Thursday, June 25, 2015

The brass serpent on the Supreme Court

In these few days between the issuance of SCOTUS's postmodern decision on Obamacare, of which Antonin Scalia has said that it shows that words have no meaning anymore to this court, and the forthcoming decision on marriage, of which so many expect so much evil, I am reminded inexplicably of a passage from Isak Dinesen's remarkable Out of Africa. She speaks of the process of being made a "woman of sorrows" by the Africans, one who bears the burden of grief and fear for others. She calls this "brass-serpenting." She says of it, "I thought it a painful, a very painful process to be hung upon the pole. I wished that I could have escaped it."
During the [First World] war, when the fate of the Carrier Corps lay upon the whole Native world, the squatters of the farm used to come and sit round my house. They did not speak, not even amongst themselves, they turned their eyes upon me and made me their brass-serpent....It was a singularly hard thing to bear. I was helped through with it by the fact that my brother's regiment was at that time sent on to the foremost trenches at Vimy Ridge; I could turn my eyes upon him and make him my brass-serpent.
As I think of Antonin Scalia, that Cassandra of the legal world, who untiringly writes his flaming and eloquent dissents, who lives and labors and is outvoted again and again at the epicenter of the loss of legal integrity, honor, and meaning in our country, I am moved to make him my brass serpent.

It is perhaps a little unfair to his fellow dissenters on this latest decision to place that symbolism upon Scalia alone. Clarence Thomas and possibly Samuel Alito are, for all I know, just as fiercely burdened with a sense of the betrayal of law, truth, and meaning, but Scalia is the one who says it. He never gets to say, "I'm tired. I'm discouraged. I'm not going to write a dissent this time." He keeps doing it. He has to go on, to bear being part of this irrational, postmodern court, and to go on saying it and saying it, the voice crying in the wilderness. Because that's his vocation. That is the work that has been given him to do.

And so I say: If he can bear it, and keep on speaking and not give in to despair, I, a mere citizen, can too.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"The Sands of Time Are Sinking"

It's been a looong time since I've written a hymn post. I've been thinking lately of the beautiful but forgotten hymn "The Sands of Time Are Sinking." I myself never really knew the hymn until one of my friends chose it at one of our regular hymn sings, but it's become a favorite since then and deserves to be better known.

A partial history of the hymn is found in this useful post. Here is my brief version: There was once a nonconformist Scottish minister named Samuel Rutherford who lived in the 17th century. He found things a little rocky due to the religious ups and downs of that century and his tactless decision to write a treatise against the divine right of kings. He was doing okay during the middle of the century when Cromwell was in charge in England (that is not an endorsement of Oliver Cromwell!), but at the Restoration of Charles II, Rutherford found himself in a tight spot. Charles II was forgiving of some people, but not of the Scots (for a variety of political and historical reasons that had nothing to do with Rutherford personally), and Rutherford found himself on trial for treason for his political writing. But he was getting old already by that time and died before his trial. His letters and various deathbed sayings attributed to him were published.

Fast forward to the 19th century. A pastor's wife named Ann Cousin (also Scottish) was inspired by his letters to write a nineteen-verse poem called "The Last Words of Samuel Rutherford," full of allusions to his life and his hopes for heaven. Here are all the verses.

Subsequently, it appears to me, an Englishman named Edward Rimbault took selected stanzas from Cousin's poem and set them to a tune by a French violinist named Chretien d'Urhan who had presumably never heard of Rutherford. That didn't stop Rimbault from (this is my reconstruction) christening his tune "Rutherford" when it became part of a hymn. Now, I could be wrong about Rimbault's role there, but I'm having trouble finding the clear historical path from Cousin's non-hymn poem and d'Urhan's independent tune to the publication of "The Sands of Time Are Sinking" qua hymn, so this is my best guess.

The resulting hymn is very beautiful. Here are the stanzas that are generally used in the hymn version:

The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks,
The summer morn I've sighed for,
The fair sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark hath been the midnight,
But day-spring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel's land.

The King there in His beauty
Without a veil is seen;
It were a well-spent journey
Though seven deaths lay between:
The Lamb with His fair army
Doth on Mount Zion stand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel's land.

O Christ, He is the Fountain
The deep sweet Well of love!
The streams on earth I've tasted,
More deep I'll drink above:
There to an ocean fulness
His mercy doth expand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel's land.

The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear bridegroom's face;
I will not gaze at glory,
But on my King of grace;
Not at the crown He giveth,
But on His piercèd hand:
The Lamb is all the glory
In Emmanuel's land.

Here is a lovely instrumental version of the hymn; here is a nice choir rendition.

Here are a few more verses that are good poetry and that it seems to me could be incorporated into the hymn. (According to the Hymnary site it seems that the last of these is sometimes used, though I haven't seen it myself.)

