Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 5:00 PM
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what we have for you to read:
Over at Postmodern Conservative, Carl Scott takes a dim view of Marco Rubio, and Peter Lawler expands on the Burke–Strauss conference.
What Peter Leithart is reading about: the postmodern Prometheus, Calvin and Zwingli, Luther and Zwingli, Luther and Zwingli and the Eucharist, libertines, Fiddler on the Roof, glamour, skepticism, potlucks, Mandela, the development of doctrine, the objectivity of the sacraments, Galatians, and justification.
Dr. Boli brings us bumper stickers, a new installment of the Illustrated Edition, and an advertisement. He also gave an interview as the fictional Christopher Bailey, and is giving away a free copy of his book.
Here at First Thoughts, Matthew Schmitz reminds us that Xmas has a distinguished history, Philip Cary thought about otherness and logos, Mark Movsesian talked yoga and the First Amendment, Carl R. Trueman on being there, Dale M. Coulter writes on Advent and jazz, Collin Garbarino wonders what Mark Driscoll is doing, and Douglas Farrow responds to Stephen Webb’s criticism of his book. Finally, R. R. Reno remembers Edward Oakes.
On the Square today (and yesterday), Thomas G. Guarino also remembers Edward T. Oakes, William Doino Jr. reviewed Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch (alternate take here), Stephen Webb criticized Douglas Farrow’s Ascension Theology, and Patrick Toner took on a new biography of Norman Rockwell.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 11:02 AM
Stephen Webb objects to what he describes as my “apophatic” view of the ascension. His objection is that I mishandle the continuity–discontinuity dialectic by denying spatiality or “real place” to the ascended Lord. He might just as well have said that I deny “real time” to Him. I do no such thing. Rather I qualify space and spatiality, time and temporality, and matter and materiality in just the same way: it is absolutely real, but the element of discontinuity that results from its transformation and perfection in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ forbids us from supposing that we are capable of plotting its trajectory or precise characteristics on the maps of our own provisional experience of reality.
It is not for nothing that I conclude the book by referring even the great Dante back to the final chapter of Against the Heresies. Yet Webb seems to worry that my own course correction as regards St. Augustine has led me unwittingly out of the Irenaean camp into the very camp—that of Origenist eschatology—that I have spent nearly two decades resisting. This worry is groundless. I stand, however, by what I wrote, which my friend has quoted too briefly:
Here, in answer to the criticism earlier leveled at Augustine, it is also right to notice what he says in On the Trinity. In showing how Christ’s death and resurrection address ‘this double death of ours’ (that is, the death of the body and of the soul) he points out that ‘both in death and in resurrection, his body served as the sacrament of our inner man and as the model of our outer man, by a kind of curative accord or symmetry.’ The noli me tangere of John 20:17 is no warning that his body is now to be dispensed with, either literally or for faith. Rather it is a warning ‘not to have materialistic thoughts about Christ,’ that is, about his soul or his body. And that means, inter alia, to recognize that in our own resurrection ‘he will transfigure the body of our lowliness to match the body of his glory’. (p. 39)
While I’m at it, permit me to provide readers with the full passage from which Webb draws the mistaken conclusion that I think there was “no actual movement” entailed in the ascension, and no place for Jesus to go to:
Thus far, then, with Pearson’s ‘true and local translation’. In the ascension Jesus really is relocated or given a new place, for it belongs to God’s creatures to have and to make and to be in a place. But how exactly shall we understand this relocation, if not as Pearson does? Where is the Father’s house? Where is God’s right hand? These questions are not altogether easy, and immediately put in doubt our second and more literal sense of the word ‘place’ or ‘placed’. Not because modern cosmology recognizes no such place, but because, as John of Damascus says, ‘we do not hold that the right hand of the Father is an actual place’. On the other hand, in going to this place which is not a place, Jesus (as the Damascene makes clear) remains who and what he is, a specific human creature to whom God affords time and space and whose bodily return we await. He must, then, have a place. Indeed, any suggestion that he does not have a place can only be regarded as a form of Marcionism, for it posits a kingdom that has little or nothing in common with the kingdom the prophets taught Israel to long for. (p. 45)
I cannot quite tell what Webb presently thinks of that quasi-gnostic wretch, Teilhard, whom I showed in both books—more thoroughly in Ascension and Ecclesia but just as forcefully in Ascension Theology—to embody in modernity the very features of Origenist thought that Augustine and the conciliar Fathers rightly condemned, but there is no need to pursue that. I want only to urge closer attention to the latter book’s eucharistic theology (chapters 5–6), for no attempt to address the problem of continuity and discontinuity can evade the challenges that appear there.
Oh, yes: Might I suggest also that closer attention be paid to the book’s artwork, a medium not forbidden but theologically endorsed and cherished?
Artist: Sin Yông-hun
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 9:31 AM
Mark Driscoll has been living with accusations of plagiarism for the last three weeks. A radio host spotted some suspicious passages in his latest book and asked him to make sure they were properly credited in future editions. Then she found some cut-and-paste passages in another of his works. (Christianity Today has a blow-by-blow account of the controversy.)
