When Darkness Reigns

This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

In these two verses, Christ sums up the law, not so much in the sense that these are the conditions for salvation, but rather that they are in fact the state of it – for what else can heaven be except being deeply and madly in love with God and others? In reality, the other of the commandments are simply clarifications of what such love looks like.

And it is from these – or at least any sensible perception of them – that mental illness shuts us out. Love your neighbour as yourself. Perhaps not even a mandate so much as a statement. Perhaps we love our neighbours as we love ourselves as a matter of course – but that is damning when you so much despise yourself you can’t see the point of crossing the road and trying to revive that body of yours beaten and bruised and dying. Can one save others who cannot save himself?

One can leave the ache and fear alone and try to love – if not ourselves, then at least God, at least those around us. But the thing inside us hunts us doggedly so that what we wish to be love for others and God turns to dust – despair overwhelms and anxiety makes us more of a complication than a blessing to others. And so we are sent defeated back into ourselves, fearing to help or love lest our love come out as hatred.

Yet going inside ourselves is no comfort either. For a more optimistic person, I suppose this would be an opportunity of “dealing with” things, whatever that might mean. If you deal with pain once or twice or three times, perhaps this might seem viable, that life itself is generally triumphant or at least tolerable, and “dealing with” things can restore that general state. Chronic suffering is different. Who will save me from this body of death?

Yes, Christ. But the promise is not always an experiential one – it is a promise in the dark. I hardly know how much of my own state I am culpable for, how much I can change, and how much not. And though well-meaning people would suggest that I shouldn’t worry about culpability, such people would rob me of one of the few things I have left – the capacity for choice and action. Not that I am able to choose in many circumstances – I certainly did not and cannot choose away mental illness. But there must be some crevice of my life left where I can choose, and a way of choosing in this crevice love for God and others – perhaps even love for myself – if only I can find it. Yes, there must be some way that I am my beloved’s and He is mine. But His body next to mine in the lilies feels cold as a corpse. Night is in the garden – and this is the hour when darkness reigns.

Wyn Eal Gedreas: An Unreasonable Lament

I wanted this to be measured and planned and well thought out. And I wanted a few posts to introduce a theory and metaphysics to serve as a backdrop and explanatory note. But this is exactly my problem – I build my fortresses of words and hide behind them. Throw any given situation at me, and I will have it hand delivered in a neat parcel of words by next morning. Of course it doesn’t take the pain away, but the neatness is a useful distraction – for myself temporarily, and sometimes more permanently for others. We who write like this know well the adage of the Ecclesiast, that the more words there are, the less the meaning – and it profits us very much, thank you, because where there is meaning, there is pain. Writers like us know very well that the letter kills and the spirit gives life – and so we hide behind the letter because life, like meaning, is the site of pain.

But this post will be different because this post, rather than an argument, will be a lament. My thoughts will not be moderate nor will they be justified point by point. I am not even entirely sure why I am lamenting, as it feels selfish in the superlative. What worth do I have to merit the praise implicit in a lament? None, probably – but I have worked with enough literary laments to know they have mysterious purposes beyond what is seen, and had best be spoken when they come regardless of their apparent folly. I trust that one of the most mysterious instances of transubstantiation is the translation of lament into prayer. And so I provide raw material in hope of a miracle.

I have a Doctorate in literature, and my job consists in writing ad copy. It is a job. I should be at least grateful for that. But as I look at the pile of thing in the docket – things simply waiting for me to unfold their splendour to the world – I can’t help recalling Enoch Emory and the man selling “thisyer peeler” in O’Connor’s Wise Blood (and yes – I do in fact write about peelers). I suppose it is maybe itself a fairly O’Connorian thing to discover oneself to be precisely one of her characters whom one doesn’t want to be. And I suppose she might even go so far as to say that there may be an odd grace in it – though with grace like this, who needs enemies?

My heart is in and with literature and theology – they are what I love, and love to teach – but I am presumably too attached to both in a market in which love is a liability, and in which I am bad at finding those communities where it might not be. Besides which, between OCD and depression, I am well-practiced at putting my worst foot forward – I see nothing in myself to recommend, in part because my standards are far higher than I can ever aspire to, and so the jobs generally go to those who are loud or affable or shy in the right kind of way, and who are able to gloss over or ignore any disjunction between their ideals and their performance. As for me, people either take me for a scattered and uncareful scholar and person – encountering the part of me that whistles so I do not weep – or for a standoffish and uptight person who is guarding the pretense of scholarship through aloofness – because of course, even at this point of having a Doctorate, I still feel like I’m faking it. I understand that this is a common feeling, but with OCD, and with having to prove myself as a medievalist outside any of the normative centres of medievalism, it is I believe intensified. And it is no good to appeal to alleged allowances in university hiring policies for things like depression and OCD. The process is set such that, long before candidates even reach the point where these allowances might be made, such candidates are weeded out. Universities love in their generosity to tout their deep benevolence, rather in the way they might say they are infinitely gracious and eager to hire people who are lame – but only, of course, after they have won a marathon against able-bodied persons.

Of course, all this I could bear – or at least seem to have done in the past – if there were Christian community to help orient me. But that too is largely disintegrated. After having experienced some fairly nasty and confusing politics in Christian circles, I simply have trouble trusting people. Dipping your bread in the cup with me is no guarantee you won’t betray me. And when I do seek friendship, I am either too aloof and not warm enough, or my heart spills out in intense ways that frighten others.

And added on top of everything, I am a Catholic convert. The problem with this on the Protestant side will be obvious enough – most Evangelicals are benevolent enough to imagine that some Catholics might accidentally discover Jesus and blunder as it were into the kingdom of heaven – I know this because I am from such a background. But it is another thing when it is a decision – further, when it is a decision made by someone who knows the Bible and takes his relationship with God quite seriously. It is a problem because it demonstrates deep peril – if he could become Catholic, then there is no saying who else might not. And if he was walking with God before, and then became Catholic, why, then, there is almost the peril of suggesting God did it, which is a temptation we must resist. And so I am usually explained away as the product of intellectual pride or false logic or a tilter at straw men or something generally incoherent – anything, really, that can drag matters of the heart reluctantly into the ring of gladiatorial disputation and force them to fight – all the while feeling treble not only the blows they receive, but the blows they give.

This on the Protestant side, but then there are other alienating factors on the Catholic side, the primary one being what seem to be standard modern narratives of much lauded converts. You see, converts in general don’t fit well immediately into what one might call broader Catholic culture. One can hold all the doctrines and follow the magisterium and all other necessary things, but there are certain habits, mannerisms, and ways of speaking and thinking that one only picks up after long habituation in Catholic contexts. And this is of course fine – part of the attraction for me to Catholicism is the way it makes culture in this way rather than letting secularity make it and then baptizing it. What is more difficult, however, is that for some Catholics, these mannerisms and habits etc. – the secret handshake, so to speak – are more determinative of one’s Catholicism than what is in the Bible and catechism. And so it is hard to break into community when one does and perhaps always will speak the language of Catholicism with the clipped accents of Evangelicalism.

