Thursday, June 28, 2012

Peter and Paul: Getting Along

“Why can’t we all just get along?”  That is the question asked with hopeful and heartfelt poignancy by the President of the United States, played by Mr. Jack Nicholson, in the classic and campy 1996 satire Mars Attacks!  The earth is under attack by the short, wacky-looking but well-armed Martians, and in a wonderfully satirical scene, the President makes this heart-felt appeal to his Martian attackers.  It seems as if the appeal will be successful, and those of Mars and Earth will combine in fruitful friendship.  The Martian leader looks chastened as the President continues his appeal; he casts down his eyes shame-facedly.  His Martian eyes tear up.  He approaches Nicholson and offers the hand of ostensible friendship.  Nicholson takes the hand—only to discover that the hand detaches itself from the Martian’s arm and becomes a weapon which plunges itself into the President’s heart, killing him instantly.  From the hand of the elongated weapon sprouts the Martian flag, planted in the earth through the dead body of the President.  Why can’t we all just get along indeed.
It is not just in Hollywood farces that such conflicts erupt and such questions are asked.  On earth, nations, races, and tribes regularly engage in conflict as the war that rests in the fallen human heart spills out in outer and murderous behavior.  Whether it be something as minor as private domestic quarrelling or public road rage, or whether it be something as major as wide-spread international genocide, such conflicts have characterized and marred human existence from the beginning.  The Scriptures report that human history began with a murder as Cain killed Abel, and since then all history has continued in that same terrible trajectory.  Why can’t we all just get along?  Why are differences the cause of conflict, rather than celebration?  We delight that flowers and colours differ from one another; why do we seem to find it impossible to delight also when human beings differ from one another? 
            It is just here that the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul can help us.  Speaking of differences, you could scarcely find two men as different as Peter and Paul.  Peter was a fisherman, a blue-collar man, brought up in Galilee, a hotbed of Jewish nationalism.  He was not well-educated, nor particularly well-travelled, nor was he especially articulate.  He had a heart for reaching his own Jewish people, and was recognized, as the leader of the Twelve, to be spearheading the mission to “the circumcision”.  Paul, on the other hand, was educated, brought up at the feet of the famous Jerusalem Rabbi Gamaliel.   He hailed from a city in the Diaspora, Gentile Tarsus, which as Paul delighted to inform people, was “no mean city”.  Unlike Peter, Paul was well-travelled and articulate.  His heart was in the mission to the Gentiles, and he was acknowledged as both its poster-boy and its champion.  Perhaps it was inevitable that the two men should clash, and clash loudly and publicly. 
As Paul tells it in Gal. 2:11f, when he came to Antioch, Peter put his foot in it royally.  Prior to the coming of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem, Peter had no problem sharing table fellowship with the Gentile Christians, despite the revulsion this would cause traditionally-minded Jews.  But when these men came from traditionally-minded Jerusalem, Peter’s nerve failed him, and he refused to eat with the Gentiles any longer.  In Paul’s memorable phrase, “he stood condemned”.  So it was that Paul opposed him publicly, forcefully, and to his face, calling him to account for such hypocritical inconsistency:  “How is it that you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews and yet still compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”  Ouch.  It was a spectacular rebuke, aimed with deadly effectiveness and accuracy.  In some versions of the passage in Galatians 2 (it is not quite clear where the quote of Paul’s public speech ends), Paul went on from the question to preach a kind of mini-sermon.  Peter’s response is not recorded.  My personal guess is that he decided he was no longer hungry and left the room.  Not exactly a “Kodak moment” for the harmony of the early church.
