Wednesday, December 31, 2014

St. Basil: a Proper Bishop

St. Basil lived and worked in the fourth century, when the Church was just starting to work hand in glove with the Roman state.  The new relationship took some getting used to:  before this the Christians tried to avoid the State and its police whenever they could, since the coming of the Roman police (i.e. soldiers) was often a prelude to Christian martyrdom.  Now the Roman State was everywhere inclined to favour the Christians, and even fund their endeavours.  Like I said, it took some getting used to.  But many career-minded Christians got used to it soon enough, and began working enthusiastically with the State, taking abundant care not to rock the new boat.  Basil of Caesarea, however, was not among them.  He never minded rocking the boat if he thought the boat needed rocking.  And during the Arian interlude in the fourth century, it needed plenty of rocking.
            One day, for example, as the new Bishop of Caesarea, Basil strove against the popular and State-sponsored Arian heresy.   In his exchange of words with the Emperor’s prefect, Modestus, Basil spoke so boldly and bluntly that it left the prefect stammering in astonishment.  The prefect had summoned Basil to a tribunal, and insisted that Basil fall in line with the rest of the more pliant bishops and accept the Imperial interpretation of the faith (i.e. Arianism). 
“Everyone else has yielded, and you alone refuse to accept the religion commanded by the King!” 
“It is not the will of my King,” replied Basil, “I cannot worship anything that has been created, since I myself am created by God.” 
The prefect examining Basil was incensed.  “What do you think of us?” he roared.  “Are we nothing?”   
“You are a prefect, but I shall not honour you more than I do God.”
“Do you know what I can do to you?  Don’t you fear my power?” asked Modestus.  “There are many things I can do to you!”
“Name them.”
“I can confiscate your possessions, banish you, torture you, put you to death!”
“Is that all?  None of these things trouble me!  You cannot confiscate my possessions, for I have none.  Banishment, exile—what are these to me?  Everywhere on God’s earth I am at home.  Torture cannot touch me, for I have no longer a body to torture.  As for death, it is welcome to me, for it will bring me sooner into His blessed Presence.”
The prefect was taken aback.  “No one has ever addressed me in such a manner until now.” 
“No doubt.” Basil replied. “Probably you have never met a proper bishop until now.”
Basil lived in his whole life with that same indomitable courage.  When he was first elected bishop of Caesarea, he was ill and living on his nerves alone.  At the time of the election, his detractors said that he should not be chosen as their bishop, since he was so weak and his health so precarious.  His friend and supporter asked in return whether they wanted a bishop or a gladiator.  As it turned out, they got both.
But Basil was not a mere controversialist, a mere fighter.  He was also a scholar, an ascetic, a director of monastics, and the creator of a charitable estate, encompassing a hospice for travellers, a church, and a hospital, all with complete staff.  He was also a man of self-sacrifice and compassion, and he worked at his facility feeding the poor with his own hands.  “If you are reduced to your last loaf of bread and a beggar appears at your door, then take that loaf and lift our hands to heaven and say, ‘Lord, I have but this one loaf; hungers lies in wait for me, but I revere our commandments more than all other things.’  If you say this, then the bread you gave in that hour poverty will be changed for an abundant harvest.” Basil knew how to love the poor.  He was a proper bishop.
Now more than ever we need proper bishops.  The threat of Arianism is long gone, but the deadly threat of worldliness and moral compromise with the secular age remains.  St. Basil also remains, not just as our intercessor in heaven, but as an abiding example for us who still labour on earth.   Now is the time for plain speaking and courageous confrontation.  Now is the time to unite compassion for the poor and ascetic holiness and daring defiance of the world’s standards in one potent and powerful package.  Now is the time for St. Basil the Great.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Newsweek Scholarship: So Sloppy It’s a Sin

