Is it Time to Listen to Jeremiah?

When Israel was consistently unfaithful to her God, He sent prophet after prophet warning of judgment. Finally, He sent Jeremiah.

Jeremiah has always been one of my favorite Biblical personalities because he is of that more Romantic temperament that weeps over bad news but stays the course. But he was seen by his people as unpatriotic.

I can’t help but think of Jeremiah when I think of my country, which I love. Prior to 9/11 it was common to hear Jeremiads in the evangelical press about God’s coming judgment on America for her many sins.

Her abortion sacrifices were compared to the children offered to Moloch. Her homosexuality was compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. And so on.

Some things that were talked about less: her godless striving for a centralized State (cf. God’s warnings to Israel when they wanted a king and his response to David for numbering the people) and her murderous foreign policy.

Our fear of the Soviet Union after WWII convinced us that we had to have the most powerful military the world had ever seen with the most elaborate spy network ever imagined. Maybe we did.

But we compromised our integrity in so many ways and in so many places that we are no longer the same kind of nation. We meddle in affairs wherever we come up with any national security excuse to do so.

We are fundamentally a frightened nation who cannot trust in God to keep us safe and secure and we are making an awful mess of it ourselves. On the right, this fear seems to have become the test for whether one is patriotic.

On the left, it’s a resisted necessity – protested on the streets but lived on in the family room.

Many things have eaten the heart out of our country. The one thing that is big enough to bring us down is our foreign activity.

What will happen next? Nobody, especially not the CIA, knows. Except this: having sown the wind, we are reaping the whirlwind.

I said before that prior to 9/11 we heard plenty of Jeremiads. Once, after 9/11, I was in a meeting where America’s foreign policies came up for discussion. I pointed out that it may be that God is sending judgment.

The room was all Christians. The response was icy. I was surprised. It seems obvious to me that we are a nation confused. It seems obvious to me that we have lost our way.

But now that the consequences about which my parents warned me since I was a child might be actualizing, it’s unpatriotic to suggest that God might be letting His statutes and counsels and law play out.

Yes, it’s depressing. It’s an awful thing watching a loved one die. But I don’t see us making it if the household of God doesn’t stop preaching about the sins of the world and start repenting of her own sins.

I worship a God of mercy and grace, but I must say, we’ve had so many chances already. Why would we repent?

Anyway, all this was triggered when I started reflecting on this article, and I think in political terms he’s probably right. Putting an end to the American Empire is the only way the American Republic can thrive in the coming century.

Take a look. Like Daniel, let us repent for the sins of our people, but first, let us repent for our own sins.

Waves of Joy

I wish I had seen this before Easter (Pascha as most of the non-Germanic people’s call it), but this marvel of a video shows waves of joy in a way few things can.

H/T to Father Stephen, where you can read a translation. Here’s a clue: the refrain means “Christ is risen and brings joy.”

Love Never Abdicates

We 20th century Naughts share a common error when we think.  We tend, against our better judgment and against our natures, to look at the universe and all that is in it – material or immaterial – scientifically, as though life were one big laboratory.

However, the cosmos is not a great scientific experiment nor can we live wise, successful, or prudent lives on that basis. Life is an art, not an experiment, and the differences are far-reaching.

So are the similarities. For example, both involve uncertainty and what we might loosely call experiments. The artist does not approach her work with complete certainty about where the next brush stroke belongs, how the next line should scan, or when the orchestra should reach the crescendo. She experiments.

The difference between art and science is not whether the artist and the scientist experiment, but how they judge the success of the experiment, which implies further that each has a different purpose for their experiments.

The artist judges by fitness – by whether the stroke, line, or note harmonize with the elements and idea of the specific work of art. The artist is formal.

The scientist judges by fitness as well, but his fitness carries a much narrower, a more precise (perhaps) purpose. Does the information gathered fit the hypothesis? The scientist is, at least in an ideal way, factual.

It’s ironic when you think about how little practical information can be gained through the so-called scientific method. No doubt, if we think about the discoveries made by scientists over the last 800 years, we are astonished. And some of those discoveries are so immensely powerful that they seem to be quite practical.

Nor do I want to diminish the use that has been made of many of these discoveries. But the scientific discoveries are only practical, that is to say, they only benefit people, when they are applied in an ethical context. When scientists function within a power context (in other words, when scientistific research is driven by political ends and the drives of businesses whose highest function is to make money), the results are quite mixed.