Yet later, they seem to have made up admirably, and no trace of any former rancor can be found.  Peter speaks in his last epistle of “our beloved brother Paul” (2 Pt. 3:15; I take this epistle to be genuinely Petrine), and Paul in his final days seems also to have been at peace with everyone also, including Mark, whom he declared as “useful to me for service” despite a former quarrel (2 Tim. 4:11; Acts 15:36-40).   These were not men to hold grudges.  When both Peter and Paul perished in the same Neronian persecution that swept over the Roman church after the Great Fire of 64 A.D., they seem to have ended their days as brothers.  The old quarrels had long since been resolved.  They had found the secret of “getting along”.
That secret, as either of them would tell you, is Jesus.  Their common love for the Lord was the secret well-spring of their love for each other.  United by that love for Christ, they were able to acknowledge each other as brothers, and not let their differences become sources of conflict.  The church rejoices in their example, keeping their feast each year on June 29, and venerating their icon, which shows them either embracing each other, or together holding aloft the single church of Christ for which they both labored so well.  The lesson that their brotherly embrace offers us is clear:  with Jesus in the heart, anyone can get along with anyone.  But without Him, quarreling men have as much chance of lasting and fruitful reconciliation as if they were men of Earth and Mars. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Brief Meditation on the Old Testament--and an Ad

         When I was in grade five, along with the rest of my grade five classmates, I received a New Testament (with Psalms) from the Gideons.  Apparently the Gideons had an agreement with the schools that they might distribute the New Testament free of charge to all grade five school children, in much the same way as they famously placed the entire Bible free of charge in every hotel room.  It is easy now to smile at the evangelical optimism of the Gideons, but my wife credits her youthful spiritual awakening to reading that grade five New Testament.  (Significantly, her conversion to Christ was not complete until she spoke to her friend who took her to her Baptist Church.  From my present perspective, I would say that this illustrates the Orthodox assertion that the Scriptures only bear fruit fully when read and experienced from within the Church.)  I have always wondered why the Gideons distributed only the New Testament in schools, and not the entire Bible.  I imagine that it had something to do with cost, since the printing and distributing of the entire Bible would cost rather more than printing and distributing the slimmer volume of the New Testament.  Doubtless they felt that, given their desire to convert people to Christ through the reading the Scriptures, concentrating on the New Testament gave them more bang for their limited buck.  Whatever their reasoning for offering the New Testament only, they are surely to be commended for their zeal and desire to convert children to the One who said that the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to such as them.

     Having said that, we still need to read the entire Bible, both the New Testament and “the other Testament”, especially since this “other Testament” is something of a closed book to many Christians.  My guess is that many Christians begin to read with good intentions, beginning on page one, like they do with any other book, plow through Genesis well enough (lots of good stories, such as the exciting tale of Joseph and his brothers), enjoy reading about Israel’s deliverance from Egypt in the early chapters of Exodus (thanks perhaps largely to Charlton Heston), and then bog down considerably in the wilderness (which is where Israel also bogged down).  Chapter after chapter about building the Tabernacle and its furnishings, with no pictures.  Then comes Leviticus, with long descriptions about how to sacrifice animals and which parts of their guts to burn on the altar and where to put the blood, and by then it’s pretty much game over.  Forget about Numbers and Deuteronomy.  They may remember stories about Joshua And The Battle Of Jericho, when the walls came a-tumbling down, but it is unlikely they will get far enough into the text to read about it.  The Old Testament, which for our Lord and the apostles and their Church was simply “the Scriptures”, is now “the other Testament”.  The bookmark remains, to all intents and purposes, left somewhere in Exodus. 
       This is a shame, for it means that we Orthodox are missing a large and profound part of our heritage.  Indeed, much of our church hymnody presupposes familiarity with the Old Testament, such as the hymn extolling the Mother of God as the Jar, the Candle-stick and the Table.  The writer of this hymn (which is sung as the bishop enters and vests in the church) clearly presupposed that those who heard the hymn knew the material of the Book of Exodus.  He presupposed that all were acquainted with the story of how Moses took some of the heavenly manna and preserved it in a jar which was kept in the Ark (see Ex. 16:33-34), and he further expected his hearers to make the typological connection which saw the Mother of God as the earthly jar which contained Jesus, the Bread of heaven.  It was a brilliant typology and a brilliant hymn, and if we have no familiarity with the Book of Exodus we will miss the whole thing.  Clearly, we need to soak ourselves more in the "other testament".
