October 30, 2006
My Blogroll Spreadeth as a Love Handle in June
The Evangelical Outpost offers an impressive array of intellectual resources for those who prize the life of the head and not merely the belly. (Although the latter has its rewards, which are all too evident to my tailor.)
EO also offers updates on the GodBlog Conference, to which I was not invited.
But I am not bitter. Merely spiteful and vengeful.
And now . . . Nutella and beer.
October 29, 2006
Never again will you have to struggle with faith, assurance, or confidence. Doubt is all you need. Never again need you worry about sin. There is only error, which is no mistake, but only a human frailty. Never again will you be manipulated into witnessing to the lost when there is nothing to lose.
Finally, finally, the UU is asserting its relativism and flaunting its lack of distinctives. Tolerant of contradiction, certain in its uncertainty, adamant in its confusion, the UU is an empty vessel into which you are free to pour your broken heart.
What more can you ask? How can I find a merciful God? That is the wrong question. Better: What is truth? For the UU, that is the question.
After one (Christian Bale) in implicated in the death of the other's (Hugh Jackman's) wife during a Houdini-like water-torture trick, all bets are off as they chase each other from London to Colorado Springs and back again attempting to steal each other's secrets and lives.
Three cheers for the set design and cinematography, and one and a half cheers for a screenplay that, when the mystery at the heart of the plot is finally resolved, proves both obvious and impossible. And Nicola Tesla played by David Bowie? Dr. Frankenstein call your laboratory.
And will someone please tell Scarlett Johansson that she does not have to take every second-rate role that comes her way just so she can add more period pieces to her resume? (Think The Black Dahlia only this year.) These empty, forgettable characters threaten to marginalize her professionally, her delightful physiognomy notwithstanding.
If a now-you-see-it-now-you-don't tale whose parts amount to more than its whole sounds appealing, then try The Prestige.
I give this overwrought vaudeville act 65 theses.
A Sermon for Reformation Sunday
Today is also, of course, Halloween, a consumer-driven holiday rooted in ancient pagan superstitions and an adolescent propensity to dress up like politicians and comic-book characters (the trick being to tell them apart). That the two "holidays" coincide is both ironic and instructive, as October 31 is when we should celebrate our liberation from the dead.
It was on October 31, 1517, that an Augustinian monk (who shall remain nameless)—the obstreperous, arrogant, and undeniably brilliant son of a Saxon miner—nailed a document, 95 theses, or propositions, to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg. The proximate cause of this bit of carpentry—a common-enough act when a teacher or scholar was eager to engage a debate—was the sale of indulgences.
To make a long doctrinal development quite short: the unreformed Church had taught for centuries that it was not enough to be sorry for one’s sins, to beg God’s forgiveness, even to confess them to a priest and receive absolution. One had also to perform penance: a good work intended to undo the temporal penalties for that sin. According to Romanist theology, sacramental confession, in which a priest pronounced forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ, eliminated the eternal consequences of that sin. But there was still an earthly debt to be paid. And if it weren’t paid in this life, it would be paid in the next, in a place or state Rome calls purgatory—the last stage of sanctification, which is, by its reckoning, also the last stage of justification. (The Eastern Orthodox deny there is any such place, though they do believe in some kind of a final purging of the soul after death. To Romanists it’s a distinction without a difference; to the Orthodox it’s enough of a difference as to make them distinct.)
Further, it was not only possible to remit the penalty for your sin in this life; it was also possible to aid those who had already died but were undergoing their final purging. By praying for the dead, or having masses said in their honor, one could in some way “hasten” the purgatorial process for dead loved ones. I put hasten in quotes because they exist outside time, and how the “holy souls” experience this purging—its pain, duration, etc.—has been the source of much speculation, not to mention superstition. Catholic scholar Eamon Duffy relates in his work The Stripping of the Altars that, on the eve of the Reformation, the images painted by preachers—and even such “saints” as Thomas More, Bridget, and John Fisher—of the pains of the holy souls in purgatory were something out of what would become Gothic horror novels: gruesome torments meted out by “cruell damned spirites” who would “scourge them, roll them in spiked barrels, boil them till they melt, choke them with scalding pitch, and rend their flesh with irons.” Nice.
A full-blown doctrine of indulgences (as opposed to the earlier practice of substituting light penances for more severe penances) first appears on the theological scene in the 11th century. The church (read "pope") would now offer the wholesale remission of part or all the temporal debt owed on confessed sin by drawing on an accumulated “treasury of merits” of the saints—but only if you met certain qualifying dispositions or conditions. (They proved particularly useful in motivating men to fight in the Crusades: restore the Holy Land to Christendom, and if you die in the process, you earn a ticket straight to heaven—no stopovers in purgatory. Sound familiar? Kill for God, win big prizes? Ever wonder why this scheme had no role in the Church before the advent of Mohammedanism?)
Now, take an act of charity as a condition for an indulgence, add the prospect of releasing a loved one from his or her pains in purgatory, shake well in a catechetically confused time, and you get the immediate cause of my night sweats: Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar, selling indulgences to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome. And a gullible German laity, eager to make a few easy payments to get themselves or dead family members off the purgatorial hook, was buying. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” was probably the first commercial jingle in history.
Enter the original Anxious Young Man, yours truly, wracked with guilt and what my miserable execrable assistant likes to call a “creeping conclusion” that sacramental confession, contrition, and penance (not to mention Tetzel’s indulgences) had been emptied of any power to relieve my aching conscience. How can one be certain that an absolutely righteous and just God is satisfied with what you have done to appease His wrath against your sin?
I was counseled by my monastic superior, Johann Staupitz, to squelch my scrupulosity by reading the offer of forgiveness in the Book of Romans—and read it I did. “The righteous will live by faith”—an Old Testament verse appropriated by the apostle Paul for his theological purposes—jumped off the page. It was faith, not works, not rules, not coins tossed into the papal coffers, not penance, not even love, but faith in what Christ had done, faith in the love Christ had shown us even when we were still in rebellion against him, that freed us from sin, death, and the devil—and, it should be said, from the scourge of penitential religion. What began as a protest against the abuse of a medieval invention morphed into a revolutionary re-formation and re-consideration of how someone, anyone, is made right with Almighty God.