They are only beneficial to the people who benefit from them. And people only benefit from them when they are brought into an artistic framework.

I have to leave this point somewhat unfinished and no doubt provocative (please don’t make me say anything I didn’t say when you attack me – I am in no way opposed to science; I love it and I yearn to see it restored to its rightful place) because it isn’t what I meant to write about.

What I meant to write about is how I and virtually everybody I know is trained from early childhood to think in the scientific mode while the artistic mode atrophies.

We are trained to assume that things should be assessed quantitatively instead of formally.

We tend to believe what is scientifically compelling, and dismiss those elements of being that stand outside the reachof the sciences as either unimportant or as merely personal.

To read the news web sites, one would think that we don’t know of any other ways to find truth than through the sciences. Newspapers constantly call on experts, who generally are readers of statistics, often from a particular brand called “social sciences.”

Let me list a few examples of this bias that come easily to one’s mind:

We build our subdivisions (not neighborhoods) on the technical ideas of the civil engineers, not the formal ideas of the artists. Even our architecture tends toward a technical, rather than a formal approach.

Our economy is regulated by people who seem unable to even imagine valid information that stands outside their technical analysis. They do not think about the nature of an economy (which literally means “household customs”), of the household in it, of the soul in the household, etc.

Political science, so-called, is utterly informal. People learn how to scientifically measure and thus to manipulate the masses. The person in that mass does not merit the politician’s personal attention. The symbol embodied in a person, yes, but not the person.

Our inner cities are the results of technical analysis applied to a reality that is fundamentally artistic.

So are our suburbs, our schools, our malls, and even our entertainment, though at least movies and music are unable to completely eliminate the artistic element that makes up their essence.

Even religious life is approached scientifically in America. Consider church growth and even the Emerging church. Progressive, cutting edge, and failing utterly to grasp the nature of the Bride of Christ.

We don’t trust the person who cannot back his case up with the sheen of scientific research, regardless of whether the issue relies on scientific research. We might not even know how an issue could possibly NOT rely on said research.

The sciences are powerful and admirable. They are marvelous servants; it is their nature to serve. But they do not and they cannot tell us what is right and wrong, how things ought to be, what the nature and essence of a thing is, whether and how we should use the power they give us, or the forms of beauty.

They cannot tell us (though they can provide information – they can advise us) how to raise children, how to nourish our souls, how to love our spouses, how to develop our virtues, how to arrange our flowers, which books to read, how to manage our time, how to build our communities, the foundations of sound government, how to play an instrument, whether a song is beautiful, what love is, what truth is, what knowledge is, what goodness is, what justice is, what freedom is, or, for that matter, what anything IS.

Happily humans are not finally scientific by nature. We include a scientific impulse in our nature, but we are artists, formalists, creators by nature. Even the great scientists approached science like an art, and that is because underlying and mastering the scientific method is a deeper commitment to the arts of truth and knowledge. When that commitment is lost, the sciences become tyrannical and tyrants use the sciences for their ends.

This post is an appeal to get back to nature. To stop surrendering our common sense to the latest research. To stop believing that the misapplication of the methods of the natural sciences can save us. Only love can save us. Only beauty can save us. Only truth can save us. Only the Good can save us.

And, while each of these rejoices in the work of the natural sciences, none would ever bow their knee to them. Love never abdicates.

Christmas is about suffering

When St. Paul was nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage and sat in a Roman prison awaiting word on his fate, he wrote one last letter to a young man whom he had mentored and given authority over the church in Ephesus.

The mother of our Lord, Mary, had only recently ended her own earthly journey in this very city. It would seem that Timothy, St. Paul’s understudy, would have known her well and honored her.

St. Paul was about to die and he knew it. So he wrote to Timothy and it is one of the most intimate epistles in the Bible and from the ancient world.

Here is some of what he said:

God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share with me in the sufferings for the gospel according to the power of God,

who has saved us and called us with a holy calling,

not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began,

but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,

to which I was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles.

For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed,

for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.

Flowing through all these words is the theme of the first verse I quoted: fear leads to an unsound mind. And nothing leads to more fear and therefore unsoundness of mind than the fear of death and its corrollary, the fear of suffering.