The title of this post mentioned an ad, and here it is.  I have written a book to help gain familiarity with the Old Testament, and to understand it.  It looks at the major divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures, looking at several passages in detail, helping us to read the text with Christian eyes.  The aim of the book is to impart an understanding of the Old Testament as a whole, and thereby to kindle a love for it.  My hope and prayer is that one will take up the Old Testament and read it.  One can take up my book by turning to the Conciliar Press site here

Monday, June 18, 2012

Evolution or Creation Science?

           In my years as a priest and of sharing the Gospel, I have heard many reasons offered for not becoming a Christian:  scandals associated with clergy, the wealth of the Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. etc.  I thought I had more or less heard it all, and so was unprepared for a reason one young man offered to justify his rejection of Orthodoxy—namely, that dinosaurs were not in the Bible.  I blinked a few times, and was left temporarily speechless (something of a rarity with me, to which those who know me well can attest).  His idea was that since dinosaurs obviously existed (their skeletons adorn our museums), then if the Bible was God’s Word, he should be able to read about dinosaurs in the Bible.  Since he could not find them there (I refrained from mentioning certain fundamentalist interpretations of Leviathan and Behemoth in the Book of Job), then obviously the Bible could not be God’s Word and he could not remain Orthodox.  He was referring of course to the old supposed conflict between Science and Religion, and in this arm-wrestling match, it was clear to him that Science had won.  No Biblical dinosaurs, no more church-going. 
            So, what’s the deal about dinosaurs?  Why aren’t they in the creation stories in Genesis?  Apart from the absurdity of supposing they’re not there because they aren’t mentioned by name (the duck-billed platypus isn’t mentioned by name either), it’s a valid question, and one that leads us headlong into the question of how to interpret the early chapters of Genesis. 
            Interpretation of the creation stories too often degenerates into an argument between the theory of evolution vs. what is sometimes called “creation science”.  By “evolution” the average non-scientific person means the notion that Man descended from the apes, or from a common ancestor of apes and men.  The name “Darwin” is usually thrown about, regardless of how the ideas in his On the Origin of Species have fared in the scientific community since Darwin wrote it in 1859, and most people’s knowledge of evolution is confined to looking at the famous evolutionary chart in National Geographic, showing how smaller hominids kept walking until they became human beings like us.  By “creation science” is meant the view that the Genesis stories are to be taken as scientifically or historically factual, so that the earth (often considered to be comparatively young) was created by God in six twenty-four hour days.  Since the time of the “Scopes monkey trial”, the argument between “evolutionists” and “creationists” has been going strong, and is often fought in the nation’s courts and departments of education.  Arm-wrestling indeed.
            Happily for people with weak arms like myself, the Church does not call us to take part in this arm-wrestling match.  The creation stories in Genesis were not written, I suggest, to give us a blow-by-blow account of how we got here.  Rather, they were written to reveal something fundamental about the God of Israel and the privileged status of the people who worshipped Him.  We assume today that the ancients wanted to know how we got here, and how we were created.  In fact, they were mostly uninterested in such cosmic questions, and the creation myths that existed in the ancient near east spoke to other issues.  Most people back then, if they thought of the question of cosmic origins at all, assumed that the world had always existed, and the various gods they worshipped were simply part of that eternal backdrop.  That is where the creation stories were truly revolutionary.  Their main point was not merely that God created the world; it was that the tribal God of the Jewish people was sovereign over the world.   