I was not alone in reinterpreting the role of faith in justification and sanctification —$10 words for the declaration of our right standing with God and how, subsequently, we are made to look like Jesus through discipleship. Some had been influenced by me (Calvin), some had made these discoveries independent of me—even within from within the Roman camp (witness English cardinal Reginald Pole and Italian cardinal Caspar Contarini, both of whom died defeated men). But could the Church be truly reformed from within, at least to the extent that the scriptural witness would supplant all medieval accretions and traditions as the foundation for belief and practice? It was clear that penance should no longer have any role in the Christian life. Faith was the sole sufficient instrument through which God justified us sinners, not only forgiving our sins but sanctifying us in Christ. But with the end of penance came the end of purgatory. Then what of our dead? They were either in the loving arms of God or were lost. After all, if the living could not earn the love and forgiveness—even the holiness—of God in Christ, what on earth could be done for the dead? Nothing need be done but to trust in the steadfast love and mercy of the Savior. This was no mean reform in the eyes of Rome; this was revolution.
The implications of this revolutionary paradigm, this upending of an entire civilization’s psychology, go far beyond the eradication of the guilt trips to the museum of the suffering purged, the painful mental pictures of our aged parents being tormented for venial sins, begging for more prayers or more donations to traveling salvation salesmen. It was an end to unnecessary guilt trips of all kinds: over lost time, lost opportunities, lost dreams. They were ALL with God—to be redeemed at the proper time, at the resurrection of the dead. No more magic scapulars, miraculous medals, rote labyrinthine prayers, and perfunctory offerings, all desperate attempts to pry blessings out of God’s hands. No more neurotic self-deprecation and self-mortification in order to get a little more grace, a little more mercy—or even to control the passions. “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 3:23).” In short: we no longer had to hurt ourselves in order to please God, because God, who is love, hurt Himself at Calvary in order to release his life-giving blood, the only balm our wounds would ever need, once and for all: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10).
Lest a resurgent traditional Romanism be thought the only remaining purveyor of purgatory and its attendant insanities, N.T. Wright begs to differ. In his excellent little book For All the Saints, Wright expresses his concern that purgatory is being introduced into various Protestant contexts, for which he lays the blame at the feet of theological liberalism: “[T]he marked tendency toward universalism . . . has produced a quite new situation. If all are indeed to be saved, then not only professed Christians, but the mass of professed non-Christians, are going to have to be got ready for salvation in the time after death.” So medieval Romanism meets liberal Protestantism, and the perdurance of purgatory is the result.
This is where the battle is joined, precisely with the idea that we will need to be “got ready” for salvation postmortem, that our souls will still be “dirty” from all those “venial” but otherwise forgivable sins. That we are both “sinners” and “justified” no Lutheran would deny; the question is—who does the cleansing, and how? And what about those who came late to salvation, and in whom there were no discernible marks of sanctification? Does God need to rough them up at the gates of heaven to finish the job of sanctification?
The answer is rooted in the nature of what Christ accomplished at the cross. No believer in purgatory would deny that Christ’s sacrificial death is sufficient to save all those who believe. Which is why it is emphasized repeatedly that purgatory is only for those saved already. Purgatory is just the “dressing up” part of the process. The soul must be purified before it can enter the City of God because, as Revelation 21 states, “nothing unclean will ever enter it.” But whose suffering is sufficient to purify a sin-stained soul? Mine? Yours?
But why aren’t the words of Our Lord sufficient to put this issue to rest once and for all? “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, You fool! will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). If mere name-calling puts one in danger of eternal damnation, what is a fit “penance” for something more heinous? How much suffering must one be subjected to in purgatory to undo the temporal consequences of one errant thought, never mind one errant deed. How much pain must one endure before everything is “made right,” before I am “clean enough” to be fit for the Glorious Presence of God our Father? It is insanity to talk this way. Our suffering will never prepare us for the presence of God—only the suffering of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The error lies not in failing to take our sins too seriously, but in not taking Sin seriously enough. Just as there are not enough lives in a thousand thousand years to undo sins committed in mythical former lives—just consider the indignities to which the poor “Untouchables” of Indias are subjected—there is not a flame hot enough in purgatory to purge the damage of Sin to one’s soul. That is why our only hope is to rest on the merits of Christ, even when it comes to the “temporal” consequences of so-called venial sin.
Allow me to introduce two parables at this point: In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus illustrates the nature of grace in the parable of the laborers. The wage of someone who has labored only one hour is the same as someone who has labored all day. How can this be fair? Jesus answers: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” Notice what Jesus does not say: “Don’t worry, the wage of the one who labored only an hour will be parceled out in small denominations over a long period of time.” Or “Don’t worry, this slacker will have to travel a long distance over treacherous roads to collect.” Grace is Jesus’s to dispense, and as the parable suggests, he does so generously—not with conditions or penalties (which would no longer make it gracious but simply a deal with small-print attachments).
And to those of the justified for whom sanctification left scant evidence in their behavior—either because of a late-life conversion or a rocky, sloppy life in the faith—they are promised the same wage, without penalties or fees exacted, not because they’ve been good enough (whatever that means in relation to the incomprehensible holiness of God), but because Jesus is generous.
Matthew 22 is also pertinent. The Kingdom of God is like a banquet at a wedding feast. The original invitees reject the King’s invitation, going so far as to kill the messengers! So a fresh invitation is sent out to the last people you’d expect to see enjoying the King’s wedding—namely us. Only one thing is required: proper attire. How can the poor and rejected of the earth ever hope to afford clothing fit for a king’s wedding? Their hope lies in one option only: the King Himself must clothe them. The King provides the wedding garment—the much misunderstood “alien” righteousness” of Christ—that makes us able both to stand in his presence and to enjoy the feast without self-consciousness! Beneath the garment is only what nature has provided. The garment is pure grace. Not an admixture of nature and grace—a wedding garment refashioned and custom-fitted by human hands. It is a fabric woven purely from the generosity of God.
And so this Reformation Day is a time not only to remember old Reformation battles won but also the Good News that is the positive core of the Evangelical faith. Remember that we need no longer worry over our dead. Those who died in faith are at peace with God, waiting for the resurrection, waiting for the new heaven and the new earth. Their pilgrimage is over; having fought the good fight, they can finally rest on Christ’s laurels—not on ours and not their own. They are sanctified not by suffering purgatorial fires but because of the suffering of the Sanctified One.
And we need no longer worry over our own past, our own nagging doubts, regrets, and fears. Christ nailed them to the cross along with a law that could only show up our shortcomings and heighten our anxieties. We are free of the dead—dead works, dead rites, dead thoughts, even the imaginary needs of our beloved dead. But, like Halloween’s ghosts, they can still come back to haunt us. “Isn’t there more you should be doing to set things right? Isn’t there something you should be suffering to repair the damage?” On those occasions, the only weapon in our ghost-busting arsenal is the unencumbered Word of God: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:27).
