Saturday, July 21, 2012

Damnatio Memoriae

Quick, tell me the name of one of the shooters at the Columbine massacre. Now tell me the name of one of their victims. Is it more difficult to do the latter than the former? If so, you are a typical American who did not grow up in or live near Littleton, Colorado a decade ago. In part, it is because it is easier to remember two people (the murderers) rather than their twelve victims. Furthermore, one does not want to intrude into the grief of the mourning families more than it is necessary, and thus the media have tended to shy away from naming the victims endlessly. But the media have also shown an intense interest in understanding the psychology of the killers, and not altogether for a bad reason: if only we knew what made these murderers tick—what made these disgruntled teens go off the deep end—we might be able to prevent further tragedies. Had these killers not taken their own lives, the media would have also had to cover the ensuing trial, at which time it would have been difficult not to name them repeatedly. One can expect that this will be the case with the most recent mass shooting in Colorado.

It is at times like these that I wish we had the Roman custom of damnatio memoriae, the practice of obliterating from record a bad emperor or an offending person of high standing. In the accompanying picture you see the emperor Septimus Severus and his wife Julia Domna, as well as their two sons, Geta on the left and Caracalla on the right. If the image of Geta looks a little blurry, that is on purpose. After Severus died, Geta and Caracalla shared the imperial power for a couple of years until Caracalla ordered his assassination and took the full imperial power for himself. As a consequence, Caracalla ordered Geta’s image removed and he obliterated any reference to Geta in inscriptions. Of course, if anyone knows their history of late Roman antiquity, Caracalla himself was not all that great and probably deserved damnatio memoriae more than his brother did.

It would be nice if we could treat publicity-seeking heinous criminals in the same way. We already have the nearly universal custom of shielding rape victims and underage victims of crime by not naming them, and that is as it should be. Perhaps, though, the media could do society a favor and ensure that heinous criminals will not get the notoriety they seek. A little damnatio memoriae now and then is a good thing.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening, Part Three

Before reading this blog, the reader should look at the previous two blogs, especially the last one, which is a synopsis of Bishop Bo Giertz’s argument on the relationship between liturgy and spiritual awakening. Once we are familiar with Bishop Giertz’s argument, we can ask whether these words from mid-20th century Sweden have any relevance for us today.

We have to note the differences. Nearly every Swede of Giertz’s generation had been baptized and was a member of the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden, although many Swedes had but tenuous ties with the church. Giertz himself had been baptized as a child, even though both of his parents were atheists and he was raised in a largely secular environment. Thus, one of the major purposes of awakening movements in Sweden was to reconnect youth and adults with the church of their baptism that they knew little about. Now it still happens in the United States that children are baptized and then their spiritual growth is entirely neglected. But that is not as often the case here as in Sweden, since there is not the same social pressure to have children brought to baptism and made to belong to the one church that is integrated with the entire social fabric of the country. As the Church of Sweden has lost its standing in its society, there is a growing percentage of unbaptized Swedes. One can expect that future awakenings in Sweden (May God grant them!) will not be exclusively a re-conversion of the baptized, but also in large measure a conversion of the heathen.

In addition, awakening movements in Sweden had often been connected, sometimes rather tenuously and not altogether harmoniously, with the Church of Sweden. But in the United States, each awakening movement has turned its back on established churches and founded new ones. Revivalism itself has become an institution—and one spiritually impoverished by its substitution of new forms and a “new liturgy,” as well as its open hostility to creeds and liturgy. Consequently, each awakening movement is unable to pass on the faith to the next generation and the movement burns itself out—just as Giertz had so insightfully seen and warned.

Thus, we in the United States live in a situation where awakening and liturgy are not just rivals living in tension with each other, but where they have become bitter foes. We have evidence of where this leads, and it is just as Bishop Giertz had predicted. “Liturgy without awakening” has indeed become “the most dangerous of all church programs” (p. 28), as is evident in the Episcopal Church and in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), as well as many other mainline denominations. Churches that had never had lectionaries have adopted them. Liturgical worship has become more common in mainline churches, and there is a fascination with ritual. But at the same time orthodoxy and traditional Christian morality have never been so marginalized in those church bodies. The fascination with ritual has led not only to a recovery of ancient Christian rites, but also to the adoption of bizarre, half-pagan rites (such as labyrinth walks).

