Archive for January, 2008|Monthly archive page

Epiphanius On Christian Books

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“The acquisition of Christian books is necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness” (Epiphanius, Bishop of Cyprus, in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 58).

If that’s not a justification for my line of work, I don’t know what is!

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Church Shopping: Blessing or Curse?

In last month’s Christianity Today, Richard Mouw wrote an article titled, “Spiritual Consumerism’s Upside: Why Church Shopping May Not be All Bad.” (I would explain the thesis, but I’m pretty sure you get the gist from the title) A short excerpt:

I see these vocational explorations [church shopping] as an exciting feature of contemporary religious life. We should celebrate the diversity of our Christian landscape, manifested, for example, in the existence of Lutheranism, Vineyard Fellowships, and Stone-Campbell congregations. If such diversity encourages a consumerist approach to the spiritual quest, so be it.

He also sees Protestants’ church shopping as a parallel to different orders (Jesuits, Benedictines, Franciscans) within the Roman Catholic Church.

Then today I came across this article, “My Church, My Strip Mall,” by Anthony Sacramone, the managing editor of First Things, which he wrote in response to Mouw. He has different ideas:

Because we are faced with the fact of ecclesiological chaos does not make it healthy or desirable. I would argue that it may even be spiritually corrupting. Look, I’ve been there myself. As I wrote a while back in this space, I spent a good, long time—years—collecting church bulletins like frequent fliers collect air miles. But I never considered potluck Protestantism a great good.

In the last eight or nine months, I have found myself reaching for a lot of the same justifications Mouw is in his article, but none of them were satisfactory. And I don’t find Mouw’s satisfactory either. The two problems I see with Mouw’s article are (1) the parallel he draws between Protestant traditions and Catholic religious and lay orders is a huge stretch (Sacramone calls it “daft”) and (2) Mouw baldly equates any move from one church tradition to another with “church shopping” in all its various forms and contexts. It seems to me that the sociological phenomenon of church shopping refers not to people moving – out of moral or doctrinal conviction or something similar – from one tradition to another but to the ease with which modern North Americans float from church to church, depending mostly on whim, convenience, and personal taste. This has little to do with moral or doctrinal conviction. As Sacramone says, “Mouw’s celebration of ‘cultural diversity’ isn’t even doctrinal minimalism—it’s doctrinal irrelevance.” In essence, it should matter where we go to church as Protestants, because there is not necessarily a consensus among us on what one should believe.

I’m interested to hear other responses to these articles. Give me some feedback.

Contest: Name That Author

Which one of these people is a famous American author in his youth, and who is the author in question? Be the first to provide me with this information, and you will receive a generous prize, courtesy of one of my overflowing bookcases.

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Sickness and Divine Punishment in the Psalms

I’ve been reading a lot of the Psalms for work in the past six or seven days, and I’ve noticed that physical sickness – despite how ridiculous this sounds to modern readers – is often associated with the Lord’s disfavor, and healing with the Lord’s favor. Enemies often mock the narrator, pointing out that his God must not care enough to heal his chosen one, and sometimes sickness even leads to the desertion of friends. In Psalm 41, for instance, the narrator says, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, / who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (RSV). Being deserted by friends in a time of sickness seems so counterintuitive. Wouldn’t friends gather more closely and become more supportive during times like these? One would think so. But, this being a Davidic psalm and as such being associated with a position of leadership, it makes me wonder if, in a culture where sickness is associated with divine punishment, would a friend’s desertion during a leader’s sickness be akin to the crew of a ship growing mutinous when they fear their captain is lost or misguided? Did they believe that being associated with a person whom God has clearly singled out for punishment would possibly bring further punishment on them? Guilty by association? I don’t know, but it makes me wonder what kind of social customs might have been in place that would lead friend to desert friend. Could divine punishment be passed along like a contagion carries a sickness? It might depend on the context, whether the narrator is asking to be vindicated in light of his innocence or is asking for forgiveness in light of his iniquity. In other words, is a friend’s desertion an indication of further disfavor with the Lord, or is it an actual betrayal, a sign that the narrator’s status in the eyes of the Lord is really the important factor? On top of all this, I’m sure that sickness and divine punishment had more social ramifications than they do today. Exclusion from the community would have been the worst thing next to death. Sickness equaled physical exclusion; divine disfavor equaled spiritual exclusion. The latter is a metaphor for the former. Just some thoughts.

