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I typed this up the other day after reading a couple essays about the Reformers' view of the role of church art. It is admittedly rantish and imbalanced, and there is of course another side to this issue. But, let me begin by ranting, and more careful reflections will follow later.

As I read about the Reformed tradition and the visual arts, I can’t help but be struck by our towering stupidity, arrogance, narrow-mindedness, exegetical blindness, philosophical absurdities, and paradigm confusion. Does that convey the problem sufficiently? To my mind, the Reformed myopia on this point is so shameful as to deeply compromise the credibility of the tradition on every other point. If on a point like this we have been so blind to Scripture, tradition, common sense, the relationship of matter and spirit, etc., then how can be trusted to be faithful in greater things?
And here is the rest of it.First of all, so far as I can tell, the only Biblical justification adduced for the iconoclastic frenzy that the non-Lutheran Reformers engaged in is a facile appeal to the second commandment, without bothering to actually see how Scripture applies it. The exegetical argument is so weak, given that the Old Testament itself does not seem to understand the commandment in nearly the strong terms that the Reformers did (there’s statues of cherubim in the Holy of Holies, for Pete’s sake!) that it seems that the iconoclasm must derive from another source. And so it appears—Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, etc., were knee-deep in the most dualistic Platonism—matter=bad, spirit=good; word=good, image=bad. There was a fear that material things get mixed up at all in spiritual matters and distract us from the pure intellectual contemplation of God. And there was the insistence that God was infinite and so impossible for us to comprehend—any image that attempted to picture him was idolatrous—but of course, for some reason, words were not. No, words offered the pure truth of God, undiluted, unsullied, and thus could not become idolatrous, because they were the real thing. Hopefully the more mature understanding of the vaporousness of language that we have regained in the 20th century, and the considerable experience we have had with word-idolatry will dispel such illusions. Needless to say, neither of these bizarre philosophical dichotomies is found in Scripture.
Let’s look at the Heidelberg Catechism, to see an example of this inattention to the Bible:
Q: “Should we, then, not make any images at all?”
A: “God cannot and should not be pictured in any way. As for creatures, although they may indeed be portrayed, God forbids making or having any likeness of them in order to worship them, or to use them to serve him.”
Eh? First of all, the whole point about us not picturing God can lean only on OT prooftexts; in the incarnate Christ, God has taken on visible form; he has pictured Himself for us, so, although a lot of theological work has to be done to make sense of this (and had already been done before the Reformers, if they’d cared to read it), it would seem that things are different now in this respect. As for the second prohibition, it is far broader than the Old Testament itself can support. Likenesses of creatures populate the temple and tabernacle…minimally, we have pomegranates, cherubim, and bulls, in addition to other more stylized representations. It’s hard to see how, as part of the worship building, these are not being “used to serve Him.” But...images used for instruction are going to be fine, right? Apparently not…
Q: “But may not pictures be tolerated in churches in place of books for unlearned people?”
A: “No, for we must not try to be wiser than God who does not want his people to be taught by means of lifeless idols, but through the living preaching of the word.”
Yeah, you sure better not try to be wiser than God! And since when does God only use words to teach his people?! The Old Testament contains strikingly visual teaching all throughout—from the dramatic visible signs and miracles that God works, to the richly adorned and heavily symbolic visual instruction of the tabernacle and temple, to the repeated use of object lessons by prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Not to mention that this is all just the Old Testament, and it culminates in the Word becoming visible, and taking life, and walking amongst us for us to see, taste, and touch. Biblical religion is no disembodied Platonic discourse, but an engagement with God with all five senses. Sometimes you have to wonder just what Bible these people were reading.

So I'm finally posting my first thoughts in response to Schmemann. This is more of a meta-response and meta-analysis, without dealing in depth with the specifics of his book just yet. And that will have to wait a bit, as my colleague Bradley will be using him to write a paper on just this subject. You should probably watch Tippecanoe and Tyler Too! for interesting discussion of these matters.

As I mentioned in my first post on this, I encountered this whole discussion of holiness in reading Alexander Schmemann’s Introduction to Liturgical Theology. He too drew a pretty sharp distinction between the two conceptions, proving that I hadn’t been imagining the distinction or blowing it out of proportion. He called them two different forms of “liturgical piety” and referred to the one (corresponding to domus ecclesiae understanding), which he saw as the practice of the early Church as “eschatological” (which has a somewhat idiosyncratic meaning in his usage), and the other, beginning in the post-Constantinian church, as “mysteriological.” Curiously, he never actually states explicitly which he thinks is right and which he thinks is wrong, though he appears to establish his preference with that most popular of chronological fallacies—the one that came first must be better.

It would be odd indeed if, after his description of the two forms of liturgical piety, he wishes to side with the eschatological, because his description of it and contrast between it and the mysteriological sounds downright Protestant (and unfortunately, I don’t mean that as a compliment)—“here was the pure, open, free worship of the early centuries, before it was corrupted by rites, ceremonies, superstitions, and clericalism.” And this seems impossible to square with his Eastern Orthodoxy, to which, in his other books, he seems thoroughly loyal. The Orthodox have always had a consecrationist view toward the sacraments, and a strong tendency toward the objectification of holiness (in icons, for example), and in his dichotomy, such localized holiness is categorized as part of the mysteriological piety. Aside from this concern, I am also rather skeptical about the historical dichotomy. Although he early on critiques facile dichotomies between pre-Constantinian and post-Constantinian, he ends up making a pretty dramatic dichotomy himself—before Constantine, Christian spirituality and worship looked like this…and then afterward, it all turned totally different. Such constructions are prima facie dubious in my mind. But I have two more significant objections, not to his conclusion per se, but to the shape of his argument.

