Sunday, August 25, 2013

You Don’t Know Which Way the Wind Blows

              The above title is taken from the Jesus People song of the same name, written and sung by The Second Chapter of Acts, a trio of siblings, in 1974.  In this song they ask the pointed question, "You don't know which way the wind blows, so how can you plan tomorrow?"  I was thinking of this song as I boarded a plane to travel back east to see my aged father, for as I stepped aboard the plane I did not know but that I might not be burying my father before I returned home.  Cancer, of course.  At time of writing, I still cannot plan tomorrow, or receive any prognosis which an aching heart so much desires.

           The Second Chapter of Acts did not merely raise the question about planning tomorrow, but also pointed towards the only real answer:  "Jesus knows which way the wind blows, so give Him your tomorrow."   That is, the resolution to our fearful inability to know and plan for the future lies in trusting Jesus.  He is the Lord of life and death, of this age and the next, and all human birth, sojourning, suffering, and death lie in His hands alone.  The path of wisdom consists of rising each day and placing the coming hours of each morrow in those hands.  Yet after we do this, then what?  What does a life of daily trust in Jesus look like?

            First of all, it consists of receiving each day as a gift from God and responding to that gift by gratefully sucking all the juice and goodness from it and rendering thanks for it all to God.  God crams each day with glory—sun to soak in, rain to wash away past sorrows, cups of wine to gladden the heart of man, and cones of ice-cream to restore the child in all of us.  The love of friends and family, the smiles of strangers, the sight of roadside flowers, and the sound swelling music all combine to form a divine bouquet of love daily delivered to our door.  There are other things in our day also of course, darker things.  Friends betray, and crazy drivers indulge in road rage, and bones ache, and health inevitably breaks down.  We hear of wars and rumours of wars, and the world remains, as it always has been, a dangerous place.  But we must not allow the perennial state of the world to rob us of the joy that God’s gifts still give us.  When we are tempted to rant and despair, think of Charlie Brown. Yes, Charlie Brown:  when God gave him a revelation of the true meaning of Christmas (immortalized in the seasonal classic A Charlie Brown Christmas) and he saw his dog Snoopy reveling in Christmas commercialism, he did not rant or despair, or lose the joy God gave him.  He simply said, "Oh well, this commercial dog is not going to ruin my Christmas."  Real joy can survive such outer assaults.  Look away from the dog, and return our focus to the source of our joy.

            Secondly, a life of trust consists of remembering that each experience we endure, each wave which breaks over us, has been allowed by God, and that if we continue to trust Him, He will turn it somehow to our good.  St. Paul is clear enough:  "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."  "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose."  (Rom. 5:3-4, 8:28).  Admittedly some terrible experiences elude our understanding of how God could possibly have allowed them.   The death of children through crime and war, the anguish of innocent people, all this strains and challenges our faith.  Sometimes the hot suffering which purges away our dross is hot indeed.  But if we cannot take comfort in the thought of God’s wisdom, perhaps we can take comfort in our ignorance.  It is true that I cannot understand how this or that tragedy could still work God’s will.  But then there is quite a lot I cannot understand, and my ignorance is practically boundless.  It is not surprising therefore if I cannot fathom or know the reason why God allows certain terrible and terrifying things.  Indeed, I don’t even know which way the wind blows.

            Lastly, a life of trusting God involves looking past the present world into the age to come. If our hope is bounded by the world’s present horizons, we’re toast.  Or, to quote the more stately language of St. Paul, "We are of all men most miserable" (1 Cor. 15:19).  Orthodoxy bids us to take the long view, and each Sunday’s Creed reminds us that we "look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come".  All our perplexity is resolved there, not here; it is in the age to come that the Lamb will be our shepherd and guide us to springs of living water and that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 7:17).  When we smack up against the hard doors of life and are tempted to fear what tomorrow might bring, it is then that we should remember one of the first and shortest of the Church’s prayers:  "Maranatha!"  Our Lord come!  It is in that coming that all the joy snatched from us in this age will be restored, and all our trust in Jesus finally justified.  Jesus knows which way the wind blows.  We can give Him our tomorrows.