We take monotheism for granted, and spell “god” with a capital “G”.  For us, God is singular and unique by definition.  It was otherwise in the ancient near east.  That age was populated by different gods, each with his or her own power, agenda, and career.  And this is the point:  in the Genesis stories, none of these gods are there.  In the opening verses we read, “In the beginning God (Hebrew Elohim, a Jewish name for their God) created the heavens and the earth” and “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh God made earth and heaven.”  The creating deity is called “Elohim” and “Yahweh”—the names for the Jewish God.  Other rival deities are simply not there. It is as if they do not exist. They had been dethroned and demoted by their omission from the story.  The opening verse of Genesis is a salvo fired into the world of polytheism, a ringing declaration that their gods were nobodies.
            We keep reading and discover that this Jewish God made everything that existed by His simple word of command.  He simply said, “Light—exist!” (two words in the original Hebrew), and light sprang into existence.  In the creation myths of the pagan cultures of that time, the gods created by lots of huffing and puffing (in an Old Babylonian myth, the god Enlil uses a hoe), but not so the God of the Jews.  He is above all that.  For Him, a simple sovereign word suffices.  In fact, in the first chapter of Genesis, all the cosmos was brought into being by Him uttering ten simple commands (yep, it does foreshadow the Ten Commandments, given later).   
And Man is portrayed in these stories as the sum and crown of creation, giving the human person a dignity never before known.  Man is said to have been made “in the image of God”—a revolutionary statement, since in those days, only kings were thought to be in the divine image.  Despite this, Genesis invests the common man with this royal dignity.  And even more:  it says that woman shares this image and rule with him.  In the ancient near east, women were chattel; in Genesis, she is a co-ruler of creation with the man. 
The stories of Genesis cannot be read apart from their original cultural context, and when we read them as they were meant to be read, we see that the creation story was a gauntlet thrown down before the prevailing culture of its time.  The creation stories affirmed that the Jewish God, the tribal deity of a small and internationally unimportant people, alone made the whole cosmos.  That meant that He was able to protect His People.  It meant that, properly speaking, all the pagan nations should abandon their old gods and worship Him.  These stories affirm that the Jewish God is powerful enough to have created everything by a few simple orders.  They affirm that Man is not the mere tool and slave of the gods, whose job it is to feed the deities and care for their temples.  Rather, Man is a co-ruler with God, His own image and viceroy on earth.  And Woman is not a thing to be sold, inferior to Man. Rather, she shares Man’s calling and dignity.
These are the real lessons of Genesis. It has nothing to say, for or against, the theory of evolution.  Its true lessons are located elsewhere.
So what about dinosaurs?  I happily leave them in the museums, to the makers of movies (I love “Jurassic Park”), and the writers of National Geographic.  The creation stories of Genesis give me lots to ponder and to live up to without multiplying mysteries.  As Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

What Is Beauty?

"Presented for your consideration" (as Rod Serling would say):  photo of what some would say was a beautiful woman.  The woman in question is Lady Diana Mitford, and Mr. James Lees-Milne, who was a friend of the family, said of her, "She was the nearest thing to Botticelli's Venus that I have ever seen".  Looking at her, I am reminded of the country music lyric, "She's not pretty; she just looks that way."  For Lady Diana was the wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists.  More importantly, she was an admiring friend of Adolf Hitler, for whom she acquired (and retained to the end of her life) a profound admiration--indeed, she married Oswald in Joseph Goebbel's drawing room.  Like Hitler and his crowd, she was a confirmed anti-semite.  When interviewed by the BBC in 1989, she described her old friend Hitler as "fascinating", and when asked, "What about the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis?", she replied, "Oh no, I don't think it was that many."  Like the song said, "not pretty".                                                                        
    The example of Lady Diana brings into sharp focus the question "what is beauty?"  In particular, does it consist essentially of the flawless features of a Venus?  Or does it consist essentially of what St. Peter called "the hidden person of the heart" (1 Pt. 3:4)? Our own culture opts unabashedly for the first view, and glorifies outer beauty.  An entire industry has developed to secure and preserve such beauty--creams like "Oil of Olay" which promise unfading allure, surgical nips and tucks, face lifts for the elimination of wrinkles, Botox injections for a more classical face, breast implants.  In the Hollywood culture, all this warfare against the appearance of aging is not called "surgery"; it is merely called, "having some work done", as if such radical procedures were all in a day's work, like giving the car a tune-up before a trip                                        