First, as mentioned, there appears to a weighty unspoken premise in his argument: earlier=better, later=worse. Perhaps he isn’t saying that—perhaps he’s just pointing out that there was a shift from eschatological earlier to mysteriological later, and that’s just fine, since he doesn’t really say explicitly that one is good and the other is bad. But it certainly doesn’t seem so. It seems that he thinks that in saying that one came earlier and the other came later, he has clearly shown which is better and which is worse, so there is no need to spell it out. This genetic fallacy is ubiquitous in historical theology, and it drives me crazy! Unless you take a tragic pagan view of history, where all is a decline from an original golden age, then what is earlier in the Church is not necessarily better…in fact, it might be well be worse. If you believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the Church and guides her into all truth, then it is quite likely that later developments may be improvements. Of course, because the Church is full of men, and men are prone to sin and error, it is also likely that the opposite may be true. Usually, it’s some of both—usually, the new development contains something valuable that is also mixed with and prone to fall into error, and after a long period of wheat-and-tares growth, the new development and the older form need to be synthesized together so that what is true and valuable in both can be preserved. That sounds a little too Hegelian, I admit, but hey, Hegel was on to something. If there really are these two diverse forms of piety—eschatological and mysteriological, then it is most likely not that either is good and the other bad, but that both are valuable but incomplete, and we need to work through them and figure out how we can bring them together.

Second, there is another weighty unspoken premise: pagan=bad. Now, this obviously has a bit more to commend it, but is still far too simplistic. Very often, historical theologians think that if they can show that some development in the Church was influenced by paganism or borrowed something from paganism (e.g., all the critiques of Hellenistic philosophy influencing Trinitarian theology), then that development is automatically bad. But this is only so if we assume that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism only, and is simply the negation of all of paganism. I have read too much Lewis and Chesterton to accept anything of that sort. To be sure, Christianity stands in a much more positive relation to Judaism than it does to paganism, and to a great deal of paganism, it must say, “No, that is simply wrong, and must be abandoned.” But it is still true that Christianity is the fulfillment of what paganism at its best was blindly striving toward, that in their worship of the unknown God they were worshipping a God that was real. Christianity, then, is able to say, “This thing that you pagans are doing, you’re completely missing the point, and you’re doing most of it wrong. But, here’s what you are doing right, and here’s how we can take this into the service of the true God. It’s called plundering the Egyptians, and Christian theology did it to a great extent with Greek philosophy—often harmfully, but often helpfully. Why cannot the same happen with liturgics. If the pagans wear grand robes to minister in the house of their gods, are Christians being pagan if, after careful consideration, they do the same thing. Not necessarily. We must tread carefully here, but we must be able to say “sic et non,” rather than an automatic “non.”

Let these two points then be, in my mind, fundamental principles of historical theology—earlier doesn’t always mean better, and pagan doesn’t always mean bad.
Let me now suggest a third principle, which also tells against Schmemann’s apparent argument.

The movement of church history is one of maturation from glory to greater glory. This follows the pattern of the Old Covenant, where the people were brought out of Egypt, and then given a glorious tabernacle to travel with them. But then it was not until they had conquered the land, had been given rest from their enemies on every side, that God granted them to build the temple, a truly glorious house. Later, after greater triumph, an even more glorious temple is promised. What is the point I am making with this? Well, often people imply, as Schmemann does, that there is something very suspicious about the move from plain, simple worship and houses of worship before Constantine to the post-Constantinian basilicas, which seem to borrow so much from imperial and pagan pomp and splendor—big fancy crosses and vestments and ornate buildings and the rest. Writers make snide remarks about this change, as if it was a corruption of the original meaning of Christian worship; after all, they say, before Constantine, Christians proclaimed the kingship of Christ and believed in it but knew that as an eschatological kingship—they didn’t need to clothe Christ in all the earthly trappings of kingship in order to know that He was King. Well, maybe. But doesn’t this make more sense: Christ was already King in the early centuries of the Church, but he was a hidden king, he was like David in the caves, waiting for the Lord to remove the evil king. Once the king comes out of hiding, once God gives his people rest from his enemies on every side, then he bestows glory on them, then they build a glorious house for his name. While we must not fall into the Eusebian trap of thinking that the Kingdom had completely come through Constantine’s conversion, it is undeniable that this was a triumph for the Church, and a major step forward in her mission of transforming the world into Christ’s kingdom. After such a victory, after she has been given rest, it is only right and proper that King Jesus be honored with visible glory.
Again, such pomp and splendor is a temptation to corruption, but it is not itself corruption.

How Many Sacraments? follow-up

My replies to Bradley's questions ended up being rather too expansive for the comments section, so I figured I'd best just make it another post.


1. Perhaps we can think of Unction like a mini-baptism. Or more accurately, like a metaphorical baptism. It heals a man and thereby brings him back to meet with God's people on Sunday. It restores fellowship and strengthens it as we all pray for our sick brother. And it's quite clearly a redemptive act (healing the sick is part of the redemptive narrative, right?). I think Unction fits in quite nicely with your definition.

Thanks. I think that works well. I figured that something like that could be found with a bit more attention to the problem, which I didn’t have time to give before. Of course, this does make me wonder again whether we could start finding an example of these five criteria in other rites that haven’t been traditionally considered sacraments, which makes me a little leery.

