Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Firefly: Dying Alone

           Setting the scene:  the Firefly ship containing Captain Mal and his crew is out of gas.  That is, the ship sustained an explosion which knocked out its power and its life-support, and everyone is rapidly running out of oxygen.  In a short time, if they remain aboard the ship, they will all die.  Mal therefore orders them into the two shuttles, and sends them out in opposite directions in the dim hope that they will find help.  He chooses to remain on board the Firefly in case someone passing by responds to the distress call which was sent out.  The crew, knowing the long odds against anyone responding in time, realizes that this choice of Mal’s to remain on board is a death-sentence.  One of them, Inara, says to him, “This isn’t the ancient sea—you don’t have to go down with the ship.  Mal, you don’t have to die alone.”  Mal looks at her at says, “Everybody dies alone.”
            In Mal’s bittersweet riposte, we hear the ancient voice of mankind, labouring long and sorrowfully, the sad wisdom of a doomed race.  Mal speaks here with noble and courageous resignation in the face of the inevitable.  Mal is mankind, adrift in a tumultuous world, sure of little, except the truth that everybody dies, and everybody dies alone.  But Mal, for all his courage and nobility, has forgotten one thing.  He has forgotten Pascha.
            Pascha reveals that we do not have to die alone, but that Christ our Lord, triumphant over death, is now the Lord of both the dead and the of living (Rom. 14:9).  A long tradition in the Church speaks of angels escorting the soul to its destination, a journey of joy for the saved whose hope is to “depart and to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).  Monastic literature is replete with stories of monks who at the moment of death stepped from the seen into the unseen world—not alone, but into a realm populated with spiritual powers.  One short example may suffice.  It is said that when Abba Sourous died and delivered up his soul “at once the angels received it, and choirs of martyrs led it up to heaven, while the other monks looked on and heard the hymns”.  Abba Sourous did not die alone.  By His death, Christ brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:10), and Abba Sourous died attended by a multitude of angels and saints.   
In a way truer than she knew, Inara was right.  Mal, you don’t have to die alone.  None of us do.  Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Firefly: The Lies of Inara Serra

              In this post, I would like to continue my meditations on the lessons drawn from the TV series “Firefly”. In particular, I would like to examine the lies told—and the basic lie lived—by Inara Serra, the crew member who worked as a “Companion” (that is, a very high priced prostitute or courtesan).
              In the world of Firefly, such Companions were very respectable. They were different than the usual prostitutes, being more like geishas. They belonged to an exclusive guild, and had to be trained in music, tea-ceremony, and other cultural refinements before being certified as a Companion. They were the ones who did the choosing of partners, selecting from among those desiring their services. Unlike actual geishas, however, paid sex was a part of their work.
Inara, as a traditional Companion, is proud of her work and her status. For her, sex is no big deal; it is simply a part of the honourable work of a Companion, and of no more moral significance than sharing tea in a tea ceremony. Mal, however, is not so convinced. As far as he’s concerned, she works as a whore (his word, objected to strenuously by her), and she should find other work. He respects her, but not her trade. Mal may have lost his faith during the failed rebel war, but something from his old Christian days clearly remains.
            During one of the crew’s adventures, they are called to come to the rescue of a group of women who are being tyrannized by the main man in the town, the rich bully and mayor who has the whole town under his thumb. The women needing rescuing are, in fact, prostitutes working in a brothel. The women themselves are prostitutes of the usual and common kind, though their “Madame” is a former Companion, and friend of Inara’s. She is the one who sent the distress call to Inara, and through Inara, to Mal and the crew of Firefly. They come rushing to the rescue. The stage is set.
             The intrepid crew of rescuers soon find themselves outnumbered and besieged in the house where the women live. They board up the windows, collect guns and ammo, and await the final dawn attack. They may well die in the morning, and Mal is invited by the Madame to have sex with her during their final night. After all, they may well all die in the morning. Mal and Inara share an unspoken and unacknowledged emotional attachment. Bluntly put, they love each other, though neither will openly admit to it. But the morning after, when Inara finds Mal emerging from the bedroom of her friend, and realizes that they slept together, she professes to be fine. She is completely Okay With It. After all, for her in her profession, sex is no big deal, and has no moral significance. She has no problem with someone she loves having sex with someone else. She is An Adult, a Companion, a sophisticated person. Sex is just sex, and does not involve emotional connection. In her words, “One of the virtues of not being Puritanical about sex is not feeling embarrassed afterwards. She’s well worth taking advantage of. I sincerely hope you did.” Good ol’ Inara. A modern, liberated woman.
                  Cut to the next scene, and we see that Inara Serra told a lie. We see her alone in her room, sitting on the floor in a corner, collapsed in grief, crying uncontrollably. Maybe ascribing true and lasting significance to having sex is not “Puritanical”. Maybe it is just human. Maybe it is not okay for the man she loves to have sex with somebody else. Inara’s training and the propaganda of her day might have proclaimed that sex had no moral significance, but clearly her heart knew better.
                 In our day we need to learn from Inara’s tears, shed in bitter solitude. It is a lie to say that having sex does not bind two people together. It is a lie to say that casual sex is possible, and that sex is no big deal. Loving someone involves exclusivity and fidelity. Inara Serra tried to deny this, but for her, light and truth came with the morning.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Trusting the Eye-witnesses: a Reply to Mr. Sullivan

