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Archive for July, 2010

No joke.

Basically, a congregant at St. Peter’s Anglican Church had his dog in the church with him. Of course, he was holding on to him the entire time, including when he went forward to receive Communion. The priest gave communion to the congregant, then popped a wafer into the dog’s mouth as well.

A couple of quotes from the article: the dog’s owner said, “This has blown me away. The church is even getting e-mails from Catholics. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of the people in the church love Trapper and the kids play with him. It was just one person who got his nose out of joint. Holy smokes. We are living in the downtown core. This is small stuff. I thought it was innocent and it made me think of the Blessing of the Animals.” The priest called it a “simple church act of reaching out,” and added, “If I have hurt, upset or embarrassed anyone, I apologize.”

What strikes me about this article is our view of sacrament. I used to go to a Pentecostal church back when I was in elementary school, and when the church would give Communion, the Sunday school teachers would give it out to the kids. After going to a Presbyterian church, I learned about “fencing,” or limiting the giving of Communion to baptized church members. They were much more serious about only giving Communion to those who had gone through the proper steps.

Historically, the view of Communion within the church has been extremely high and reverent. Catholics believe that the elements are literally made into the Body and Blood of Christ (transubstantiation). The Reformers differed on their views. Luther was dead set on transubstantiation. (Once, during a debate with other Reformers about the nature of Christ’s presence in Communion, he simply took a piece of chalk and wrote, “This is my Body, this is my Blood” on the wooden table they were seated at and refused to say anything.) Calvin did not go as far as transubstantiation, but he did say that anyone who said Christ’s role or presence in Communion was merely symbolic was way off. I believe Zwingli took the symbolic view (but don’t quote me on that). But the point is, for most of the history of Christianity, Communion has, in some way, involved Christ’s presence in the elements.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why some parishioners would be so angry about a dog getting Communion. It is more than just a nice ceremony that Jesus started at the Last Supper. When you consume the elements, you receive, in some sense, Christ, and His sacrifice. It is grace, in material form. You are practically holding a piece of the Atonement in your hand.

But this view is much more in the minority now. Very few people have such a high view of Communion. This is evidenced by the quotes of the priest and the dog owner. Their responses are totally understandable, if Communion is nothing more than a remembrance. Take away the sacramental aspect of Communion, and giving the dog a wafer is a funny, cute way to welcome the new parishioner. People being angry about it doesn’t make sense; it’s a pharisaical, dickish attitude to have. But if Communion is a sacrament, a literal extension of grace limited to Christians who have been baptized and joined a church, then it’s not something that you can be cute with.

I suppose I could go more directions with this thought of our diminishing view of sacrament (i.e., should the climax of a church service be the giving of Communion, or a particularly emotive praise chorus), but I think I’ve covered quite enough for one post. Suffice to say: our view of Communion, and of sacrament in general, has really fallen.

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Humbled Haggard Climbs Back in Pulpit

A few years back, Ted Haggard resigned from his pastor position and as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals after a scandal that involved meth and a gay hooker. Now he’s back leading a church again. There’s just so much in this article…I’m not quite sure where to begin…

Let’s start with my favorite quote from the story:

Mr. Haggard plays up his new regular-guy image. At the picnic, he asked a friend whether anyone noticed he had said “hell” in the sermon—and not in a Biblical context. “I cuss now,” he said proudly.

Hee hee hee… Drugs and sexual experimentation, and now getting giggly about cursing. It’s like one of those over-sheltered homeschoolers who goes off to college and completely loses their mind.

Also: “He portrays his encounter with the prostitute as a massage that went awry…”

A massage that went awry? 

Bro. 

First off. There are professionals who specialize in massages, you know. And they generally keep their hands on your back muscles. This might be more difficult for a prostitute, who might forget what kind of “job” he’s been hired to do. I mean why go to a hooker for a massage? You pulled a reverse Al Gore. And secondly, how exactly does a massage go awry?

Oh right. Al Gore.