But flowers need night's cool darkness, 
The moonlight and the dew;
So Christ, from one who loved it, 
His shining oft withdrew:
And then, for cause of absence 
My troubled soul I scanned
But glory shadeless shineth 
In Immanuel’s land.

I’ve wrestled on towards Heaven, 
'Gainst storm and wind and tide,
Now, like a weary traveler
That leaneth on his guide,
Amid the shades of evening, 
While sinks life’s lingering sand,
I hail the glory dawning 
From Immanuel’s land.

With mercy and with judgment 
My web of time He wove,
And aye, the dews of sorrow
Were lustered with His love;
I’ll bless the hand that guided, 
I’ll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.

Cousin's poetry captures well the sense of a man coming to the end of his life and reflecting on the sorrows of his life in the light of eternity. The poem is, in atmosphere though not (at least in these verses) in distinctive theology, a product of 19th century Scottish evangelical piety. But at the same time it has a sense of pain and tragedy that is sometimes missing from our contemporary evangelical worship, even when it is fairly traditional. 

I love hymns, but I have to say that some of the 19th and 20th century Protestant tune-makers were far too fond of the waltz rhythm. I occasionally remind those who come to my home for hymn sings of the rich heritage of slow, reflective, even sad hymns as well as the bouncy, happy ones. Let's not forget "O Sacred Head" while we're enjoying "In My Heart There Rings a Melody."

Or take a song like "O To Be Like Thee." The poetry is okay, but to my mind the line "Gladly I'll forfeit all of earth's treasures/Jesus thy perfect likeness to wear" goes by too fast for one to get any sense of the suffering that might be involved in such a process of sanctification. (And I definitely think that hymn could use a more interesting tune.)

In contrast, I find Cousin's references to wrestling, sorrow, and the dark night of the soul to be believable and valuable for contemplation. 

The verses that are more often used for "The Sands of Time Are Sinking" do not include these references but are good in themselves, because they emphasize the fact that Jesus (rather than golden streets, etc.) is the "glory of Immanuel's land." I particularly appreciate the line "Not at the crown he giveth/ But on His piercèd hand." The image is vivid to my mind: Jesus holds out a crown for the saint in heaven, and the saint can gaze only on the nail-scarred hand, not at the crown. In this regard the hymn is an older exploration of the theme of one of my favorite gospel songs, "Look For Me At Jesus' Feet."  

I would like to see a contemporary gospel group take up this hymn and record it in a simple, harmonized version. An all-male group would be best.

Christians who sing hymns should revive this one and bring it into our repertoire.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A little Colin Hemer to brighten up your day

I'm working on a hymn post, but while doing so I ran across this wonderful quotation from Colin Hemer in his discussion of the "we" passages in Acts:

Further, it would seem Luke's experience [of the voyage] was not that of expert nautical knowledge. The documents confirm the impression of a careful observer recording what happened, describing in layman's terms the measures taken by the crew for the ship's safety, without necessarily understanding the rationale of theif actions, except as he made it his business to ask for information. He appreciated their obsessive fear of the Syrtes, the obvious peril of being driven on a rocky lee-shore. He is not explicit about the peril of the ship breaking up at sea before they could reach the neighbourhood of land at all, but this fear is evident in the undergirding at the earliest possibility at Cauda and probably implicit in the unspecified desperation of Acts 27:20, when their ignorance of their position combined with the realization that the ship was at the point of breaking and foundering at sea. They were probably well enough able to estimate their likely line of drift, to conclude that they had already missed their only likely salvation in a landfall on Sicily. But matters like these are not stressed interpretively by Luke. They are implicit in his account of the scene, and yet also fruitful in the light they shed on the explanation of other details. In a similar way, the cumulative indications of the use of Latin or hybrid nautical terms corroborate the likelihood, at first unexpected in a ship of Greek Alexandria, that the seamen's speech was mainly Latin, and that Luke had a Latin-speaking informant or informants. Yet this in turn is the more easily explicable in a ship of the imperial service which may have numbered many Italians, and some Romans on official business, among its ship's company. The actual soundings, too, of the course of a ship approaching St. Paul's Bay in Malta from the east suit the precise locations where, according to Smith, they must first have become aware of the coastal surf and then of the rocks ahead.
The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, p. 332.

The "Smith" to whom Hemer alludes is James Smith of Jordanhill, whose The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul provide astonishingly detailed corroboration of the accuracy of Acts.

Having already heard of Smith's work, I was to some degree familiar with the evidence in the early part of this paragraph, but the bit about Latin or hybrid (presumably hybrid Latin-Greek) nautical terms was new to me. It was when I reached that point in the paragraph that I decided to copy it out and draw attention to it. Of course, the very terms of the passage imply that Luke and Paul would have had Italian soldiers with them, since Paul was a prisoner and was being taken to Rome.