Just in time for Christmas, Newsweek continued the media’s predictable and venerable tradition of trashing the Christian Faith.  (Expect the next instalment just around Easter time.)  To be precise, on December 23, it published a piece by Kurt Eichenwald entitled, “The Bible:  So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”.  The intended victims of the annual seasonal assault are listed in the opening paragraph as those who “waves their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnation of homosexuals…they are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch”.  Mr. Eichenwald is on a roll, and seems to be clearly enjoying his righteous indignation at those doing the screaming.  His strategy throughout the article leans mostly to showing how unreliable the Bible text actually is, and you would never guess from his own vitriolic vituperation heaped on those “who appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats” that many thoughtful Protestant Christians retain their faith in the reliability of the Biblical texts and do not actually scream about homosexuals or Democrats.  Protestants like Bishop N.T. Wright (the Anglican Bishop of Durham) seem not to be on his radar.  I did not expect Mr. Eichenwald to know that thoughtful conservative Catholics exist, much less thoughtful conservative Orthodox.  But thoughtful conservative non-screaming Protestants are not that hard to find.  But it appears that screaming at the screamers is much easier, and makes for juicier print.
            A complete and detailed refutation of every error in the piece would require more space than available in a blog like this.  Perhaps an examination of just a few of Eichenwald’s errors may serve to reveal the sloppiness of his scholarship and the essential worthlessness of his attempted assault.
            First of all is his claim that no one has actually read the real Bible, but “at best we’ve all read a bad translation—a translation of translations of translations of hand-copied copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times…About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament.”  To read this you would think that Mr. Eichenwald had never heard of textual criticism, or read anything about the creation of the New Testament canon.  So, leaving the over-heated rhetoric to Newsweek, let’s recall a few facts.
            Consider the manuscripts available from classical antiquity:  there are only 9 or 10 good manuscripts of Caesar’s Gallic War (written about 55 B.C.), and the oldest of these was written some 900 years after Caesar’s day.  The history of Thucydides (ca. 430 B.C.) survives in only 8 manuscripts, the earliest existing manuscript of which dates from about 900 A.D., leaving a gap of about 1300 years from time of writing to earliest manuscript.  Yet historians and classical scholars regard Thucydides as a first-rate historian, and no one impugns the reliability of the extant text or writes Newsweek articles about them.
Contrast this with the New Testament manuscripts:  by the middle of the last century, there were almost 4500 known Greek manuscripts.  Moreover, two of the most important and complete manuscripts (known to scholars as Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) date from the fourth century, and some of the Chester Beatty manuscripts date from around 225 A.D.   One of these latter Chester Beatty texts (now in Dublin) dates from the late third century.  One papyrus fragment (containing some verses of John’s Gospel) is now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, and has been dated to about 125 A.D.—shortly after John’s Gospel was first written.  And it is important to remember that most of the variations pored over by scholars concern only fine details, and do not affect the sense of the text.  Some of the changes concern, for example, whether or not the text has omitted the word “the”, or changed a present tense to the imperfect tense.  Scholars care (after all, that is their job); most people wouldn’t.
            The New Testament text that one reads therefore is not like the result of a game of “Telephone” as our Newsweek’s writer suggests.  Rather each modern English translator now returns to what is substantially the original text of the Greek and works from there.  One may or may not believe what St. Luke wrote, but we have pretty much the text as Luke originally wrote it.  And it is true, of course, that “about 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament”.  It is also irrelevant.  The “compilation into the New Testament” (or the creation of the New Testament canon, the finalization of the list regarding which N.T. books made the canonical “cut” and which didn’t) had nothing to do with the actual date of the texts.  We had, for example, a good text of the Epistle to Hebrews by the third century.  The debate over whether or not to include it as part of the “New Testament compilation” was another question entirely, and did not concern the reliability of the Hebrews text in their possession.
            One other example of Eichenwald’s faulty and sloppy methodology may be examined.  Scholars have long since known that the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery in John’s Gospel (John 7.53-8:11) probably represents an insertion into John’s original text.  Eichenwald phrases it like this: “John didn’t write it.  Scribes made it up sometime in the Middle Ages.  It does not appear in any of the three other Gospels or in any of the early Greek versions of John.”   
Well, sorry; actually it does.  Though the best manuscripts (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus) omit it, a Chester Beatty manuscript from the fifth-sixth century does include it as part of John’s Gospel.  Other manuscripts include it after John 7:52, but with asterisks, indicating that the scribe had doubts about it being a part of John’s Gospel.  One manuscript includes it in Luke’s Gospel, after Luke 21:38, and one manuscript includes it at the very end of Luke’s Gospel.  It seems to have been a genuine historical reminiscence of what happened, but floating free, as part of the early oral tradition (like the saying of Jesus not recorded in any Gospel, but still mentioned by Paul in Acts 20:35).  It was early and historically genuine, but not a part of the Gospel narrative texts, and so different scribes inserted it into different places of the Gospels.  But by anyone’s figuring it was made “made up” by scribes “sometime in the Middle Ages”, for the Chester Beatty manuscript containing it dates from the fifth-sixth centuries.
            One could go on and on and on, but you get the idea.  An indication of the confusion of thought and history culminates with Eichenwald’s impassioned denunciation of Constantine, with so much distortion that one checks to see if one isn’t after all reading Dan Brown.  It was at the Council of Nicea, the article solemnly suggests, that “to satisfy Constantine and his commitment to his empire’s many sun worshippers, that the Holy Sabbath was moved by one day” (i.e. from Saturday to Sunday).  Okay; time to close the magazine.  Never mind that the Fathers as early as Justin Martyr (d. 165 A.D.) write that Christians actually met to worship on Sunday, so that Christians had been worshipping on Sunday well before Nicea.  Apparently for Mr. Eichenwald any stick is good enough to beat the Christians with, regardless of whether or not it is historical nonsense.  We are now far from the world of historical scholarship, and deep in the fantasy world of The Da Vinci Code.  When Eichenwald goes on to describe the Council of Constantinople of 381 with the words, “There a new agreement was reached—Jesus wasn’t two, he was now three—Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  The Nicene Creed was rewritten”, anyone with an ounce of historical education breaks down and cries.
            The Newsweek piece “The Bible:  So Misunderstood It’s a Sin” may not reveal much about the Bible, but it does reveal much about Newsweek and our popular culture.  The war against the Christians is heating up.  Screaming fundamentalists and people like Pat Robertson, Michele Bachmann, and Texas Governor Rick Perry (do they scream too?) may make the easiest targets, but no one should be under any illusion that they are the only or the final ones.  Anyone standing on the conservative side of the author is clearly in the ultimate line of fire.  Brace yourself, and keep reading real books.