Seriously though. Ted. You shouldn’t be in charge of a church. Don’t get me wrong–Christianity is about the redemption of sinners, and that often gets lost when prominent Christians fall from grace. It’s too easy to judge, especially when the person being judged deserves it. But restoration does not equal “I feel real bad, but Jesus forgives me! Let’s go back like nothing happened.” And with some of the things you said in that article (“I over-repented”), it seems pretty clear that you’re not there yet. In addiction, they call it denial. Either way, you shouldn’t be in charge of a church.

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Of all the books I have read, the one which has been the most influential in simply teaching me how to think has been Neil Postman’s 1984 classic Amusing Ourselves to Death. Its thesis can be summed up in this quote from chapter 7, “The Age of Show Business”:

American television, in other words, is devoted entirely to supplying its audience with entertainment…what I am claiming here is not that television is entertaining but that is has made entertainment itself the natural format for the representation of all experience…The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

In presenting all of its content as entertainment, television robs all of its content of reality. What I’d like to do is a bit of analysis on a 2004 video of Jon Stewart on CNN’s Crossfire, in light of what Postman says in his book. And ironically, by Postman’s analysis, the TV fake newscaster comedian is the one who ends up getting it right. 

The really important part of the video starts about 6 minutes. Stewart makes this point:  “To do a debate would be great, but that’s like saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition…You’re doing theater, when you should be doing debate.” Which is exactly what Postman is trying to say. Television creates pseudo-realities. The point of this debate show is not so that we may see a real debate, but so that we may feel as though we are seeing a real debate. And this feeling has as much basis in reality as the fear we feel when a movie’s protagonist rounds a corner, and a murderer suddenly jumps into his path with a bloody knife. We are not having serious thoughts when we have a debate show–there’s not enough time for that. But we do feel as though we are being very serious indeed.

You might argue, how is feeling serious entertaining? The same way that being scared in a horror movie is entertaining. The same way that a tearjerker that leaves its audience miserable and weepy is entertaining. Postman, I think, would argue that a show like Crossfire has the purpose of entertaining  its audience by staging a serious debate.

Another important point comes at about 8:40, when Carlson interrupts Stewart to allow for commercials and prep the audience for the next segment, RapidFire. There could not possibly be a better example of what Postman talks about in Chapter 7, entitled “Now…This,”

“Now…this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see…There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly–for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening–that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now…this.”

Because, of course, none of these murders, earthquakes, political blunders, or ball scores are actually that important. They aren’t part of reality. I mean, obviously they happened; but as far as the medium of television is concerned, they are only real insofar as they are part of the pseudo-reality, aka the show. And we see that here. Stewart has called the two hosts hacks, and said they’re hurting America. This has sparked a debate about the purpose of news media, and their responsibility towards the people of their country. This is pretty heavy material. You would think that a subject this important would dictate that the discussion continue until there was some sort of resolution–but the very nature of television’s format forbids this. Almost at random, Carlson interrupts and announces that it’s time for a commercial. What’s more, they won’t be picking up where they left off; instead they’ll do a fun little segment with a predetermined format. “Up next: Jon Stewart in the RapidFire!!”

A real debate might continue until there is resolution, or an impasse is met. A real debate would likely have a more organic format. The positions wouldn’t necessarily fit into the box of a particular party’s platform. And it might not be terribly exciting. But a debate show cannot air without ratings. Even if the subject is important enough to transcend whether or not anyone wants to watch.

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This post is a Facebook note from about a year ago.

First of all, I ought to say this: I make a lot of smug pontifications about society, and especially the church. I like to paint with a broad brush, and to make pretty broad condemnations, and to kill flies with sledgehammers. When I do that sort of thing, you probably ought to either ignore me or tell me to shut up. But sometimes, I have thoughts that are pretty deep and have a lot of truth to them. When this is the case, I typically am speaking not from moral, theological, or intellectual superiority, but from the experience of seeing myself get something wrong, and understanding and describing the ways in which that happened. I think that this is one of those times. So let me just say: I am not a mom telling her kid not to touch the hot stove. I am a kid telling his brothers and sisters that Mom’s right, the stove is hot, and boy it sure smarts when you touch it. Anyways…