October 22, 2006
1. No soy milk available during coffee hour.
2. Fluorescent lights in the narthex.
3. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
4. The Yo, God-o! It's Me, Vinny! Version of the Bible.
5. Congregants not allowed to leave the sanctuary until the offering is counted and all checks clear.
6. The pastor sings the announcements to the tune of "Funky Cold Medina."
7. Prayer requests must be submitted 96 hours in advance and only if there's a reasonable assumption that the request will be granted so no one looks bad if you know what I mean.
8. The pastor refers to the gospel authors as Matty, Markie Mark, Louie, and Johnny Boy in order to sound hip. Also, Peter and Paul are referred to as Rocky and Paulie, with Adrian thrown in as the 13th apostle.
9. Lectors are chosen according to ideal height/weight ratio.
10. The hymnals are no longer in the "back of the pew in front of you" but "in a pile in the kitchen downstairs."
October 20, 2006
Evangelical Suicide Cult
Moreover, these murders resemble "famous" infamies, such as the beheading of John the Baptist and the legendary arrow piercings of Saint Sebastian.
You all know the devotion Evangelicals have to Saint Sebastian.
This was Monday night’s episode of Wire in the Blood, a British drama shown on BBC America. The hero of Wire in the Blood is Dr. Tony Hill (Robson Green), a clinical psychologist who aids the police in predicting the behavior of criminals (how tired is that premise?). He is an atheist, a nice atheist, though, one who empathizes with even the most unbalanced of psycho-killers. And these religious nutcakes are no exception—they're simply the walking wounded, in need of a reason to live. Failing that, a reason to die will do.
This episode was putatively about the lengths some people will go to find hope and peace, and about how vulnerable the weak-willed and mentally unstable are to the blandishments of the promise of “meaning,” which, according to the writers of Wire in the Blood, can be obtained only by indulging in mindless credulity. The sick and lonely should not be left within close vicinity of a Bible, you see. He or she may come to believe there is a hole in every heart that only God can fill. And, of course, that God is a God of judgment, vengeance, and the punishment of sinners. And who isn’t a sinner? Only the Elect—whose number is usually calculated by some kook of a "leader" who is above human laws.
Now, if you’re a Brit terrified of religious suicide-murderers, who immediately comes to mind—a Jihadist or a Born-Againer feeding the poor for the Salvation Army?
Why the Born-Againer, of course! At least if you work for the BBC.
There's a telling scene in which Hill visits a children's reenactment of Noah and the Flood. When he questions the wisdom of God wiping everyone out just to start all over, his partner replies, "That's the Old Testament for you. Zero tolerance."
You see, Jihadism isn’t about Islam—it’s about religion: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. It’s about group think. It’s about playing on the aimlessness and sense of failure that plague some people. It's about demagogues who think they have the answers to life’s hardest questions. And since you can’t insult Muslims with anything that might smack of a stereotypical depiction of even their most fringe elements, then pick on a group you know will not kill you for making an idiotic mockery of their beliefs.
In the end, Dr. Hill is confounded by the mindset of these automatons and fails to save even a single one of them—from murdering others or themselves.
Welcome to the U.K.—where no one has the solutions for your problems.
October 19, 2006
Listen to me, my Lutherans: Stop encouraging your children today! Insist that they will amount to nothing, that they are idiots, that you wish the next-door neighbors' children were your own!
Drain the life essence from them if you truly love them!
If you see your children smiling, happy, care-free, reprimand them immediately! Instill in them a sense of fear, self-loathing, and poor body image!
Imagine: One more derisive remark about my vocation and I could have been emperor! Ach!
October 18, 2006
Luther Meets Darwin
Oh my Lutherans …
When I left the sixteenth century, the earth was a disc—a circle, but flat (Isaiah 40:22). The Sun revolved around the earth, which the Scriptures tell us is fixed (Joshua 10:13; Psalm 104:5). And Genesis was as much a history lesson as Caesar’s conquest of
But now … oh my Lutherans …
I have just finished The Language of God by Francis Collins. Dr. Collins is a medical geneticist and former head of the Human Genome Project. He is a man of science who came to faith in Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis, among others, was a great aid in his conversion.
And he is here to tell us that Christians must stop resisting biological evolution and natural selection for one reason and one reason only. They are scientific facts. Some continue to dismiss them as mere theories. But, Collins argues, a theory is not a hypothesis. The overwhelming evidence for evolution and natural selection is such that to deny their validity is to indulge in willful ignorance and obscurantism—just as those who refused to acknowledge that the Earth circled the Sun in my day because it clearly contradicted Scripture.
In fact, even Intelligent Design “fails in a fundamental way to qualify as a scientific theory. All scientific theories represent a framework for making sense of a body of experimental observations. But the primary utility of a theory is not just to look back but to look forward. A viable scientific theory predicts other findings and suggests approaches for further experimental verification. ID falls profoundly short in this regard” (page 187).
And he has less pleasant things to say of the “God of the gaps” approach. Every time a new gap in understanding is filled, as many have over the past 20 years, God is shoved out of the picture, thereby undermining people’s faith.
Collins goes on to quote St. Augustine: “If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinion about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven? …”
I have been forced to think and rethink and rethink again my ideas about Word of God. What can we now say about the inspiration of the Scriptures? I have taught and still believe that the Scriptures cannot lie. But this demands first that we have interpreted them correctly. Can we say that we have interpreted correctly in every respect and touching everything we have traditionally believed? By this I mean primarily the early chapters of Genesis but also attempts to harmonize apparently contradictory details in the gospels (say the genealogies of Christ or the dissimilarity between the so-called synoptics and the Gospel of John).
In the 1970s, within the Luther Church-Missouri Synod a battle was waged against the so-called higher critics, who sought to dismantle Scripture and thereby bring into question foundational truths of our faith. The Synod’s commitment to scriptural inerrancy, sufficiency, and inspiration has remained steadfast since.
But we are left with a dilemma: Do we hold to the teaching that Scripture is to be read only literally when it comes to the two creation accounts in Genesis (which contradict each other), as well as to all other references to geology, geography, and history? Do we then assume that where Scripture and scientific consensus conflict, science is wrong? How then do we encourage our Lutheran youth who wish to pursue careers in science? Should we convince them first that aspects of that discipline have been co-opted by Satan in order to darken minds and derail souls?
Or may we agree that parts of Scripture that many of us were taught to read as literal history—the accounts of creation, for example--may in fact be poetry, allegory, or perhaps a deliberate attempt on the part of the biblical author to subvert commonly received myths about the creation in order to reveal the nature of God and his relation to his creation, and specifically the capstone of that creation, men and women made in his image?
