Thursday, December 15, 2016

The difficulty of seeing Christ (Dorothy Day)

If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.
- Dorothy Day

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How men become scoundrels (C.S. Lewis)

The following quote is from an address C.S. Lewis gave at King's College in 1944, published as "The Inner Ring" in The Weight of Glory. It's cited by Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart. Here Lewis describes how the desire to be accepted into cliques/groups/circles from which one is excluded leads to corruption.

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age, reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists. The choice is still before you, and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters. And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play; something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand; something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. 
[...] Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The American voice

On December 12, 1915 Francis Albert Sinatra was forcibly wrenched from the womb. The forceps permanently disfigured the left ear and cheek of the child that would grow up to possess one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century. The story goes that baby Sinatra wasn't breathing when he emerged and was given up for dead by the doctor, but his quick-thinking grandmother held him under cold water until he started breathing. Quite the beginning. I don't listen to Sinatra as much as I used to. His essential subject was loneliness, specifically male loneliness, thus his recordings don't resonate in the same way as they did when I was younger and solitary. I suppose great art speaks to us more, or less, depending on the season of life we're in.

Shortly after Sinatra's death in 1998 newspaperman Pete Hamill wrote a wonderful little book called Why Sinatra Matters. I pulled it off the shelf a few nights ago. Hamill explains that the reason Sinatra matters is the same reason Mozart and Charlie Parker still matter. Different generations and cultures will listen differently, but "the music remains" and "every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals..." (pp. 8-9)

Though not a conventional biography, Why Sinatra Matters effectively traces the impact that Sinatra's hardscrabble Hoboken, New Jersey upbringing and Italian heritage played in his life and career. It was a source of pride and also something to transcend. "'Of course, it meant something to me to be the son of immigrants,' Sinatra said to me once. 'How could it not? I grew up for a few years thinking I was just another American kid. Then I discovered at - what? five? six? - I discovered that some people thought I was a dago. A wop. A guinea...That's why years later, when Harry [James] wanted me to change my name, I said no way, baby. The name is Sinatra.'" (pp. 37-38) Yet as the first and only child of immigrant parents Frank was a trailblazer, the first American of his family. Back in the neighborhood he spoke the "argot of the street. He could be profane, even vulgar. The word them could become dem, and those could become dose. It depended on the company." (p. 94) But as anyone who's listened to the songs knows, Sinatra's diction was impeccable. Young Frank would go to the movies and imitate how he heard Cary Grant and Clark Gable speak. "Alone in my room, I'd keep practicing the other kind of English." (p. 94) Frank Sinatra was a powerful symbol of the great American melting pot and a hero to scores of Italian Americans. In many ways his story is the American story. Ultimately though, his enduring legacy, the reason "Sinatra matters," rests on one thing. The main thing.

His finest accomplishment, of course, was the sound. The voice itself would evolve over the years from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones. But it was a combination of voice, diction, attitude, and taste in music that produced the Sinatra sound. It remains unique. Sinatra created something that was not there before he arrived: an urban American voice. It was the voice of the sons of the immigrants in northern cities - not simply the Italian Americans, but the children of all those immigrants who had arrived on the great tide at the turn of the century. That's why Irish and Jewish Americans listened to him in New York. That's why the children of Poles in Chicago, along with all those other people in cities around the nation, listened to him. If they did not exactly sound like him, they wanted to sound like him. Frank Sinatra was the voice of the twentieth-century American city. (pp. 93-94)

One of Frank's signature songs was the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Sinatra recorded it several times, including a definitive interpretation on the 1958 album for Columbia aptly called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. This is the whiskey-voiced Sinatra, somewhere between a viola and cello. Accompanied by piano and only the sparest Nelson Riddle orchestration, it's an almost painfully intimate thing to listen to. To me, and I think to a lot of fans, "One for My Baby" is the quintessential Sinatra closer -- not the cheesy "My Way." I believe it when he sings "it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place 'cept you and me." Fifty-plus years on I'm reminded why he's still THE American popular singer, the Babe Ruth of American song. "So thanks for the cheer, I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear." We didn't mind, Frank. We didn't mind at all.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From skyscrapers to mosaics (re-posted from 2012)

I've been enjoying Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 - 2005). I picked this book up on a whim at a used book sale. It was $5 well spent. Grenz is often associated with the emergent church crowd, and Brian McClaren contributes a Foreword. Yet I don't see in Grenz the eagerness to jettison (or water down) unfashionable Christian doctrines that one sees with McClaren, Doug Pagitt, et al. This book seems to me a thoughtful attempt to come to grips with postmodernism in a way that remains faithful to the Apostolic Nicene faith, and that retains a high view of Scripture and the centrality of the church to God's plan of salvation. One of the things I like most about Renewing the Center is it's call for evangelicals to make ecclesiology more central. He suggests that the postmodern turn is an opportunity for evangelicals to recognize how influenced we've been by Enlightenment individualism and empiricism, and a tendency to rely too much on unaided human reason.