The April 2 edition of Newsweek Magazine featured a piece (just in time for Western Easter) by journalist Andrew Sullivan. It is a heartfelt piece, urging its readers to ignore (i.e. reject) all forms of contemporary Christianity and to embrace Jesus instead. Reading this thoughtful essay, I could not shake the feeling that Mr. Sullivan was intending his piece to be edgy and radical. But for those whose reading is not confined to Newsweek Magazine, it was painfully apparent that Mr. Sullivan was in fact re-issuing The Same Old Thing. Far from being new and radical in his proposal, he was trudging down a well-trodden road in the wake of many people before him. The road even has a name, and can be found in Wikipedia. The road is called “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”, and earlier pedestrians along the road included, as well as Sullivan’s own Thomas Jefferson, such people as Albert Schweitzer, William Wrede, David Strauss, Ernest Renan, demythologizing Rudolf Bultmann, the chaps of the “Jesus Seminar”, and others too numerous to mention. The project boasts a cast of thousands, all walking down the same road, all sharing the same presuppositions, all determined to rescue the real Jesus from the false Jesus offered by the historical Church. They are a mixed lot, and each one comes up with his own particular version of the Historical Jesus, proclaiming his own creation to be the Real McCoy.

The Quest is easy enough to join. Simply follow these three steps:

  1. Take the New Testament (any version), and pretend the Acts and Epistles do not exist.
  2. Go through the four Gospels, and highlight the sayings and stories of Jesus that appeal to you.
  3. Present this newer and leaner Jesus as the authentic one, consigning the rest of the sayings and stories of Jesus to the round bin entitled “the doctrines of the Church/ St. Paul”.

Presto! You too have now rescued Jesus from the hands of “politicians, priests and get-rich quick evangelists”. It is easy to feel confident about the new product, since the politicians, priests and get-rich quick evangelists are such an easy target. Few people would spend much time defending get-rich quick evangelists; fewer still would defend everything that the Roman Catholic Church has ever done. And no one in their senses would defend much done by politicians at any time. So, one quickly comes to the conclusion that, these being so wrong, your version must be right.

The ease with which the Quest is undertaken perhaps accounts for the many versions of it that have appeared throughout the years. As said above, Mr. Sullivan’s is by no means the first. Communists have looked at Jesus and pronounced Him the first true Communist; existentialists have looked at Him and found the first existentialist; flower children have rejoiced in Him as the first exponent of free love. Christian Scientists have seen Him as the great healer; socialists recognized Him as the great social reformer. Even the Nazi’s managed to hail Him as a true Aryan (though given His unequivocally Jewish mother, this was a little trickier). It seems that the methodology of the Quest makes Jesus of Nazareth into the proverbial wax nose that can be reshaped however we like.

This alone should give us pause. As G.K. Chesterton observed in his The Everlasting Man (written almost a hundred years ago), there must surely be something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of Him. In fact, each version of the Quest consists of reduction, paring down the parts of Christ that do not resonate with our taste, and canonizing as uniquely authentic the parts that do. One question is: why should one prefer one version of the historical Jesus over another? Mr. Sullivan offers us the new Non-political Jesus, whose Gospel consisted essentially of lovingly embracing one’s powerlessness. Why should one opt for his product over that of (say) S.G.F. Brandon, for whom Jesus was a failed political revolutionary? How does one choose which of the smaller Christs offered by the various Questers is the right one?

There is another question that must be faced as well, another speed bump on the Questing road. Oddly enough, it was mentioned by Mr. Sullivan, but he seems to have driven over it without realizing it.