If when God the Holy Spirit comes to us, regenerates us, gives us the knowledge of God the Son and the salvation he wrought for us on Calvary, he does not infuse us with perfect knowledge regarding earthly matters, nor even a perfect understanding of Scripture, doctrine, theology, never mind perfect conduct henceforth, but accepts us as we are where we are. Can we not say the same thing for the biblical authors? Can we not say that God addressed them where they were in their cultural, prescientific state in order to reveal the saving truths of the divine economy of salvation to ancient peoples?
It would seem to me that to insist upon a thoroughly literal reading of Scripture (except where, traditionally, poetry or metaphor has been discerned)—including a universal flood, Noah’s ark, etc.—would be to make the same mistakes that the radicals make: to assume to know the intention of the biblical authors. The radicals look at Genesis and say, “See! They were ignorant, superstitious beasts! They erred! And if they erred here, they erred when they wrote of the virgin birth and the resurrection!” The literalists counter with, “No! Where Scripture and science conflict, Scripture is always right, and the scientists are either mistaken or under the influence of demonic power! We know that the biblical authors intended to write history as we twenty-first-century folk understand history, science as we understand science, and history as we understand history. Otherwise we would be unable to trust our only source of revelation and lose all hope of discerning God’s will for our lives.”
Yes, I can hear the questions now: “But, Herr Luther, if we begin picking and choosing what we take literally and what we take symbolically or allegorically, how can we trust that what is written of Jesus and his saving work is true or just a metaphor? Did he rise from the dead in the same body that was crucified, or did he rise in the hearts of his disciples?”
We must think these issues through, book by book, chapter by chapter. We must make distinctions. We must do the hard work of exegesis. See how the apostles Paul and John make special efforts to convince their readers of the literal historicity of the resurrection because they know how difficult it is to believe on its face! And so Paul refers not just to his personal experience but also to the 500 eyewitnesses of the risen Christ. He adduces evidence as if he were in a court of law! John also speaks of “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life!”--an obvious attempt to demonstrate a literal, historical fact and not a figment of his imagination or a mere spectre.
Also, when we say the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed, we do not affirm man-made theories of biblical inspiration or belief in literal 24-hour days of creation (after all, the Sun was created on day 4—how were days 1 through 3 measured?). We affirm basic doctrinal truths pertaining to our salvation and, most important, the identity of Jesus Christ.
Why do we have Scripture at all? Christ himself wrote nothing. We have Scripture as a witness to Christ himself, not only in the New but also in the Old. In the Gospel of Luke, our Lord himself opens the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate where they speak of him: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).
Jesus is the key to interpreting and understanding the Scriptures, as the Scriptures witness to him. I am vilified as a scoundrel and a heresiarch for threatening to throw Jimmy in the fire because he does not witness to Christ or to the gospel. But I ask you, if someone wants to know about your Christian faith, do you send him to James? No. You send him to John, or Mark, or Romans. We send him to a witness to Christ and the good news. That is what we must emphasize when we speak of sufficiency, inspiration, and inerrancy. Otherwise, we put stumbling blocks in people’s way—not that of the Cross, but that of traditions of men and categories of thought that are foreign to Scripture and the world the biblical authors inhabited.
“But Herr Doktor, if there is no literal Adam and Eve, no Garden, no tree of good and evil, no Fall—why did Christ come to die in the first place? How can there be a second Adam when there wasn’t a first?”
Who says that evolution and natural selection mean there was no Adam? Collins quotes C.S. Lewis at length on this point:
For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumbs could be applied to each of its fingers, and jaws and teeth and the throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man…. We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods.
Where did Cain get his wife? Shall we still believe that God violated his own moral law by marrying him off to his own sister? And where does Scripture speak of him marrying his sister? Nowhere.
Acceptance of natural selection and evolution does not mean that Genesis is now meaningless. It means we can no longer bring the customary interpretation to it but must read deeper, study the vocabulary, and search out truths that perhaps we were not ready to accept in our cultural infancy.
I throw this discussion open for debate and ask this: Can one be a good Lutheran in the Missouri Synod, affirm all the doctrinal points of the confessions and creeds without reservation, believe that Jesus was born of the Virgin, died, rose again, and ascended into heaven for our justification and salvation, and yet have an approach to reading and interpreting the Scriptures that is open to modern developments in science and also does not require harmonizing Gospel accounts where they vary or conflict but takes each Gospel on its own terms and merits?
In short, are we mature enough in our faith in the living Christ to accept the human nature of the Bible, even as it speaks divine life to us?
October 16, 2006
Church Architecture Today
As anyone can see, he is enormously talented and his taste definitely does not run to what is all too often the "Early Bowling Alley" look of so many churches, regardless of denominational stripe.
I would like to see a resurgence of rich architecture for our Lutheran sanctuaries. Too often I am forced to worship the august master of the universe, maker of heaven and earth, in an environment that even a Pizza Hut franchise would not inhabit. And I am sick and tired of being regaled with choruses of "Well, God doesn't care what building you worship in—it only matters what's in your heart!"
Can you guess what's in my heart now, you jackanapes!
How is God honored by what is ugly, makeshift, slipshod, leftover? A church is a material, physical reflection of our vision of our Creator. Did not this same Creator fill the earth with rich colors, textures, and natural beauty? A church does not have to be baroque and the size of two football fields to be a fit testimony to the sublimity of our Lord. I understand that the elaborate expense of constructing grand churches is most likely beyond the means of many Lutheran communities. But from the Benedictines down to the Shakers, we know that simplicity and harmony in themselves can be beautiful. Instead, I often find myself shoved into something that looks like a cross between Pee Wee's Playhouse and a 7-Eleven.
Where are my Lutheran architects?! Where? Where?
Bush vs. Evangelicals
That is the contention of David Kuo, author of Tempting Faith and former Bush White House special assistant. He was interviewed on 60 Minutes last night and proceeded to detail how "compassionate conservatism"—"faith-based initiatives" conceived to help the poor—was never invested with much support. Bush promised $8 billion for these initiatives, and about $60 million was finally doled out.
Kuo is also disturbed by how Jesus' mandate to help the needy has been superceded by a political "culture war" that is primarily about power-seeking. More important, he is repulsed by how the name of Our Lord has been used by politicians—particularly Republicans—to manipulate voters and play to their spiritual allegiance.
Spokesfolk for the White House have denounced Kuo as unfair and naive.
Has the time come for Christians to denounce the exploitation of their most treasured spiritual gift—their relationship to the Lord of Life—without withdrawing from the political process per se? Is it time for Christians to perhaps learn what Lutheran Two Kingdoms theology can contribute to paving a new understanding of the relationship between Christians and the civil order in the twenty-first century?