What has been Driscoll’s reaction to these allegations? Well, not much of anything. In the initial interview, he says that he’ll look into it, but he takes an aggressive tone and accuses the interviewer of having the wrong spirit. Then, silence.
Yesterday, InterVarsity Press, who published one of the books that Driscoll plagiarized, voiced a complaint. Mars Hill Church quietly removed the offending material from their website and replaced it with this message:
In 2009, Pastor Mark preached through 1 & 2 Peter in a sermon series called Trial. To help our small groups, a team of people including a research assistant, put together a free study guide that was produced in-house and was never sold. About 5 years later it was brought to our attention that it contained some citation errors. We have discovered that during the editing process, content from other published sources were mistaken for research notes. These sentences were adapted instead of quoted directly. We are grateful this was brought to our attention, and we have removed that document from our website to correct the mistake. Additionally, we are examining all of our similar content as a precautionary measure.
I’ve been disappointed with how Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church have handled this issue. A few years back, Lisa B. Marshall wrote a helpful post about handling a media crisis. This affair could have been a non-issue if Driscoll had followed this common sense approach. Let’s look at this situation in light of her advice.
1. “Be first and fast.” When confronted with an awkward situation, you need to control the narrative. It’s been three weeks, and we’ve heard nothing from Driscoll on this matter.
2. “Be honest.” We haven’t heard from Driscoll yet, but the message posted on the Mars Hill website fails this test. They never admit the problem. They try to explain away the plagiarism. They try to mitigate its seriousness by claiming that the material was never sold, a claim that Jonathan Merritt notes is untrue. Let me add that lack of financial gain in no way excuses plagiarism. Plagiarism is about the credit.
3. “Be responsible.” Lisa B. Marshall writes, “Apologize for errors. If you were wrong, say you were wrong. If you or your company caused injury, apologize sincerely. This is the time to be human, not professional.” Neither Driscoll nor Mars Hill Church has done this. Moreover, they throw an unnamed research assistant under the bus. The study guide said, “Introduction by Pastor Mark Driscoll.” He put his name on it. He’s responsible for it. He needs to apologize. Sincerely.
Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church created this media crisis. Things would have been different if Driscoll had managed some humility during the initial interview. (I know Janet Mefferd badgered him, but from a public-relations standpoint he should have kept his cool.) After the interview he should have issued a statement. He should have apologized for sloppiness and said that he would do better in the future. It might have ended there. It certainly would have robbed his critics of the power to shape the narrative.
But he didn’t do those things. Time and time again we see politicians, celebrities, and athletes botch media crises. Unfortunately, Christians usually don’t do much better. This is ironic since Marshall’s rules for dealing with a media crisis have much in common with Christianity’s ideas about confession and repentance. Shouldn’t Christians of all people be getting this right?
I’ve seen this situation play out too many times. When faced with a crisis, Christians batten down the hatches, circle the wagons, and stick their heads in the sand. Local churches and national denominations hide from scrutiny. Christian colleges avoid commenting on theological, financial, or ethical problems until too late. Now we can add the Christian publishing industry to our list of Christian institutions that want to ignore crises. We need more transparency in our Christian institutions. If we really have truth and light on our side, why do our institutions hide so much? Christians ought to be the most talkative and forthcoming with information. If we are doing things right, then we need to let the world see our witness to truth. If we’re doing things wrong, then we need to openly confess our sin as a witness to truth. Either way, we need transparency.
UPDATE (12/10/13, 3:30 pm):
Warren Throckmorton posted a link to the research notes that Mars Hill used in preparing their study guide. The notes in question are bracketed in quotation marks and followed by a footnote. Driscoll must not have noticed as he prepared the introduction. It’s obvious that Driscoll used this research assistant as a ghostwriter, most likely without the research assistant’s knowledge. It happens. People get sloppy, but he should have owned up to it from the beginning.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 9:00 AM
A Heschel Master Class
David Wolpe, Tablet
Who Is Donna Tartt?
Mick Brown, Telegraph
Triumph of the Maternalists
Nancy McDermott, Spiked
A Secular Saint?
Erin Wilson, ABC Religion & Ethics
The New Old High Churchmen
Fr. Jonathan, Conciliar Anglican
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 7:05 AM
Advent evokes struggle, the struggle to let in the light and dispel the darkness. Preparing the way of the Lord is not a passive enterprise, but a peregrination to break through the veil with prayers, praises, and lamentations so that the rays of righteousness may peer over the horizon igniting the world in the blaze of divine glory. During this time, Christians cry out in the words of the Psalmist, “To Thee, O LORD, I call; My rock, do not be deaf to me. . . . Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to Thee for help.” They remind themselves of the words of the prophets to fear not and not lose heart, to be patient in the wrestling, for the Christ child who was born in the struggles of birth will return when the birth pangs appear again. And so, we wait, we strive, we struggle to give birth to this gift of heaven in our hearts as we supplicate the Spirit to hover over us. For Tertullian, this means buffeting God with our prayers for God delights in this kind of violence.