       As the disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to opt for the view advanced by St. Peter, and recognize true beauty when we encounter it.  Oils and Botox and surgeries notwithstanding, we are all of us hurtling headlong toward death and disintegration, and whatever cosmetic help we avail ourselves of along the way will not save us.  Lady Diana did indeed look beautiful in her early photos, like that presented above.  Should we look on her exhumed outer form now (not to put too fine a point on it) she would look rather less ravishing than before.  All outer beauty fades; the true beauty does not.  "The imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit" mentioned by St. Peter survives the ravages of time, and the inexorable grave.  It is to this beauty that God calls all of us.  And it is this beauty which calls forth the admiration of our heavenly Bridegroom:  in the Song of Songs, He speaks to His bride and says,  "You are altogether beautiful, my love, and there is no flaw in you" (Songs 4:7). As members of the Bride of Christ, it is this beauty for which we should strive.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Fundamentalism and the Psychology of Violence

       Recently I began what I hoped would become a dialogue with a fundamentalist. That is, I asked on-line for a free copy of the Quran, and in due time it arrived in the mail. After a decent delay, the people who kindly supplied it to me emailed me to ask what I thought of it. It was, of course, not so much an interested query as an attempt at conversion, but that was fair enough, and politely asked, and completely expected.
       In a similar spirit of brotherly conversation between two men of good will, I replied that I had read the Quran in its entirety, and had a couple of questions. One was how in the surah “The Story” the Old Testament figures Pharaoh and Haman were portrayed as contemporaries, since Pharaoh was an Egyptian (dating from ca. 1400 B.C., and Haman was a Persian, dating from ca. 500 B.C. (Their stories are found in the Biblical books of Exodus and Esther respectively.) The surah in question portrayed them as speaking with one another. How could this be, I asked, since they were separated one from another by hundreds of miles and about 900 years? I also asked how in the surah “Women” it was denied that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and a look-alike killed in his place, since all reputable scholars and historians accept the Crucifixion as an historical fact.
       My Muslim friend replied at great and generous (and courteous) length. Most of his reply consisted of an argument that Jesus was not crucified, arguing from, of all things, the Letter to the Hebrews. (For those unfamiliar with this New Testament letter, the self-offering of Jesus on the Cross is its center-piece and main theme.) He didn’t spend much time on my first query about Pharaoh and Haman, but disposed of my objection by simply asserting that the Haman with whom Pharaoh spoke was his “prime minister who happened to have the same name of that person who lived in Persia; it is just the same name and not the same person”. That was the sum total of his reply.
        Here, I submit, is the voice of fundamentalism. The scenario my Muslim friend is suggesting is rather like that of a school boy writing an historical paper and asserting in it that Napoleon once had a conversation with Mao-Tse-Tung, and when being told that this was impossible, replying that “of course it was entirely different Mao-Tse-Tung”. No educated person would give this serious consideration. If it was an educated historian who suggested such a thing, there might be a further request for sources. But a school boy, without prior historical credentials, would correctly be written off as not knowing what he was talking about.
     The Quran is, I believe, similarly lacking in historical credentials: it mistakes the son bound by Abraham in Genesis 22 as Ishmael when it was Isaac; it mistakes the woman who found Moses in the bulrushes as Pharaoh’s wife, when the Exodus account says it was his daughter. And, of course, it manages to deny altogether the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion. These elementary errors of historical fact do nothing to establish the Quran’s historical reliability. It seems clear that it was written by a brilliant story-teller who had only a passing and inaccurate knowledge of Jewish and Christian traditions. The conversation of Pharaoh with Haman clearly is one such anachronistic inaccuracy. The Quran’s author had obviously heard from Jewish sources of two villains who persecuted the Jews, Pharaoh and Haman, and assumed that one worked for the other. To try to deny this by saying “of course it was an entirely different Haman” is fundamentalism. (I thought of asking my Muslim friend how an Egyptian prime minister came to have a Persian name, but decided against it.)