I have a hard time believing St. Paul enjoyed suffering. That masochistic mindset is itself an over-reaction to the fear of suffering and death and arises from an infirm mind. But he was certainly no stranger to suffering.

Read I and II Corinthians where he describes his sleepless nights, his hunger, his scourgings, and even his anxieties.

If he had enjoyed all this suffering, it would not have been suffering.

But he endured it – and he endured it with a spirit “of power of love and of a sound mind.” 

How can this be? Verse 12 begins with the words, “For this reason I also suffer these things, nevertheless I am not ashamed.” So maybe we should use the cue “For this reason” and find out what reason he is talking about.

The previous verse tell us that he was appointed a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of the Gentiles. So perhaps that is why he suffers without shame. It’s his job.

Only, verse 11 is not a complete thought. It begins with the prepositional phrase “To which,” and the second word in that phrase is a pronoun.

As you well know,a pronoun stands in for a noun, so if we are going to understand St. Paul’s strength, we are going to have to go back further and see what the “To which” is to-whiching.

End of verse 10: The gospel.

He was appointed an apostle of the gospel. So what’s the gospel.

Of course, everybody knows the answer to that, so at this point we can stop our exegesis and practice some eisegesis (we can switch from drawing meaning out of the text to reading meaning into it).

But wait. I’m not comfortable doing that, so, if you don’t mind, I’m going to continue to reverse engineer this passage and see what led Paul to mention the gospel.

The previous clause says, “who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Now we’re getting to it!

Now we have something that we’ll have to think about for a long, long time before we can pretend to understand it. It’s a phrase that challenges some of our expectations and assumptions.

Here is St. Paul, in prison, suffering, even dying day by day, having been betrayed and forsaken even by friends, having watched Stephen lose his life (i.e. experience death) and also having known many, many Christians who died, some of whom, I would presume, he himself arrested. Yet here he says “who has abolished death.”

Does he mean anything by this?

Obviously he does, but he doesn’t explain it here. He expects Timothy either to know what he means or to take the trouble to think about it.

Then he goes on to say that whoever abolished death also “brought life and immortality to light.” Now, if he brought life to light, the implication is that previously it was hidden in darkness. Prior to this “who,” people didn’t actually know what life and immortality were. Now, through the gospel, this “who” has brought them to light – has made them, pardon the awkward word, perceivable.

Maybe that gives us a clue about what abolishing death involved. Maybe death was in the dark too. In other words, maybe before “who” came, people didn’t understand either death or life.

Read the Iliad and the Odyssey and you sure get that impression. Achilles was driven by the quest for glory, honor, and immortality. 

But he pursued them like a blind squirrel after a nut. He had power, of a sort, but he lacked love and he certainly did not have a sound mind. I would argue that he was driven by a spirit of fear.

Not Paul. Notice, there is no unease in his letter. There is no hyperness or over-reaction. He doesn’t just say positive things to himself to keep his spirits up. He knows whom he has believed!

And whom he has believed he does not hide from us. The previous clause says this:

But has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ

Our Savior, Jesus Christ. I’d be surprised if you’re surprised here, but don’t let the identification slide past you because it was so obvious. Our savior, Jesus Christ is the one who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.

That’s not really something the importance of which you can minimize.

Many years ago I wrote some truly horrible poems. About 30 or 40 of them. I showed them a few years later to a college professor friend of mine who encouraged me to focus on the sciences.

What came out of our tear stained brawl was that I hadn’t said anything new in my poems. The poems were an exercise in self-indulgence or maybe a little experiment to see if I could use the form, but they didn’t merit being read by anybody else.

 I hadn’t shed any light on the things I was writing about.

A worthy poem is one that reveals truth about something, leads us to better perceive some reality. A good poem will enable us to perceive something good. A great poem will enlighten us to see something great.

The greatest poems will enable us to see the greatest things – the hardest things to see.

The greatest of all poems is “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ” because it brought to light the greatest of all things: life and immortality.

To grasp what this implies, you need to read back one more verse:

Who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed…

Not only did Christ Jesus bring life and immortality to light, but he also, by appearing, revealed God’s “purpose and grace which was given us in Christ Jesus.”

The magic words are “in Christ Jesus.” To St. Paul everything is in Christ Jesus. Nothing outside of Christ Jesus is worth having, but then all things are in Him and all things have been given to those in Him. Especially life and immortality.