Meanwhile, American Evangelicalism has demonstrated the truth of Giertz’s contention that wherever the traditional liturgy has been discarded, “the new forms that grow up…are usually less attractive and more profane than the ancient liturgy” (pp. 17-18). Moreover, “they contain less of God’s Word, they pray and speak without Scriptural direction, they are not so much concerned about expressing the whole content of Scripture, but are satisfied with one thing or another that seems to be especially attractive or popular” (p. 18). Anyone who knows the history of American Evangelicalism knows how it has latched onto a particular idea in any given generation to the exclusion of the full counsel of God and how it has tended to be driven from one fad to another until finally the substantial theology of a Gresham Machen or a Carl F.H. Henry is replaced by that of a Robert Bell.

Where does that leave confessional Lutheranism, especially in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod? There have been several forces at work in the last decades. There was a liberal liturgical movement (much akin to what predominates in the ELCA now), but it failed to take over the synod and is largely a spent force now. But those who opposed the liberal liturgical movement were not all united as to how to move the synod forward, especially as it became apparent that the synod had stagnated in the late 1960’s and entered a stage of mild decline in the decades that followed. Some argued that the church needed an awakening to stem both liberalism and a decline in membership. These people saw American Evangelicalism as the antidote and embraced its trends—the charismatic craze, spiritual gifts inventories, the church growth movement, the seeker church paradigm, the megachurch phenomenon, contemporary Christian music, the house church trend, and the emergent church, to name a few. Granted, the Missouri Synod participants have tried to “Lutheranize” these movements, but (as their critics have rightly noted) they have tended to follow Evangelicalism as slavishly as the liberals followed mainline theology.

Others returned to the Lutheran confessions, which they saw as the antidote to the serious theological flaws of both liberalism and Evangelicalism. They tended to be mildly liturgical in the sense that they followed the Divine Service as printed in the hymnal but without any real interest in liturgical matters. But as the 1980’s and 1990’s unfolded, robust interest in theology was coupled with a robust interest in the riches of the liturgy. Unlike the liberal liturgical movement, where the rich liturgical language masked the unbelief of the celebrant, this conservative liturgical movement used the liturgy to express the fullness of its faith. And thus the most avowedly confessional people in the synod (those who can say what Solid Declaration Article III is about without having to look it up) are also the most likely to be very liturgically conscious. For them, those who have followed contemporary Evangelical trends are minimalists not only in worship, but in confessional commitment. But those who have followed more of Evangelicalism’s trends look at the confessional liturgical movement as aloof and unable to reach out to the lost who so desperately need the message of the gospel.

Bishop Giertz’s herdabrev may offer a fruitful proposal for dialogue between these two groups in our synod. He suggested that the liturgy of the common Divine Service held on Sundays and other festivals should be kept intact, but he allowed greater freedom for other, more informal gatherings of the church. The Divine Service is the common heritage for all Christians and is rich in biblical quotations and symbolism that give real sustenance to the mature. It should not be abandoned or drastically changed. But the church also needs to “speak to the children of the age in the language of the age about those things which have been forgotten but need to be heard again” (p. 14). This will take place outside of the Divine Service, in informal Bible studies and prayer groups and other activities that bring the unchurched, the de-churched, and the unbeliever into contact with God’s Word.

Bishop Giertz’s herdabrev will not end the worship wars, but it may serve as the basis for discussion that could lead to a just and lasting peace.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening, Part Two

In the comments below, I am quoting from Clifford Ansgar Nelson’s translation of Bishop Bo Giertz’s herdabrev, “Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening,” published by Augustana Book Concern in 1950.