Of course, the way some converts avoid this is by becoming apologists or dramatically experiencing an effluence of love that oozes from their very pores – these things can help them fit in. I speak with sinful jealousy, and so I do want to make it clear that I would sooner be thrown in the sea with a millstone than denigrate their experiences with God or fail to rejoice with them as far as I am able. Yet there are some of us who cannot be those converts. There are some of us whose faith is so entangled in their lives that a full justification – a full apology – cannot be given till doomsday. And there are some of us for whom intra-Christian apologetics hurts because it is the body of Christ wounding the body of Christ, and all the pain is ours. And there are some of us who do not ooze love – indeed, who bristle – and who have experienced the proper and entirely expected but not therefore less painful transition from being confused, complicated Protestants to being confused, complicated Catholics. We have heard the stories of those who have found “Rome Sweet Home,” but what I need – thirst for, in fact – are modern stories of converts in the dark. Because even in the dark we can sense that Edenic dictum that it is not good to be alone.

Bowdlerizing Spiritual Narratives: John Donne and the Izaak Walton Maneuver

At the end of my honours degree in English, I took what was one of my most memorable and enduring classes, a course on John Donne with a mentor who would eventually become my MA supervisor, and who is a leading scholar on Donne’s sermons. The course was efficacious not only in the short term, but in the long term, as bits of it keep coming back to me in my own moments of grappling with matters of faith and life. And I suppose it makes perfect sense that it would be Donne – as one who grew up Evangelical, is now Roman Catholic, and who deeply appreciates Medieval literature on the one hand (PhD) and poets such as Milton on the other (MA), I can certainly empathize with his ecumenical tendencies, and appreciate that his is a matter of real theological grappling rather than the frustrating and contentless “I’m okay, you’re okay” liturgical iteration of kumbaya that ecumenism often devolves into in the present. Long before Barth identified it, Donne was recognizing indeed that, far from being what Marx would later identify as an opiate, religion and faith and God and our relationships in the midst are perhaps the single most vexing problem of being a human. Not, of course, a problem in the sense that they needed elimination, but a problem in the sense of being the agonizing and difficult crux or crisis on which everything hangs. Donne might have concurred with John Lennon in “Imagine” that things would be more peaceful with “no religion too”; where he would I imagine disagree is with regard to the worth of such peace – the kind of peace that has no room for our souls and their frustrations is in fact the kind of peace in which we might gain the whole world and forfeit our souls. Peace is probably not worth having if the price is our real humanity and the real spiritual struggles that come thereby.

Of course, what is interesting, and where I want to take this post, is that there are as many if not more Christians as alarmed by this idea of troublesome faith as Lennon is. Subtly, they have in fact accepted the Marxian interpretation of their own narrative, and when someone challenges the status of their faith as opiate, they become alarmed. And it is further no good to say that such attempts are merely attempts to recapture a so-called precritical medieval golden age. The sheer hardness of medieval life and the constant exposure to pain and death kept, I think, such precritical theology from becoming wishful romanticism – optimism was a matter of survival rather than luxury, and if medieval theology sometimes sounds naive, it is arguably the naïveté and simplicity one might find in a trauma survivors’ group, not simple because medievals did not known suffering and complexity, but seemingly simple perhaps because it is the memory of small, simple, joyful things that keeps one going in the midst of immense pain.

However, at the present historical moment, the socioeconomic situation means that some of us can live in bubbles detached from the pain and suffering and reality around us, and this state combined with participation in a faith we mistake for an opiate makes us problematically opposed to the voices of people like Donne, and it very often takes an immense amount of suffering to break through this bubble – one of the first steps in salvation is realizing that poverty is a precondition for blessing, and further, that the poor are in fact us rather than some abstract ideas of persons to be saved or fixed. We must, to draw on Donne, ask not for whom the bell tolls, but realize it tolls for us.

But many still prefer narratives that are neater than this, and it is indeed such a narrative I want to turn to as a way of prefacing what I hope will be a series of posts on the subject of narratives of conversion and spiritual experience. This narrative is one which we looked at in the aforementioned class: Izaak Walton’s biography of Donne. Now, Izaak Walton was quite the admirer of Donne, and seems to have been well meaning. But the author who could appreciate the serenities of angling in The Compleat Angler might have been better off sticking with the literal descriptions of angling than trying his hand at the biographies of fishers of men, particularly ones like Donne. The attempt is, if I recall, rather like that of a friend trying to praise another friend in an area of expertise the former doesn’t really understand. As a result, Walton gives Donne’s narrative a neatness and tidiness that it almost certainly didn’t have – in particular, he fudges the fact that Donne’s spiritual trajectory was from the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised toward an Anglicanism alive to the complexities, problems, and possibilities of many manifestations of Christian faith. Walton instead prefers a more Augustine-inflected narrative entailing a clean break with a sordid past and a happy conversion to Anglican Christianity. And this narrative has had influence, perhaps not least because of our attraction to such narratives – it is much easier and straightforward than the complex but real alternative, which involves grappling. And it is exactly this kind of treatment of spiritual narrative that I am introducing in this post – we might call it the Izaak Walton Maneuver. In the next few posts, I want to use this maneuver as a backdrop for discussing two sets of conventions related to two spiritual narratives with which I am familiar: the favoured Evangelical conversion narrative – in essentials not that much changed from the narrative favoured by Walton – and the favoured narratives of the reception of Protestants into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, which comes with its own set of conventions and expectations.

Beaten by the Keepers of the Walls: Sexual Violence and Ecclesial Betrayal in the Song of Solomon

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The worst wounds are the wounds caused by other Christians. In direct persecution, one can at least identify someone doing something evil to one. In general adversity, one can rage at the turn of events without needing to mold them into a neat narrative. But pain and betrayal that we experience from other Christians are of a different order. They are of a different order because the person doing the afflicting is part of the same body as the afflicted. To hate the other – the wounder – is in a sense to hate someone who is part of you, which one cannot do. And so these matters remain so often unresolved. We cannot cut ourselves off from the body, nor can we take control of it. And so it is that such wounds lead to deep confusion and perhaps far deeper lasting effects than any other kind of wound. When we are hurt from the outside, we can cleave to the body of Christ; but when those in the body of Christ hurt each other, to what can we cling?

This, I think, is why betrayal is such a central problem in the Biblical narrative, perhaps even more than the more recent and modern problem of evil: “Even my friend, who has shared bread with me, has lifted up his heel against me,” says the Psalmist. Job too is about the betrayal of friends, with the central question being God’s apparent betrayal of his friendship with Job. Indeed, the Old Testament is a narrative of a faithful God dealing with a treacherous people, with the determining moment being the crucifixion scene when creatures perform the ultimate act of betrayal against their creator. Given such a narrative, it is not surprising that Dante reserves the deepest pit of hell for traitors, particularly the archetypal Judas who is the model of intra-ecclesial wounding. Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come.

But to return from types and archetypes to the matter at hand, my purpose in this post is to hazard – and I do so gingerly and tentatively, because I don’t want to say more than should be said – that wounds between Christians are a little like the spiritual counterpart of sexual violation. Because sexuality is a locus and crossroads for so many parts of ourselves, sexual abuse and violation assault that very core of ourselves that might give us fortitude and strength when facing less intrusive wounding. Even so, wounds dealt within the church are dealt in a space of intimacy, and therefore throw into conflict that very faith that might otherwise be our mainstay – they affect a spiritual nexus of faith that shapes and channels our identities, even as sexual abuse affects the psychological and existential nexus that converges in matters of sexuality.