Mr. Kuo has a blog on Beliefnet.com. Log on and comment. Or don't. See if I care.
Why Evangelicals Can't Read
Among the august tomes:
The Late Great Planet Earth. The Purpose-Drive Life. Left Behind. This Present Darkness. The Genesis Flood. No Augustine. No Luther.
The list of people who nominated books for the list includes some very scholarly and learned folk. And this is the best they could do.
There are some worthy titles here, nevertheless: The Cost of Discipleship. Mere Christianity. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Knowing God (despite its Calvinist leanings).
Yet one can only wonder at how impoverished the evangelical imagination is.
I must lie down and weep tears of blood and laughter. Or perhaps I will just nap.
October 15, 2006
But keep it down. I'm trying to sleep through the evening news.
Origen, Call Your Office
Two bored overeducated and undersexed suburbanites, Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson, cheat on their respective spouses and excite otherwise tedious and empty lives.
A sex offender with a propensity for exposing himself to minors is released from prison and into a community of upper-middle-class folk who are terrified of his presence. He lives a life of quiet desperation, aware of his perversity and yet unable to completely control it except by indulging in other forms of perversity.
An ex-police officer who "retired" after being diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress syndrome—the trauma being the accidental shooting of a teenager—now obsesses over the sex offender, harrassing him and his mother continually and forming a committee to plaster the neighborhood with flyers warning that this predator is in their midst.
And there are the usual gaggle of bored housewives who gossip and daydream.
Little Children has much to say about the nature of evil and moral judgment—namely, no one escapes it. Afraid of what someone will do to your little darling? First look in the mirror and make sure your own choices are not posing their own threat to his or her emotional and psychological well-being. And yet, there is an unresolved contradiction at the heart of the film. The filmmakers seem to be warning us against making easy judgments. Fair enough. But are we to refrain from making any?
Ms. Winslet was miscast. She is supposed to be a "plain," even unattractive, alternative to the lovely Jennifer Connelly, who plays the wife of the man Winslet is cheating with. Ms. Winslet is not that good an actress. There is also an unexplored hollowness to her moral sensibility—ostensibly some analogue to that of Madame Bovary's, whose motives are discussed among members of the community book club. Winslet describes Bovary as a proto-feminist, not because she cheats on her husband, but because of her hunger for something more that what her life has been reduced to. In short, we are not to judge her. But are we allowed to judge Ms. Winslet's character? That would seem to put us on par with her snooty neighbors. And yet the title of the film already declares that a judgment has been made. This tension or contradiction is never resolved. Perhaps it is not meant to be.
While there is much that is fascinating and thought-provoking here, I'm afraid the tension-ridden ending fails. In the end, only the child molester makes a true choice. Everyone else is either forced into a choice out of circumstance or fear. There is no moral sense at work—no grace. The one scene where one might be tempted to find a gracious act—the final confrontation between the ex-cop-turned-neighborhood watchdog and the sex offender (played with creepy earnestness by Jackie Earle Haley)—rings utterly false, even sentimental.
Please be warned that, before venturing out to see this film, there is much that is gratutious in the depiction of the sexual behavior of several of the characters. It is gratuitous because we do not need to be reduced to voyeurs—itself a childish act—in order to understand what is going on in the lives of these people.
In the end, I wish the talented director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) and his writing partner, Tom Perrotta, author of the book on which the film is based, had attempted to work out a genuine moral schema. Otherwise this attempt at ambiguity is little more than a nod to nihilism.
In any event, because few films even raise the questions that this one does, I give Little Children 85 Theses.
October 13, 2006
And by a higher power, do they mean whoever can grant them tenure? Oprah? That techie they call when they fear their new $3,000 laptop stuffed with the only draft of a unified field theory has a virus?
October 11, 2006
30 Rock Breaks
1. What did Martin Lawrence ever do to you?
2. Exactly how many episodes of That Girl have you seen in your life?
3. Exactly how many episodes of Good Times have you seen in your life?
4. Exactly how many episodes of The Larry Sanders Show have you seen in your life?
5. Does Julia Louis-Dreyfus get 10 percent of everything you make?
6. If Daniel had been the only Baldwin available, would this have been a midseason replacement?
New Line Does the Nativity
Should we be concerned that it is called The Nativity Story—and not merely The Nativity? Given that New Line has produced everything from Boogie Nights to Lord of the Rings, from Storytelling to Mr. Deeds, it's anyone's guess as to what is in store for us.
October 10, 2006
The Erasmus Lecture 2006
To see the liberating power of the gospel through the eyes of someone deemed "untouchable" in India; of someone who had been raised to believe her family was "cursed"; of someone for whom plague, famine, and the hope of streams of living water are realities and not metaphors is to be evangelized all over again.
Dr. Jenkins ended his lecture with a quote from C.S. Lewis (but not before apologizing for Lewis' un-P.C. language), to the effect that religions should be judged as we judge soups—some are thick and some are clear:
By Thick I mean those which have orgies and ecstasies and mysteries and local attachments: Africa is full of Thick religions. By Clear I mean those which are philosophical, ethical and universalizing: Stoicism, Buddhism and the Ethical Church are Clear religions. Now if there is a true religion it must be both Thick and Clear: for the true God must have made both the child and the man, both the savage and the citizen, both the head and the belly. ...In any event, purchase a copy of Jenkins' book and read for yourself. It is more than just a sociological and demographic analysis—it is a work of apologetics.
Christianity ... takes a convert from central Africa and tells him to obey an
enlightened universalist ethic: it takes a twentieth-century academic prig like me and tells me to go fasting to a Mystery, to drink the blood of the Lord. The savage convert has to be Clear: I have to be Thick. That is how one knows one has come to the real religion.
October 09, 2006
We dare not laugh at the doctrinal chaos of the Anglican Communion or the Episcopal Church in the United States, lest we ourselves fall.
There are some who clamor for the Anglican Communion's collapse. Let us never forget the extraordinary men and women that communion has produced:
- Richard Hooker
- J.C. Ryle
- Lord Shaftesbury
- William Wilberforce
- John Wesley
- Jonathan Swift
- John Donne
- Lewis Carroll
- C.S. Lewis
- Dorothy Sayers
- N.T. Wright
Why has this communion fallen apart? Many would blame the Elizabethan Settlement first and foremost, which was a political compromise less interested in gospel truth than in civil peace and a secure footing for the monarchy. A state church will always emphasize loyalty to the group over loyalty to Christ. Witness the Unionist Church of Prussia, a concoction that cared not one whit for theology but only for unity.
Some would blame the inadequacy of the Thirty-nine Articles as a bulwark against heresy. Some, the absence of a final authority to resolve conflicts.