Bishop Giertz begins his discussion of these matters by positing that “The Word of God creates the church” (p. 10). That Word appeared in two different forms—those “which seem to be more or less improvised and spontaneous and those which appear fixed and unchangeable”—or “awakening” and “liturgy,” as they are commonly called (p. 10).

Liturgy has deep roots in the apostolic age: “The altar is today the only place in our modern life where, with unbroken tradition, the vestments are still used which were worn by people in that olden day. Within the walls of the church one can still hear musical settings that preserve something of the very tones of that hymn of praise which our Lord and His disciples sang when they ate the paschal meal” (p. 12). And yet it is not the antiquity of the service that most commends itself, but “the fact that it is a form which the Spirit Himself has created to preserve and deepen the life which He has awakened in the church” (p. 13).

Awakening also has apostolic roots. But its language is different. “The instrument of awakening is the spoken Word, a word with prophetic authority, powerful to crush the hard rock of a soul and also appealing with all the inward warmth of the gospel. The language of awakening is often akin to everyday speech….Therefore, the words of awakening do not employ such phrases as, for the example, the Root of Jesse, or the Key of David. Rather do they speak to the children of the age in the language of the age about those things which have been forgotten but need to be heard again,” while liturgy “uses all the richness of the Scriptures, all the meaningful symbols and prefigurements of Christ in the Old Testament” (p. 14).

Both are necessary. “Awakening is always needed…because there is always the need for awakening even among the most faithful members of the church….The old Adam in each one of us is prone to fall asleep, to make the Christian life a dead routine, to use liturgical form to cloak his self-complacency and impenitence” (p. 16). “Liturgy is just as needful. There can be no normal church life without liturgy. Sacraments need form; the order of worship must have some definite pattern. It is possible to live for a short time on improvisations” but “in circles where people seek to live without any forms, new forms are nevertheless constantly taking shape….But it would not be wrong to say that the new forms that grow up in this way are usually less attractive and more profane than the ancient liturgy….The new liturgy that grows in this manner is poorer, less Biblical, and less nourishing to the soul than the discarded ancient order” (pp. 17-18).

Giertz notes that liturgy has many enemies, including “sluggish, dead passivity” (p. 19). But liturgy’s most formidable enemy is awakening, because few worldly sluggards count themselves as more spiritual than liturgy, but the awakened are tempted to count liturgy as an improper form of worship (p. 19). But as Giertz perceptively notes, “there is often a goodly portion of self-righteousness and egocentricity in [awakening’s] judgment. The old Adam is an unequalled opportunist” (p. 21). Awakening dismisses the liturgy because a person was not awakened in the liturgy but in some other manner and therefore, this manner “must be the proper way” or even “the only right way” (p. 21).

Giertz adds that there is another reason many oppose the liturgy, “humanly understandable but no more valid: There are people who find it difficult to feel at home in the liturgical forms” (p. 22). In other words, some people find liturgical forms “very natural, so that they immediately feel at home in them, while other people find it hard to become accustomed to them” (p. 23). A solution might be to abandon the liturgy in part or in total, but Giertz will have none of that: “All liturgy demands the submerging of self” (p. 22). A Christian “who will not subordinate himself in such fellowship is no Christian, because one cannot be a Christian by one’s self” (p. 23). “When revival piety in the church is unwilling to live in the framework of the liturgy in the common service of worship, it has placed itself outside the fellowship of the church and can no longer be counted as a living movement of the church of Christ” (p. 25).

Lest this seem too big of a burden for the non-liturgically oriented to bear, Giertz adds, “Outside the common worship service there must be freedom….There must be full freedom also for all those forms of worship which truly serve for edification; they may be services of prayer, inner circles of fellowship, liturgical orders of devotion, and many another type of worship” (p. 25). The only stipulation is that these worship forms “shall never displace or be a substitute for the great fellowship of the Sunday common service.”