Indeed, even if one is not a romantic, and knows that “such things must come” among Christians – even then, no amount of cognitive anticipation can prepare one existentially. The kiss of Judas is always expected, yet also, by its very nature, always a surprise. And we are devastated. And what I want to talk about here are some partially formed thoughts I have been having on these matters and the Song of Solomon. As per Christian tradition, I will be taking the relationship between Christ and his church as the primary meaning of this, and the more overtly erotic interpretation as the secondary meaning (even as marriage is sacramental before it is erotic). The relevant passage is below, from the Song of Solomon, Chapter 5:

2 I sleep, and my heart watcheth: the voice of my beloved knocking: Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is full of dew, and my locks of the drops of the nights.
3 I have put off my garment, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them?
4 My beloved put his hand through the key hole, and my bowels were moved at his touch.
5 I arose up to open to my beloved: my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers were full of the choicest myrrh.
6 I opened the bolt of my door to my beloved: but he had turned aside, and was gone. My soul melted when he spoke: I sought him, and found him not: I called, and he did not answer me.
7 The keepers that go about the city found me: they struck me: and wounded me: the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him that I languish with love.

9 What manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, O thou most beautiful among women? what manner of one is thy beloved of the beloved, that thou hast so adjured us?

10 My beloved is white and ruddy, chosen out of thousands.
11 His head is as the finest gold: his locks as branches of palm trees, black as a raven.
12 His eyes as doves upon brooks of waters, which are washed with milk, and sit beside the plentiful streams.
13 His cheeks are as beds of aromatical spices set by the perfumers. His lips are as lilies dropping choice myrrh.
14 His hands are turned and as of gold, full of hyacinths. His belly as of ivory, set with sapphires.
15 His legs as pillars of marble, that are set upon bases of gold. His form as of Libanus, excellent as the cedars.
16 His throat most sweet, and he is all lovely: such is my beloved, and he is my friend, O ye daughters of Jerusalem.

17 Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou most beautiful among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside, and we will seek him with thee?

I am not going to lay out the meaning of these passages verse by verse, but it is enough to say that what we encounter at the beginning is an invitation to intimacy, exposure, and vulnerability. Regardless of whether we take this as simply a late night bedroom visit, or whether we take the language of keyholes, head, dew, and bowels in a more suggestive direction, the “beloved knocking” is seeking vulnerable intimacy with the primary speaker. However, what happens to her is what lovers exposing themselves most fear – her beloved and the context of trust that accompanies him disappear just as she responds to him, and her response without an answering context of trust and safety leaves her exposed and feeling foolish in the streets – again, an image subject to a variety of interpretations, but at bottom representative of the intimate vulnerability that is the pleasure of love in the presence of the beloved, but the cause of deepest shame and embarrassment when exposed to the public eye. Indeed, in this moment of intimacy, when she is, so to speak, caught in the act, she is not only shamed, but physically harmed – to make things worse, beaten by those who are supposed to protect the city, the keepers of the walls. “Who watches the watchmen?” indeed!

To clarify from the start, I do not intend to interpret this story as a model for how Christians should respond to sexual abuse anymore than I would follow some in mistaking the Song for the Christian version of a Kama-sutra-like sex manual. It is neither, and to force it to be either obscures the deeper meanings of the book, even as it straightjackets those who hold it as such into a shallow imposed formula not at all designed to deal with human complexity.

What I do want to suggest though is that, in its primary mystical sense, it does present a suggested response to abuse, but this abuse is of the spiritual kind – the identity shattering wounds described above which are the spiritual counterparts of bodily sexual violence. To be clear again, I do not mean in doing this to offer the Christian response to such wounds, but rather to use the text as a way of unwrapping and thinking about ways it might help us navigate our own moments of discovered shame, vulnerability, and wounding in the church.

To be part of the Christian church is to be intimate with Christ and His body. For those of us from an Evangelical background, we know this intimacy best through the beautiful, dangerous, and holy experience of pouring our hearts out to fellow Christians. For those of us who are Catholic, such intimacy, in my experience, comes through the sacrament of reconciliation, or the fact of baring our souls before the blessed sacrament during adoration or the celebration of Eucharist. In any case, regardless of the manifestation of our experience, there is always risk, because we are vulnerable in the body of Christ amidst His people – and some of them may wound us in exactly that place where we experience intimacy most deeply. This does not in the least discredit the church; the first lesson in ecclesiology is Christ’s words that some will arise within the church to distort the truth, and charging the church with hypocrisy in her body is to forget that she prophesied it well before we were around to notice.

Expected though it may be, however, the toll on the wounded individual is grave and disorienting indeed, and this leads me to the question I think the aforementioned passage from the Song of Solomon can help us think about: I After such deep wounding, can we ever fall in love again, that is, into something that is more than intellect and assent of the will? Can we know the intimacy of Christ on this side of heaven? Or are we stuck in wariness and confusion till the present age passes? To be clear, my question is not whether those so hurt can be Christians and part of the church – of course they can. My question is rather whether they will be allowed in this world to feel again. I don’t have an answer, and indeed, the answer probably varies depending on the individual in question and the depth of wounding.

What I do suggest though is that this passage in the Song offers an example of recovery in such an instance. And there are a few aspects of this recovery I think we can learn from. One thing that we can notice is that the initiation of healing is on the side of the beloved herself, but it is also very brief and inadequate. She knows enough of her woundedness to be able to identify herself as sick of love, but is able to say little more. And this is where it is the business of fellow Christians to step in, figured here as the daughters of Jerusalem.

It is their job – and therefore ours – to respond to an inarticulate cry of pain and take up the burden of negotiating that pain. The beloved herself is too wounded in too intimate a place to be able to do this, and so the rest of the church takes up this burden for her. And the nature of this burden is to help the beloved see her lover again, to help her, if we might recall the Lacanian phrase to its Augustinian roots, never give up on her desire. She is catechised concerning the beauty of the lover, and presumably this allows her, at least partially, to recall and re-experience her love for Him. When the beatific vision of the lover is eclipsed for the beloved – that is, for the Christian – by fear, it is the rest of the church’s job to recall to her His image which will in turn recall her to adoration.

This will probably not be exactly the same kind of love as before – love raised to life after shame differs from its former form, even as the resurrected body of Christ differs from His former body. But it does suggest there may be hope for those of us blundering about in the dark after all the candles have been snuffed in the Cathedral. We for our part can do what we can do – produce a feeble and confused cry of pain – and we can only hope that there are those in the church who will respond to that incoherence and love us back to life. For it would seem to be God’s purpose that wounds that can only be opened in the intimacy of the church can also only be mended in that same intimacy by those willing to hear the intention rather than the matter of a cry of pain that is also a prayer.

A Spirituality of Awkwardness

Awkwardness is the space where interesting things might happen. It is the space where the hum and buzz of social convention is suddenly paused, where we are forced for a moment to contemplate the silence and creaturliness wherein – as apophatic theology points out – we might find the beginning of wisdom. What we feel when we feel awkwardness is the feeling of nakedness in the garden – we are exposed – and for a moment (or for some of us, many moments), the routine and business behind which we hide is stripped away. We are called upon to act, but there are no stage directions. We are called upon to speak, but we are not given a script. And so we stumble, and stammer, and try to gather the cover of business and routine and words more closely about our hearts. We fear we will be found out. We fear that when we are found out, we will not be loved.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately in relation to some of my favorite spiritual texts. Particularly, I’ve been thinking about it with regard to the gifts of grace, that is to say, all the gifts God has bestowed upon us, including our very selves. To think of being given so much by God is the most awkward thing of all, because what can one do? One can’t pay Him back. One can’t reserve a part of oneself. And it is absurd to even think of trying to explain and defend oneself before the very creator who made us. We are at a loss because we are the recipients of gifts. God has put us at the centre, and however hard we try, we can’t escape from the givenness of things. The giftness of the world focuses like a spotlight on each of us, and it is awkward, because it means we have been seen. And we don’t want to be seen – at least not in that way, the whole way, with nothing held back. We may want parts of us seen, but not the whole. And so we stand in awkwardness before God – given everything, even the very good works we do – and are able to give nothing in return. Our awkwardness is a sense of gratitude with nowhere to go. To give so much to us seems a radical miscalculation. And so we want to do something, and hide behind the something that we do.

