Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Coptic Martyrs of ISIS

          Many have heard the dramatic story of the twenty-one Coptic Orthodox Christians working in Libya who were captured and beheaded by ISIS as part of their ongoing campaign of provocation and terror.  What may not be as well known in the media is that all twenty-one were offered the chance to save their lives by embracing Islam, and that all twenty-one refused, confessing Christ and dying for Him as true Christian martyrs.  Indeed it appears that the Coptic Orthodox Church has already canonized them (i.e. declared them to be saints), and some ask what response the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches should make as regards these courageous Christians.  The question involves a look at the evolving practice of official canonization in the church.
            People are most familiar with the process of canonization in the Roman Catholic Church, since the Roman communion is the best-known and largest church in the west.  Over the years that church has developed a complicated system and lengthy process which must be followed before anyone can be officially declared a saint.  Previous to that, declarations of sainthood happened more informally and locally.  But by the tenth century the pope had secured control of all church canonizations, for in 1181 Pope Innocent III reserved all such declarations of sainthood to himself.  Even then it was not until the time of the Counter-Reformation in 1634 that a full process for canonization emerged, with nominations, judges, advocates, counter-advocates (the so-called “devil’s advocates”), trials, and the final verdict.  And of course the whole process, as well as taking years, also took money to amass testimonials and keep the cause alive.  A certain number of authenticated miracles were also required to push a candidate along the long path to being called “Blessed” (a kind of lesser rank of holiness) and then further along yet to actual sainthood.  It was all very formal, and organized, and official, and lengthy, and expensive.
            It was also very different than it was in the early church.  The term “saint” of course simply means “holy one” (Greek agios), and was used by St. Paul to describe any baptized and faithful Christian.  Certain people whose Christian faith was clearly authentic and whose lives merited wider attention, were called saints, or described as “holy” (e.g. not just “Paul”, but “holy Paul”).  This of course included the martyrs, believers who had suffered for their Lord.  There was no process of canonization required; the conviction and declaration of the local church that these people were truly holy was sufficient.  Such was the credibility of the laity’s testimony, and the Church’s confidence that its faithful could discern true holiness when they saw it.  If a church’s bishop was martyred, for example, the faithful treasured story of their bishop’s heroic end and accorded him the appropriate honour.  They would keep and venerate his relics, celebrate his martyrdom at its yearly anniversary, and ask for his heavenly intercession.  It was a strictly local affair, and if other churches from neighbouring cities didn’t want to join in the acknowledgment of that bishop, they didn’t have to and one tried to make them.  But examples of heroic holiness were rare enough, and usually the neighbouring churches were all too happy to acknowledge the sanctity and tell the story of any martyr.  Such stories were shared with Christians in other cities, and sometimes relics were also shared, so that the martyr’s anniversary celebration in one city was sometimes kept in neighbouring cities as well.
            Orthodoxy is heir to this local and informal practice of the early church.  We are somewhat more formal than our ancestors were.  Nowadays a potential saint is discussed by the local synod of bishops and discussions are held about whether or not to canonize him or her.  Then the liturgical services are written and the icon painted and the day for official canonization (called the saint’s “glorification”) arrives.  The final memorial service is said for him, and then prayers are no longer said for him, but rather to him.  But even before this final episcopal process begins, the people still know whether or not the “candidate” is a saint.  Like in the earlier days, the Church still recognizes holiness when it sees it, and local “unofficial” veneration always precedes the “official” one.  After all, it is God who makes saints, not bishops.  And it seems clear enough that God has made twenty-one new saints in Libya lately.  Whether or not the bishops give their official stamp of liturgical approval is almost irrelevant insofar as goes the love and veneration of the people of God.  It seems likely that the bishops, whose divine task it is to lead the Church and be its liturgical voice, will respond by officially glorifying these martyrs.  The laity have said Axios! and the bishops may well respond Amen!



Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Teach Your Children Well

          All parents in every generation worry about their kids, and try to keep them safe.  They not only do this by not letting them play in traffic or jab sharp sticks into hornets’ nests, but also by warning them against perennial dangers.  In my gentler generation, my parents warned me about traffic dangers, urging me to look both ways before I crossed the street, and to extend my hand while crossing, making sure that the cars had stopped.  When older I was warned against the dangers of “taking drugs”, a warning echoed in the wider culture (“Just Say No to Drugs”).  A younger generation (my kids) were exhorted not to talk to strangers, and not to get into a car with them, even if they did promise you candy and they seemed nice.  I even taught my kids a secret password, in case anyone came to get them at school claiming to be sent by me; if they did not give the password, our kids knew those claiming to be sent by me or their mother were lying.   Increasing availability of drugs and increased reports of child abductions on the six o’clock news told us we were living in dangerous times.  We needed to teach our children well if they were to survive, and grow up strong and healthy.
            The times have become even more dangerous for children as we descend further and further into spiritual barbarism and as every last trace of Christian faith and morals is banned and banished from our western culture.  It was physically dangerous to live in Europe during the time when the Black Death  raged unchecked throughout the land; it is spiritually dangerous to live in North America now during this time of moral decay, and of these two dangers, the latter danger is the worse.  Indeed, there is probably no more dangerous place on earth to live than in North America right now.
            The dangers are many and varied, but here I refer to the danger that comes from the flood of pornography which sweeps our land like a demonic tsunami—or, to vary the metaphor, like an unchecked and raging pandemic.  Lust was always a temptation for both genders, though some would argue that the temptation affected men more violently.  Accordingly in every generation prostitutes plied their trade, winning the dubious accolade as “the world’s oldest profession”.  (If the Genesis creation stories have anything to teach us, they teach us that farming is actually the world’s oldest profession, but never mind.)  Also accordingly, previous generations bought pornographic images.  In my day what passed for pornography consisted of pictures of naked women, posed coyly behind beach balls or draped over furniture.  Playboy magazine specialized in such, and did its best to make such images mainstream and acceptable.  I remember a Hustler magazine editor heatedly denying that what he published in his magazines was pornography.  He claimed it was “art”.  It was nonsense, of course, and his aim was simply to make money through the commodification of the female body (a form of visual prostitution).  Even the people buying the stuff knew that it was not art but pornography, which is why it was often mailed to them in the advertised “plain brown wrapper”, and which is why stores selling it kept it behind the counter.   The satisfaction of lust was the aim, and no one ever really read Playboy for the stories, no matter what they claimed.
            But times have changed, and not for the better.  Now the pornographic industry specializes not so much in coy images of naked women, but in sexual violence and female degradation.  Women are referred to by a host of names no Christian should ever use, and subjected to practices that any sane person would regard as torture.  Such things are not the occasional exceptions on the fringes for the pornographic industry.  They are now the norm.  And all this has become freely available through the internet.  No one now needs to steel oneself to go into a store and ask for the naughty magazine kept behind the counter.  One only needs access to a computer and with the click of a key or two, a multitude of images come flooding into one’s private room for free.  And with the availability of “smart phones” able to access the internet anywhere, one doesn’t even need a private room.  One can download images in school or at McDonald’s.
            The danger and problem with this freely available porn is not just that it is sinful.  It is sinful, of course, but the problem is graver than that.  The real danger is that our young boys are feeding on such images at a younger and younger age, before they begin to have real relationships with girls, and these pornographic images and practices badly skew their developing understanding of sexuality.  When therefore they later come to relate to girls and women, they will not regard the female as a person worthy of respect, self-sacrifice, and gallantry.  The pornographic images will have dehumanized the female, and sex will not be about relationship, but about cruelty, debasement and the infliction of pain upon the vulnerable.  Please note that I said “the vulnerable”, and not necessarily “the adult vulnerable”.   All pornography eventually ends in child pornography, for none are more vulnerable than children.  Pornography is addictive, for one becomes quickly and increasingly desensitized, and to get the same psychic “kick” one requires ever more explicit and shocking images, ever greater hardcore cruelty.  The defenders of Fifty Shades of Grey should take note, for the book and its movie are symptoms of a new sickness, and an impetus for further descent into the degradation of women.  That the book has been written, and the movie directed by women reveals just how badly feminism has lost its way.