One finds hints of this Advent struggle in the Jazz compositions of Charles Mingus, especially those reflecting his worship experiences in the holiness congregation to which his mother took him when he was a boy. Among those “holy rollers” he experienced the uninhibited cries of people, calling out for the deliverer to come. Mingus recalled that the moans, the trances, and the shout outs were part of the ethos. These holiness folks were in a struggle. In his work on Jazz in the sixties, Scott Saul notes that during the hard-bop era of the 1950s, Jazz musicians like Mingus were consciously drawing on the holiness tradition as a source of inspiration.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 5:59 AM
In Genesis the goodness of creation requires what I have called a logic of otherness, in which dualities that could become divisions or antagonisms are united for the good. The basic structure of this logic is: (1) first one, then the other, (2) the one for the good of the other, and (3) the one is not good without the other. It is a logic which, as we shall see, moves us in the course of the biblical narrative from creation to history, from first things to human politics. We need this logic to understand the duality of heaven and earth, as well as male and female. And later we will need it to understand the third great duality of the biblical narrative: Israel and the nations or, in New Testament terms, Jew and Gentile.
The logic of otherness does not fully emerge until there are creatures who speak to one another. So God does not see the creation as “very good” until it includes humanity, the people who can hear his word and even speak it to one another. Over other creatures he can speak the word of blessing, “Be fruitful and multiply,” but to the human creation he first says “you” (in the plural, Gen. 1:29).
It is characteristic of the logic of otherness that this “you” first appears at the receiving end of a gift: “I have given you . . . food” (Gen. 1:29). The food brought forth from the earth is a gift from heaven, as every farmer knows who watches the sky for sun and rain. But it is a gift that only becomes explicit when God says he is giving it, speaking to the creatures he made in his image and likeness. And only in addressing them does he also speak of giving food to beasts and birds and everything that creeps on the earth (Gen. 1:30). Indeed, in the Hebrew he doesn’t even repeat the verb “give.” It is all one and the same gift: The animals get their food as he gives food to those who can hear his word and can offer him in return the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, functioning as priests on behalf of the whole creation. The gift comes down from heaven, the sacrifice rises from the earth, and all is good.
Indeed, it is at this point that God sees it all as “very good” (1:31). As before, “good” here means completed, perfected, all done. In the logic of otherness we have the one and the other, the one giving and other receiving. But the goodness of creation is not fully completed—not “very good”—until the earth includes the other who can return a word of thanks to the one who gives from heaven. And so we do not hear of animals being given their food until there are human beings in creation to have dominion over them (1:26), to be the representatives of earth receiving good things from heaven.
What makes the human creation different from the rest of the animals in earth and sea and sky is that they are the ones who speak and hear. As the classical tradition would put it, they are “the animal with logos,” which is to say: the living thing with the word, able to speak, having language and therefore reason. The phrase is often translated, “rational animal,” for logos can mean “reason” as well as “word.” The church fathers would read of humanity made in the image of God and think: Yes, we all bear the image of the divine Logos that was in the beginning, who in due time became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:1, 1:14).
But it takes a long story to get us from creation in the image of the Logos to the Logos made flesh. The next step is when male and female actually speak to one another, which is the unspoken event around which the story in Genesis 2 and 3 revolves. I call it an unspoken event because, in one of those resounding gaps that (as Meier Sternberg has shown in his Poetics of Biblical Narrative) are characteristic of the artistry of biblical narrative, we learn that the man listened to the voice of his wife, but we are not told what she said (Gen. 3:17).
What we do know is that male and female are not the same afterwards. Precisely as the one speaks and the other hears, the animal with logos has become the animal that disobeys the word of God. The completion of the good creation is about to become a very long story.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013, 4:04 AM
That the language of love has become utterly sentimentalized in our society is a commonplace. Once it was a hardheaded, self-sacrificial, outward looking concept which looked to the well-being and needs of others. Now it often means little more than that which makes me feel good or brings personal satisfaction. But love is not the only word that has been sentimentalized to the point of meaninglessness.
Last week I was watching a television interview of a man who had left his young wife and three year old daughter in New Jersey to ‘shack up’ (to use the English idiom) with a woman in Washington state. While he is still in the U.S.A., that places him almost as far from his wife and child as I am from a decent pint of Old Bob at The Lamb, the pub I frequent on return visits to my home village back in Blighty. The interviewer asked him if he felt guilty about abandoning his family. His answer was a fascinating example of linguistic self-deception and, indeed, of the way such self-deception has been made so plausible in our sentimentalized, self-oriented culture: ‘No,’ he said, ‘After all, I am still always there for my daughter.’
Still ‘always there’? In what sense? This man has decided that his own sexual and emotional needs mean that, whatever obligations he may have to his wife and daughter are to be subordinated to his own sexual and emotional fulfillment. He might continue to use the language of presence, but what does he mean by it? He certainly does not mean that he will be there to drive the child to ballet classes, or to Little League, or to the Emergency Room when needed. He will not be there to attend parent-teacher conferences, to tuck her into bed at night, to discuss with his wife in the context of a committed marriage what educational decisions should be made for the child. He will not be there to speak face to face with her when she is hurt or feeling lonely or seeking advice or reassurance. He will not be there to smile when she hands him her first piece of art work from her first day at school. In short, he should really have said that he was actually now absent for the child in almost every way which really counts.
