the opportunities presented to the Church by his conversion somehow worked a change in the hearts and emotions of all the Christians, who now for some reason wanted to find the holy places that their fathers and grandfathers had no interest in.  This is quite unlikely.  Far more likely is that the devotional interests of fourth century Christians would have been the same as those of their fathers and grandfathers, and that all Christians in the early centuries were interested in finding the exact places where Biblical events actually occurred if they could.  Constantine’s conversion did not effect their hearts, just their opportunities.
There is also no reason to think that local people would have instantly forgotten the places where Christ lived and taught.  The local church of the first century would have preserved such knowledge, and there is no reason to think that they would not have passed it along to their children and grandchildren as part of their church’s local heritage.  In fact, that is just what we find when we examine the writings of the fourth century Fathers.  They consistently make reference to local traditions preserved and handed on.  It is really not so much of a stretch:  if local people in (say) Oxford have preserved knowledge of which house C. S. Lewis lived in and which pub he frequented, why would not the locals of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Capernaum have done the same thing about the places lived in and frequented by Jesus? 

Taylor’s work is flawed by her presupposition that locals did not in fact preserve this knowledge, and by her further lack of confidence that the Biblical events recorded as occurring there actually happened at all.  Having presupposed this, she then takes the lack of reference to pilgrimage prior to Constantine as evidence that no one prior to Constantine even cared about the sites.  But all that the lack of reference really proves is that Christians prior to Constantine were poor and under threat, and not likely to travel en masse to dangerous and foreign places.  As soon as such travel became more feasible, they did travel en masse.  This fourth century travel may therefore be taken as evidence of earlier desires to venerate the holy places.  The Christian presence in the Holy Land was not strong there prior to Constantine.  But it was unbroken, and this insured that local traditions of geographical authenticity would not be lost.  They were there to build upon when Constantine came in the fourth century.