Monday, August 19, 2013

Keeping Our Faces in a Facebook World

          We live in a Facebook world—that is, in a world characterized by the presence of what has come to be called “social media”.  Much ink has been spilled describing this revolutionary new phenomenon, some people lauding it, and some lamenting it.  But whether it is laudable or lamentable or some combination of both, it seems to be here to stay.  For good or ill, much of our communication is now done through Facebook, Twitter, texting, email, and other forms of social media.   My purpose in discussing this is not to denounce it.  I am not suggesting that the baptismal renunciations should be amended so that the candidate is asked to “renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride, and Facebook”.  Social media has its advantages and uses.  It allows us to exchange words with people far distant, and to do so with greater frequency than we would probably do if writing and posting letters were our only medium of communication with them.  I have a Facebook account, and enjoy reading what others far distant have to say and share.  But there are losses in a Facebook world as well as gains.
            One of the losses has to do with how we have effectively redefined what we mean by “communication”.  Does anyone remember the old “Reach out andtouch someone” ads?  In 1979 Bell Systems aired a television ad, showing people greeting and hugging one another, with the concluding slogan, “Reach out and touch someone—give ‘em a call”.  There was unconscious irony in the exhortation, since the one thing one cannot do through a phone call is to physically reach out and touch someone.  The expressions of physical contact, love, and intimacy portrayed in the ad could not be had through a telephone call.  That was okay, since telephones in those pre-Skype days were the closest thing one could get to actual live contact.  But loss of the physical connection was still a loss.
            This loss continues and is furthered in the Facebook world.  At least on the phone we can hear different tones of voice, even if we are blind to body language.  In our Facebook, Twitter, emails, and text-messages, we lose even this.  Sometimes (in the absence of emoticons) it is hard to determine if someone is being ironic or serious.  If, as some have suggested, body language makes up a large body of human communication, then having only the bare words written on a screen involves the loss of most of our communication—and yet this form of communication is increasingly perceived as normal.
            There are other losses and challenges in a Facebook world too.  Surely I cannot be the only one to have observed that people often feel free to say things on Facebook or through email that they would never dream of saying to anyone to their face.  Usually the presence of others acts as a restraint on our personal exchanges.  But when one is not in another’s presence, but rather is seated comfortably and privately far away, looking not at the other’s face but at the computer screen or keypad, one can sometimes take the liberty to speak with appalling rudeness.  It is almost as if every bit of new technology has a dark side which we find soon enough:  we invent nuclear power and then use it to make bombs; we invent ways of sharing words at a distance and then “flame” each other, SHOUTING BY USING CAPITALS LIKE THIS.  We discard courtesy (or to give its Biblical term, love) along with restraint when we are safely distant.  Even when one shares words with civility, we still the retain a certain degree of anonymity.  Indeed, some people on Facebook do not use a photo of themselves for their “profile picture” but substitute another image.  When using any such long-range medium of communication, we project not so much our real selves, but a persona, a mask.  It is the safety we feel when hiding behind the mask that gives us the courage to sometimes speak rudely.  (Sometimes, as police will attest, people use that anonymity for darker purposes.)  Yet as our culture increasingly relies on such media for communication, we subtly redefine what constitutes normal communication.  We become used to the masks we wear at the keyboard, and the skill of authentic interpersonal self disclosure atrophies.