But he used language that claimed continuing presence; and the interviewer nodded sagely and moved on to the next question. His statement—utterly meaningless, if not a complete contradiction of reality—was yet deemed plausible, rational and coherent. Indeed, it would seem that presence has apparently become physically little more than occasional availability at the end of a telephone and emotionally nothing more than a sentimental feeling. Linguistic conventions tell us a lot about social realities, and about the human capacity for self-deception, do they not?
There is a joke doing the rounds on the internet at the moment, an icon of Saint Nicholas bearing the legend “I came to give presents to kids and to punch heretics. And I just ran out of presents.” Perhaps a motto for iconic modern attitudes to love and marriage might be: “I came to marriage to be first of all a presence for others and then for my own personal satisfaction. And I just ran out of presence.”
Monday, December 9, 2013, 9:00 AM
Hopkins’ Agony of Spirit
Edward Short, Weekly Standard
Die, Selfish Gene
David Dobbs, Aeon
Handel’s Messiah at the Abyssinian Baptist Church
A Journey Through NYC Religions
The Elements of Eloquence
Christopher Howse, Spectator
An Ode to Calvinism
Mark Tooley, Juicy Ecumenism
Monday, December 9, 2013, 8:18 AM
Indian Schoolchildren Doing Yoga (NYT)
Last summer, I wrote about a constitutional challenge to yoga classes in California public schools. When a school district near San Diego added yoga to its elementary-school gym program, some parents complained. Yoga, they said, is a Hindu discipline, and including it in a compulsory gym class violates the Establishment Clause. A state trial court disagreed, holding that the school district had removed all religious references, so that what remained was simply a stretching class for kids.
It turns out that similar litigation is unfolding across the world in India, the place where yoga originated. But there, the courts appear to be taking a harder line. The plaintiffs in the Indian case want that country’s Supreme Court to order public schools to include yoga in the curriculum. They cite a 2005 study showing that yoga is important for students’ mental and physical health. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet, but has expressed concern about ordering public school students to take yoga classes. Why? Because Indian public schools are officially secular, and yoga is a religious practice. At oral argument this fall, the court said that parents from minority religions—Christianity and Islam, for example—might object to a requirement that their children engage in Hindu exercises at school. The court has asked representatives of the minority religions to appear in the litigation as third parties to state their views.
What explains the different reactions of the American and Indian courts? Much has to do with the different cultural understandings of yoga. Here in the U.S., most people who do yoga don’t think of it as religious. Spiritual, yes, in the sense that it creates a sense of inner peace, but not religious. Oh, people may understand that yoga has Hindu roots and that some elements, like the salutation to the sun god and chanting the word “Om,” have religious meanings. But these aspects of yoga intrude very little on their experience. “Sure, yoga is religious for some,” they might say, “but not for us. Maybe other people think they’re greeting the sun god, and that’s fine. But we’re just stretching.” So when a public school says it has removed the religious elements of yoga and retained the secular, most Americans would find that position plausible.
The difficulty is that yoga, as traditionally understood, doesn’t work that way. In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn’t try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.
Perhaps yoga means one thing in one cultural context but something else in another. You’d have to think, though, that judges in yoga’s home country have a pretty good sense of what the practice is all about. The parents in the California case, who have appealed the trial court’s ruling, might want to have a look at the Indian court’s ultimate decision.
Monday, December 9, 2013, 8:16 AM
In previous posts I have been thinking about striking moments early in Genesis that have to do with male and female—familiar moments with little-noticed features that are striking once you see them. Here is another one: the commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil is addressed to Adam before his wife has been created (Gen. 2:16f). First the word of God comes to the man, and then God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). So why is the man alone the first time God speaks to a human being?
I take this as a clue for understanding another striking moment, which I was concerned with in the previous post: when we first hear of “male and female” in Genesis, it is in connection with the creation of humanity. Why is it that the obvious sexual differentiation among the beasts seems to be passed over? It’s as if “male and female” has not arrived at its full meaning until we come to “the man and his wife” (which is the phrase repeatedly used to designate the first two human beings in Genesis, rather than “Adam and Eve”).
Male and female is the second great duality in creation, after heaven and earth. In each case, the wholeness and perfection of creation requires both elements in the duality—first one then the other, for the good of both. For the one is not good without the other. This is what I want to call the biblical logic of otherness. It is an asymmetrical logic, where the one is not equivalent or interchangeable with the other. The one comes first, then the other. It is asymmetrical, yet it is also reciprocal: the one is for the good of the other, but the same one is not good without the other.