What texts am I thinking of? Biblically, I am thinking of the parable of the two lost sons, the prodigal and the other – the prodigal experiences such awkwardness when he thinks of his gracious father, and then, when he is ashamed to imagine himself in that grace, imagines he will go back and work for him as a hired laborer. He will come back as a mere servant, and his servanthood will be his cover. It is a way not to deal with the awkwardness of things. Except where it impinges on his service, the business of a servant is his own, not his master’s. But a father is different. With the father, there is awkwardness.

Similarly, I am thinking of Martha in the kitchen. It may not be that she doesn’t feel the same awe Mary feels toward Christ – but perhaps she feels it secretly, so secretly she needs to hide it. She has been seen, spotted – and it is too much to bask in the awkward exposure of it. Better to do. Better to work. They will not notice you doing. The safest place is in the centre, working and facilitating, because no one notices the workers. But Christ does, because this is what Christ does – he makes things awkward.

These are the Biblical texts, but there are two others. One is Therese of Lisieux’s Story of a Soul. One of the central features of her story is a sense of grace achingly, intimately, embarrassingly profound – it is secret and awkward. Hence, Therese describes how she is “not going to give every detail. Some things lose their fragrance when opened to the air, and there are stirrings of the soul which cannot be put into words without destroying their delicacy.” This is Therese’s secret, awkward grace. For those scandalized by the radiant openness of this grace, she, like Moses, wears a veil, which is the typical reluctance of the saints (beginning with St. Paul) to talk about the grace – the gifts – that have been given them. And this veil is cut from the same fabric as that of the prodigal and Martha – speak less and distract them by what you do, and maybe people won’t notice the awkwardness of grace lying thick about your heart. But if they do, it doesn’t matter – the gift that is awkwardness – intimacy with Christ – is more than enough to make up for being found out.

The last text I want to talk about, and the one that inspired this post, is the last text in George Herbert’s Temple. “Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back.” Why? Because “guilty of dust and sin” – the presence of real love is the presence of awkwardness. And when invited to sit and eat, the speaker does exactly that thing we have seen in the prodigal and Martha, the thing that becomes a beautiful translucent veil in the work of Therese of Lisieux – the attempt to hide in service. “My dear, then I will serve…” The line itself is ambiguous – it is unclear whether it is love or the speaker speaking – and this is as it should be. The voice of the lover and the beloved speak in unison, and indeed the thing the speaker turns to to cover his shame and awkwardness before grace becomes at once the grace itself. Even in service we can’t hide, because the service itself is grace – and grace, whose name is Christ, is patient enough to wait until we accept love’s invitation to eat the feast before us. Love and grace are awkward – and it is awkwardness that binds us to Christ.

Scary Ghost Stories and Tales of the Glories: Wishing You All a Christ-Haunted Christmas

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This blog was begun out of Facebook posts I began writing during Advent. And so it is perhaps fitting that, as this time of year rolls around again, I should offer some thoughts on the season. As usual, they will be vexing and vexed, but here goes.

To begin, I don’t know who to be more frustrated with: those who reduce the season to commercialism and saccharine songs that are not even good by pagan standards, or those who allegedly want to put the Christ back in Christmas – by which they usually mean their favourite id(e)ol(ogy) which they have given the name Christ. If I were feeling uncharitable, I might make some sort of comment about it being impossible to put the Christ back in Christmas without putting the Mass back in Christmas, and you can decide for yourselves what I mean by that – at the very least, it means that it is certainly hard to understand Christ apart from the work of His bride through whom he has chosen to reveal himself. But I am not feeling much more uncharitable than normal, so I shall leave it at that for now.

What I do want to talk about though is how we navigate this odd holiday context in which Christ is in some way inescapable – for simply calling it “the holidays” or dating the world back to BCE rather than AD is just a manipulation of language; there is still the history behind the thing we are celebrating, and the uncomfortable fact that in secularity we are left with neither supernatural nor even basic pagan reasons for keeping the feast. In such a context, we are left with a vague feeling that we should have warm hearts and special generosity around this time because – well, because it’s Christmas.

Perhaps the most positive way we can put this is that the season is a mystery in the cultic sense – we don’t really know why or what we are doing when we celebrate Christmas, but we do so anyway because something in the mystery draws us; like Bryan Adams we simply feel that there’s “something about Christmas time,” and because of the difficulty of sustaining such a mystery religion in a modern, “progressive” world, we find ourselves longing for the infantile innocence of stupidity, which we excuse by mislabeling it as childlikeness, but nonetheless need if we are at all to maintain a state of confusion of which we are rightly fond as something preferable to pure secularity. In the immemorial words of Josh Groban, “you have everything you need, if you just believe” – and it is integral to the maintenance of this season that the fact of belief rather than the content of what is believed in is emphasized.

But if this is a problem for those who want to celebrate Christmas but have no idea why, it is equally a problem for Christians, who ought to know better than to simply lock themselves in a fortress-like dualism over against an ostensibly confused culture. We all know the rhetoric on the other side, the return to the “true meaning” of Christmas, whether this is understood as the iteration of Christ’s nativity narrative, a particular sobriety, the ousting of mammon, or the rather childish abolition of Santa Klaus and other Christmas mythopoeia. What always astounds me about this position is the dead certainty with which these people seem to know the “true meaning” of Christmas. Really? Is it so simple to grasp the fact of God becoming human and also remaining God? Have we really got a handle on this such that we can go about like busybodies correcting the imaginations of our friends and relatives? As you can see, I am happy about neither stance – confused secularism or dead certain faith with an emphasis on “dead.” So where can we find the answer? In ghosts, evidently.

Yes, quite seriously, I think we would do well to pay heed to Dickens and the spooky stories of twelfth night because they get at a fact about Christ’s incarnation that neither the secular sops nor the hard-nosed Chistian killjoys understand; what is primary about Christmas is that it is uncanny. Let me explain. In literary theory, when we talk about “the uncanny,” we are not talking about simple concrete gruesome horror, nor are we talking about something that cannot be known at all. No, what is uncanny exists in a realm that is related in a complicated way to our epistemologies – in negative terms, we might say it is uncertain, or in more positive terms, we might say it is a mystery. The uncanny disappears when certainty appears on either side, that is, when the ghost we are afraid of is debunked, or when it is put to rest within a solid and comprehensive metaphysics. In some Christmas traditions, this uncanniness is negative, as in the case of the poem “Old Christmas Morning,” but in Dickens, the uncanny ghost exists halfway between the worlds of marvel and terror, and the uncanniness of time – that is, the ungraspability – is shown in the persons of present, past, and future. What I want to suggest is that, far from being a distraction from the “true meaning” of Christmas, this tradition of uncanniness gestures in an analogical way to the central story of Christmas – the uncanniness of Christ’s incarnation. “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” speaks more truth than ought to be allowed such a schmaltzy song when it speaks of “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories,” for in a very real sense, the stories are of a piece. What ghosts are to our perception in a negative sense, the incarnation of Christ – inspired after all by a Holy Ghost – is in a positive sense. And we know this from the gospel of John.