New Comment

Everybody be sure to check out Chad’s latest comment on my post from January 12, “The Books of the Bible.” Also be sure to see the comment further up the page where Derek Brown soundly blows Chad’s ultramontanist position out of the water.

Charlie Is One

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Charlie, as in Charlie Mackenzie (So I Married an Axe Murderer)

Auden, as in W. H. Auden, the poet

Reimer, as in he’s my son

Happy birthday, son.

Dostoevsky, O’Connor, and the Supernatural

The closing passage of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”:

Her mother let the conversation drop and the child’s round face was lost in thought. She turned it toward the window and looked out over a stretch of pasture land that rose and fell with a gathering greenness until it touched the dark woods. the sun was a huge red ball like an elevated Host drenched in blood and when it sank out of sight, it left a line in the sky like a red clay road hanging over the trees.

This is one of O’Connor’s most autobiographical stories, which depicts a young girl’s acceptance of her Catholic faith. O’Connor thought it was one of her most important stories, and expressed dismay that it didn’t get anthologized or talked about as much as some of her others.

In his massive four-part biography of O’Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton, titled The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Paul Elie interprets the passage as a reconciliation of the Protestant and Catholic ways to God, “but the image of the sun eucharistically looming over all, above and apart, suggests the pride the Catholic child is prone to, the deadliest sin of all.” Maybe he’s right, and he’s knows much more about Flannery O’Connor’s writing than I ever will, but when I read this passage, I was struck that, for the little girl in the story, the sun as a eucharistic Host indicates not pride but that the universe begins to take on a sacramental character.

I was actually reminded of this passage when reading Dostoevsky last week. To my mind, O’Connor’s vision is similar to Dostoevsky’s. To wit, both are sacramental in character. Part of the passage in Dostoevsky that I posted last week reads, “We have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds.” This comes through vividly in the Elder Zosima’s, and then Alyosha’s, acceptance of and intense love for the world itself.

In other words, for both O’Connor and Dostoevsky, love for the world is possible by virtue of its participation in God himself, which is why, in Dostoevsky’s case, Ivan, without this perspective, cannot accept the world, and in O’Connor’s case, why her characters’ lives are so violently disrupted when they resist the intrusion of grace, or the supernatural, in their lives.

Anyways, thoughts.

Flannery O’Connor on Graham Greene

As between me and Greene there is a difference of fiction certainly and probably a difference of theological emphasis as well. If Greene created an old lady, she would be sour through and through and if you dropped her, she would break, but if you dropped my old lady, she’d bounce back at you, screaming “Jesus loves me!”

-from p. 400 of The Habit of Being

The Books of the Bible

I recently came across an advertisement for a project called The Books of the Bible, in which the chapter and verse references have been stripped out of the text and reformatted into one column. So each book now reads like (or is at least presented as) more of a book and not a set of individual units pasted together. The order of the books has also been altered, sometimes radically (e.g., most of the New Testament) and sometimes slightly (e.g., the Pentateuch and historical books). They provide sample pdfs on their website, and the text looks clean and sleek when unencumbered by myriad superscripts, headings and cross-references. Partly, I’m just excited to read a Bible that offers more by offering less. Often Bibles are glutted with offerings of more notes, more study options, more background material, more ways to apply each text, you name it. This is one that takes its medium seriously, infusing the content typical of most study Bibles directly into the physical object.

I was initially skeptical when I saw the advert, but when I saw that they had taken out all the subheads and chapter and verse references, I was intrigued. I had actually wanted something like that for a long time (as in, “don’t tell me where to stop or where to start or how you or your intern or whoever think the passage should be summarized. Just let me read the text.”). Then I went to their website, and I was a little dismayed (as in “here’s another specially-branded new Bible to appeal to the most recently-deemed-profitable demographic, just like those BibleZines [for which Thomas Nelson will have to answer at the Pearly Gates].”). But the more I read, the more excited I got, with a few caveats.