So in the first great duality, heaven is the source of blessings for the earth. Good gifts come from above: rain and sun, and hence seedtime and harvest, without which there would be no life on earth. The energy that makes the plants to grow and thus gives the animals their food descends from the sun. You don’t need modern theories about chlorophyll to see this: Every farmer who watches crops growing as the sun rises higher in the sky each day in the spring knows it. The light of heaven is literally life-giving. Yet God does not see heaven as good without the earth (the striking omission on the second day of creation, which I was concerned with in my first post).
This logic of otherness—first one then the other, the one for the good of the other, the one that is not good without the other—is found again in the duality of sex, male and female, the two who become one flesh, through which the blessing of procreation is fulfilled: “be fruitful and multiply.” Through this blessing God gives his creatures power to bring new beings into being. For only God is the Creator, calling into being those things which are not (Rom. 4:17), yet by the power of his blessing we can be pro-creators, those who carry forth the work of creation by bringing into being new beings like ourselves, in our own image, as Genesis says of Adam’s son (Gen. 5:3). But for that we must have the logic of otherness: male and female, the one and the other who are good for one another.
The logic of otherness only becomes really clear in human sexuality. I take it that is why Genesis does not speak of “male and female” until God creates human beings. It is with the human male and female that the one meets the other as other, not simply fulfilling the generic purpose of procreation “after their kind,” as Genesis puts it. It is in humanity that sexual difference gives us one who confronts the other face to face, the one speaking and the other hearing, both together made in the image of God who speaks and hears.
So God speaks and man hears. But it is not good until the man has a helper fit for him, an other like him who can hear him speak. She will have to hear the word of God from him rather than directly from God. And this is good: for without this speaking and hearing the blessing of male and female is not complete. Human beings can not only speak; they can hear the word of God. And they can not only hear the word of God but speak it to one another. In this speaking and hearing the human creation is perfected, brought to completion as the image of God.
And then comes a third, the serpent, to test how well the man has spoken and the woman has heard. The serpent asks her what God has said, because she has heard it only from her husband. The serpent is probing: How well have the two of them together kept the word of God—and how well will they keep it? At issue is the goodness of creation: whether male and female, the one and the other, shall really be good for one another in their union.
It turns out the story of how creation is perfected in goodness will be delayed, for it has in fact just begun.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 5:33 PM
Fr. Ed Oakes died this morning. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last spring, his friends knew that they’d have to face this day. Still, it’s hard. Death always is.
Ed is best known for his work on Hans Urs von Balthasar. He wrote one of the first comprehensive studies published in English, The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He edited The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar and published many articles about the great Swiss theologian, including some in our pages.
But Ed was much more than a theological scholar—or more accurately, I suppose, he was what a theological scholar should be, which is broadly learned and capable of weighing in on lots of different topics. After all, theology is the queen of the sciences.
And weigh in he did. Ed could write with verve about pretty much anything. Homer, Shakespeare, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot—he had a broad knowledge of literature, as well as music, art, and drama. He read widely in science, history, and politics. And he had strong reactions and articulate opinions, which made him an excellent conversationalist. No doubt that’s one reason he became friends with Richard John Neuhaus, who liked people who actually knew things (Ed has a great memory) and had strong opinions forcefully expressed.
I saw him last month at the Jesuit infirmary at St. Louis University. He was a member of the Missouri province of the Society of Jesus. The cancer was overtaking him. He had to give up his teaching position at Mundelein Seminary and move back into his community to die.
He said leaving Mundelein was a painful ascesis. It meant giving up teaching, writing, students, colleagues, his personal library of books, which meant letting go of his long, productive life. He was dwindling down to a gray, end-of-life infancy: diminishment and dependency brought on by debilitation and decay.
I said nothing. What could I say? Death dissolves pieties. Then, after a few moments had passed, he asked me how things were going at First Things. We bantered as we often had in the past before he tired and I took my leave.
I’ll miss you, Ed. Rest in peace.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 5:07 PM
One of the popular indicators of the supposed war on Christmas is the use of the abbreviation Xmas. The well motivated, if grating, “Don’t take Christ out of Christmas” alludes not so subtly to the abbreviation. The former Anglican bishop of Blackburn, Alan Chesters, advised his clergy against using it. Jane Wyles, editor of the Anglican C Magazine, summed up much Christian sentiment when she criticized the “glib way people substitute Christ with this anonymous ‘X’. It’s all part of the PC picture—Christianity gets squashed into a smaller and smaller corner.”
Others have also declared hostility to the term: Style guides for the Times and the Guardian rule it out. Even our proofreaders have taken up arms in the war against Xmas—the term is absent from this magazine’s pages.
Xmas is, though, a much more venerable abbreviation than many suppose. The X signifies the Greek letter chi, which was traditionally combined with P, or rho, to signify the name of Christ. Constantine instructed his soldiers to scrawl the letters on their shields before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, his victory in which led to the unlikely establishment of a Christian empire. Far from a symbol of secularization, then, Xmas carries echoes of the clash of battle that inaugurated political Christendom.