            The truth is that real communication and authentic communion with another always involves face to face encounter—that is why there is so much hugging at airports when people are physically reunited after being separated for a time.  Did those people who greet each other at the airport not keep in touch by Facebook while they were gone?  Did they not phone each other?  Did they not exchange emails?  I’ll bet they did—but their warm embraces reveal that these are no substitute for physical presence.  We need not only to read the words of another, but to see their faces, and to let them look at ours.  Indeed, the word for “presence” in both the Hebrew and the Greek is the same word as for “face” (Hebrew panim; Greek prosopon).  That is why all the sacraments in the Church presuppose physical presence, so that one cannot be baptized or receive Holy Communion or be anointed “on line”.  A “cyber-sacrament” is a contradiction in terms.  To receive the fullness of life offered in the Holy Mysteries, physical presence is required.  That is why from the days of the apostles, each celebration of the Eucharist has involved the exchange of the Kiss of Peace:  liturgically, each week the Church bids us to reach out and touch someone.  The liturgical synaxis is literally a coming together, one that involves physical contact.
            God has, in fact, put a hunger for such physical encounter and communication deep in the human heart.  We long to see others, to look into their eyes (often and significantly called “the windows of the soul”), and to let them look into ours.  We were designed to run on such loving inter-personal communication, even as cars were designed to run on gasoline, and we suffer if we are deprived of such authentic human interaction.  And yet despite this, we are designing and living in a world increasingly devoid of such interactions.   We spend a tremendous amount of our time isolated from others, often not knowing the names of the neighbours who live beside us on our street.  Increasingly we work in cubicles, drive to work alone in our cars, and find our “down time” playing video games or typing before a computer screen.  Gathering for family dinner becomes rarer, and even then some send text messages to their friends during the meal.  When we communicate, it is by phone, or text, or email, or Facebook.  True and life-giving encounters become rarer and rarer—some young people even prefer texting to meeting as their favourite way of communicating.  In a Facebook world, we hardly ever reach out and touch someone.  It has become unnecessary.
            But, one might ask, what’s wrong with that?  If young people prefer texting to meeting, what’s the harm?  Just this:  there are dangers involved in refusing to live the way we were designed to live.  We were designed to thrive on human personal contact, and the human heart and spirit still hunger for it.  If that hunger is not met and satisfied through healthy human encounter, it will seek satisfaction in less healthy ways, just as if a man is hungry enough, he will eat anything.  If the human heart is denied authentic encounter, it will eventually try to feed on something else, and will become vulnerable to propaganda, lies, cults, and other dark things.  Denied authentic encounters and relationships, we will find that we have less sales-resistance to inauthentic ones.  This of course does not mean that if a teen-aged girl spends all her time texting her friends she will fall prey to a cult in three weeks’ time.  But it does mean that if our culture continues to substitute the inauthentic for the authentic, it denies itself a basic component of spiritual health—and unless it recovers that basic component, the breakdown in cultural health will come soon enough.  I have no doubt that when the breakdown begins to occur, someone will start a Facebook page about it.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Still Autocephalous After All These Years