Having spoken against awakening’s interference with the liturgy, Giertz warns about a false liturgy, which can “become an almost impregnable armor for the old Adam” (p. 26). He asks (p. 26), “What can the Holy Spirit do with a person who goes to Communion more faithfully than anyone else in the congregation, who for an hour a day prays beautiful prayers from the Psalter or from the classic prayer books of Christendom…but who through all these exercises only becomes more and more convinced that he is a better kind of person, a person…who loves no one except himself and his holy ceremonies?” Thus, “liturgy without awakening is probably the most dangerous of all church programs. It is possible to enrich and beautify the worship service, to add vestments and choirs, to plan lovely vespers, and even to arrange for more frequent communions, without a single person in earnestness asking himself, ‘How shall I, a sinner, be saved?’” (p. 28).

Giertz adds that “awakening needs liturgy” (p. 30), if it is going to be sound enough to pass on its heritage from one generation to the next. But “awakening, or revival, can also serve liturgy. When men are wakened, there is new life in the old forms of devotion….Ancient, beautiful custom becomes more than custom. It becomes an expression for the life which is born again” (p. 31).

Giertz concludes by positing that “the need for awakening will one day cease. It belongs to this world, where men still sleep the sleep of death….But liturgy will remain….a never ending thanksgiving to the Creator and Father of all things” (pp. 31-32).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening, Part One

I recently came across a booklet written a full two decades before the outbreak of the current “worship wars,” but a booklet which is full of wisdom for today. It is the herdabrev, the bishop’s inaugural letter, of the late Rev. Bishop Bo Giertz, Bishop of Gothenburg, Sweden. The title of the herdabrev is “Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening” and is an appeal for the church to take both liturgy and spiritual awakening seriously.

The context is different, but there is still much we can learn. Bishop Giertz became bishop of Gothenburg in 1949 in a country where “high church Pietist” or “sacramental Pietist” was not a contradiction in terms, where those fervent to save people’s souls did not disdain the church, the sacraments, and the liturgy. This was the legacy of such theologians as Henric Schartau and even to some extent Carl Rosenius, who did not separate from the Church of Sweden even as they called for a renewal of it. In the United States, however, we have followed a different path, where spiritual awakening has always seen itself as the mortal enemy of previously established churches and their liturgies and sacraments. Indeed, spiritual awakening is seen as a quasi-sacramental experience and liturgy as a hindrance to it. Add to it the American love of consumerism and individualism as well as the American disdain for history, and you can see why the awakening movements in the United States have tended to create schismatic and wildly heterodox churches that foster a Platonic (if not crypto-Gnostic) disdain for the fully sacramental and liturgical life of the church. Given this environment, it is difficult for anyone who cares about creeds, liturgy, and rich theology to give a fair hearing to anything that comes out of the American revivalist scene.

And yet now might be a moment for those in America to reconcile awakening and liturgy. The past three decades have seen a growing number of Evangelicals dissatisfied with Evangelicalism’s shallow Christology, fluffy theology, disembodied ecclesiology, and contempt for the visible created world. Evangelicalism has not responded to the current crisis by all going in one direction, but one avenue for Evangelicals to express their dissent has been to join the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Anglican Church. They have recovered creedal orthodoxy and liturgical sensibilities, but usually at the cost of a Reformation understanding of justification. Lutherans—especially confessional Lutherans—are such a tiny percentage of American Christianity that few Evangelicals recognize it as an option, especially since Evangelicals think that Lutherans are Zwinglian in their theology and liturgical style.

But what if a person could be both an heir to the broad catholic tradition (including the liturgy) and to the Reformation recovery of the gospel (with its emphasis on justification by grace through faith)? What if one could see that the liturgy is not the enemy of genuine spiritual awakening and vice versa, but that the one leads to the other? In other words, what if we could be good Lutherans and recognize that both liturgy and awakening are part of our apostolic inheritance and shall be ours until our Lord returns? That is the question Bishop Giertz in effect addressed in his brief monograph, “Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening.”

In the next post I’ll look at some specific things that Bishop Giertz had to say about awakening and liturgy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Why Chiasms and Inversions?