The abbreviation’s use in English dates back to 1021, when an Anglo-Saxon scribe saved himself space by writing XPmas. The P was dropped but the term soldiered on: Coleridge used Xmas in his letter writing. The wags at Punch pressed it into service as a verb, Xmassing (one imagines the verb would get more use if the WASPs who currently spend their time summering, wintering, and weekending were somewhat more observant).
Nor did Xmas’ religious overtones fade away over the many centuries of its use. Our modern-day Fowler, Bryan A. Garner defends the abbreviation on historical grounds. Poet, translator, and etymologist John Ciardi, cited in Garner’s Modern American Usage, writes that the Christian echoes of Xmas are so strong that “illiterate Jews at Ellis Island refused to sign with an X, instead signing with an O, in Yiddish kikl, little circle.”
Still, there might be something to viewing Xmas as a sign of secularization. The cultural, religious, communal traditions we see as especially embodied by Christmas have been undermined by the rise of commerce and cult of efficiency. The desire to get from point A to B by the shortest possible route, irrespective of the charms of traditional byways, fuels our mania for abbreviation. The hatred for Xmas, then, may stem in part from an innate suspicion of the attempt to render all things ancient and beautiful modern, cheap, and sleek.
Nostalgia, though, is no replacement for history, nor can we attend only to accidental associations while disregarding etymology. That Xmas sounds for a time more commercial than Constantinian is no reason to give up on it use. At one time Xmas may evoke the clang of Roman steel, at another the cash register’s ring, yet no process of secularization has succeeded in preventing it from pointing us to that first and final fact: the song of angel chorus, the lowing ox and braying ass, the naked babe’s cry as his mother swaddles he who would leave his burial clothes behind.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 5:00 PM
Happy Friday! Here’s what you should read before you disappear into the weekend:
At Postmodern Conservative, Peter Lawler is thinking about Strauss and Burke.
Peter Leithart is reading about: Kant on aliens, modernism, loving life, Nelson Mandela, sophiology, and the fall of man.
Dr. Boli had a mournful Repeal Day.
Here at First Thoughts, Philip Cary continues his thoughts on Genesis (joined by Greg Forster here). David Mills mourns the passing of Edward Oakes and provides two views on Pope Francis.
And On the Square today, Peter Leithart writes about the reason for the season, while Menachem Wecker visits an unusual graveyard.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 12:30 PM
New York Events:
Film Screening of “Eggsploitation”
Tuesday, December 10
First Things is showing “Eggsploitation” and will host a Q&A with the director, producer, and writer, Jennifer Lahl. Please join us for a cheese and wine reception at 6:00 p.m., followed by the screening of the film. RSPV here.
Beauty and the Real
Saturday, December 14
The next installment of the “The Art of the Beautiful” lecture series will be given by Alice Ramos of St. John’s University. Thanks to the Catholic Artists Society and the Thomistic Institute for hosting these wonderful lectures. More information here.
The Big Apple from Skin to Core
Wednesday, December 18
Crossroads Cultural Center and Fordam University’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies offer “an evening of poetry, jazz and photographs.” With live performances in a number of media, this free event takes as its inspiration “Poetic Images of New York.”
And in Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Exhibit: Freer’s Bibles
November 16, 2013–February 16, 2014
“This installation showcases . . . antique works—a parchment codex of Deuteronomy and Joshua, and the so-called Washington codex (the third oldest parchment manuscript of the Gospels).” Find out more here.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 12:26 PM
Father Edward Oakes, S.J., distinguished theologian, gifted writer and teacher, generous ecumenist, and our friend, has died, of pancreatic cancer, at 8:00 this morning. The announcement from the Academy of Catholic Theology, of which Father Oakes was president, reports:
Father Oakes entered the Society of Jesus in 1966, and was ordained a priest in 1979. He received his doctorate in theology from Union Theological Seminary in 1987. He taught at New York University, Regis University, and Mundelein Seminary, where he was deeply loved and valued by his colleagues, students, and indeed everyone on the staff as well.
He was a major contributor to the ecumenical magazine First Things on theological and scientific topics, and a longtime close friend of Father Richard John Neuhaus. For close to two decades he was an influential member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He was a founding member of the Academy of Catholic Theology and was elected president of the Academy in May 2013.
A deeply cultured man, Father Oakes enlivened everything of which he was a part by his penetrating intelligence and warm, friendly spirit. He was an esteemed translator of the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar and others. He was the author and editor of important works such as Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar.
To say that Father Oakes will be sorely missed is a profound understatement. Let us pray for his soul as he enters into the infinitely loving communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as an adopted son in Jesus Christ!
Many of us here got to know him through Evangelicals and Catholics Together and his occasional visits to the office. Father Ed was a witty and entertaining guest, the kind who enlivens dinner parties, but also a man of weight and insight, the kind who deepens dinner parties—and then enlivens them again. The enlivening and deepening expressed not just his gifts and personality (both of which were large) but his concern for people (which was also large), that is, his character. He will be missed, on many levels.