All of the above? None of the above? For many, the why is not as important as the how—How do we fix things? But until you know the why, you will never figure out the how.
Disestablish the Church of England. If the broad-church ministers had to rely solely on their parishioners for their keep, they would begin to rethink doctrine. They would begin to rethink all that they have thrown away in order to keep what was ultimately dispensable.
The best thing that could happen to the Episcopal Church in America is bankruptcy. Let parishes and dioceses lose their endowments, lose their property. Make them fight for congregants in order to secure an income—and then we will see which churches thrive and which die.
"What a glib, snide reproach!" I can hear someone snap. "And what of the good work that is done for the poor, the homeless, the unemployed? That takes money! Should good works be sacrificed on the altar of fratricidal rage? In the end, isn't how we treat a neighbor in distress more important a witness to Christ than a laundry list of doctrinal affirmations?"
Silence, imaginary interlocutor! Feed the flock and the flock will feed the hungry, clothe, the naked, and discomfort the comfortable! First things first! Feed them Christ and not the editorial page of The New York Times and watch how Christians address those bodily needs—and that out of gratitude, not out of guilt or political correctness!
Pray for the remnant: those faithful Anglicans/Episcopalians who are clinging to their faith, their prayerbook, their church, and who are fighting the good fight against heresy, indecency, stupidity, and greed. (If you knew what a TEC or C of E bishop drew as an income now, you would never stop throwing up. This, too, is why even orthodox clergy hang on to their positions in an apostate church—many are simply too comfortable.)
Pray also that, should they no longer find the TEC or the C of E sufferable, the remnant will join us in the Lutheran Church. Pray also that there will still be a Lutheran Church worthy of the name for them to enter.
October 08, 2006
Another Da Vinci Code, or Run, Popess, Run
While we have many quarrels with the Romanists, and I like an anti-papal jest as much as the next Lutheran, let us not engage in historical obfuscation. The story of Pope Joan is a pile of poop.
Does the writer of the novel on which the film will be based, Donna Cross, believe there was such a pontiff? Or is she merely re-imagining the legend as fact to tell an amusing tale of deception? I'm sure as the film gains more MSM attention, she will appear on TV screens near you and inform us.
And now ... cashew chicken with snow peas!
October 07, 2006
Before DiCaprio can say “You have the right to remain silent,” he is recruited by his good-Catholic boss (Martin Sheen) and his cynical foul-mouthed sergeant (Mark Walhberg) to prove his worth by going undercover inside the Irish mob. (It seems Costigan’s mother was “lace curtain” Irish, i.e., not a proper Southie, and this make the working-class half-breed suspect.)
Costigan agrees: But first he must make public his break with the police by getting himself arrested and picking a few fights with all the right thugs. Meanwhile, Sullivan is feeding Costello inside information to make sure the gangster’s plans to sell stolen computer chips to China doesn’t come undone.
I will not divulge much more of the plot, as its sinuous contortions will tie you in knots, just as it does the inner lives of some of its characters. While Nicholson is getting all the attention for his buggy mobster, his turn is not much more than “classic Jack,” and frankly, it begins to break down into muddle-headed silliness by film’s end. There is never any texture to Costello, never a picture of something more going on than a descent into mental/moral chaos. Take R.P. McMurphy and The Joker, mix well, and you have Costello.
No, the film belongs to DiCaprio, who continues to mature as an actor. It is quite astounding how convincing this baby face is as he goes face to face with the scum of the earth. Damon plays it straight, and Walhberg is more than scary in his amoral “bad cop” routine. But DiCaprio wears his inner turmoil on his face, and unlike so many films out there today, you do care what happens to this young man. You do care whether he gets his life back—and what shape that life will take.
Yet conscience is not really the issue in this rapid-fire, brutal, and tension-ridden story, but identity. In this respect, the film reminds me of Donnie Brasco, but with the stakes doubled, and all its characters on crack. Which side of the tracks am I on? To whom do I owe ultimate allegiance? Who am I—a cop or a criminal? “When you’re facing a loaded gun," says Costello, "what's the difference?”
A la Goodfellas, Scorsese "drops the needle" in all the right places, using blaring pop music as punctuation marks in his narrative. In one scene, even the sound of a cinema seat bouncing back into place after Matt Damon has leapt from it is carried over into the soundtrack and serves to transmit the tension from one location to another.
What can be taken away from The Departed for a Lutheran Christian? That guilt is pervasive, and even our "good works" are tainted with sin. Choose this day whom you will serve. But first, count the cost.
I give this film 85 Theses. Beware: The violence and the language are brutal throughout. And depictions of Catholic clergy as congenital pedophiles and hypocrites are also rife. Gunshots ring out like cannonfire and always startle, as it should be. One should never get used to the sound of a gun—even in a film.
October 06, 2006
Then I realized it was only a film fanatic.
I am thinking of creating a site very similar to the one above, only dedicated to all things John Cena.
How Ignoble of Them!
Yes, you read correctly. If you are not already familiar with these laurels, they are the Nobel Prizes' Doppelgänger, awarded by the Annals of Improbable Research to honor those men and women whose contributions to the arts and sciences have been dubious, nugatory, and even retrograde.
And the losers for 2006 are ...
- Ornithology - Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California, Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California, Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don't get headaches.
- Nutrition - Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters.
- Peace - Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing an electromechanical teenager repellant — a device that makes annoying noise designed to be audible to teenagers but not to adults; and for later using that same technology to make telephone ringtones that are audible to teenagers but not to their teachers.
- Acoustics - D. Lynn Halpern (of Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates, Brandeis University, and Northwestern University), Randolph Blake (of Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University) and James Hillenbrand (of Western Michigan University and Northwestern University) for conducting experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard.
- Literature - Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University for his report "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."
- Medicine - Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, for his medical case report "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage"; and Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan, and Arie Oliven of Bnai Zion Medical Center, Haifa, Israel, for their subsequent medical case report also titled "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage."
- Physics - Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie, in Paris, for their insights into why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces.
- Chemistry - Antonio Mulet, José Javier Benedito and José Bon of the University of Valencia, Spain, and Carmen Rosselló of the University of Illes Balears, in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, for their study "Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature."
- Biology - Bart Knols (of Wageningen Agricultural University, in Wageningen, the Netherlands; and of the National Institute for Medical Research, in Ifakara Centre, Tanzania, and of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, Austria) and Ruurd de Jong (of Wageningen Agricultural University and of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Italy) for showing that the female malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.