2. You define sacraments as actions "...carried out by lawfully ordained ministers of the Church." I'm not sure this should be a strict part of the definition. Sure, *some* sacraments can only be carried out by ministers, but not all of them. What about baptism? Lay baptisms are valid. Certainly not preferable, but valid and sacramental just the same. Even Roman Catholics accept them (I just made a short blogpost about that, actually). Perhaps it'd be simpler to say, "a ritual enactment carried out by the Church."


This is a fair point…though the Roman Catholics, I think, would like to articulate this in terms of lay baptisms only being valid because this authority has been specifically delegated from the lawfully ordained ministers, so that sacraments still remain under the exclusive authority of the ordained ministers. At least, that’s my impression, and I’m not sure which direction I’d like to go on this myself. But sure, your definition works, especially since it guards against the main thing I was trying to guard against, which was any Christian just taking it upon himself to carry out the ritual and calling it a sacrament.

3. I don't agree with your fourth "in which." You say a sacrament must "restructure in some way the relations within the whole community of believers"? Why? Why can't a sacrament just bless one individual at a time, and thereby bless the whole community of believers?

Well, I included this because traditionally this has been a way of trying to limit the sacraments to only two. The Eucharist and Baptism, it is said, are rituals that are common to all believers, that belong to the whole covenant people, whereas marriage, unction, and ordination, at least, are received only by certain members. I’m not certain that the participation of the whole community is necessary for the definition of a sacrament but since it has often been insisted upon, I wanted to see if, using that criterion, the other five could still fit in. Thus I used the language of “restructuring” which I intend in a rather broad sense—“altering the relationships within the body of believers, either between all and all (as in the Eucharist) or between one and all the rest (as in Baptism, Ordination, Confirmation). When you look at it that way, it is clear to me that, for at least six of them (and quite possibly for Unction) as you mentioned, the whole body participates in the ritual act and is changed thereby. And if this so, I don’t see why we should want to take it out of the definition.

4. I think my definition of the word "sacrament" is wider than yours. But what's the difference? How is that any better or worse than folks who strictly teach only two sacraments? Every Presbyterian wedding I've attended has had a Minister of the Church presiding; what does it matter if they don't call it a sacrament? It works out the same anyway. Plenty of Baptist Ministers perform Unction, they just wouldn't call it a sacrament. So long as we have a sacramental view of the world, why does it matter how narrowly or broadly we define the noun "sacrament"? I enjoy this discussion--like I do any theological discussion--but I have difficulty seeing its applications. Practically speaking, I can see that it might influence what we incorporate into our worship service on Sunday, but that's about it. (Remember, this paragraph is a question.)

Yes, this is the key question. I agree that, since, Biblically, no strict definition is offered (indeed, the concept or category is not even clearly given in the Bible), then we should, in principle, be able to be flexible about the terms we use, as long as we can agree about the realities involved. That seemed to be one of Dr. Leithart’s tentative conclusions. But there’s at least two problems with that apparently simple solution. The first is that, although, if we were starting from scratch, with just the Bible, we might be relatively free to categorize and define these rites in a number of different ways, we’re not. We cannot pretend as if Church history has had nothing to say about this matter…for better or for worse, the Church thought it important to come up with a theological category here, and to treat certain things as belonging in that category, and other things as not belonging. There has not always been agreement about the conclusions of the discussion, but the terms of the discussion have been rather constant…rarely have more than seven rites come under consideration, and rarely have numbers between two and seven been proposed (though occasionally they have been). We have the freedom, I think, to venture toward new ways of discussing these issues (is “sacrament” a helpful category? What other terms might be valuable? Are there more than seven rites of this sort?) but we cannot be so bold as to do this unless we have first been willing to grapple with the question in the terms that have come down to us, and have tried to make sense of what the traditions that have come down with us were trying to say by their affirmations or denials on this issue.
Second (and here is the biggie, which preoccupies me a good deal)—naming matters. This is rather obvious when we encounter questions such as gay marriage…both sides in the debate realize that it really does matter whether we name what is going on “marriage.” The same is true here, especially because the terms have such a long history of theological usage by the Church. The problem is that, when the Reformers denied that marriage was a sacrament, for example, they were not intending to say, “Oh yes, it’s a sacred rite with all these features—corporate act by the Church, channel of God’s blessing, picture of God’s redemptive work, etc., etc., we just would prefer not to call it a sacrament.” No, they were saying, “Uh-uh. It’s a secular contract, it is not an act of the Church per se, it does not have these distinctively sacred features…the Church need have little or nothing to do with it”—the intent was to change the social meaning of marriage, and they succeeded. And many would still agree with that view of it, Pastor Wilson included. So there’s a lot of baggage attached to the desacramentalization of marriage, and it’s not that easy to just say, “Oh, we’re going to reattach all the sacred significance and make it a responsibility of the Church again, but we’ll continue to avoid using the language of sacrament.”
It is instructive to note that, with the other rites, like Confirmation, Penance, Ordination, Unction, etc., although the intent was not to say “Let’s get rid of them,” but rather, “Oh, they’re still important rites that we want the Church to keep doing, they’re just not sacraments,” they rapidly disappeared after their desacramentalization. Ordination has still held on in a very watered-down form, though many sects have tried to dispense with it, confirmation hangs on in certain traditions, but not others, unction is rare, and penance almost nonexistence. So, naming is important. For whatever reason, Protestants have been very hard-pressed to maintain much of the meaning and practice of these rites, once they took away the name. So I tend to think it is safest to return to the ancient landmarks.
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So I really am going to post about Schmemann and the idea of the holy and all that. But I have been diverted by a fascinating discussion in class Tuesday regarding the sacramentality of marriage. Dr. Leithart had done some research, and offered us the results...which were more a host of new questions than answers. Raising the question of the sacramentality of marriage brings to the fore two other huge questions--What is a sacrament anyway? and How has the desacramentalization of marriage contributed to the secularization of Western society and the marginalization of the Church? On this latter point, Dr. Leithart suspects there may be a close connection, and I'm quite confident that there is. Which, of course, still doesn't answer the initial question--is marriage properly conceived of as a sacrament? To answer this, we of course have to answer what a sacrament is anyway, which, Dr. Leithart acknowledged on Tuesday, is a very slippery question after all. So here is a first stab at a definition of "sacrament"--one that seems to allow for the easy inclusion of five of the traditional seven, and maybe the sixth and seventh...but we'll have to see. Of course, it's possible this definition would also allow for the inclusion of acts that have traditionally not been classified as sacraments at all...I haven't thought of any examples yet, though. So here's the stab (currently awaiting feedback from Dr. Leithart.
Let us define a sacrament as “a ritual enactment carried out by lawfully ordained ministers of the Church
--in which the redemptive acts of God are pictured and proclaimed,
--in which the faithful recipients are mysteriously incorporated into this redemptive narrative, so as to partake of its benefits,
--in which God’s grace is poured out upon the recipients, both in clearly tangible ways and also in intangible, but very real ways,
--in which, although the grace pictured and offered might particularly concern an individual or individuals, the action functions to restructure in some way the relations within the whole community of believers
--in which common elements, which have already an accepted and valuable non-sacred use, retain that function in some respect, but are transfigured, by their sacred setting, by the divine promises annexed to them, and by their administration by lawfully ordained ministers, so as to offer a fuller, richer, and multi-dimensional, benefit to their recipients.”