Christ is, after all, the resurrection and the life.

But He’s going to change the way you think about life and immortality – and death. Because what Paul is saying implies that we have been thinking about them all wrong until Christ came.

I have to ask: if you are a Christian, do you think differently about life and death than you would if you were not a Christian?

If you are not a Christian, do you feel like you have any comprehension of what life and immortality are?

This is a Christmas post, you see.

A real Christmas post. Kitschless. No sentimentality.

When Jesus lay in the womb of His blessed mother, she became the burning bush that was not consumed. God inhabited her womb. That was how life came to us.

She gave birth to Him in a cave and laid Him in a manger. It was unpleasant, cold at night, shameful.

She suffered so much that Simeon told her that a sword would pierce through her soul.

But she had no spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of a sound mind.

Christmas has become our national holiday because we can avoid the blood of Easter. It’s sentimentalized because a bloodless baby and a very clean mother are easy to keep out of your heart. kitsch dominates because too few dare raise it even to the level of Camp.

While I have to stop, I have much more to say about this: Christmas is what it is because the American Christian wants his religion without pain.

I can relate to that.

Thanks for reading such a long post. Time to wake up.

Classical Education in Corinth (I)

The Corinthian church of the first century has rather a bad reputation, but I wonder if people thought about her the same way back then.

Don’t get me wrong; they were a mess. In fact, the first Christian text we have from the Christian era that is not included in the Bible is a letter from Clement, the bishop of Rome, who wrote to them in something like 95 or 96 AD for the same sort of divisiveness Paul wrote to them about in something like 55 AD.

But those are epistles written by very holy people who occupy significant leadership positions in the church. I wonder what the popular opinions about them would have been. I suspect they were different from Paul’s.

I develop that hypothesis because of the type of city Corinth was and because of the problems Paul has to deal with.

We say, of course, that Corinth was an immoral city, and so it was. That’s our primary focus. In a way, I would compare it to a modern Las Vegas or New York.

But it wasn’t only known for its immorality. Corinth had been a very ancient Greek city. Oedipus, of Oedipus Rex fame, had been brought up there. The city sat on the cross roads of Hellene (what we call Greece). To the north was Macedonia and northern Greece. To the south, Athens, Sparta, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

But Corinth sat on an Isthmus, which meant 1. that to pass between northern and southern Greece, you had to go past Corinth, and 2. that it sat on the shortest route between east (Asia Minor and the Aegean or even Athens) and west (Italy).

The Greeks irritated the Romans, so in 146 a Roman general, Mummius, sacked Corinth, virtually completely destroying it and bringing its treasures to Rome.

Then sometime around 65 BC, Julius Caesar both rebuilt the city and had a canal cut through from west to east. Little time was wasted rebuilding Corinth into a trade center and a leader in Hellenistic culture, especially under its Roman expression.

It’s pretty obvious from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians that the leaders of Corinth, or at least a significant portion of them, had been classically educated. So given that they were rich, an Imperial city, founded by Julius Caesar, ruled by people with a fine education, a cultural center of sorts, I conclude that most people probably thought very highly of this successful Corinthian church.

I know we would today if such a church were in the news.

To repeat, at least some of the church leaders were classically educated. For one things, virtually everybody in leadership was so educated in those days. But Paul also indicates as much a number of different ways, some direct and some more oblique.

The whole passage from 1:17-2:5 is an extended critique of the confidence the Corinthians place in the “wisdom of words.”

The Christian classical school has to take this critique very seriously. After all, we teach our students logic and debate (i.e. to become “the disputer of this age”) and rhetoric (i.e. the wisdom of words), while preparing them for leadership (even though “not many mighty, not many noble, are called”).

You can’t just dismiss these words and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to us. That was pagan Corinth.”

No, these verses apply very explicitly to the Christian school – more, I think, to us, than to anybody else today.

For this reason, I have been meditating on these verses, indeed, on the whole book, off and on for years. Over the past couple weeks, some important matters have become very clear to me, so I plan on writing as often as I am able about it.

My reflections revolve around that ancient question of Tertullian (and every other Christian who has ever lived and thought): What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem with Athens?

In other words, what is the relationship between the things taught us by the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition and the things discovered by people outside the church? What should we read and study? Should we read and study at all? Why?