            Our own little Orthodox Church in America is (to paraphrase Paul Simon) still autocephalous after all these years, despite the suggestion of some during times of difficulty that we should somehow pack it in and ask return to our previous status as a diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church under Moscow, rather like an adult child returning to live with mother and asking for the old room back.  It would be idle to deny that our autocephaly has made for difficult situations abroad, and even back home (witness our Metropolitan’s place at the hierarchical table during the meetings of the recent episcopal gathering bishops from all the North American jurisdictions).  And admittedly our own little autocephaly is unlike the other autocephalies, in that those autocephalies unite all the Orthodox in a given geographical locality under one synod, whereas our own OCA autocephalous synod leaves out the Orthodox Christians in our locality from the other jurisdictions.  Of course the initial granting of the autocephaly in 1970 was meant to be something of an interim step, a vision and a challenge, an invitation to the other Orthodox Christians in North America to join us in forming a single united American Orthodox Church.  Obviously most of our North American brethren did not take us up on the invitation, and the move provoked what Fr. Alexander Schmemann famously described as “a meaningful storm”.  But that does not mean that the invitation was wrongly given. 
            Our autocephaly still can provoke some reaction, despite the courtesy and diplomacy customary among bishops.  That is, there are some parties to which we are not invited.  The parties to which we are still invited are the ones given by Moscow and their autocephalous friends.  Whatever they may privately think of us North Americans, they unfailingly include us in their gatherings, such as the recent meeting of the local Orthodox Churches with Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the occasion of the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the Rus’.  An official statement regarding the persecution of Christians was drafted and signed by all present, including our own Metropolitan Tikhon.
            Our presence at these gatherings should not be minimized, nor the value of our present autocephaly discounted.  Valuing our autocephaly of course does not mean that we would refuse to join a wider North American autocephaly if such a thing could come about.  That was, after all, the whole point and vision behind our own 1970 autocephaly in the first place.  But until then, we should not cast away the canonical gift we were once given, nor be ashamed of it, regardless of what others may think.  For the value of the autocephaly is two-fold:  it points the way forward to a healthy future for North American Orthodoxy, and it allows our voice to be more widely heard in the Orthodox world. 
            The first point regarding the need for a single united autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America has been stated so often and so well that it need not be rehearsed again at length here.  Everyone with eyes to read the canons can see that our present state of over-lapping jurisdictions is uncanonical and wasteful, and there is no need for us to refer to hierarchs overseas for everything we need as if the North American churches were so many branch-plants of a foreign business venture.  The bishops themselves know this perfectly well, which is why they were working hard at the recent episcopal assembly to resolve the situation.  Canonical common sense and administrative church unity has enough champions without me adding to it my own little two cents worth of Amen.   Our own OCA autocephaly is valuable if only because it points toward the need for a wider autocephaly uniting all North American Orthodox.
            The second point is perhaps worth elaborating more fully.  We in the OCA have something to add to the counsels of world Orthodoxy which might not otherwise be heard.  In particular, just because we are a young church (as the Orthodox count church time) we have the advantage of seeing more clearly the value of returning to first principles.  Anyone who has started a new mission knows what I mean.  When one takes over a parish which has existed for a long time, one inherits a situation in which some things are good and healthy, and other things are not.  The latter are defended not because they really defensible, but because they are The Way Things Have Always Been Done, at least since grandma was alive.  The priest may know that these things are not being done correctly, but he finds it difficult to change them because of the dead weight of social inertia, or if you like, of local tradition, (with a very small “t”).  But when one begins to build a new mission from scratch, one does not inherit such small “t” traditions of dubious value.  One can decide what to do and what kind of community to build not based on the way that it was always done since grandma’s day, but by returning to first principles.  One then asks not so much “How was it done before I arrived?”, but rather, “How did the Fathers say we should do it?”  This freedom to return to first principles makes for the possibility of a healthier church.  (Note:  just the possibility, for a healthy church depends ultimately upon how loving the priest and people are, not just upon liturgical decisions.) 
            It is the same way, I submit, with our young little OCA.  Precisely because we are a young church in a young land, we have the possibility of asking, “How did the Fathers say we should do it?”  This is not to suggest that we North Americans are the only ones asking this, for of course all Orthodox bishops take the Fathers as the guiding principle of their life.  But it does mean that we in North America, in the absence of long-established national traditions, can focus on the question with greater clarity and single-mindedness. 
Our voice is only one voice among many others, and like all younger children as social gatherings of those older than us, we should politely wait for our turn to speak and not presume to dominate our elders.  But when our turn comes to speak, we should not be reticent, for we also have something valuable to say.   A long autocephalous pedigree is no guarantee of infallible wisdom.  Perhaps we young ones in the OCA have unique something to contribute as well.  And surely that is enough to justify our being invited to the party.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review of Reza Aslan’s book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”