We commend him to your prayers.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 11:53 AM
Phillip, thanks for these profound reflections on how Genesis reveals what is distinct about human sexuality. Your central observation that “mutual help and companionship,” rather than reproduction, is what makes human sexuality distinctively human is urgently relevant to our efforts to advocate humane sexuality in the public square. When dealing with the intersection of Christianity with human culture, the central question is almost always “what does it mean to be human?” When dealing with issues of sexuality, then, we should remember that reproduction is only one part—and not the most important part—of the total union of two human beings in marriage.
This is so urgent because the cultural environment is currently structured in such a way that if we don’t make continual efforts to balance our approach, we will be constantly forced into presenting a radically truncated picture of humane sexuality. As the culture has fragmented, political conflict has displaced deeper and more holistic approaches to culture. This has happened across all issues, but perhaps nowhere more obviously than in issues of sexuality. Political conflict, in turn, requires us to focus on the aspect of sexuality most relevant to law and policy—reproduction. As a result, our neighbors constantly hear Christians talking about marriage and sexuality only as a means to reproduction. Naturally and rightly, they cringe with horror when they hear their marriages described in utilitarian terms, as tools for accomplishing a public policy objective, even an objective so noble as providing a better environment for the upbringing of children.
If Christianity is going to present to the culture a picture of humane sexuality that is plausible and appealing—if it is going to present a picture of humane sexuality that is really humane—Christians need to be aware of the danger of constantly reducing the Christian vision of sexuality and marriage to mere reproduction under the pressure of political imperatives.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 10:19 AM
Compare Patrick Deneen on Pope Francis with Adam Shaw on Pope Francis. The titles are similar, the content very different.
Friday, December 6, 2013, 9:00 AM
Holiday Shopping and the Class Divide
Brandon McGinley, Acculturated
Casuistry and Torture
Aaron Taylor, Ethika Poltika
Bursting the Hirshhorn’s Bubble
Bruce Cole, New Criterion
Would Someone Just Shut That Pope Up?
Patrick J. Deneen, American Conservative
How to Make Walking Cool
Wayne Curtis, Smart Set
Friday, December 6, 2013, 6:41 AM
It’s striking—or it should be—that Genesis does not mention “male and female” until it comes to the human creation (1:27). Before that there’s seed bearing fruit and the blessing of procreation, “be fruitful and multiply,” which establishes the sexual reproduction of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. In that sense it’s obvious that male and female are present before the creation of Adam. So why is it first mentioned then?
Once again, as in yesterday’s post, I’m thinking this is artistry, not oversight. There’s a sense in which humanity is more truly, more fully male and female than the beasts of the field. Also more problematically male and female—as it turns out in Genesis 3, when things go awry between Adam and his wife.
And once again, comparison of the two creation stories reinforces the striking point. In the second chapter of Genesis, we read of God and man together searching for a suitable helper for Adam, as if neither had noticed that all the beasts of the field already had sexual partners, suitable for procreation. And as if the human male and female, here called “man and woman” (ish and ishshah, Gen. 2:23), were not brought together for the sake of sexual reproduction, but for the sake of mutual help and companionship. The woman is not described as a mother—being named Eve, because she is the mother of all living—until after death has decisively entered human consciousness (Gen. 3:20).
It seems clear enough: The new thing that the human being brings to creation is not sex but marriage. This implies that “male and female” mean something different, richer, among human beings than among the beasts of the field and the birds of the air. Indeed, Genesis seems to be suggesting, they are revealed in their full meaning only in the human creation, in man and woman.
This is a weighty matter if, as I was suggesting yesterday, male and female are needed together for the perfection of creation, just as heaven is not complete without the earth. Creation is not whole until the two become one. This looks more inevitable—we could say “natural”—in the unity of heaven and earth than in the union of man and woman, where human will and love are required in obedience to the word of the creator.
So matters get more weighty still. The human creation too is governed by a kind of natural law, but it is one that can be violated. The two become one flesh, but not the same way as the beasts of the field. It does not happen without the word of God and, alas, the disobedience of man. And that will affect even the relation of heaven and earth. It will begin a drama of sin and redemption, from which will emerge also the drama of human politics. Not long after the dissension between the man and his wife will come the dissension between Abel and Cain. At stake is nothing less than the goodness of God’s creation. As it is today.
Thursday, December 5, 2013, 5:00 PM
Happy Thursday! Here’s what we have for you today.
Peter Leithart is reading about: Cornelius Van Til, the humanity of Christ, Ukraine, and bodies.
Dr. Boli gets into the posters-for-your-dentist’s-office game.
Here at First Thoughts, Phillip Cary writes about what God did not find good, and Dale M. Coulter provides a Pentecostal perspective on Francis.
On the Square today, Russell E. Saltzman wonders where the aliens are, while Grégor Puppinck thinks Christians should not play the discrimination game.
And, finally, Dana Gioia’s article in our December issue, “The Catholic Writer Today,” is now out from behind the paywall. So go on! Send it to all your friends!
Thursday, December 5, 2013, 10:44 AM
There is a striking omission from the Hebrew text of Genesis 1, on the second day of creation. It is the day when God creates Heaven, and the omission is that he does not see it as good. Every other day of creation has God seeing that his work is good, but not this one. The omission is so striking that the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, supplies what is missing in v. 8: “And God saw that it was good.”