But what exactly is evangelicalism? Some have argued that the term has become so broad as to have lost any value. In addition, since the 1970s the word is increasingly associated with political and cultural agendas rather than the evangel (good news) at it's root. Critics are right to point out the problems with those unfortunate associations. In trying to get a handle on evangelicalism Grenz cites a classic formulation from historian David Bebbington, which is as good a definition as any. Evangelicalism is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Stated that way "evangelical" is a word worth defending.

But back to the main thrust of the book. The first half is basically a theological history from the Protestant Reformation to the late 20th century, and it's a cracking good read. Grenz follows the various streams that flowed from Luther and Calvin and shows how each of them influenced the evangelical movement that emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s & 30s. It's fascinating stuff. Included are extended discussions of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm. Grenz is always charitable in his assessments, even when he's critical. His biases do occasionally show, though. For instance, when portraying the legacy of Old Princeton as a victory of arid Protestant scholasticism (the cognitive-doctrinal) over and against a concern for personal piety (the practical-experiential). In my opinion this is a caricature that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

In the second half the author begins to set out the parameters of the book's subtitle: an evangelical theology for a post-theological era. Here we're in the realm of philosophical concepts and academic jargon, but it remains an engaging read. Grenz agrees with the postmodern thesis that Enlightenment foundationalism is dead. This is the notion that "certain beliefs anchor other beliefs, i.e., certain beliefs are 'basic,' and other beliefs arise as conclusions from them." Foundationalism seeks to gain "epistemological certitude by discovering an unassailable foundation of basic beliefs upon which to construct the knowledge edifice." In this way of thinking the quest for knowledge, indeed the quest for truth, is like building a skyscraper. You lay a foundation and then build it floor by floor. In the quest for theological truth evangelical theologians have imitated the methods of their secular counterparts, who arbitrarily assign religious beliefs to the realm of "nonbasic status". (all quotes from p. 208)

This begs the question: "What killed foundationalism?" The short answer is postmodernism killed it. Postmodernism is one of those words/concepts that's notoriously difficult to get a grip on. I agree with the wag who said postmodern is really mostmodern! In any case one of the insights of postmodernism is that human reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." This is argued by self-styled Reformed epistemologists Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grenz points approvingly to these two eminent philosophers as examples of constructive Christian engagement with the postmodern context. They don't deny the existence of basic beliefs, but they "join other nonfoundationalists in claiming against the Enlightenment that there is no universal human reason. That is, there is no single, universal set of criteria by means of which we can judge definitively the epistemic status of all beliefs." (p. 208)

In summary: one's conception of truth is inseparable from one's community.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff acknowledge the inevitability of our being situated in a particular community and the indispensable role our respective communities or traditions play in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims. And they readily admit the attendant loss of certitude involved with this acknowledgment, for they realize that these various communities may disagree as to the relevant set of paradigm instances of basic beliefs.

The difficulty this poses for any claims to universal truth ought not to be overlooked . . . . Nevertheless, the communitarian turn marks an important advance. This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. (p. 209)

Grenz further defines that community as one made up of individuals who've had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and who now find their identity in him. This is not to turn religious experience into a new foundationalism ala Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism, but it's to make it "the identifying feature of participation in this specific community." (p. 210)

In turn this community becomes basic for formulating Christian theology. Instead of the metaphor of a building, this results in something more like a mosaic.

This mosaic consists of the set of interconnected doctrines that together comprise what ought to be the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible, and the biblical narrative of God, at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. (p. 213)

For the most part Christian scholars have assumed a defensive posture when engaged with the grab bag of ideas labelled postmodernism, viewing it as a threat to orthodox faith and practice. But what if—while recognizing the dangers—the church embraced the opportunity to articulate a fresh vision of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people"? (Jude 1:3 NIV) This book is a worthy attempt to do just that. In writing it Grenz saw opportunities where others saw only danger. We need more optimistic books like this one!

Quotes from Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker, 2000)