For it is in John more than any other gospel that we get the fullest account of Christ’s birth. No, it is not the gospel we usually associate most closely with the Christmas story, given the omission of historical details. Yet there is a strong case to be made that John does in fact recount the Christmas story in the opening of his book – the difference is that he is recounting it from a metaphysical rather than merely human perspective. John, the eagle, looks into the sun of righteousness, and is dazzled. To say John points to the “true meaning of Christmas” here would be moot; rather, the logos has got hold of him and won’t let go. The fish need not draw attention to the whale.

But if this – what John is describing – can happen, then anything might happen. And this is the explanation of the uncanny stories that crop up at Christmas. Our imaginations are tantalized. In such a world, challenged as it is by the incarnation of God, men might come back from the dead. Flowers might bloom in the bleak of winter. Sinners might even learn to repent.

Aside from the more frightening instances of uncanniness, this also helps explains much of the needless frivolity, absurdity, and complete silliness of Christmas – which is perfectly justifiable on Christian grounds. In a world in which God can become incarnate, even the most foolish of things has potential to be folly for God. We do very silly things like sing songs of hope in the middle of a blizzard, or gather together with the people we argue most with – our family – and talk about peace on earth, good will toward men. Indeed, this overturn – this incarnation – may be enough even to redeem the most unredeemable of things. Even kitsch and schmaltz and jest might with the mages lay their gifts at the manger. This comes to pass, when a child is born.

What is clear then is this – that, when Christians seek to have a stranglehold on the “true meaning of Christmas,” they often miss the fact that its truest meaning is dazzling mystery, a mystery indeed patient enough to wait out their clumsy attempts to wield it like a club. Seculars and pagans get the bit about mystery – but without anywhere to point, it collapses into a dualism between ignorant sentimentalism and cynical despair. And it is with these problems in mind that I want to wish you all a Christ-haunted Christmas.

The description is Flannery O’Connor’s, asserting that if the US south is hardly Christ centered, it is certainly Christ-haunted. And it is precisely this perspective I propose in our approaches to Christmas. The season is saturated with Christian images, and imagery, and palimpsests, and erasures. Yet simply trying to go back to a “good old days” when people knew what Christmas was about is not the answer; nor is the answer steamrolling current society so we can rebuild a Christmas worthy of Christendom. No, what I suggest is a return to the mystery of incarnation, a mystery so powerful it does not even need to speak about itself all the time, but can in fact sustain imagination and the beauty of the world – from the highest instances of these to the silliest. All these instances point of course to the one Instance in the scansion of the inscape of creation, and we would do well to follow O’Conner in the realization that even a chaos and confusion of symbols and theologies – a thoroughly haunted labyrinth – is not a great obstacle to a God who calls order out of chaos and enters that order in the ambiguity known to us as flesh, and as the Ghost Who haunts us, moving as He lists.

We’re Awake

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Advent is upon us.

In the Gospel text (Mark 13.24-37), Jesus instructs his disciples, ‘Keep awake.’ Keep awake, he says. Pay attention to the signs: ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.’

Though we may not seem like it, we are awake. Our founder Churl started A Christian Thing to be a Thing. Like the Ents in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a Thing is not an object – a Thing is a Moot, an Entmoot, a meeting of the wise. We do not profess to be wise, Churl wisely said. We only profess to have a Thing.

Our Thing has been fairly quiet over the last little bit. Things have certainly happened on this Thing – we had a Thing about Mark Driscoll and the New Calvinists being crypto-Catholics, a Thing about mental health, a Thing about the place of Christians in an academy in crisis, a Thing about Churl’s conversion to Catholicism and a lively exchange about the catholicity of Protestantisms Anglican and Lutheran, a Thing about orientalization and Asian American evangelicals. We have had Things about things in the media, from natural disasters to the Newtown shooting to Occupy Central in Hong Kong.

And suddenly, quiet. Maidan. Ferguson. The Umbrella Movement. Ayotzinapa. Burnaby Mountain. Silence.

Have we fallen asleep?

Before we started A Christian Thing, we Christians, most of us Protestant moving up the sacramental ladder in fits and starts, had about a year of very intense dialogue at a very secular university in a fairly secular nation-state north of the one that most people think about in North America. We talked up a storm about Charles Taylor, we had Baylor University’s Ralph Wood deliver some mind-blowing lectures on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, we debated how Christians in secular universities should be doing theology, we created friendships that have lasted till even now when we are scattered over the four corners of these two aforementioned nation-states.

Around this time, we came across a book written by John Henry Newman, which for most of us climbing the sacramental ladder was a bit of an unapologetic inspiration. This book was The Idea of a University. I got myself a copy and found something in there I didn’t expect. In the preface, Newman lambastes people who feel compelled to have an opinion about everything on the news. It’s not the point of academia, he says. Academic reflection is – in the wise words of a reviewer of an academic article that I just got notice to revise – about ‘digging deeper, wondering, and digging deeper still.’

Indeed, the truth is that more of our writing is likely moving away from the blog into places with our real names on them, including in peer-reviewed journal articles. That’s not to say that we’re done with this blog – far from it. But in talking with some of those of us on this Thing, I think having this Thing has helped us appreciate what this Thing is about – digging, wondering, and digging deeper still. The character of that Thing has permeated our work, academic, popular, and whatever.

That contemplative work is Marian in character. It’s no surprise, then, that the figure who haunts this thing is the Blessed Virgin.

Here’s the Thing. Our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us to stay awake, to pay attention to the signs that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, that the end is collapsing into the now. We have detected the movement of the Spirit: breaking from our criticism of the New Calvinism and the gospels of boundary-making isolations, we continue to see that the Lord knew what he was doing when he put Francis in Rome, Justin Welby in Canterbury, Tawadros II in Egypt, and Bartholomew in Constantinople. We watch as the hovering the Spirit yields new ecumenisms we have never imagined, ecumenisms that are ecclesial like Francis bowing his head for a blessing from Bartholomew, as well as ecumenisms that seek to establish a true ecumene in the midst of a world still plagued by colonial capitalist racialization and the attempted silencing of the poor. We are awake, pondering these things in our hearts because even while those whom Cornel West calls the ‘oligarchs and plutocrats’ seem to be tightening their grip on our institutions and our lands, the dignity of the human person has been asserted in more ways than one over this last year.

But who is the one who taught us to see these signs? Is it not the Blessed Virgin? Is it not she who has gone ahead of the Pilgrim Church, she who undoes the knots that our sin has tied, she who displays for us what the fusion of nature and grace is? Is she not the one whom we ask in every Rosary and Angelus, ‘Mary, what do you see? What is the mystery you behold? What are the things that you ponder in your heart?’

Our Lord Jesus Christ has instructed us to stay awake. We, with the Virgin Mother, are awake. And we still profess to have a Thing.

mary_untierofknots

In praise of Vicky Beeching, evangelical Anglican (Part 2)

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In the spirit of more ancient texts that Churl will appreciate more than the average reader, I will simply say that I forbid you to read this post before you read Part 1.

In the previous post, I ended with a suggestion that Vicky Beeching’s gift to the church catholic by coming out brings enormous clarity to what is going on in the Anglican Communion, especially around the realignment that happened in the late 1990s and 2000s. For those who need a quick definition of what the realignment is, it’s a euphemism that refers to how Anglican and Episcopal parishes in the United States and Canada pulled out of their home dioceses because of North American Anglican moves to bless same-sex unions, ordain gay clergy, and elect gay bishops. Because they took cover in Anglican provinces mostly in Africa (though some in Asia, Australia, and the Southern Cone also took part), the narrative that took shape suggested that those who were historically the ones being evangelized were now re-evangelizing the evangelizers. This narrative usually flies under the header of Global South Anglicanism. For an academic version of this story, see Phil Jenkins’s The Next Christendom. For a popular version, Thad Barnum’s Never Silent is a fairly engaging account. For those who need all of the sordid details, please read my account of ‘Anne Hathaway Anglicanism.’