Suppose the omission is deliberate, a piece of artistry rather than an oversight. What is it telling us? Perhaps we can learn from another striking moment in Genesis, which takes place in the next chapter, when instead of seeing his creation as good the LORD God looks at Adam and says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). After all the times he saw his creation as good in Genesis 1, here what he sees is something that is not good. It’s a jarring word, but it resonates with the omission in the first chapter.
When God sees his work as good, Everett Fox suggests in the notes to his translation, The Five Books of Moses, it is “reminiscent of ancient Near Eastern descriptions of a craftsman being pleased with his work.” Aristotle uses the word “good” in a similar way, when he associates it with the final cause, the end of a process of coming into being, including the craftsman’s work of making or building something. The craftsman says, “It’s good!” when the work is completed. “All done!” we say in a resonant English phrase, corresponding to the underlying notion of the Latin term perfectus, which is to be thoroughly done or made, per-factus. Hence in the original sense of the term, the perfect is the completed. That is why an unfinished work of music is an opus imperfectum—not because it is flawed or blemished but because it is incomplete.
God does not see the work of the second day of creation as good because he knows it is unfinished. You might think that heaven is such a great and wondrous thing that it must be good in and of itself, but God does not see it that way. Heaven is not the perfection of God himself but a created thing, and it is not yet done being created when it is alone. The creation Genesis has to tell us of is heaven and earth together. The one without the other incomplete, imperfect, unfinished—not all done, and therefore not yet good.
And so it is with the man, Adam. You might think that man is such a great and wondrous thing that he is good in and by himself, but God does not see it that way. As heaven without earth is an unfinished work—not yet good—the man without his wife is not yet a completed creation. The craftsman is not satisfied until he sees the two together making one whole. We do not have humanity perfected until the two become one flesh.
So it is a profound teaching when Jesus instructs us to think about the law of marriage by reading what is said of the Creator in Genesis 1, that in the beginning “he made them male and female” (Matt. 19:4). That duality—the two who become one flesh—is the making of humanity, as necessary to the perfection of God’s craftsmanship as the joining of earth to heaven. To see male and female, man and woman, as if they did not belong together by nature is to miss the goodness of creation, which makes it what it is. What God has joined let no man put asunder.
Thursday, December 5, 2013, 9:40 AM
Just in time for the Christmas Wars, the Journal of Catholic Legal Studies has published papers from a symposium on state-sponsored religious displays that the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored with our our sister school, the Libera Universita Maria SS Assunta (LUMSA), in Rome last year. The papers compare the treatment of such displays in the United States and Europe. Contributors include Silvio Ferrari of the University of Milan (“State-Supported Display of Religious Symbols In The Public Space”); Thomas Berg of the University of St. Thomas (“Can State-Sponsored Religious Symbols Promote Religious Liberty?”); Monica Lugato of LUMSA (“The ‘Margin of Appreciation’ and Freedom of Religion: Between Treaty Interpretation And Subsidiarity”); and Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the US Court of Appeals (“Religious Symbols and the Law”). There’s also an introduction by me. You can download the articles here.
Thursday, December 5, 2013, 9:00 AM
Thursday, December 5, 2013, 7:10 AM
When Cardinal Jorge Borgoglio became Francis there was a ripple of excitement that ran through parts of the Pentecostal community. This excitement was related to then Cardinal Borgoglio’s actions in Argentina as represented in the picture of prayers being offered for him by Raniero Cantalamessa who has been so important to the Catholic Charismatic movement and by Norberto Saracco, a Pentecostal who directs the Facultad Internacional de Educación Teológica in Buenos Aires.
Recently, Pope Francis has had private audiences with leaders in the Catholic Charismatic renewal, including Matteo Calisi, past president of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships; Michelle Moran, president of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services; and Salvatore Martinez, president of the Italian Catholic Charismatic organization Rinnovamento nello Spirito. He has also stated in the interview during his return from Rio de Janeiro that the Charismatic renewal renews the church, and recently reminded the 15,000 persons present at the 36th National Assembly of Catholic Charismatics in Rimini that he was responsible for the Charismatic renewal in Argentina. These are all encouraging signs.
His first apostolic exhortation offers many reasons to remain excited about his papacy although I will mention three points that seem particularly important for Pentecostals.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013, 5:00 PM
Older Posts »
Over at Postmodern Conservative, Pete Spiliakos is still pondering the problems Scott Walker 2016 may face.
Peter Leithart is reading about: the Puritans (more here), ecclesiology.
Tips from Dr. Boli: “An ordinary automobile will consume 6% less fuel if you name it Jeremy.”
Here at First Thoughts, David Mills has some words for the people who are just asking questions (that for some reason are always about Jews). And Carl R. Trueman asks: “Is journalism no longer considered a legitimate Christian calling?”
And On the Square today, George Weigel praises Peter Flanigan, while Justin E. H. Smith thinks Terrence Malick is a little too mainstream.