Examples:
In the Eucharist, minimally, the death and resurrection of Christ, his passing over from death to life, as well as the marriage supper of the eschaton are pictured and proclaimed, and the recipients of the Supper, by being united to Christ, share in the benefits of his death and resurrection; this grace, though real and objective, is mostly invisible and intangible, although the common reception of the elements by the community of believers also serves quite visibly and tangibly proclaim and accomplish the knitting together of the body; in this sacrament, the chief object is the whole community, not any particular individual, although of course Christ’s benefits are also shared with each individual—the partaking of the body of Christ re-constitutes the assembly of the saints as the body of Christ, uniting the saints again to their Head and to one another; in the Eucharist, the elements employed are common bread and wine, and the action is a communal meal, but the Eucharist is not simply common elements put into a sacred setting—while bread is always nourishing, the Eucharistic bread becomes nourishing unto everlasting life; while wine always gladdens the Spirit, the Eucharistic bread gladdens with the Holy Spirit; and while a communal meal always serves to proclaim and accomplish the binding-together of a community, the Eucharistic meal accomplishes this on a deeper and more mysterious level.

In Penance, the forgiveness that Christ has accomplished and offered in his death are displayed again, and the penitent individual is, so to speak, inserted into that story, so that this forgiveness is applied to him and becomes effective and powerful for him; psychologically, the penitent individual receives a very tangible benefit from hearing the minister pronounce the words of forgiveness, but the grace goes deeper, since his status is now actually changed before God; although this grace primarily concerns only the penitent individual, the whole community is involved, because if one member suffers, all suffer, and now, by his forgiveness, he is reintegrated into the community of believers and the sin that impeded fellowship is now gone; in penance, an action that has a valuable non-sacred function—confessing one’s faults to a mentor and being assured of forgiveness and given counsel by them—becomes a sacred action, and receives a new, fuller efficacy—the ability to actually change one’s status before Christ.

What about Marriage?
Well, the first criterion is covered rather easily—marriage pictures and proclaims the union between Christ and his Church, the fulfillment of history.
The second is rather hard to nail down…does the union of man and wife in Christian marriage not merely picture, but somehow participate in the union of Christ and the Church? What exactly would this mean?
As for the third, a rather tangible grace is received simply by the act of publicly making vows, which impresses upon both the solemnity of their obligation and a desire to be faithful to it; I think we would also want to say that the minister’s blessing of the marriage imparts a real, though intangible grace to husband and wife, that knits them closer together and gives them greater strength to live together faithfully.
As for the fourth, like Penance (or Baptism), we have an example of a sacrament that focuses on individuals, but in which the whole body participates and is restructured. Everyone in the congregation now relates differently to the married woman and to the married man than they related to them prior to marriage, and vice versa.
As for the fifth, this is where some of the controversy lies…but can’t we say that Christian marriage is to pagan marriage as the Eucharist is to a communal meal, or as Penance is to confession to a psychiatrist? Marriage takes a common, non-sacred action—namely, the sealing of a contract between a man and a woman, promising fidelity to one another, etc., etc.—and transforms it into a sacred function, so that the original function is still there (it’s still a contract, with all those obligations) yet the rite is now different and is greater, because now God has become part of the marriage covenant, and his blessing has been bestowed upon it, and the marriage has become a reflection of the relationship of Christ and the Church.

On these criterion, Confirmation, Ordination, and Penance are easily “sacraments”; Marriage seems to be (with the ambiguities just mentioned), and Unction is a bit more difficult, in several respects (how does it restructure the community? for example).