The reason I forbid readers to read this post before reading the previous post is because over in the other post, I’ve made all the necessary connections for why Beeching is an Anglican to whom we should pay attention — she’s an evangelical Anglican, her worship music has evangelical Anglican sources, she lived in Nashville and San Diego making contemporary Christian music so that her American evangelical connections are impeccable, and one of the privileged few to whom she had come out privately is the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Unwilling to rehearse of that here, I simply forbid you to read this post until you’ve done your due diligence with the previous post.

Vicky Beeching is an Anglican. This is very significant. That’s because of the person to whom Beeching would most likely be compared: Jennifer Knapp.

Like Vicky Beeching, Jennifer Knapp is also a popular contemporary Christian music personality who very publicly came out as a lesbian. Just as Vicky Beeching was confronted by outspoken anti-gay pastor-activist Scott Lively on live television when she came out, Knapp was also confronted by Pastor Bob Botsford on Larry King Live. Like Lively, Botsford told Knapp that his heart broke for her because she was living a lie that contradicted Scripture. Knapp’s response was that Botsford was not her pastor. If Botsford had been her pastor, Knapp reasoned, then it would have been fair to exercise pastoral jurisdiction over her as a church member. But she wasn’t. She was part of another congregation with other pastors who affirmed her, and her bottom line was that Botsford’s attempt to exercise pastoral authority over her was illegitimate because it violated the boundaries between his congregation and hers.

It would be tempting to compare Beeching to Knapp because almost the exact same thing happened to Beeching on live television. As I said, Beeching was called out almost exactly like Knapp because the more conservative evangelical man standing in for the Christian Right accused Beeching (like Knapp) of living a lie contrary to Scripture.

It’s what follows next that makes everything about Beeching different from Knapp. That’s because Beeching is an Anglican.

Beeching can’t make the congregational autonomy argument that Knapp makes. This is because, as I said, Beeching is an Anglican. Anglicans don’t believe in congregational autonomy; our polities are parishes in dioceses under the jurisdiction of bishops that are in communion with each other and who all trace their succession through Canterbury to the apostles. Beeching can’t say to Lively like Knapp says to Botsford, ‘You are not my pastor,’ because congregational autonomy is not going to cut it for Beeching. Lively is thus not in a different ecclesial category for Beeching (as Botsford is for Knapp); he is in the same ecclesial category. He is a pastor, so Beeching merely says to him that it’s people like him who have caused her psychological damage. Observe well, then, the effects of this disagreement. The contention rests on Lively’s repetition that Beeching’s lifestyle is not ‘biblical,’ for Beeching argues that that there are multiple ways of reading Scripture and that the passages that he cites to condemn her sexual orientation have contested meanings.

Yet Beeching does not disown Lively the way that Knapp disowns Botsford. She knows that they’re stuck together in communion, terrible as that may sound, because as much as she may wish that she were ecclesially autonomous from him, the truth of the Anglican charism means that they cannot be sundered at an ontological level. Indeed, this raises the emotional stakes for her contention against Lively: if people like Lively have inflicted psychological damage on her and those whose sexual orientations are non-heteronormative and if they are ontologically stuck together, then it is an imperative for Beeching to demand that Lively stop oppressing her and hear her out on the multiplicity of hermeneutics, a demand that is in fact not unreasonable considering St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, where Augustine allows in the preface for all sorts of biblical interpretations if they are governed by the rule of faith, which is charity.

In short, as an Anglican, Beeching understands what Knapp does not: there is no such thing as total ecclesial autonomy, and the more that one understands that, the more one works to make ecclesial co-existence at least bearable.

Dig deeper, though, and one finds that this ecclesial ontology has implications that drag that construct called ‘Global South Anglicanism’ into the fray. That’s because, as the BBC program itself mentions, Lively is close to the leaders of a nation-state called Uganda. Deny as he may that he had a hand in the draconinan Anti-Homosexuality Bill that threatened to execute queer persons in Uganda, Beeching herself recently shared a link that an American federal judge has ordered Lively to stand trial for crimes against humanity.

This is significant because Lively’s actions in the mid-2000s in Uganda disturbs the larger narrative of the Anglican realignment. Provinces such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya, the Southern Cone, and yes, Uganda, took in some of these ‘realigned’ Anglican churches. As I related in my definition of the Anglican realignment (see above, scroll past the Gandalf GIF), this was the story of how the Global South Anglicans, especially from Africa, were re-evangelizing North America, especially from its capitulation to what might be chalked up to (in Southern Baptist terms) a ‘gay agenda.’ In other words, Anglicans in African nation-states were going to save Anglicans in the West.

The problem is that Lively’s actions suggest that this Global South Anglican narrative may not be as ‘Global South’ as meets the eye. If Lively was moving around Uganda around the same time that the Anglican realignment was going on, how many other Americans were invested in making the realignment happen?

Let’s dig further.

In the lead-up to the Scott Lively confrontation, Beeching recounts that one of the more harrowing experiences in her journey as a gay person was when she had an exorcism performed on her at a British evangelical camp. This also messes up the Global South Anglican narrative. After all, one of the more celebrated stories of the 1998 Lambeth Conference was of an African archbishop attempting an exorcism on a gay rights activist. Certainly, analyses at the time noted that African and Asian primates, bishops, priests, and deacons had mostly attended the same seminaries as their Global North counterparts. Yet according to the narrative of Global South Anglicanism, this phenomenon could also very well be explained via the African archbishop’s Global South conditions, where spirits are real and demons prowl and exorcisms happen regularly because priests have the same status as witchdoctors. Certainly, that’s how Phil Jenkins explains why Southeast Asian primate, Archbishop Moses Tay, attempted to exorcise the City of Vancouver because of the totem poles in its urban park, Stanley Park (The Next Christendom, p. 130).

The question is, how does that exoticized Global South Anglican narrative explain Beeching’s story of British evangelicals trying to exorcise her? Might the explanation that those Global South Anglicans attended the same schools in the Global North and were in collaboration with conservative Anglican, evangelical, and charismatic groups in the Global North hold more water, in light of Beeching’s experience?

Let’s keep digging.

The impression that one gets about the Anglican realignment is that the parishes that broke away were mostly evangelical Anglican. Though this group certainly included charismatic and Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, that the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) was heavily dominated by Sydney Anglicans (who apparently have to debate over whether their archbishop is ‘Reformed’ enough to hold office), as well as African and Asian Anglicans who emphasized the Bebbington Quadrilateral of evangelical distinctives (biblicism, conversionism, activism, and crucicentrism), who held an after-gathering at All Souls’ Church in London seems to confirm this image. Certainly also, some of the charismatics would technically fit into an ‘evangelical Anglican’ stream — ‘evangelical’ here defined in Anglican terms as those in the English church who understand authority as primarily derived from Scripture, not, say, apostolic succession (like the Anglo-Catholics) or scientific progress (like the latitudinarians).