            The current availability of hardcore porn for young boys represents a frontal assault on their healthy development as men.  It is now possible that an entire generation of men will arise who regard sexuality simply as an instrument for debasing women, and who make “Bros before hoes” their unspoken motto.  Part of our task as parents is to warn our children of this danger, and to help them regard pornography as a dangerous temptation in the same way that ingesting crystal meth or heroin is a dangerous temptation.  It must be avoided for the same reason—because it is addictive and will harm you.  In this dangerous world, we must teach our children well.  And the first step to teaching them well is to practice what we preach.  If we would warn them of the dangers of porn, we must keep our hearts clean, and have nothing to do with it ourselves.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Billy and Chuck: a Tale of Two Evangelists

In the middle of the twentieth century, two men shared a deep friendship, based on their mutual love of Christ and belief in the Scriptures:  Charles (Chuck) Templeton, and Billy Graham.  Odds are you have heard of the latter; probably not the former.
            Chuck Templeton was nonetheless someone to whom the young Billy Graham looked up (as Billy admits in his autobiography Just As I Am).  They shared rooms together as well as their dedication to Jesus and their determination to preach the Gospel.  Together Billy and Chuck worked with the early “Youth for Christ” movement, and when Billy was about to go on stage to preach the Gospel to 20,000 teens in a Youth for Christ rally in the Chicago Stadium in 1945, he leaned over to Chuck saying to his buddy, “Pray for me Chuck; I’m scared to death.”  Chuck did.
Nonetheless, Chuck and Billy eventually chose very different roads.  Chuck attended Princeton Theological Seminary, and was exposed there to the biblical liberalism then sweeping through the theological colleges of America.  For him, the supposed conflict between Science and Religion loomed very large.  The front line then was the account of creation in the Book of Genesis and its supposed incompatibility with Science.  Chuck remonstrated with his old friend, “Billy, it’s simply not possible any longer to believe the biblical account of creation.  The world was not created over a period of days a few thousand years ago; it has evolved over millions of years.  It’s not a matter of speculation; it’s a demonstrable fact.”  In his autobiography, Graham recounted that he honestly struggled with the arguments of his friend, finally resolving the conflict by simply taking the historical reliability of the Genesis account, as he says, “on faith”.
            Billy Graham never looked back, which is in part why we all recognize his name.  It was otherwise with Chuck.  His studies at Princeton, coming after his fundamentalist upbringing, led him inescapably to the conclusion that the Bible was wrong.   Being a man of integrity he resigned his evangelistic ministry, and began a new life and job in the secular world.  He became famous in that world as a broadcaster with Pierre Burton on CFRB radio in Toronto, and published a book outlining his life story, entitled appropriately enough Farewell to God.  After a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease he died in 2001, after confiding in a journalist, “I miss Jesus.”
            Standing at a distance from both men, I think I can see both what they shared in common as well as the matters in which they differed.  As men born and bred in Protestant fundamentalism, both equated “truth” with “historical truth as currently defined by historians”.  That is, the Bible story about (for example) Jonah was true, and therefore the story about Jonah must be historically true in the sense that present day historians define historical truth.  The story of Jonah cannot be historical fiction, or allegory, or parable, or anything other than a recounting of historical events according to the present journalistic canons for accurate reporting, otherwise it would not be true.   Both men applied this understanding of truth in their interpretation of the entire Bible, including the creation accounts of Genesis.  Billy looked at these Genesis accounts and the differences from them in the accounts of modern science, saw the discrepancies, and rejected “on faith” the conclusions of modern science.  Chuck saw the same differences and the same discrepancies, and rejected the Bible in the name of modern science.  Neither man was prepared to question their equation of “truth” with “historical history as defined by modern historians”.  And that is too bad.   Resisting the equation might have secured a greater measure of credibility for Billy.  And it might have allowed Chuck to retain a belief in the authority of the Bible, and to remain in the Christian Faith.  Maybe Chuck needn’t have missed Jesus after all.