I think they’re on to something at the International Bible Society. They realize that the Bible should be read in the chunks in which it was written and not necessarily just in the bite-sized nuggets of verses or even chapters. Furthermore, they visually structure the text according to its natural literary breaks, so, for instance, a prologue has an extra line of white space after it to indicate that the preceding section is set off somehow from the rest of the book. Sure this is something a reader could infer simply by paying close attention to the content, but when form and content are correlated as closely as possible, the visual presentation reinforces the cognitive process, a synthesis more powerful than the sum of its parts. My caveat is that the website overstates its case: they breathlessly announce this new Bible as a paradigm shift, a revolutionary new way of reading the Bible. One that is relevant and fresh and simple. Well, now, let’s not get too worked up here. While they’re clear in their FAQs and elsewhere that they’re not trying to replace the Bible as it is, they employ a lot of overwrought marketing jargon to get their audience’s attention. But in the end I think it’s only that – overwrought marketing jargon – and to dismiss it or ridicule it based on that would be to give it too short of shrift. I learned the Bible according to its chapter and verse division, and, while I’m not denying that chapters and verses are extremely useful, I feel like there are a lot of false divisions of chapters and isolated understandings of certain verses I have had to unlearn (and still have to) because of the way I grew up reading the Bible. Having a text that doesn’t tempt me to stop at Romans 6 and get to Romans 7 later is, I think, a blessing – and would be invaluable for somebody reading it for the first time.

I’m more ambivalent about the rearrangement of the books. The Old Testament (or “First Testament” as they call it) is a little clearer than the New Testament. There are the general categories of history, writings, and prophets, and the editors have grouped them as such. I like that books that have historically been placed together but that have been separated for reading convenience have been reunited (Samuel-Kings and Ezrah-Nehemiah-Esther – and Luke-Acts, but more on that later). When viewed as a single whole, readers are more likely to glean the overarching narrative, drama, and message of the book. I only have two beefs. First, they broke up the Minor Prophets in order to place them in chronological order, which is helpful in terms of placing the prophets within their context in the history of Israel but which is not so helpful in placing them in their literary contexts. The Minor Prophets were all kept on one scroll and were arranged in a deliberate fashion. For instance, Jonah is smack in the middle of the scroll as an example of a prophet who didn’t really get it, but God accomplished his purpose through him and despite his obstinancy. This arrangement ignores these more subtle literary points within the Minor Prophets. This, however, was a decision the editors had to make, and that’s fine with me, though I would have done it differently. Second, and less importantly since the Old Testament has always been grouped generally into genres, grouping certain books under history and others under writings tends to ignore the fact that each book has its own literary style and structure. Historical books are not less literary than the Writings simply because they are not poetic. Samuel-Kings, for instance, has a clear literary structure that coheres with one of the main themes of the book: Israel’s sin leads to exile. Conversely, a book grouped in history could be speaking of Israel’s history, or a moment in it, such as Ruth, but not necessarily be rooted as firmly in historical fact. But the historicity of certain books of the Bible is not something I want to get into, so I will put that firebrand back into the fire and move on.

The New Testament is a different story. The books are grouped in an almost arbitrary fashion. Luke-Acts is first followed by the Pauline epistles. I like that Luke and Acts are together, since Luke wrote Acts as a sequel to his Gospel, but I’m not sure he really intended them as one book. I haven’t gone to any sources to refresh, but that’s the impression I have. But from there the problems only multiply. So much of their organization is built on opinions that have no scholarly consensus in regards to date or even authorship. I don’t blame them for uncritically grouping everything bearing Paul’s name under Pauline, and they had to choose some order if they were going to hazard an attempt at a chronology but it just seems to tenuous to even try. Matthew, Hebrews, and James are all together, I guess because they’re all Jewish (!), a thematic grouping; but then Mark, 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude are together because they’re (mostly) Petrine, an authorial grouping; finally all the Johannine material ends the New Testament. It seems so rag-tag, like they wanted to change the order for the sake of changing the order. It seems much more intuitive to keep the Gospels together, maybe putting Luke last to place it next to Acts, then almost the same order the New Testament is already in. But now that I look at it more, perhaps they were grouping them according to communities, that is, each group at least points, for example, to a Petrine or Pauline community. I suppose that could work, but it still seems pretty tenuous. Those communities are partly theorized and may not have been as close-knit as some scholars have made them out to be. The order they chose for the New Testament is a mixed bag.

There’s also the issue of the TNIV. Nobody I’ve talked to is very excited about the fact that they used the TNIV. I’m among them, but it’s a long discussion, and it’s getting late. I believe in gender-inclusive language, but it seems like it introduces more problems than it solves to use it in Scripture.

Overall, though, I’m really excited to get my hands on one. Maybe I’ll be disappointed by the actual experience, but I doubt it.

The Christmas Haul

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Every year, if anybody gives me money as a Christmas gift, I take it straight to the best bookstore on the planet.