Well, like it or not, Vicky Beeching is an evangelical Anglican. Despite the image of those who push what Beeching calls ‘LGBT theology‘ tends to be from the more liberal wings of Anglicanism — James Pike, Jack Spong, Gene Robinson, Mary Glasspool, Marc Andrus, Patrick Cheng — how much of a shock to the system is it that Beeching continues to identify as an evangelical Anglican who takes the Bible so seriously that her post defending her theological views is based on the Bible?

What’s the point?

The point, then, is that Vicky Beeching embodies what the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, calls ‘the body’s grace.’ For Williams, the fact of same-sex attraction and even unions are a gift to the church because they help Christians think about how love is expressed corporeally. Certainly, when his successor, Justin Cantuar, expresses that same-sex couples often put opposite-sex married couples to shame in their care for each other, Welby is also referencing Williams.

But Beeching takes that one step further. Beeching’s body’s grace is an open sign of contradiction to the Global South Anglican realignment narrative. She is an evangelical Anglican theologian: she cannot afford to endorse congregational autonomy. Her interlocutor is Scott Lively, a person whose physical presence in Uganda also flat out contradicts the Global South Anglican narrative because he casts suspicion on whether homophobic prejudices in fact originated in what might be derisively regarded as the ‘primitive’ cultures of the Global South. Beeching’s exorcism flat-out contradicts the understanding of the Global South as ‘primitive,’ for if exorcism is a sign of prmitiveness, then the Global North evangelicals who tried to exorcise her would also be primitive. Her evangelicalism — rooted in a theological orientation based on Scriptural authority — flat-out contradicts accusations of latitudinarian liberalism.

In short, Beeching reveals where the Anglican Communion fault lines actually lie. The truth, as Beeching reveals it, is that the Global North-Global South imagined geography is a smokescreen. If there is anything that Beeching’s body’s grace illustrates clearly, the realignment has never really ever been about Global South, postcolonial agency, and Anglicans of colour. Postcolonial Anglicans, as Kwok Pui-lan and Ian Douglas have called people like me, have never really been addressed here — we have merely been spoken for and over.

Beeching’s closeness to the Archbishop of Canterbury is thus the ultimate gift. After all, one of Justin Cantuar’s major tasks is to reconcile this fragmented Anglican Communion. With Beeching coming out, the mist has evaporated, and the real fault lines finally have become crystal clear. As an Anglican of colour observing Welby’s talent for deep listening, his knowledge of the actual on-the-ground political realities in Africa, and his almost overflowing glee at welcoming those who regularly disrupt his own evangelical Anglican narrative, I expect great things out of this Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglican Communion. After all, precisely because of Vicky Beeching’s body’s grace, we might see an Anglican Communion finally ready to tackle the deep-seated corporeal issues of race that have plagued us since the dawn of modernity.

In praise of Vicky Beeching, evangelical Anglican (Part 1)

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This post was inspired by evangelical Anglican theologian and worship leader Vicky Beeching’s coming out story in The Independent. Read that first. Also, for a smart analysis of the reception of Beeching’s coming-out, read my buddy Ryan Cook’s post. For a roundup, Beeching has done it herself.

Those who knew me when I was on ordination track will know that I have admired Vicky Beeching’s work from the beginning. I was an intern at an evangelical Anglican church, although I think that’s a bit of a misnomer because while certain quarters of the parish espoused an evangelical theology (including the rector, at least publicly), the rector had been trained at Nashotah House and couldn’t exactly shake his Anglo-Catholicism. Those who worked with me at the youth group and second-generation ministry — why, yes, it was an Asian Canadian parish — joked at the time that I had a huge crush on Beeching. I was single, and I suppose when the worship leader played ‘Yesterday, Today, and Forever‘ for the first time, I was hooked. I bought her cd, I played it at odd hours at the church through its self-described world-class sound system, I learned how to play a ton of her songs on the piano, I followed her blog, and I may even have put some of the members of the youth group through my Beeching craze. I also told the worship leader at the time that when I was ordained, I’d like ‘Call to Worship’ to be played as the processional.

I also discovered that she had not one, but two, degrees from Oxford in theology. It made me wonder what on earth a theologian — yes, if you have an MA in theology, you are a master, and therefore an academic theologian — was doing in the buckle of the Bible belt in Nashville, a place that my father and I had visited as a sort of pilgrimage before I started grad school so that he could teach me how to drink beer before anyone else in grad school could. When we were there, we went to the Grand Ole Opry, ate fried catfish, and learned so much about country music that I bought the discs containing the ‘Bristol Sessions,’ the first music ever to be recorded that were considered within the genre of ‘country’ (although ‘gospel’ was probably a better description).

What on earth was an Oxford theologian doing there?

And on top of that, what was an Oxford theologian doing taking lunch pictures with Melody Green, calling Green her mentor, and claiming to have written several of the songs on Painting the Invisible on Keith Green’s old piano? I mean, of course, you could ask what the heck I was doing listening to Keith Green at the time as well — I do, for example, proudly own both the Silver and Gold volumes of The Ministry Years, Green’s complete oeuvre. It’s because at the tail end of high school, I attended a pastor’s conference at Focus on the Family — yes, the one of right-wing fame — where I met Dennis Jernigan, an ex-gay worship leader of ‘You Are My All in All’ fame (even though he wouldn’t identify as ‘ex-gay’). We didn’t talk long, but because I had zero experience chording on the piano, he advised me to listen to Keith Green to get ideas. I did, but apparently, Beeching got the real deal — she got to flesh out her ideas on Green’s piano.

Since then, I followed her blog, reading when she moved to San Diego and then had a mysterious sickness and then, ta da! right when I was starting my doctorate, she also became a doctoral student at Durham University. I remember the pictures she used to post of her very organized workstation — a stark contrast to my situation, I must say — and I’d read her blog where she boldly put up exactly what she was studying with regards to theology and the media, which is in stark contrast to how I operate as a blogger (seldom does my actual academic work make it onto my blogging). I remember the posts were thoughtful, especially when she said things contrary to what I’d hear all my other pious evangelical friends saying about taking sabbaths from social media — she rejected that, and defended her rejection like an academic boss. I saw less of her leading worship, although there was a fascinating promotional video for Eternity Invades put up where she took viewers on an urban tour of London, but I watched as she made it onto SkyNews, and then the BBC, and then was a contributor to the Guardian. I remember thinking — if she can do that as a doctoral student, then I’d better get my public act together as well.

I’d thought about writing her emails from time to time just to connect as colleagues because God knows she was affecting some of my career decisions as well; moreover, our career paths from popular evangelical ministry (hers far more large-scale, of course) to the academy would have made for good conversation. But I never did, and I suspect that’s because I didn’t have time. I’d click through the blogs, read her occasional Twitter and Facebook updates, but after a while, I suppose other things came up and her posts got buried, and I didn’t keep up, although I did read some time last year that she had come out in favour of same-sex marriage. I remember thinking, Hm. Theological studies can do that to you. I also did a happy dance when she wrote an acerbic reply to former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, on his loose usage of Christian ‘persecution'; I think that post seriously affected my reading of Carey’s Gate of Glory, not to mention shaping my perception of Carey’s tenure in Lambeth Palace.