I refer to his statement, “the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministries”. It is true, as Mr. Sullivan goes on to say, that these Gospels are preserved by “copies of copies of stories”. They are indeed; the study of this truth is called “Textual Criticism”, and scholars have been hard at it for quite a while. One aspect of their study may be mentioned here—that the “copies of the copies of the stories” are far more numerous than anything else surviving from antiquity, and this alone gives us assurance that the copies we possess today are pretty much what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote in the originals.

To put this into historical perspective, it is instructive to compare the New Testament with other ancient texts. The Greek writer Herodotus wrote his History around 450 B.C. No more than eight manuscripts of this work have survived, and they date from around 900 A.D., yet no scholar questions the authenticity of the text. The same is true of other ancient manuscripts. Julius Caesar wrote his Gallic Wars about 55 B.C., and only ten valid manuscripts have survived, dating from about 900 years after Caesar wrote them, yet all scholars accept the text as reliable. Plato wrote in about 400 B.C., and only seven copies of his work Tetralogies exist, the earliest of which dates from 900 A.D. But despite this 1200 year time span separating the original from the oldest manuscript copy, no one questions the authenticity of this text of Plato.

Compare all this with the New Testament. Herodotus’ History survives in just eight manuscripts; the New Testament survives in hundreds of manuscripts. The earliest surviving copy of Herodotus’ History is 1300 years later than its original; the earliest New Testament is only 300 or so years later than its original. Indeed, two copies of John’s Gospel (the Bodmer papyri) date from about 200 A.D.—just over one hundred years from the time of the original. No wonder that Sir Frederic Kenyon (one the great authorities in the field of Textual Criticism) wrote, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.” Having “copies of copies” is a point for the historicity of the Gospel story, not against it.

The same is true regarding Mr. Sullivan’s statement that the stories were written decades after the events. The events narrated about Jesus date from about 30 A.D. or so, and the Gospel accounts were circulating in the 60’s—about three decades later. (St. Luke, Paul’s companion in the 60’s, said he consulted a number of these already existing accounts when making his own; see Lk. 1:1-4). And let’s be clear: three decades is nothing. I can clearly remember seminal and important events in my life from three decades ago. I clearly remember being converted to Christ, getting married, the birth of my first child—all of which happened three decades ago or more. Certain things one of course forgets. I have no idea who was my gym teacher in grade six. But the important things one remembers. And arguably, nothing was more important to the first Christians than the life, sayings, and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth. If I can clearly remember my wedding, why could not St. John and the other disciples who were there remember the wedding in Cana of Galilee when Christ turned the water into wine? If I can remember lectures and words given by my Old Testament prof in college, why could not Peter and the others remember the Sermon on the Mount or Christ’s claims to divinity?

It is apparent that the Gospels are reliable enough in what they report, for the fact of their origin no more than a mere three decades after the original events, and the presence of hundreds of manuscript copies of them guarantee such authenticity. Each Quester therefore selects from these Gospels the bits he prefers and discards the rest, claiming to have at last discovered the real Jesus. As C. S. Lewis once observed about this process, this involves “the claim that the real behavior and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood by His followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars...The idea that any man should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous.” And surely Lewis here simply offers common sense? If those twelve men who lived with Jesus and with each other day in and day out for months on end can’t be trusted to “get it”, there is no hope for us to recover the truth—or for Mr. Sullivan. Our real choice is not between the Jesus offered by contemporary Christianity and the one offered by Mr. Sullivan. It is between the one offered by the New Testament and complete ignorance regarding Jesus of Nazareth.

That is why I am a sceptic regarding all such Quests for the Historical Jesus, including this latest one. I trust that the original eyewitnesses and writers of the Gospels—who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles and some of the New Testament epistles—knew what they were talking about. I’ll pass on the smaller Christ that Mr. Sullivan has carved out for us. I will stick the larger and more complete one available in the Church.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Red Book on sacraments

This is the seventh and last look at the volume I have been called “The Red Book”. The first post of mine on the book can be found here. And at the risk of “blowing the gaff” of anonymity, a review of book by an Evangelical Protestant can be found here. For now I would like to examine the chapter of The Red Book on sacraments—which for these Protestant authors of course means baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