I have been involved in a continuing dialogue recently with a pastor who insists that I distance myself from Archbishop Romero and liberation theology...not that I have ever particularly associated myself with them, but I simply have committed the sin of refusing to condemn them wholesale. I have been trying to find out for several weeks from my interlocutor what exactly about Romero I'm supposed to be condemning, and little has been forthcoming, except for suggestions that he was in some way Marxist. In trying to research it myself, I came across this gem.

"First, Romero is very clear - the Church must reject Marxism, but he also makes it clear people need to understand what Marxism is and what it is not."
"Why has the Church’s social doctrine often been confused as Marxist by its critics? There are two reasons. One, because the Church rejects all forms of economic materialism, including capitalism, as being too reductionistic. “The real problem, however, arises from the fact that alongside the traditional condemnation of Marxism the church now lays down a condemnation of the capitalist system as well. It is denounced as one version of practical materialism” (77)...
"Worldly interests try to make the church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak” (78)." "

He goes on to clarify how either capitalism or Marxism can be usefully employed in a limited fashion by Christians, as long as the Church does not fall prey to the seduction of political ideologies.

Welcome Baby Soren!

So having just announced a pressing existential question that I planned to obsess about, I now have found something much more concrete to obsess about--my first son, Soren James, born at 8:10 AM on the Octave of Easter--yesterday morning. So far, he has shown signs of living up to his namesake, Soren Kierkegaard: he has spent many of his waking hours with his face creased and his brow furrowed in what appears to be introspective anxiety about his spiritual condition. Perhaps he will need to be rounded out with some Chesterton from an early age.

The Search for the Holy

So I realized something last week, something quite dramatic. Indeed, it was as if I’d been walking along confidently, admiring the scenic vistas around, and suddenly looked down and realized there was nothing under me, and I was standing over a great chasm, Wile E. Coyote style. Thankfully, I think I have a little bit more time than he usually does to try to scramble to either side or else find something underneath me to support me, but I don’t feel like I have much time.
What on earth am I talking about? What is this chasm? It is the great unanswered question of: what is the holy? What is the sacred? And here is the rest of it. (note that, while in many ways, it might be important to distinguish the senses of these two words, I shall be using them, at least for starters, rather interchangeably). Strangely, it seems to me (though I may be wrong) that this question had never been clearly posed to me, and my mind had never cross-examined itself sufficiently to pose it clearly. But I ran smack up against it in one of my church architecture books a couple weeks ago, and as I thought about it, it dawned on me that for at least the last two years, my theological development (which has been rather dramatic…progressing from Reformed Presbyterian to Presbypalian (an unhappy mix of Presbyterian and Episcopalian) to full-blown Anglo-Catholic) had been proceeding on the basis of a certain clearly felt, but never clearly articulated or carefully examined concept of what the holy was. This concept, I realized as soon I looked it in the face, was quite distant from the traditional Protestant understanding. I realized that I would need to either find the justification for my concept of the holy or else, presumably, trot back over to the safe ground of Protestantism (or, I suppose, fling myself toward the other side and cling to the magisterium). I asked Dr. Leithart if I were just imagining things, or if my realization was accurate (and was an accurate description of why we’ve been talking past each other on a number of issues for a couple years), and he thought it hit the nail on the head. So I resolved—for the next couple months, I would be on a quest, a quest to discover the meaning of the holy. And sure enough, as often happens in such situations, every book I read over the next week (which I had to read anyway—I hadn’t picked them out) ended up explicitly discussing this issue.

What issue? What are the two concepts of the holy? Ok, I’m finally getting there…you know how I like very long prologues. Basically, the way it was put in the church architecture book where I first came across it was this: churches have always been basically understood as either the domus Dei, the “house of God,” that is, a place where God is pleased to make Himself present, a space that becomes sacred by His presence; or as the domus ecclesiae, that is, the “house of the assembly,” in which God is present because we, the people of God, rather than any building, are his temple, in which he dwells and whom he makes sacred. This is perhaps too sharp of a disjunction, because the domus Dei conception is often inclusive of the domus ecclesiae, saying, “Yes, God dwells in his people, and they are a holy assembly, but the place in which they worship can become a sacred space in another, fuller, more objective sense, so that the place itself becomes filled with God’s holy presence.” The domus ecclesiae understanding, however, is exclusive—because the Church as the people of God is God’s holy dwelling place, in no sense can that presence be associated with places and objects. This, they will say, is simply to return to the Old Testament, or rather, perhaps indeed to paganism (since some, e.g., James Jordan, would deny that a sacralized view of objects can be found even in the Old Covenant, which is frankly incomprehensible to me, but oh well). This view, as you can imagine, has a huge effect on how we conceive church architecture, but it goes much further, extending into liturgics, the role of images, sacramentology, your understanding of the office of the ministry, indeed, into your whole understanding how the external world overlaps with and mediates the powerful presence of the invisible God and the spiritual world,
It has certainly had such broad ramifications in my case. For example, the chasm between these two paradigms explains why most of what James Jordan said about images (posted here last fall) was seemed so self-evidently nonsensical to me. Unknowingly, somewhere along the way, I had fallen into the worldview of the domus Dei idea of holiness, not as an intellectual conviction, but perhaps more as a gut feeling, or even an aesthetic sense. I believe I got it while visiting the Gothic cathedrals in England, where, it seemed to me, there were still the unmistakable traces of God’s sanctifying presence in the very stone.