Fast-forward, then. Justin Welby has become Archbishop of Canterbury; he was previously Bishop of Durham, which would have put him in the same diocese where Beeching was studying. I didn’t make the connection directly to Beeching, although I suspected that someone of Beeching’s intelligence, evangelical fervour, and public media participation would probably be on speaking terms with Welby. But I did know that Welby, having had much of his ministry formation at Holy Trinity Brompton and Alpha, would have had some familiarity with the same worship leaders who had formed Beeching: Andy Piercy, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes. I also suspected, listening to Welby’s opposition to same-sex marriage alongside his insistence on having ‘no track with homophobia’ (which, by the way, provides a fascinating lens through which to read Welby’s House of Lords speech against the marriage bill and his Synod speech soon afterward reflecting on ‘revolutions’), that he personally knew someone — and someone with evangelical weight — who was gay. He had said as much, relating his admiration for same-sex couples whose care for each other would put opposite-sex couples to shame (and thus revealing that he had not only read, but digested, his predecessor’s essay, The Body’s Grace). But there was something about the way he said it that made it sound like he had a secret to keep.

Well, it turns out that Beeching is gay and that Welby was one of the privileged few who knew about it. I’ll be damned.

As Zach Hoag notes on the Patheos Progressive Channel, this is huge for the Anglican Communion. It would, as he say, provide for a third way, precisely the sort of thing Welby has been talking about, between Christians whose theological articulations might either be ‘affirming’ or ‘non-affirming’ but love each other all the same.

But there is more: it means that there is a very real gift that evangelical Anglicanism can now bring to the church catholic. In particular, her coming out helps to clear the waters in this murky Anglican situation we have come to call the ‘realignment,’ in which certain parishes and dioceses in the United States and Canada pulled out of their dioceses and provinces over sexuality issues to realign themselves with ‘Global South Anglicanism.’

This post is getting too long. I’ll carry that over to the next post. I promise that it actually matters.

Assumptions

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Hit play first. Then read.

The news cycle this week has been nuts. From the militarized police action and racialization in Ferguson to evangelical media theologian Vicky Beeching coming out as gay, from the mixed-up reports about the Islamic State to the unresolved crisis in Gaza, these ‘wars and rumors of wars’ have rung with apocalyptic tones.

The problem with even having a conversation about these things is that they are layered with assumptions.

My friend Sam Rocha over at Patheos Catholic has experienced this layering in quite a visceral way this week. After posting a rebuttal to conservative Catholics who accuse the Muslim ummah of not speaking out about the Islamic State, Rocha found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of misunderstanding. He had ended his post with a call to Patheos’s Muslim channel to cover the Islamic State news more, precisely as a way to disengage the channel from the atrocities in Iraq and beyond:

My question to my Abrahamic brothers and sisters at the Patheos Muslim channel is, why are you not reporting on — and joining  — the predominant voices of your religious community (and your channel editor)?

Rocha found himself quickly rearticulated by some on his channel who saw this as their opportunity to insinuate that the Muslim channel had insidious ulterior motives for their silence. Thankfully, there were those on the Muslim channel who responded graciously and informatively. But in all of these testy exchanges, Rocha’s conciliatory attempt to invite both the Catholic and Muslim channels to a conversation were rearticulated through the assumption that a question like the one Rocha posed needs to be interpreted through the lens of a holy war that had to be de-escalated. This is far from the case, of course — Rocha calls the Muslim channel his ‘Abrahamic brothers and sisters’ and promises to practice more fully what Pope Francis calls a ‘culture of encounter.’ But it was difficult to be heard. That was because Rocha was speaking into fora layered with assumptions.

Or take the example of Vicky Beeching coming out. The Independent‘s report on the matter confirms that the trusted sources who knew about her sexuality were Katherine Welby, her father Justin Cantuar, and her parents, some of whom have different theological understandings of the sexuality debates than her strong, earlier-acknowledged stance on LGBT theology. In an interview with Channel 4 News, though, Beeching’s story was paired with longtime anti-gay activist Scott Lively, who dragged her over the coals for living a ‘lie’ that denied the ‘biblical’ teaching on sexuality in Genesis. When Beeching clarified that there were multiple possible readings of the biblical text — a point that even St. Augustine acknowledges in De Doctrina Christiana – Lively spoke over her to charge that she was not giving him the chance to speak and express his ‘biblical’ view. But therein lay the dilemma. He had been speaking, expressing, articulating, and when Beeching asked to deconstruct some of his assumptions about being ‘biblical’ — especially because she had studied the Bible and tradition at a graduate level — he wouldn’t hear it. His assumptions led to a train of accusations that here was a major Christian leader who had now fallen.

Or take the convoluted stories we are now hearing about both Ferguson and Gaza, which are apparently linked because the militarization of the police in Ferguson took direct cues from the Israeli Defence Forces. What is even more confusing now, though, is that for all of the talk of Ferguson appearing like a war zone, the death of Michael Brown was passed off today as a botched attempt to arrest him for a convenience store strong-arm robbery, only now to have to backtrack on that when the public learned that the robbery was not connected to the actual reason Brown was stopped, which is apparently now jaywalking. These twists and turns also reflect the confusion around the Gaza story — who kidnapped whom? who shot first? how many civilians are dying? who’s really committing atrocities? The result is that the public is left to our own assumptions about what is actually happening, which means that what is really being allowed to control these stories is not what is actually happening — it’s one’s own knowledge of good and evil on race, militarization, Israel/Palestine, and the police state.

All of this arrives at the doorstep of the church catholic today on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. I’m sure that jokes could be made about this Protestant author talking about how Catholics assume that Mary was assumed into heaven.

But to simply stop at that corny punchline would be to miss the point.

The Assumption matters, even for Protestants. If indeed Mary has been assumed ahead of the pilgrim church into her full risen life, then the apparitions that she has made — and that Protestants doubt actually happened — take on much more powerful significance, for it would mean that the Blessed Virgin is living out her risen life by preaching to a world wracked by the conflict around its ideological assumptions — its continual eating in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say — instead of dealing with the concrete historical and ethnographic realities before us.

In this sense, Mary remains a political figure in modernity. From race relations at Guadalupe to her protest against secularization at Lourdes to her interpretation of twentieth-century geopolitcs at Fatima — among her other apparitions — Mary says to us that when we allow ideological fictions to rewrite history and rearticulate reality, we are not encountering each other as human persons. We may encounter each other as racial projects, states of exception, theological heretics, and agents of the police state, but to do that is to reduce the human person to a set of disembodied ideas. No, Mary says. I am here. I have physically appeared to you. I am the Lady who is speaking to you. She will not let us exist as ideas. Her Assumption forces us to encounter each other as bodily persons. This is what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, means when he calls on us to a graciousness in ‘deep disagreement’ where one assumes the best about one’s ideological opponents, precisely what he has shown toward Vicky Beeching in her journey. As a practitioner of Catholic social teaching, Welby knows that he is channeling Paul VI’s ‘civilization of love‘ from his 1970 Regina Coeli speech. And thus he would have no problem with me, a Chinglican, saying that the Assumption of Mary is the krisis of our assumptions.

Hail, star of the sea,
Nurturing Mother of God,
And ever Virgin
Happy gate of heaven.

Receiving that ‘Ave’
From the mouth of Gabriel
Establish us in peace,
Transforming the name of ‘Eve.’

Loosen the chains of the guilty,
Send forth light to the blind
Our evil do thou dispel,
Entreat for us all good things.

Show thyself to be a Mother:
Through thee may he receive prayer
Who, being born for us,
Undertook to be thine own.

O unique Virgin,
Meek above all others,
Make us, set free from our sins
Meek and chaste.

Bestow a pure life,
Prepare a safe way:
That seeing Jesus,
We may ever rejoice.

Praise be to God the Father,
To the Most High Christ be glory
To the Holy Spirit
Be honour, to the Three equally. Amen.

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