To my delight and surprise, the authors recognize the saving importance of baptism as “the way someone came to the Lord”. With their customary willingness to jettison their own ancestral Evangelical tradition, Valentinus and Marcion write, “Nowhere in all the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer...Instead, unbelievers in the first century were led to Jesus Christ by being taken to the waters of baptism.” I quite agree. The authors however go on to fault the church for requiring “in the early second century” a “period of instruction, prayer and fasting” before baptism (i.e. a catechumenate). For Valentinus and Marcion, then “baptism became a rigid and embellished ritual that borrowed much from Jewish and Greek culture—elaborate with blessing the water, full disrobing, the uttering of a creed, anointing oil with exorcism...it had devolved into an act associated with works rather than with faith.” It is difficult to understand why insisting that converts be instructed before baptism would be problematic. It is even more difficult to understand why liturgical prayers or full disrobing (did they suppose that converts in the first century were baptized fully clothed?) should make baptism into “an act associated with works”. Once again, it seems that any development in liturgical or pastoral praxis is automatically ruled out of court. The authors of The Red Book seem to demand that nothing should change after the first century—a demand which, if met, would mean that the New Testament canon would not exist.

My guess is that they saw from the New Testament that the apostles did not wait until new converts were instructed before baptizing them (e.g. Acts 8:36-38), and so they concluded that this must be our practice also. It misses the point that the apostles’ ministry was sui generis, a category all by itself. Paul, for example, baptized his converts immediately because he was not in town for that long, and had no other choice. For the same reason he ordained some of his converts right away, without waiting for them to mature (see Acts 14:23). But after the local churches he founded were established, a different praxis immediately came into play, and new converts were not ordained right away, but had to wait until they had matured somewhat (see 1 Tim. 5:22). Doubtless it was the same with baptism, and new converts were not baptized until they were instructed. When The Red Book dates the catechumenate to “the early second century”, it might as well date it to the late first century, since the change happened then. A change in baptismal praxis did not occur in the early second century after the apostles had all died, but when the apostles left town in the first century, and the churches they established were left on their own.

In their analysis of “the Lord’s Supper”, Valentinus and Marcion have little to offer beyond polemic. They correctly note that originally the anamnesis or memorial that the Lord commanded to be made (Lk. 22:19-20) was part of an actual meal (hence Paul’s designation of it as part of a “supper” in 1 Cor. 11:20). They date the separation of the Eucharist from the meal to “the late second century”, whereas it was in fact separated by the apostles in the late first century (see the post on church buildings here). Oddly enough, they quote Dix’s The Shape of the Liturgy to support their late date, whereas Dix himself contends that it took place “before the writing of the first of our gospels” (Shape, p. 101).

Valentinus and Marcion nowhere explain their understanding of the Lord’s Supper; they say “ we cannot concern ourselves with the theological minutiae that surround the Lord’s Supper”. We are therefore left to guess what they believe. All that they say is that “the Lord’s Supper was a festive communal meal... when believers...broke the bread and passed it around. Then they ate their meal, which then concluded after the cup was passed around...The Lord’s Supper was essentially a Christian banquet...a joyful, down-to-earth, nonreligious meal in someone’s living room”. The point of meal seems to be that it provided “a dramatic and concrete picture of Christ’s body and blood”—i.e. a visual aid illustrating the fact that Jesus died for us. Students of “theological minutiae” will recognize this understanding as classic Zwinglianism, or a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.

It seems that for the authors of The Red Book this Zwinglian interpretation is so obvious that it needed no defense (or even clear statement). They accordingly saved their ink for polemic: the Eucharist of the post-apostolic church is “a study in abstract and metaphysical thought”, the result of “the growing influence of pagan religious ritual”, “a priestly ritual that was to be watched at a distance”, influenced by “pagan mystery religions, which were clouded with superstition”, something “taken with glumness by the priest”. The priest “was believed to have the power to call God down from heaven and confine Him to a piece of bread”.

Since Solomon says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly” (Prov. 26:4), I will not say much in response. Instead, I will only point that the Eucharist was called a sacrifice by the Didache as early as 100 A.D. (earlier than this, Clement of Rome spoke of the clergy as “offering the gifts”); and that St. Paul referred to eating the bread as sharing not just bread but the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), so that to profane the Eucharist by partaking unworthily was to “be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). People who did this became sick, and some even died (1 Cor. 11:30). None of this sounds like merely “a dramatic and concrete picture of Christ’s body and blood”, but rather of a sacramental sharing of Christ’s actual Body and Blood. St. Ignatius of Antioch, dying a martyr in about 107 A.D. and therefore serving as bishop in the first century, was emphatic that the Eucharist was a sacrifice and was Christ’s true Body and Blood. For him, it was only heretics who “do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins and which the Father raised up” (Smyrnaeans, ch. 7). All of this witnesses to the apostolic tradition of the Eucharist as sacrificial and as the true Body and Blood of the Lord.