Friday, December 26, 2014

St. Stephen: the Death of a Revolutionary

St. Stephen is usually hailed as the first Christian martyr, but he is more than that.  His death was also a boundary, and the blood which flowed from his body as the stones hit him became a river, one which separated the faith of the Christians from the religion of Judaism. For unlike the martyrs which followed him, Stephen was not killed by the pagan Romans, executed under a law which forbade Christians to exist.  He was lynched and killed by his co-religionists, his brother Jews.  What was it about Stephen and his words that inflamed them to the point where they could no longer allow him to live?
In their minds and in the testimony of the witnesses against Stephen at his trial, Stephen “never ceases to speak words against this holy place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14). 
            Despite the garbled form of the testimony, there was a kernel of truth in what these witnesses said.  For although Jesus never spoke against the Temple or the Law, He did clearly regard them differently than did His Jewish adversaries, and this was the main message of Stephen.  For Judaism, nationhood and Temple and Law were paramount, and Jews could not do without any of them.  The Messiah was thus subordinate to the Temple and the Law; his Messianic task was to undergird them and support them.  Stephen’s point (as was apparent from his defense in Acts 7) was that the Temple was never paramount in the history of God’s people.  From the days of Abraham onward, they were to be a pilgrim people, a people on the move—hence the portable tent shrine established under Moses.  Israel did not have the Temple after Moses.  It did not even have a temple during David’s reign.  That immense and immovable structure only came with Solomon.
            The movability of the original tent shrine revealed God’s intention that His people be ever moving and ever open to new truth—such as the new truth in Jesus.  In Jesus God was revealing a new phase of Israel’s pilgrimage through history, a phase in which Temple and Law and City were no longer needed.  In Jesus these old realities had been radically relativized and made subordinate to Him.  Jesus did not say that He would destroy the Temple, but He did act in such a way that the Temple was not necessary:  when He spoke to the Samaritan woman, for example, He said that neither on her Mount Gerizim nor at the Temple in Jerusalem would men worship the Father (Jn. 4:21f).  Times were changing, and the Father would now be worshipped in the Spirit and in the truth (i.e. the truth of the Gospel).  Men would still enter the Temple to offer sacrifice (compare the practice of the apostles in Acts 21:23f), but these sacrifices were now of more cultural significance than covenantal.  The definitive Temple, the locus of sacrifice and praise and salvation, was Jesus.  Judaism as a religion had been transcended, and was to give place to Christianity.  Messiah in this new understanding was not subordinate to Judaism with its Law and Temple; rather they were subordinate to Him.
            This understanding struck at the heart of all that the Jewish adversaries of Stephen valued.  For them, faith in God was unthinkable without Law and Temple as ultimate realities.  The Jewish state and its capital at Jerusalem existed to protect the Temple and keep it secure.  Stephen’s words therefore threatened their whole world.  For them, Stephen was subversive, a dangerous revolutionary whose words were making new converts all the time for the Jesus Revolution centered around the apostles.  Those apostles appeared to be too popular to touch (Acts 5:13), but Stephen was another matter.
Those who lynched and stoned Stephen to death that day began to learn the truth that (as one Christian writer, Tertullian, would later say) the blood of the martyrs is seed for the Church.  Far from hindering or stopping the Christian movement, Stephen’s death furthered its progress.  For on the day of his death “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and they were all scattered”—not just throughout Judea and Samaria, but ultimately to the ends of the earth (Acts 8:1, 1:8). Stephen died a revolutionary for the Jesus revolution, shedding his blood for the truth that Christianity was not just another Jewish sect.  Rather, the Christian Faith was a fountain, a living fountain gushing living water, giving life not just for the Jews in their Temple, but for all the children of men throughout the wide world.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Charlie Brown and the Lonely Walk of Faith