So, you see, now I need to go back to square one and see why I think what I think, and what, in fidelity to the faith, I ought to think. My sense is that the chasm is perhaps more bridgeable than it often seems…that we can vigorously affirm a both/and here…and I’ve already started brainstorming a few ways to star building that bridge. But a lot of reading will have to be done.
Soon I will post some thoughts on this issue from Alexander Schmemann and from the Pope, since I encountered this issue in my reading of them this past week. If any readers want to join me in this discussion, and help me in my search for the holy, I eagerly invite you to comment and dialogue about it over the next few weeks (and if you have any book recommendations, please offer them).

Protesting the Tax Protests

I just saw something that disturbed me...hundreds of people, including many Christians, friends of mine, out in the city square protesting taxes and deficit spending and the like. Now, it was odd to me that this was so disturbing, given that, until recently, I would've been among the most eager; heck, a few years ago, if there were a secession movement, I would've jumped on the bandwagon. I think our country's economic policies and deficit spending and all that are on the whole stupid; I think our taxation is ridiculous. I think the government has no right to do 90% of what it does, and I'm not sure about the other 10%. In other words, I agree with all those people who are out there protesting, in terms of all that there is to protest about. But it seems rather wrong to me that they are out there protesting, and it seems to me a bad witness that a lot of them are Christians and from my Church. Now, why? I must figure out why I feel this way. Here are a few ideas.

First of all, it seems to be to be paradoxically exalting that which we want to bring down. As Christians, we know that we are citizens of another kingdom, serving the true King, Christ, and thus unjust governments have no true power over us. If we obey them, it is because loyalty to our King Christ requires it; if we disobey them, it is because loyalty to our King Christ requires it. Either way, we should be above the petty sentiments of fear and anger when we think they are behaving unjustly. Christ is righteous, and Christ will judge them, and our rebellions, passive and active, will never be effectual in fixing the problem. This is not a gospel of quietism--I am not saying that Christ's Kingdom has nothing to do with this world, nothing to say to the kingdoms of this world. It has everything to say to them. But what it says, it says in the language of the gospel, not in the language of secular political activism. If we want to call upon our rulers to end our injustice, we must proclaim the justice of Christ from the pulpit, we must proclaim it by our actions in the world, and we must say to our rulers, "Christ is King, not you, so stop oppressing his people!" When we dress up in the costume of right-wing tax protesters, and say "Keep your hands off our money! Stop deficit spending! Get rid of the Fed!" then we are abandoning the specific, powerful message that we have to offer to our government, and, by adopting the language and methods of modern political activism, we are actually endorsing the political system; we are agreeing to play by our opponent's rules and thus, ironically, investing with power the very power that we wish to protest!

Second, this is not the kind of submission and subjection that Paul asks for in Romans 13. Paul calls upon Christians to subordinate themselves and pay their taxes--again, not because they are subjects of the rulers, but because they are subjects of Christ, and his way of ruling is not violent and self-seeking, but shows love to oppressors. Paul knew that the Roman authorities were oppressive--much more so than ours! That's the whole point--he has just said, "Love your enemies! Do good to those that persecute you!" Why? Because this is how you triumph over them--this is how Christ triumphs over them. Therefore, be subject! Therefore, pay your taxes! If what Paul was saying is, "Yeah...you owe them obedience, so go ahead and give them what you owe, but you can grumble all you want about it," then that would be one thing. But that's not what he's saying!! He's saying, "Overcome them in love! Give them what love requires, even though they don't deserve it, even though they are greedy, even though they are unjust! Heap burning coals on their head! Pay your taxes, and do it with a smile on your face!" Any self-centered pagan can throw a fit about paying taxes--how do these kind of protests proclaim Christ? How do they identify us as Christian? The Christian protester says, "No, I'm protesting because I believe that this is Biblically unjust." But who sees that? Just because that's what you mean by the protest doesn't mean that that's the message you send! Such protest is indistinguishable from the ways of the world. If you really want to proclaim Christ's answer to unjust taxes, then shock everyone and smile and pay and pray and preach!

Finally, as I've posted before (on my Facebook), I think, neither Jesus nor Paul shows much concern at all about paying taxes. It seems like a big deal to us, and it did to the Jews, but Jesus was like..."Eh, sure, you're sons, and you're free, but don't be obnoxious, pay your taxes." The indifference that Jesus showed, and that Paul exhorted the Romans to show, would've shocked the Jews. But Jesus and Paul understood that money is the least of our worries; to make a big stink over money is to lose sight of the important things of the Gospel. If Caesar asks for your children or your worship, then you defy him to his face. If he asks for your money, well, heck, is that really worth fighting over? Do you really want to endanger your Christian witness by throwing a fit about money?

So, going out there and protesting taxes is paradoxically proclaiming that the political powers we are opposing really do have power, it is proclaiming that the ways of politics and violence really do have power, and that money really is as important as the world wants to make it. Rather than proclaiming Christ's stand against the powers of this world, it changes into the uniform of the world and enlists under its banners, simply in order to carry on an argument with other worldlings in the ranks.

Easter Collect

Almighty God, who hast displayed Thy power in raising Thy Son Jesus from the dead, and in him hath destroyed the power of death and made all things new, grant that we who are in Christ might share with Him in the abundant life that lies beyond death, that we too might triumph over the power of death day by day, and at last, when our bodies sleep in the brief night of death, may we rise again to share in the never-ending day, when Christ our life shall be revealed; through the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Conqueror Who has gone before us beyond the veil. Amen.