October 05, 2006
Let us read this, from Luke 6—not once, not twice, but over and over—and remember there are those among us who live it:
27 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 32 If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
37 Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. 39 He also told them a parable: Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye, when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye. 43 For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. 46 Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.(English Standard Version, via Crosswalk.com)
What is next—LCMS terrorists chopping the heads off of Zwinglian beer foam?
30 Rock: A Preview
NBC: Our Name Is Variety.
As for Studio 60: The writing is already beginning to falter. Too many of the characters simply sound the same when they speak. It's all Aaron Sorkin's voice. Not good. And the Christian/religion bashing is already getting tired. Is that what Sorkin believes is the saving grace (forgive me) of television: Let's make fun of the overwhelming majority of Americans' beliefs and then Europe will take us seriously?
What a sad agenda. What a cramped worldview.
In any event: Here is a clip from the pilot episode of 30 Rock, which debuts October 11:
October 04, 2006
And why, if secularism and radical feminism hold the keys to protecting women from such abuse, does a country like Sweden—arguably one of the least religious and most secular and "liberal" on the face of the earth—have such a high level of domestic abuse, higher than in the backward, fundamentalist United States?
(From the U.S. State Dept. Report on Human Rights Practices: Sweden)
Violence against women remained a problem. The National Council for Crime Prevention (NCCP) reported 20,198 cases of assault against women as of the end of November. Most involved spousal abuse. An average 20 to 30 murders of women and girls were reported each year, half of them by men closely related to the victim. Authorities apprehended and prosecuted abusers. The typical sentence for abuse was a prison term (3 to 15 months on average) or psychiatric treatment.I will tell you why: "Husbands, love your wives just as Jesus loved the church and gave himself for it" versus "You are the means to my happiness." These are the two ethics at war.
For Christians, especially for Reformation Christians, a spouse, a child, our neighbors, even our enemies, are always ends in themselves, never means to a end. Our loving them, caring for them, doing good to them, protecting them, is never a means to justification, salvation, or personal fulfillment. They are given to us as gifts with whom we are to share the joy of our salvation and our worldly goods—without expectation of recompense, and without seeking our own personal martyrdom in the face of rejection or disappointment.
Here is a question for the clergy of the Church of England: Why don't you consider getting into another racket altogether, one that does not demand the relentless shoveling of horse manure? Think gossip columnists for one of your tabloids, or even the marketing of portable loos.
October 03, 2006
The Virgin Spring—Lutheran
It is the 12th century and it is Sweden. A man has land, a wife, a daughter, servants. He is pious. He says his prayers dutifully; his wife also is observant. She burns herself with hot wax as penance. For what, at first, at least, we do not know.
It is the morning when, traditionally, a gift of candles is made to the Virgin Mother. They must be delivered to the church, which is a considerable horse ride away. The patriarch, Töre, played with a dignity that is neither stoic nor stiff by Max von Sydow, insists that his only child, his daughter Karin, get her loafing behind out of bed after a late night of dancing with who knows whom and deliver the candles. Why the daughter and not one of the housemaids or farmhands? Because it is a tradition that a virgin honor the Virgin with these candles.
And so we learn that young Karin is worried over greatly by her mother, Märeta, who laments that she is “all I have.” Even her father, who apparently is the sterner of the two, can’t help but indulge Karin, including her request to take along Ingeri, a gypsy of sorts big with child and a worshipper of the old Norse god Odin. She has been taken in by Töre and his wife, and is none too grateful for it. Karin is a little princess, spoiled, and prideful—and Ingeri hates her for it.
Before Karin and Ingeri set off—too late for Matins and so probably destined to come back very late that evening—Töre lifts his daughter in the air and careens and carries her about in a manner too suggestive for an audience’s comfort. Karin is also given a supply of food for the priest by one of the housemaids—a gift in exchange for a “light penance.”
On the road, Karin makes it clear that she would never have let herself become pregnant, as Ingeri did. Ingeri tells her that sometimes you are not given a choice, that you are overwhelmed by a man stronger than you. “I would fight back,” Karin blithely says.
Midway in their trip, Ingeri parts company with Karin. She has a premonition of death on the road and prefers to stay at the cabin of an old man who, like her, is a worshipper of Odin and a keeper of relics.
So Karin takes off on her own and soon encounters two men and a young boy on the road—goat herders. She shares with them the bread and cheese that was intended for the priest—not before saying a nice grace. In return, she is raped and clubbed to death. Ingeri, who has fled the idol worshipper after he had tried to seduce her, witnesses all of it and does nothing.
The men and the little boy, Karin’s murderers, show up at Töre and Märeta’s home. They claim to be escaping a brutal winter of semi-starvation of the north country. Töre offers them food and shelter. Here the pious patriarch brings into his home as an act of Christian charity the rapists and murderers of his beloved daughter.
As they are preparing to sleep, one of the farm hands counsels the little boy, who has been throwing up everything he eats ever since the crime, to always say his prayers. “God is more merciful than you know.”
It is not long before Töre and Mareta learn the truth. Töre plans his revenge, but not before he rips a sapling from the earth and breaks off branches so as to flay himself naked—a kind of preemptive penance, a baptism in blood—before he takes his revenge. Strangely, Ingeri is allowed to watch him engage in what appears to be a strange act of masochism. That he is naked does not seem odd to either of them.
The two villains and the little boy are killed by Töre’s own hand. He, Märeta, and Ingeri set out to find the body of Karin. When they do, Märeta cradles her in her arms as Töre cries out to God: “You saw this happen. You could have stopped it.” He hold his hands up to God, the agents of three other murders. Despite his cry of despair, or rebuke, Töre vows to build a church right on the spot where Karin’s body lay as penance for his crime of blood vengeance.
Now I know what you are thinking—what is Lutheran about any of this? Follow me:
Who are the guilty parties here? Only the perpetrators of the actual crime? Or the father whose manhandling of his daughter makes one shudder with discomfort, and whose superstitions are at the root of her abandonment; the mother, who admits to envying the attention lavished on Karin by her father, and yet who covets her daughter as the only thing she has in the world; Ingeri, who envied Karin's status and privilege? They are all guilty. They all offered up Karin to the men who took her virginity and her life. Like the old pagans, they offered her up as a sacrifice for the sin buried deep in their hearts. Everyone is guilty. And everyone finally admits that guilt.
As for Töre’s promise to do penance, to give back to God in compensation for the lives he took—before Töre can split his first piece of wood, Karin’s body is lifted from the spot on which it lay and a spring bursts forth. Water: the symbol of renewal, rebirth, baptism.
God did not need the candles for the Virgin Mother. God did not need the harsh whippings and burnings and penances and baptism in blood. God did not need his priests to be bribed with food for sins to be absolved. And God did not need the sacrifice of Karin. God needed them only to look deep into their own hearts and admit their naked need of a saviour.