          When I turned recently to my window on the world (aka “Facebook”), I discovered that the Next Big Noise in the cultural world of the west is a book recently written by Reza Aslan entitled, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  Mr. Aslan, as one might guess by his name, is a Muslim by faith, and, as he repeatedly reminds us in an interview, a scholar and professor by trade.  The interview to which I refer is the one given on Fox Network’s online programme “Spirited Debate”, in which Lauren Green interviewed him about his book (or perhaps I should say “interrogated him”, since she came on so aggressively that one wondered if she wasn’t taking his erroneous teaching somewhat personally).  In response to Ms. Green’s challenges, Mr. Aslan insisted over and over again that he was “a scholar of religion with four degrees, including one in the New Testament, fluency in Biblical Greek”, and “an expert with a Ph.D in the history of religions”.  Granted that he was on the defensive, I did think that such vigorous insistence on his expert credentials was a bit much.  After all, real scholars don’t need to engage in such self-promotion.  To take but two examples:  Robert Taft doesn’t need to inform us that he is the world’s foremost Byzantine lituriologist, and I. Howard Marshall doesn’t need to insist on his scholarly credibility in the field of New Testament studies.  Real scholars know the masters when they see them.  Methinks Mr. Aslan doth protest too much.
            Mr. Aslan’s book presents us with Jesus the Zealot—that is, Jesus as a member of the first century Jewish movement that objected to Rome’s occupation of the Holy Land and who were committed to overthrow it by force of arms.  It is not particularly a new idea, being presented by S.G.F. Brandon in his book Jesus and the Zealots as far back as 1967.  But the problem is not just that Aslan’s stuff is not new, but that it is fundamentally nonsensical and based on lousy scholarship.  For all his insistence on his expertise, in fact he is writing outside his field.  Notwithstanding his claim to be a professor of religion (“that’s what I do for a living, actually”), he makes his living, actually, as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing.  (See the entire review of Aslan’s book by Larry Behrendt on the The Jesus Blog.)  And Aslan’s take on Jesus of Nazareth certainly involves some very creative writing.
It is proverbial and timeless wisdom not to judge a book by its cover or (I suppose) to judge a scholar by his interviewer, but perhaps the book can be judged by bits of interview responses if these responses present us with enough howlers.   And the quotes from another interview conducted for National Public Radio certainly provides us with enough howlers to judge the book. 
For example, concerning Jesus’ claim to be divine, Aslan said, “If you’re asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no. Such a thing did not exist in Judaism. In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.”  Of course here Aslan is technically correct:  Judaism had a problem with anyone claiming divinity.  That is just the point.  The Gospel writers do not suggest that Jesus infuriated the Jewish leaders of His day to the point of homicidal rage because He told them to love their neighbours, but precisely because He claimed to be divine and said things that were “completely anathema to everything Judaism stood for”.   Thus we read, “The Jews took up stones again to stone Him.  Jesus answered them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone Me?’  The Jews answered Him, ‘It is not for a good work that we stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God’” (Jn. 10:31-33).  It is inane for Aslan to assert that Jesus could not have claimed divinity because it was strange to Judaism. The New Testament consistently makes the very point that it was the strangeness of this claim that resulted in His death.
Or to take another example:  Aslan asserts that the Gospels were written long after the events by people who knew essentially nothing about them:  “Almost every word ever written about Jesus was written by people who didn’t actually know Jesus when he was alive. These were not people who walked with Jesus or talked with Jesus.”  The implication is that the Gospel picture of Jesus is not reliable, and is wholly a construct of later writers.  This flies in the face of Luke who said that he interviewed the eye-witnesses who were there (Lk. 1:1-4), and of St. John’s repeated claim to be an eyewitness himself (e.g. Jn. 19:35, 21:24).  Indeed the fact that John’s Gospel represents the report of an eyewitness has been recognized by many.  C.S. Lewis long ago discerned the authentic touches of an eyewitness in the Gospel.  He wrote, “Either [John’s Gospel] is reportage…pretty close up to the facts…Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.  The reader who does not see this has simply not learned to read.”  And it is not just the scholarly Lewis who discerned in John’s Gospel the voice of an eyewitness.  The modern BBC reporter Peter France, in his book, A Place of Healing for the Soul, writes of his unexpected experience of reading that Gospel:  “Very soon an amazing thing happened:  I came across passages that had no business in a carefully crafted and mystical meditation…These details—the water bucket, the charcoal fire, the napkin—are not the stuff of mystical allegory.  They are the small irrelevancies that hang about in the memory of someone who was present...I began to read St. John again as a story told by a man who was there.”  France’s words are not those of a Christian partisan arguing his case, but of a modern unbeliever forced against his will to appreciate the essential reliability of an ancient report.   But then Mr. France made his living as an investigative reporter for the BBC, not as a Professor of Creative Writing.
One final example from Aslan’s book.  In the epilogue, he portrays the Council of Nicea as debating whether Jesus were divine or human.  According to Aslan, the Arians, “seemed to suggest” that Jesus was “just a man—a perfect man, perhaps, but a man nonetheless”.   You would think that with all those degrees Aslan would at least know that the Arians did not suggest that Jesus was “just a man”.  Their view was that Jesus was pre-existent, and was created by God before the world was made.  You don’t need to be “an expert with a Ph.D. in the history of religions” to discover this; any first year college course in Church History 101 will tell you.
It turns out then that the Next Big Noise which is Aslan’s new book is just a tired re-writing of the same nonsense pseudo-scholars have been churning out for some time now.  I give the final word of this book review to Mr. Behrendt, who ended his own review with much the same verdict as mine.  Mr. Behrendt admitted, “Frankly, it’s exhausting to read a book like Zealot, and constantly have to pause in mid-thought to ask if Aslan is giving me the straight dope… I owe it to myself to keep reading [Aslan’s] newer book and try to find its central point.  Which I will do.  Wish me luck, I think I’m going to need it.”  I applaud Mr. Behrendt’s perseverance in reading such nonsense.  He is braver than I.