An Easter Overture

Around this time of year, I tend to develop an obsession with an extraordinary piece of music--Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture. My roommate introduced me to it about three years ago, and ever since, I have listened to it over and over come Passion Week and Easter. It is a remarkable testimony to how music--even purely instrumental music--can express rich and profound theology, and so movingly that it brings tears to your eyes.
What I like about this piece in particular is that, in telling the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, it does not simply narrate two acts--one tragic and one triumphant. It is not as if the music says--here is Christ's death, a terrible event, Satan has triumphed; now, here is Christ's resurrection, and it is glorious, and death is destroyed, and grief is gone, the crucifixion has been reversed. Rather, the music displays an incredible sensitiveness to the realization that it is not that simple--the crucifixion in the end is not a tragedy, and the resurrection is not simply the mirror image of what happened on Good Friday, canceling the grief and putting glory in its place. Rather, precisely what is so amazing about the Resurrection is that it is not so naive as to deny the tragedy of death, but rather, it takes up the tragedy of death and scripts it into a new story, in which life, not death, has the last word. Death is not denied or canceled out here, but is shown to be part of the glorious entrance into new life.

I'm no expert on music, but let me briefly describe the 15-minute overture as I experience it. Three main themes wrestle together in the piece--what I will call the theme of death, a loud, violent bray of brasses, proclaiming the irresistibility of death, then a theme of sorrow, a kind of somber acquiescence to death, often played on violins with a bittersweet edge, and finally, another theme in brass instruments that gloriously proclaims life, the power of life over death.
After a few minutes of setting the stage and the themes, the scene is clearly the crucifixion, where the violent trumpets of death assert themselves loudly, interpersed with bittersweet sorrow and intimations that death is not the only thing that's going on; the crucifixion scene ends with a proclamation of triumph--death has not had the last word even at this point, but something wonderful has happened--"It is finished." But it certainly doesn't seem that way...the next couple minutes indulge in grief that Christ is dead and buried. Then something new is happening...it is not merely the rest of the grave. The themes of life and death begin a violent struggle. "O 'twas a strange and dreadful strife, when life and death contended." Finally, Easter morning is here. The theme of life triumphantly asserts that it is victorious, and we hear its power spreading through all of creation. Now the theme of sorrow repeats occasionally, but transposed into a key that makes it each time less sorrowful and more beautiful. The theme of death makes one last violent assertion, but is then overwhelmed in a breathtaking climax in which it and the theme of sorrow are not cut off, but rather taken up into the heartbreakingly beautiful song of triumph that all has been made new.

This beautiful retelling of Christ's resurrection points us toward the glorious fulfillment of the world in the resurrection of all things. It is easy sometimes to think of the final resurrection as constituting the kind of simple "No" to death that is merely the opposite, merely the other side of the balance, which seeks to simply assert, "sin and death are over, now life reigns." No, the triumph of life in the resurrection is one which will not deny all of the sin and suffering and death that the world has groaned under, but which will add a final chapter to the story, thus rescripting these tragedies into a triumphant narrative, and making all that has come before part of the beauty of that final triumph.

Some of the greatest representations in literature have also displayed this glorious truth--Harry Potter (yes, I mean it) and Lord of the Rings are two fine examples.

"How do I feel?" Samwise cried, "Well, I don't know how to say it. I feel, I feel" – he waved his arms in the air – "I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!"

All the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

The Great Friday Homily

Every year I have to re-post this on my blog, because it is simply the most amazing sermon ever delivered in Moscow, Idaho, or perhaps anywhere else. It is Dr. Leithart's 2006 Good Friday Homily. In your spare time today and tomorrow, meditate on it; I assure you it will not be wasted time.

Good Friday Homily
Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus and the cross. Was that enough? To answer that question, we need to answer another: What is the cross? The cross is the work of the Father, who gave His Son in love for the world; the cross is the work of the Son, who did not cling to equality with God but gave Himself to shameful death; the cross is the work of the Spirit, through whom the Son offers Himself to the Father and who is poured out by the glorified Son. The cross displays the height and the depth and the breadth of eternal Triune love.


The cross is the light of the world; on the cross Jesus is the firmament, mediating between heaven and earth; the cross is the first of the fruit-bearing trees, and on the cross Jesus shines as the bright morning star; on the cross Jesus is sweet incense arising to heaven, and He dies on the cross as True Man to bring the Sabbath rest of God.

Adam fell at a tree, and by a tree he was saved. At a tree Eve was seduced, and through a tree the bride was restored to her husband. At a tree, Satan defeated Adam; on a tree Jesus destroyed the works of the devil. At a tree man died, but by Jesus' death we live. At a tree God cursed, and through a tree that curse gave way to blessing. God exiled Adam from the tree of life; on a tree the Last Adam endured exile so that we might inherit the earth.

The cross is the tree of knowledge, the tree of judgment, the site of the judgment of this world. The cross is the tree of life, whose cuttings planted along the river of the new Jerusalem produce monthly fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.

The cross is the tree in the middle of history. It reverses what occurred in the beginning at the tree of Eden, and because of the cross, we are confident the tree of life will flourish through unending ages after the end of the age.

The cross is the wooden ark of Noah, the refuge for all the creatures of the earth, the guarantee of a new covenant of peace and the restoration of Adam. The cross is the ark that carries Jesus, the greater Noah, with all His house, through the deluge and baptism of death to the safety of a new creation.