            The tale of the two evangelists is a cautionary tale.  Perhaps confession of the Bible as the authoritative and infallible Word of God doesn’t necessarily commit one to belief in the creation of the earth “over a period of days a few thousand years ago” after all.  Chuck probably would have said that he left the Christian faith because he didn’t want to become a victim of fundamentalism.  The irony is that in his rejection of the Faith he was a victim of such a fundamentalism after all.  


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Repentance of the Prodigal

We’ve all had moments like that—the moment where you wake up with a start and realize you’ve been a complete moron.   The Prodigal Son had one such moment when he realized he was being idiotic and stupid, (or in the more elegant language of the parable, “ when he came to himself”).  He had left home for a far country in a fever of determination to break free from the old dull ways of domesticity and to taste all that the world had to offer.  After a whirlwind of parties and “loose living”, he found that all that the world had to offer him now was poverty, hunger, sickness, and degradation.  Yes, degradation:  he was so desperate for food that he took a job from a local farmer feeding his pigs.  For a Jew, there was not much further down to go.
            Then he had his moment:  here he was working himself to death and still starving, while his father’s servants were not working as hard and eating quite well.  That was when he decided he would swallow what was left of his pride and go and humble himself before his father and ask for a job.  He even rehearsed his speech—he would kneel before the old man and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”  He might be refused a job or even run off the property (or worse yet, meet his elder brother), but it was worth a shot.  The alternative was starvation and death in a foreign land.
            When he returned home, he found a surprise waiting for him.  When his father saw him approaching from a distance, “he ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20 RSV).  The original Greek and the original culture make the father’s response even more amazing.  The Greek doesn’t simply say he “embraced” him, but “fell on his neck”.  And it doesn’t say he “kissed” him (which would be phileo in the Greek), but the more intensive kataphileo—he kissed him repeatedly, covered him with kisses.  And don’t miss the significance of the fact that the father ran to him, for dignified adult men like this did not run—and certainly not run to their children.  But this father ran.
            More than that, the father didn’t even let him finish his well-rehearsed speech.  The boy got as far as stammering out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son”; he didn’t get to add the crucial bit about “treat me as one of your hired servants”.  Instead his father reinstated the boy utterly and completely, clothing him as befit his true son—with a fine robe, and shoes for his bare and blistered feet, and a ring of authority on his finger. 
            The repentance of the prodigal reveals the true nature of repentance.  Repentance is not simply feeling bad over having broken God’s rules or violated Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  It is a return to yourself and a return to your home.
            It is a return to yourself and to sanity because sin is essentially stupid.  God offers us life and joy, a continuous stream of the divine Presence flowing into our lives if only we will constantly lift up our hearts to Him and seek His face, a flow which not even death can stop.  Sin bids us choose something else instead—devotion to lust, or ambition, or the thousand other alternatives to God we can manage to find—and we choose that, even though whatever fleeting pleasure we can take from it will cease with our death, if not long before we die.  How dumb is that?  Repentance means wisening up, and coming to our senses.
            Repentance is also a return to our true home in our Father’s house.  We were created to be His children, with all the privilege that implies—being free from fear, free from death, free to walk through life trusting in Him to provide what we need and to lead us where we should go.  Why wander far from home when the wide world cannot offer us anything comparable?  Repentance means we return to the embrace of the Father, and to His humbling love, and to a house of feasting and music and joy.                             
          Returning to sanity, and to the Father’s embrace—sounds like a plan.  Great Lent is coming, and it tells us we have been feeding the pigs long enough.  Let’s all go home.