If you are at all like me, it is not Christmas until you have seen the holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has been shown seasonally every year since it first appeared in 1965.  I have watched it faithfully every year since I can remember, and have the whole wonderful thing more or less memorized by heart.  Who can forget Charlie Brown taking his seat at Lucy’s outdoor doctor’s office (the sign announcing “The Doctor is Real In”), or his complaining to Linus that he feels depressed every Christmas season?  Or who can forget Snoopy doing his famous dance of joy on the top of Schroeder’s piano, or Charlie Brown and Linus going to look for a tree for their Christmas pageant and finding in the middle of a forest of large pink metallic trees a pathetic little tree which just needed a little love?  Or Linus’ spot-litsoliloquy, wherein he quotes the Gospel of Luke for a then unprecedented forty-five seconds on national television?  The images and dialogue have become imbedded in North American culture to the point that they are instantly recognizable, even when affectionately satirized on The Simpsons.
            The point of the story of course revolves around the need to transcend the materialism of the Christmas season by returning to “what Christmas is all about”.  Charlie Brown’s agonized and poignant cry asking that question showed that he had no clue what Christmas was all about.  It was Linus, his friend and the voice of creator Charles Schulz, that provided the answer to his question and the antidote to the materialism of his friends.  Linus’ forty-five second reading of the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel not only made television history.  It also brought the Gospel to the open and trembling heart of Charlie Brown. 
            So far, so good.  When I watched the show this year, it was exactly like every other blessed year before.  Charlie Brown and Linus had brought to their pageant the pathetic little tree which seemed to be dying before the eyes of all.  He had clearly failed in his assigned task, revealing that he had no appreciation for the commercialism so dear to everyone else waiting for him to return with a big, splendid, pink tree.  When he returned with the little tree everyone laughed at him, mocking him, disdaining him, making him feel even more of a failure and outcast than he already was.   He cried out, asking whether anybody could tell him what Christmas was all about, and Linus answered by reciting from the Gospel of Luke.  Then Charlie Brown got the true meaning of Christmas.  He had his epiphany, his conversion.  A Methodist might say that his heart was strangely warmed.  That was when I saw it, something I had never noticed before—Charlie Brown picked up his little tree and walked out steadily and unashamed before the rest of the wordless and wondering crowd.  He no longer cared what they thought, or whether they disdained him.  His moment of illumination raised him above such cares.  The fear of man bringeth a snare, the Scripture says, but his new faith made Charlie Brown immune to such snares.  He was prepared to walk in that faith alone, even if no one else followed.                                          
          This is the way it has always been, and Christian hymnography has recognized and celebrated it.  The moment we decide for Christ, we are prepared to follow Him regardless of the shame it brings.  The evangelical hymn sings, “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.  Though none go with me, still I will follow, no turning back, no turning back.”  Our own Octoechos says the same thing:  “You were held by lawless men, O Christ, but You are my God, and I am not ashamed; You were smitten on the cheek, but I do not deny You; You were nailed to the cross and I do not conceal it.”  Faith allows us to stand for Christ crucified, even if it means standing alone.  We can take up the tree, the tree of the Cross, and calmly walk past those who deride us.                                                               
           I noticed one other thing from that story:  the crowd that once derided Charlie Brown as a fool (“Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown!  What kind of a tree is that?”) afterward themselves came to comfort him.  Charlie Brown took the tree home and tried to decorate it himself.  He placed a single decoration on its little branch, which bent over with its weight.  He thought, “I’ve killed it.  Oh!  Everything I touch gets ruined!” and he walked away in despair.  It was then that his friends who followed him came to the rescue.  “Charlie Brown is a block-head, but he did get a nice tree,” they said, and repaired and decorated the tree themselves so that when Charlie Brown returned, he found the tree a fully decorated and splendid.  All joined together in unity, singing “Hark the herald angels sing” as the final credits rolled.  This was, in fact, an image of the Church:  when one of us fails and falls, the rest are called to gather round and help heal the hurt. (Fanciful?  Maybe.  But for what it’s worth, count the people decorating the tree:  there are twelve of them.)  We need one another, and can only sing together to God once forgiveness and unity have been restored.  I don’t imagine that Charles Schulz was trying to make a theological statement about faith or ecclesiology with his hastily-prepared seasonal offering.  But Schulz was a Christian, and so wrote from his own experience of Christ.  That involved writing theology, whether he knew it consciously or not.                                                                                                                                 
          Watching A Charlie Brown Christmas never disappoints.  Good ol’ Linus always comes through, and brings a revelation to Charlie Brown.  This year the Peanuts gang brought a revelation to those of us living in a militantly post-Christian world.  That world may laugh and deride us if it wishes.  We can walk the lonely walk of faith alone if we have to. We know what Christmas is all about.