“God is more merciful than you think,” the lost, doomed little boy is told. The mercy of God was always there—it was in their baptism. All that was needed to receive it was an open heart and open hands. But these pious souls were too busy doing for God to receive from God.
Only now can grace flow.
October 01, 2006
I have known some royalty in my time. King Henry VIII did battle with me by issuing his Defence of the Seven Sacraments in 1521. He was a degenerate meatball who betrayed a noble woman (Catherine of Aragon) in order to disseminate his royal line ad nauseum.
Then there was Charles V, to whom appeals were made by myself and others to consider rationally and calmly the basis of our Evangelical faith and the desperate need for reform in the Church. Unfortunately, Charles had a mind like a polyester trap.
What does it mean to be a king or queen in this egalitarian world? Can it ever be more than a mere parody of what such a title conveyed, say, 150 years ago? Yet don't most people look for someone to be king or queen—to take the reins of power and twist them left and right as he or she will—even when they bear the title president or prime minister?
In The Last King of Scotland, a young Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan, eager to leave a stifling home environment, heads to Uganda to help the poorest of the poor of the newly independent nation. At least that's what he tells the other white doctor he encounters there, a Schweitzer-like figure who is grateful for the help—as is his wife (Gillian Anderson), whom Garrigan tries to bed.
The Scot soon finds himself personal physician to Idi Amin Dada, a former soldier in the British colonial army and commander of the previous president's army. When Amin and his men stage a coup, Amin emerges as the "people's president," promising new schools, hospitals, and economic reform.
Amin identifies with Garrigan, as they both hate the English. And the Scot, played with reckless exuberance by James McAvoy (Chronicles of Narnia), is easily beguiled by the president's charisma, power, and almost childlike dependence upon him.
But when Amin's political enemies begin threatening his grasp on Uganda, his paranoia inflates to elephantine proportions, and no one is safe, not even Garrigan, who is now bedding one of Amin's three wives.
This is a film about opportunities wasted, vocations thwarted, and motives twisted. Why is this Scot in Uganda? Adventure? Pity? White guilt? Or, as Amin finally challenges him, to sleep with African women and take what he can from the nation's resources? Did Amin ever intend to reform and modernize his nation? Or did he always just want the big palace, the big cars, women galore, and uncontested hegemony—like the European monarchs of old who ruled their respective African fiefdoms?
This film belongs to Forest Whitaker as Amin. He has been giving fine performances for at least twenty years (think the scene-stealing turn in Color of Money and his Charlie Parker in Bird) and will certainly earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination (at least). He is riveting, compelling, and terrifying as the dictator who ultimately would take 300,000 Ugandan lives and epitomize irrascible tyranny.
The Last King of Scotland is a memorable and sometimes brutal depiction of a country and a people used as a means to other people's ends. I give it 85 Theses.
The Queen examines one week in the life of Elizabeth II—the week of Diana Spencer's death. If ever QE2's throne were threatened, it was during this period of national mourning, in which she was paralyzed by protocol, resentment, and emotional sclerosis. It is only the newly elected prime minister, Tony Blair, who has the wisdom, political savvy, and courage to defy precedent and pry a public response out of the monarch.
Helen Mirren, as the queen, is magnificent, and will undoubtedly be awarded the Best Actress Oscar. In her capable hands, and aided by an intelligent and balanced script, the queen is never a caricature, never a cartoon. She is simply "The Queen" and knows nothing else but the role into which she was thrust as a relatively young woman—a role that killed her father and consists solely in remaining faithful to protocols, precedents, and traditions stretching back a thousand years.
Supporting Mirren's queen is the marvelous Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, a young, smart breath of fresh air with an pro-republican, anti-monarchical wife who thinks the whole royal lot are a bunch of nutters.
But slowly, this Labour prime minister begins to show a certain, shall we say, conservative strain in his defense of Her Majesty against the growing chorus of critics. He appreciates the burden the queens bears and is not unaware of the human being beneath the crown.
Here the queen is no villain—merely an anachronism, with less of a vocation than a "role" that most of the world and more of her subjects deem antiquated if not downright retarded. In one telling scene, while waiting for help when her dilapidated car breaks an axle crossing a creek, the queen allows herself the luxury of tears—whether for Diana or her own confusion and forelorness is unclear. Suddenly she spies a magnifient buck. She shooes it away before it is shot by nearby hunters. (The royal residences are rife with such hunting trophies.) In that moment she clearly identifies with that buck—and perhaps with Diana—hounded by the press who will be the end of her if allowed to pursue her unimpeded.
If The Queen and The Last King of Scotland have one thing that relates them it is how necessary it is to manipulate this very same press—whether your power is absolute or largely ceremonial. Amin, when rumors of cannibalism and mass slaughter begin making their way into British tabloids, is encouraged by Garrigan to bring the journalists to the capital and to charm them—which Amin does. He offers the journalists the opportunity to explore his country to see for themselves that there are no killing fields, he offers to send England food during their pre-Thatcher depressed economic times. And he boasts of having proved the English wrong about an African not being able to rule an independent African nation—and offers to help the Scots fight their way out from under the English boot as well (hence the title of the film).
Prime Minister Blair, too, knows how to play the press—but with much better results. He (actually his speechwriter) is the one who crowned Diana the "people's princess." And he knows what a threat a hostile press poses to getting one's job done. Even Prince Charles pines for good press and makes a point of allying himself with Blair—even over and against his own mother—if for no other reason than the weenie fears for his life should the headlines grow darker and the mood of the crowds parked outside Buckingham Palace more hostile.
The Queen finally concedes the need to address her subjects during a time of public mourning—and at a time when 25 percent of Brits polled would do away with the monarchy completely. So Her Majesty gives a sympathic speech, takes a tour of the mounds upon mounds of flowers and cards that dress the palace gates, and agrees to fly a flag over the royal residences at half mast. (Not depicted in the film is the little bow she makes as Diana's funeral procession drives by.)
So the queen saves her place in the hearts of most Brits with some carefully orchestrated photo ops, and Blair stages a bloodless coup of his own—playing adviser to the Crown instead of the other way around.
But this queen—who reminds Blair early on that she has seen 10 prime ministers come and go, including Winston Churchill—will have the last word, and most definitely will see yet another prime minister sit before her, portfolio in hand. And so the question of who rules whom is left playfully unanswered.
I give The Queen 90 Theses.
Both these films are playing only in a few theaters nationwide: But we here at Luther at the Movies want you to be aware of and primed for what is best in cinema, even if your local cinema is STILL playing Memoirs of a Geisha...