This sort of evidence needs to be widely disseminated. When one begins to realize the massive evidence supporting the conclusion that the author of Acts was a personal companion of the Apostle Paul, the wheels should start to turn. The same person who wrote Acts is acknowledged even by liberal New Testament scholars to have written Luke. But if it turns out that that person was a careful historian and a companion of the Apostle Paul, what does that tell us about Luke? And what does it tell us about the early chapters of Acts itself, which support and indeed presuppose the resurrection of Jesus and which tell us what the disciples preached within two months of Jesus' crucifixion? At a minimum, it supports the conclusion that they are not a "late source." Indeed, if the creed in I Corinthians 15 can be regarded as an "early source" because it was plausibly taught to the Apostle Paul shortly after his conversion, even though the epistle itself was not written until approximately a couple of decades later, then the speech of Peter reported in Acts 2 could on somewhat similar grounds be regarded as the earliest apostolic teaching about Jesus' resurrection, even though the Book of Acts was not written until about three decades later.

This passage from Hemer, with its piling of detail upon detail, builds up a cumulative case that should give any skeptic pause.

The Book of Acts is an historical rock upon which the ship of skepticism founders.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The CHIs, crazier the more you learn about them

I have written a number of posts about those I call the CHIs--Christian Homosexual Identifiers. These are people like Eve Tushnet and others who claim to support the teaching of celibacy for homosexuals but who consider their homosexual inclinations to be a positive identity. 

It appears (this is new news) that Wheaton College has put a CHI staff member (this is an employee of the school) in charge of their LGBT club after an outcry about its supporting homosexuality. In the beginning they had someone who was (as far as I can discern) in favor of homosexual acts completely, so this is the administration's sop to their base (probably their donating base) to keep up the foolish pretense that this has nothing to do with endorsing homosexual acts. Which is telling ourselves lies, as I pointed out here.

So CHIs are becoming important in the Christian world, both Catholic and evangelical. I argued against their perspective here and pointed out here that Tushnet appeared in a (theologically) revolting video by a group openly and explicitly opposing the celibacy position of the Catholic Church. Tushnet herself in the video said that the Bible uses "same-sex love" to model the relationship of God and the soul. As I said, if she could do all of that, she really doesn't think that homosexual acts are all that bad.

Here is Tushnet's extremely lame explanation for her appearing in the video made by the group that opposes what she allegedly stands for (you know, celibacy?). I'll leave aside the nonsense about her pretty much always trying to say "yes" when anybody asks her to appear in anything. Really? How stupid! I'll go right to her flirtation with the most outrageous and blatantly heterodox aspects of the propaganda video:

I will say that the other participants in the film also raise questions the Church needs to grapple with. What are the best pastoral responses to people who come from the other perspectives expressed in the film?
When I entered the Church I was fairly willing to trust Her as a teacher and obey, or at least try to obey. (Or at least try to try!) It was a relief to trust and surrender to Jesus and act as a child of His Church in all areas, even though I was not thrilled that “all areas” included sexual ethics.
But lots of people who are genuinely drawn to some aspect of the Catholic faith face much greater challenges than I did: For example, they may have had much worse experiences in Christian communities, which makes trusting the Church on this issue exceptionally difficult (not solely for emotional reasons–anti-gay attitudes in the Church also raise epistemological problems, since they make it seem like the most obvious explanation for Church teaching is that it’s the result of bigotry or ignorance); they may not be as naturally attracted to obedience as an aesthetic category as I am; or they may not see any possibilities for fruitful celibate lgbt life, and know that Jesus didn’t call anyone to a life without love. They may have done a lot of reading and investigation and concluded that they reject Church teaching. They may feel like rejection of Church teaching in this area is simple common sense. I’m sure a lot of other reasons and starting-points will be articulated in the full “Owning Our Faith” film.
How could your parish both welcome and shepherd people who are coming from those places? There isn’t only one right answer. This post offers some of my initial thoughts on the question, but it’s only a beginning. Still, I don’t think the best answer is, “Well, they can come back when they’re ready to do as they’re told.”
Here is an overtly rebellious group telling the Catholic Church that it needs to change its views, propagandizing for full acceptance of homosexual acts and homosexual "marriage," and Tushnet's response is to wonder how the Catholic Church can "shepherd" these overt rebels and activists. Which is partly why she appeared in their video and appeared to endorse their project. Because they're asking such good questions, y'know. How can we "shepherd" these people? (I notice that Tushnet does not even attempt to explain her pervy statement about same-sex "love" as an image of divine and human love in the Bible.)