The cross is the olive tree of Israel on which the true Israel died for the sake of Israel. For generations, Israel worshiped idols under every green tree. Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into an idol to worship. Now in the last days, idolatrous Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into a cross. The cross is the climax of the history of Israel, as the leaders of Israel gather to jeer, as their fathers had done, at their long-suffering King.

The cross is the imperial tree, where Jesus is executed as a rebel against empire. It is the tree of Babylon and of Rome and of all principalities and powers that will have no king but Caesar. It is the tree of power that has spawned countless crosses for executing innumerable martyrs. But the cross is also the imperial tree of the Fifth Monarchy, the kingdom of God, which grows to become the chief of all the trees of the forest, a haven for birds of the air and beasts of the field.

The cross is the staff of Moses, which divides the sea and leads Israel dry through it. The cross is the wood thrown into the waters of Marah to turn the bitter waters sweet. The cross is the pole on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, as Jesus is lifted up to draw all men to Himself.

The cross is the tree of cursing, for cursed is every man who hangs on a tree. On the tree of cursing hung the chief baker of Egypt; but now bread of life. On the tree of cursing hung the king of Ai and the five kings of the South; but now the king of glory, David's greater Son. On the tree of cursing hung Haman the enemy who sought to destroy Israel; but now the savior of Israel, One greater than Mordecai. Jesus bears the curse and burden of the covenant to bear the curse away.

The cross is the wooden ark of the new covenant, the throne of the exalted savior, the sealed treasure chest now opened wide to display the gifts of God – Jesus the manna from heaven, Jesus the Eternal Word, Jesus the budding staff. The cross is the ark in exile among Philistines, riding in triumph even in the land of enemies.

Jesus had spoken against the temple, with its panels and pillars made from cedars of Lebanon. He predicted the temple would be chopped and burned, until there was not one stone left on another. The Jews had made the temple into another wood-and-stone idol, and Israel must have her temple, even at the cost of destroying the Lord of the temple. Yet, the cross becomes the new temple, and at Calvary the temple is destroyed to be rebuilt in three days. The cross is the temple of the prophet Ezekiel, from which living water flows out to renew the wilderness and to turn the salt sea fresh.

The cross is the wood on the altar of the world on which is laid the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. The cross is the wood on which Jesus burns in His love for His Father and for His people, the fuel of His ascent in smoke as a sweet-smelling savor. The cross is the wood on the back of Isaac, climbing Moriah with his father Abraham, who believes that the Lord will provide. The cross is the cedar wood burned with scarlet string and hyssop for the water of purification that cleanses from the defilement of death.

The cross is planted on a mountain, and Golgotha is the new Eden, the new Ararat, the new Moriah; it is greater than Sinai, where Yahweh displays His glory and speaks His final word, a better word than the word of Moses; it is greater than Zion, the mountain of the Great King; it is the climactic mount of transfiguration where the Father glorifies His Son. Calvary is the new Carmel, where the fire of God falls from heaven to consume a living twelve-stone altar to deliver twelve tribes, and turn them into living stones. Planted at the top of the world, the cross is a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.

The cross tears Jesus and the veil so that through His separation He might break down the dividing wall that separated Yahweh from his people and Jew from Gentile. The cross stretches embrace the world, reaching to the four corners, the four winds of heaven, the points of the compass, from the sea to the River and from Hamath to the brook of Egypt. It is the cross of reality, the symbol of man, stretching out, as man does, between heaven and earth, distended between past and future, between inside and outside.

The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to which all previous history led and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform – the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Incurable Consumerism

So I had hoped that one good thing that might possibly come out of this economic collapse would be the end, or at least, the amelioration, of our culture of consumerism here in America. In recent months, we have seen the national savings rate jump from about -2% (where it had been for years--no joke) to about +5% (most countries average about +10%). This suggested than many Americans were beginning to show some common sense--don't spend what you don't have, but instead start saving so you will have something to spend later.But it seems that we are beyond the reach of reason. This judgment was forced jarringly upon me by the recent issue of Newsweek, the cover of which declares: "I WANT YOU! To Start Spending: Invest in America, Before it's Too Late"

Of course, I assumed at first that it was just a parody of what the politicians have been saying--we've all heard Obama and the rest talk about how we have to get credit flowing again and Americans spending again. But no, this was no parody. The headline of the story inside said "STOP SAVING NOW!" And no, this was no parody either. Within the article, the columnist explained that while no one wanted to go back to rampant credit-driven speculation, nevertheless, we needed to be willing to get back into debt, and to start "investing in America" by spending. I blinked a couple times and reread the offending sentences, and found that yes, indeed, we Americans were being told: "No, don't save, but start investing instead, which means spending." Now, I know I'm not a certified financial planner yet or anything, and my education in economics has been a little informal, but my understanding was that investing was what you did when you saved, and spending is what you did when you didn't want to save/invest. However, so thoroughly have we become convinced that endless consumerism is the only way that we have survived that we have inverted the terminology--investing is now what you do when you spend, and saving is what you do when you're too stupid to spend/invest. I fear now that, as soon as economic conditions improve marginally, Americans are going to gleefully leap back on the train of rampant consumerism until they finally drive right off a cliff (assuming this isn't already the cliff.

PS: My cynicism was mollified somewhat by the appearance of a Time cover story this last week called The End of Excess, which though I didn't take the time to do more than glance at it, appeared to be taking the opposite tack of the Newsweek piece. I shall henceforth get my dose of standard vapid American public opinion from Time, rather than Newsweek

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