Last Sunday night, I was watching Joel Osteen (on ABC Family, of all places) preach a sermon at his church in Houston. (Yes, I know he’s a greasy-haired, heretical creep who is more likely to lead you to hell than to heaven. You don’t have to tell me.) He talked about prophesying success into our own lives. Basically, what he said was that we should trust in the “favor of the Lord” to save us from things like mediocrity and debt and unsatisfying marriages, and therefore prophesy the Lord’s favor into our lives. It works like this: something in your life isn’t great. It can be anything from a rebellious kid to a difficult-to-fix garage door opener (both his examples). If we say, “I have a great kid,” or “I’m going to fix this garage door opener,” then the Lord will honor our faith and make these things come true.

Now, I ought to say that there is nothing wrong with optimism. And there is such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy–if you believe you’re going to succeed, then you’re far more likely to do just that. There is a direct correlation between optimism and success. But there is something fatally wrong with turning a positive attitude into a religion. There is something fatally wrong with telling ourselves that Christ died on the cross so that we could believe that our lives will turn out the way we want them to. Christ did not die and return to life so that we could fix our stubborn garage door openers–he was killed and raised so that he could reconcile the souls of his rebellious image-bearers to himself.

I was thinking these things, trying to broaden the basic principle, and was reminded of something I read on a Christian blog a few weeks ago: being a Christian doesn’t change the way the world responds to us. Being a Christian changes the way we respond to the world. And I think right about there was where I started to get really uncomfortable as I realized the ways in which I twist God’s grace to remove not only my guilt, but also my responsibility. I realized the ways in which I try to use Christ’s death and resurrection to fix my broken garage door openers, so to speak.

We hear a lot in the church about the grace of God changing lives. I think sometimes I forget that when Christ changes people’s lives, it’s not so much the lives as much as the people themselves that change. We hear about turning to the cross when we’ve made a mess of things, but sometimes I forget that the grace offered on the cross is not a magic bullet for life’s inherent difficulty. Oh, the grace of Christ is an absurdly, unimaginably powerful thing. But, just as God cannot make a triangle with four sides, so does God’s grace have its existential limits.

Before you cry blasphemy, let me explain what I mean. When you have been convicted of a crime in a court of law (I mean this literally, not in a figurative/spiritual sense), turning to the cross will not remove your prison sentence. It will, however, make you into a person who patiently serves that sentence with honor and grace. When you have done something that hurt someone you love, turning to the cross will not repair their broken trust or dry their tears. It will make you into a person who reaches out to gently wipe the tears from their cheeks, and to work to repair that trust. When you have gambled, or just irresponsibly spent your way into 5 or 6 figure debt, turning to the cross will not stop the collectors from calling. It will make you into the kind of person who is willing to work hard, be patient and delay gratification enough to save money and start to pay off those debts. When you’re lonely, turning to the cross will not drop friends into your lap. It will make you into a person who loves and cares enough for others to be their friend. And when my garage door opener doesn’t work, turning to the cross doesn’t fix it, Mr. Osteen (even if I prophesy that it will). It gives me the patience and perseverance to try to find what the problem is and fix it–or the humility to admit defeat and call a repair guy.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that God hasn’t got the power to change the difficult circumstances brought on by our sin that cause us so much unhappiness. But God cares far more for our holiness than for our happiness. God has the power to change the nature of our world, and has promised to do that, at the end of all things. But the testimony of Scripture, and our daily lives, is that until that day comes, he would rather change our hearts.

The Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ removes the eternal penalty our sins. Moreover, when we first call on Him, we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. God–YHWH–lives in us. This is the glorious, ineffable, stupefying truth of the Gospel. But it does not change the fact of our sins, or the facts of any of our other circumstances. Our guilt is removed, but our responsibility is not. It is the work of Christ to redeem our souls. But, as we are forgiven by Christ, regenerated and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit of God Himself–it is our work to redeem our lives, by His power and for His glory.

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So it begins…

I’ve been told before that I need to start a blog, so that my musings can have a home. On a whim yesterday, I decided to sign up for a blog, and here we are. I thought about naming it smugpontifications, but that felt too uncomfortably true, so I went with thinkingandsuch instead.

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