       I have met many fundamentalists in my time—Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, even some Christians. All have the same characteristic. For them, outer fact is determined in advance by their dogma, and no argument is allowed to dislodge this priority. That is, their dogma or belief is the prism through which they view and judge all of the real world around them. If their dogma says “Elvis is alive and living in Oregon”, then Elvis is alive, regardless of what any exhumation in Graceland may prove. If it says, “There is a Jesuit conspiracy running and corrupting the Protestant seminaries”, then there is such a conspiracy, and no amount of argumentation or accumulation of facts will prove otherwise. (This last example is a real one, odd as that sounds.) If it says, “The sky is not blue, but green”, then the sky is green. All the world but them may see it differently, but will be written off as colour-blind, for the sky must be green. When dealing with the fundamentalist, argument is unavailing.
       This means that for the fundamentalist, at least when he is arguing his case, the opponent is not fully real. He is not a three-dimensional person, with all the credibility real persons bring with them. He is one-dimensional, and therefore not fully human. The one arguing with the fundamentalist that there is, in fact, no Jesuit conspiracy corrupting Protestant seminaries is written off as simply a dupe. He is to be discounted, given no weight. That is why the argument goes nowhere, because the fundamentalist is not really listening. It is not actually a dialogue, but a monologue. The person with whom the fundamentalist is arguing is not really a person, he is “the Other”, the unbeliever, the infidel. He is part of Babylon, of the Dar al-Harb, the “house of war”. He exists not to be listened to but to be converted.
       It is just here, I suggest, that all fundamentalism carries within it an inner psychology of violence, whether or no this latent psychology and tendency produces bodily violence. It is not that fundamentalists are necessarily violent or aggressive persons. That depends entirely on the fundamentalist, and it is not my point. My point is that all fundamentalism tends to see the neighbour not as a real person, but as a target, a threat, something to eliminate—either by conversion, refutation, or by other means—if he threatens the dogma or world-view. Most people see their neighbours as other people like themselves—real persons with likes and dislikes, persons to be agreed or disagreed with, persons who share the same transit system, whose children share the same schools. They cheer for the same national hockey team in the Olympics as we do, and grumble under the same federal taxes. They are like us. But for the fundamentalist, the neighbour is not like himself, for he defines himself over against his neighbour, and as radically unlike him.
       This is the psychology of violence. If we fail to see our neighbour (that basic Biblical category) as like ourselves, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of doing him violence. That is why in any war the enemy to be killed must be first dehumanized. The Germans in the second world war were thus not like us. The German was “the kraut”. The Japanese were “the japs”. The Vietnamese were “the gooks”. In each case we refuse to see the Germans, the Japanese, the Vietnamese as basically like ourselves, with families and loved ones, with hopes and fears, with strengths and weaknesses. All the humanity of the neighbour has been stripped away; he is simply “the enemy”. That is why the higher ups on both sides in the first world war objected to the now-famous game of football with the “enemy” between the trenches on Christmas Eve. It was difficult to ask men to kill each after they had played together and shared tokens and showed each other pictures of their girl-friends and families. The men across No Man’s Land were no longer “the enemy”. Now they all had faces and names. They were no longer the Dar al-Harb. Now they were persons.
       People of different faiths will have conflicting dogmas and beliefs. But it is important that in our conversations with those of differing faiths that we maintain a dialogue, and not let it degenerate into a monologue. It is our neighbour to whom we called to offer our witness, not “the enemy”. As Orthodox Christians, we are called to faith, not to fundamentalism.