One thing I will do my best to avoid, and that is to argue this very practical matter in the abstract. In other words, I’m not going to put an idea about Christian thought up against an idea about classical or secular (or whatever) thought.

I don’t think we’d learn much that way, because this isn’t a theoretical matter. It’s got everything to do with specific decisions by specific people about specific questions and decisions.

So by looking at I Corinthians in this light (and I believe Paul wrote this epistle with this question very much in mind, as I hope to demonstrate while I write), we can examine it not as a theoretical proposition, but as a practical matter we need to understand, apply, and internalize.

I haven’t worked out the details of my strategy yet, but my intent is to

  1. Take this very seriously
  2. Pursue wisdom with an eager and an open heart
  3. Approach the text synthetically (as a whole) instead of analytically. In other words, I want to see how the whole text deals with these questions, not exegete verses grammatically. I don’t have as much confidence in grammatical approaches to the scriptures as I used to, so while I will gladly submit to what grammar demands of me, I won’t expect it to reveal the hidden wisdom of God.
  4. Listen to what others have to contribute.

I have no idea whatsoever about the timeline for this pursuit. I have no specific goal except to ponder the question in the pages of Corinth. The less I have to worry about peripheral matters, the more I’ll be able to focus on this.

In any case, I do hope you’ll join me!

When Martyrs Fail

Today the church commemorates a martyr from third century Antioch named Nicepheros. He was a layman who was close friends with a priest named Saprikios, and it is the story of Saprikios that grips me.

It seems that these two had a falling out at one time and stopped speaking with each other. Hmm. I guess that happened in the early church too!

After a while, Nicephoros tried to reconcile with Saprikios, but the priest would not accept his overtures. Here is where it gets interesting.

Saprikios was then arrested during one of the persecutions and was sentenced to die. On his way to the execution, Nicephoros once again begged Saprikios to forgive him, but Saprikios’  heart was hardened against Nicephoros. “Seeing this,” the calendar tells us, “God took away his martyr’s crown.” Saprikios denied Christ.

He “escaped” execution, which is to say, he lost the crown of glory that God had offered him. Nicephoros pleaded with Saprikios not to deny the faith, but, seeing his hardness, Nicephoros offered himself in place of Saprikios. He was executed and was given the crown of life.

I’m sure this story will impact you according to your own needs and questions, but what leapt off the page to me was how Saprikios denied Christ twice: once by refusing to forgive his friend, and another time, formally. God is merciful, so it is possible for a Christian to live selfishly and without mercy and then to repent when confronted by death. But there are no guarantees. If we want to be faithful to our Lord in death, then we must be faithful to Him in life.

That may explain why the author to the Hebrews appealed to his readers at 12:14:

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

1901 – The Cat Escapes the Bag

From Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (essential reading for anybody who wants to understand American education – and that must include teachers! Doesn’t it?):

In 1901, sociologist Edward A. Ross… explained that free public schooling was “an engine of soical control.” It was the job of schools, he wrote, “to collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading-board…. And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster in the social economy is just beginning.” Ward had imagined that the purpose of schooling was to redistribute knowledge, believing as he did that “the lower classes of society are the intellectual equals of the upper classes.”

Ross labored under no such illusions.  He saw the schools as “an economical system of police.” He knew that to acknowledge as much “shocks the public and chills teachers. But now and then the cat is let out of the bag.” Ross predicted that the disestablishment of religion would be followed by the establishment of the school as the guarantor of social order….

The rise of educational sociology and the success of the industrial education movement radically changed public discussion of educational goals… Within only a few years, dicussions among educators about how to teach all children teh great ideas and art of the ages faded away, seeming slightly antique, and were replaced by discussions of social efficiency. 

Ravitch, 80,81

In preparation for my opening talk at the conference next week, I’ve been reviewing the slime that is American educational history at the turn of the previous century. One sees tremendous idealism and even well-meaning attempts at reform. But at its core, its very foundation, is contempt for the local community, contempt for tradition, contempt for religion, radical materialism expressing itself in its blind and unthinking, uncritical acceptance of every Darwinian fad the Herbert Spencers and G. Stanley Halls can come up with as well as the listless, heartless sell-out to the commerical interests of the time.

I do hope you can attend the conference and hear either a really bad joke or a terrible, terrible horror story.