Biblical scholars are increasingly aware of rhetorical patterns to be found in the Scriptures. Although the patterns were often discussed by grammarians and rhetoricians in antiquity, biblical commentators often ignored them until the past several decades. If one were to consult most commentaries written after the time of the Reformation, one would see that they tend to outline the argument of a book of the Bible using headings with Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.), interspersed with letters (A, B, C, etc.), which in turn are interspersed with Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). In short, the books of the Bible are made to look like college freshman essays in their organization. However, in the past half century or so, there has been a quiet revolution that recognizes various structures that would make literary works easier for the listener to understand. While books for the past few centuries have been written primarily with the eyes of the reader in mind, older books were written primarily with the ears of the listener in mind, since it was common for books to be read aloud by a literate person to several illiterate ones. Books written in such a milieu would be unlikely to employ a complicated outline that required eyes to see the pattern. Instead, they used such patterns as parallelisms and inversions.

The latter is often erroneously called a chiasm, which properly refers to words that are organized in an ABBA pattern, where the first and last words are similar and those in the middle are similar to each other. Inversion is a chiastic pattern spread over several phrases or sentences rather than merely words, and inversion can become quite complicated, having any number of component parts, such as ABCDCBA. Ken Bailey, among others, has outlined the inversion structure found in many of the parables and indeed in the arrangement of larger passages such as Luke’s Journey Narrative (Luke 9:51-19:48).

But why should ancient authors have used inversions? Isn’t one structure as good as another? Consider the following example Ken Bailey gives of a modern conversation between two teenagers or young adults (Poet and Peasant, page 50):

            A: Are you coming to the party?
            B: Can I bring a friend?
            A: Boy or girl?
            B: What difference does it make?
            A: It is a matter of balance.
            B: Girl.
            A: OK.
            B: I’ll be there.

At first glance it appears as an ordinary, free flowing conversation between two people. But Bailey argues that there is a chiastic structure to this dialogue, as he demonstrates (loc. cit.):

            A   Are you coming to the party?
                        B   Can I bring a friend?
                                    C   Boy or girl?
                                                D   What difference does it make?
                                                D’   It is a matter of balance.
                                    C’   Girl.
                        B’   OK.
            A’   I’ll be there.

Bailey comments: “A fascinating number of such illustrations have come to my attention and demonstrate that the use of the inversion principle is relatively universal and subconscious….Usually there is a ‘point of turning’ past the center of the structure. The second half is not redundant. Rather it introduces some crucial new element that resolves or completes the first half.” Thus, if an author uses this kind of a structure (and builds rather elaborate inversion structures—more so than would be ordinarily used in common speech), it is because this is the way that people often talk and think. As the medieval thinkers said, ars est artem celare, very loosely translated as “great art always looks as if no art were involved.”

Bailey, however, gives no explanation as to why people should talk or think in this way. But it makes sense if you think about it. In the example that he cites, each question spurs on another question until finally four questions have been asked. In each instance the individual cannot answer the previous question until a question of his own has been answered. The first boy wants to know if the second boy is coming to a party, but the second boy has to know if he can bring a friend. But the first boy doesn’t want to give a carte blanche invitation, and the second boy doesn’t understand why his friend is being so nosey. Once the second boy understands the first boy’s concern for balance, he can explain whom he is considering inviting. That allows the first boy to give his permission for the additional guest to come, which in turn prompts the second boy to come, since he won’t be there by himself.

It is all rather like taking some mechanical gadget (such as a carburetor) apart to fix something that is the inside. First, you remove the housing, then some of the more exterior parts, and finally get to the heart of the problem. Then you put it back together in reverse order, but with a twist: now the device is working as it should. In the same way, the first part of an inversion breaks away the outer layers of the problem one by one until we get at the heart of that matter. Once the issue has been resolved, we can add the layers again, but now we see them no longer as the obstacles to our getting the problem fixed, but rather manifestations of the correction that has been made. Thus, as long as there are problems to be solved, inversions will be a natural way to present material.