To sum up this and all the other reviews of The Red Book in this series, I suggest that everyone, including the authors whose work I have been examining, has a choice—a choice between trusting that God guided His Church as it went through history, or that He abandoned it as soon as the apostles died. The apostolic trajectory we see in the pages of the New Testament continued without a break as the mid-first century became the late first century, and then as the late first century became the early second century. Attentive readers of that history can see an unbroken continuity—a continuity preserved even today in the Orthodox Church. When Christ promised that His Spirit would guide His Church into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18), He was making history into the arena in which He would work. We can trust His Church as it progresses through history, because we can trust His promise. To confine our faith in the Lord’s guidance to the first century alone and to reject everything that followed as if it were betrayal and apostasy, is ultimately to refuse to trust the Lord Himself. The issue is not The Red Book (for which reason I have used pseudonyms both for the book and its authors). The real issue is the reliability of the promises of Christ.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Firefly: Creating Family

Under my black cassock, I am wearing a brown coat. Not literally, of course, but certainly metaphorically. That is, I am an unapologetic fan, defender, and devotee of the TV series Firefly. My family owns three (that’s “three”) DVD copies of the series—one for watching, one for loaning, and one for an emergency backup in case something happens to the other two. Like I said: a fan.

One of the reasons I am such a fan is because the series provides the preacher in me with so many good lines and so much good theological material. Here I would like to examine what it is perhaps Firefly’s most obvious lesson—how to create unity out of diversity.

The crew of Firefly (for the uninitiated, Firefly is the ship in which everyone lives) are indeed all quite diverse. There is the captain and owner of the ship, “Mal”, a tough cynic and former believer who lost his faith fighting for the lost rebel cause. There is his first mate, an equally-tough lady named Zoe, battle-hardened, disciplined, and a fellow-soldier with Mal in the rebel army (the “Browncoats”). She is married to a distinctly non-battle hardened man, one who plays with toy dinosaurs and pilots the ship. His name is Washburne. We find a mercenary Jayne Cobb, a man without any obviously noticeable culture or conscience. We find the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee, sweet as everyone’s little sister, and the heart of the ship. We find a clergyman, (a “shepherd”) by the name of Book, a man of humour, strength, and conscience. We find fugitives on the run, Simon, a doctor, and his kid sister River, whom he saved by abducting her from a mysterious facility that was experimenting upon her brain. And we find a professional and pricey prostitute, taken on board to give the crew some respectability. (Yes, respectability—she is a very professional and very pricey prostitute—“companions” they were called.) Surveying them all, it would be hard to find a more diverse lot, and one is tempted to scornfully say that only on television could you actually find such a diverse group occupying the same space.

The scornful should resist the temptation, for the truth is that each parish is made up of such a diverse group. In fact, Christian unity in diversity is what it’s all about. This diversity began with the Twelve: in this group you had humble fishermen, who had no real “connections” with the important and the powerful, and you had someone who was well-connected enough with the powerful to know the High Priest (see Jn. 18:15). You had a Zealot (who wanted to kill all the Romans), and you had a tax-collector (who worked for the Romans). The Twelve were a mixed lot, with nothing to bind them into one except their love for their Lord.

The earliest apostolic churches continued this diversity, with Jews rubbing shoulders with Gentiles, rich with poor, educated with uneducated, slaves with slave-owners. The earliest churches were not divided into homogenous groups (or “jurisdictions”). Every Christian in a given geographical area was a part of the same local church. Regardless of their ethnicity, race, former religion, age, amount of wealth, or educational status, they all found themselves rubbing shoulders with each other in the same community week by week, and drinking from the same Chalice. We are called to do the same today. In our parishes we find that same old diversity, and we rub up against people utterly unlike us. In all this rubbing, we may find ourselves “rubbed the wrong way” by those sharing the same space in church, and yet we are called to be one with them. But how does one do that? How does one create unity between persons who are so different?

Firefly shows us how—by being together and by sharing danger. The shared dangers and crises they endured slowly moulded the crew of Firefly into a single group, a single body. Their differences were not annihilated; each person was still very different from all the others. But each had his own contribution to make to the common goal of survival. And each was valued because of that unique contribution. It is the same in the parish: everyone is different, everyone is unique. Everyone is valued. But worshipping together Sunday by Sunday, and sharing the experience of striving to survive the challenges from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, slowly mould us into a single body. Joss Whedon, the creator behind Firefly, called this “creating family”. We call it “living as the body of Christ”.