On the question of "shepherding" those who are living in unrepentant sin and actively promoting sin to the world at large, there is really only one coherent, Catholic answer. (I know this, and I'm not Catholic.) It would be heinous sacrilege for them to take the Sacrament, because they are habitually living in or seeking to live in sin, and they are blatantly promoting sin, so there's no good way to shepherd that type of person, because these so-called sheep are insisting on running away from the Shepherd to destruction.

There is no other answer. As far as telling them to "come back when they're ready to do as they're told," with regard to taking the Blessed Sacrament, that is absolutely what they should be told. As far as being in any sense members in good standing of any Christian church, that is absolutely what they have to be told. (Ever hear of church discipline, Eve? Try reading I Corinthians 5 sometime and you will see what the Bible says about "shepherding" a person who is living in unrepentant sin.)  As far as attending without being members or in good standing or receiving Communion, that depends on their behavior. If their behavior is disruptive (homosexual displays of affection), if they are using their visits to the church to promote their agenda (recruiting and propagandizing at church functions), then they should be asked to tone it down or not show up. If they just come in quietly, observe the services, and don't try to press their agenda, then you preach the Gospel and hope to lead them to repentance and grace and to know Jesus as their Savior. Sorry for the evangelical language, but Eve and co. could use a sense of sin and the wrath of God and the need for repentance.

And of course, in this lame response there is precisely zero concern for the scandal that this group is causing or for the scandal Tushnet herself causes by being associated with it. Because Tushnet really doesn't care about that. What she cares about is being nice to the poor, poor (rebellious, unrepentant) homosexual activists, not making their feelings feel bad, making them feel welcome, and "shepherding" them, though she has no coherent theory of how that can be done consistently with church teaching and without scandalizing others and normalizing their behavior in the eyes of everybody in the church, including the young.

Moving on (or moving back), I'm still playing catch-up on learning about the CHIs' various crazy ideas. I just haven't had time yet to post about an idea endorsed by Tushnet in this article and apparently in her book. That idea is that homosexual "couples" should carry out formal commitment ceremonies in which they make vows to each other, but that this should mean nothing about intending to have sex. It's just promising to love and take care of each other forever, or something like that.

She argues, pace historian Alan Bray’s 2003 account of friendship in the Christian tradition, The Friend, that Christians should consider a return to a more medieval conception of friendship, one complete with vows and affirmation ceremonies for dedicated companions. Taken seriously, Tushnet imagines, institutionally affirmed friendship could answer the emotional needs of those who would otherwise be engaged in same-sex romantic relationships or desperately lonely. Her historical analysis tracks Bray’s work closely, and it includes moving excerpts from courtly accounts of friendly love and commitment, as well as some monastic and liturgical remarks upon close companions.
Yet Tushnet doesn’t leave her meditation of friendship on a rosily sentimental note. It’s all well and good, one imagines, to propose a more prominent position for friendship in modern Christian life—but what this would really look like is fraught and complicated, which Tushnet acknowledges. Could an avowed pair of same-sex friends with acknowledged homosexual feelings cohabitate without giving the appearance of scandal? Tushnet hesitates: “the danger,” she admits, “is real.” Could these tightly intimate friendships coalesce into sexually realized relationships? It could happen, but for Tushnet “the preventative measure of avoiding intimate same-sex friendship entirely is even worse.”
(Aside: I don't think "pace" means what the article author thinks it means! Can't TAC get basic usage correct? Editor!)

So Tushnet literally believes that people who are sexually attracted to each other but should never have sexual relations should make lifelong vows to each other and even (apparently) maybe live together as an "avowed" couple, and that the "dangers" this poses are less than the alleged "dangers" of, er, something. The dangers of not doing this. Because not doing this is just so horribly dangerous in some way or other. Presumably dangerous because homosexuals would feel lonely. So their loneliness should be addressed by encouraging them to pair up in couples and to make vows to each other to love each other forever and be permanently related and connected to each other as "avowed friends," maybe even to live together, though they are never supposed to be engaging in sexual acts. And these avowed homosexual "friendships" are supposed to receive institutional recognition, too, from the church!

This is insanity on stilts. Such relationships would of course be connected to romantic feelings in these cases, not just to friendship. In fact, the whole reason that friendship can be intense between two members of the same sex and can be a good and positive thing is because it is friendship as opposed to sexual attraction. Tushnet clearly doesn't get this and thinks it's a cool idea to blur the distinction between non-erotic friendship and erotic friendship. Moreover, taking a vow would mean that the homosexual person who decided that this was a very bad idea and that he was being constantly led (at least) to impure thoughts and causing scandal in this way would think that God would disapprove of his severing the connection. Because he took a vow! Thus he would develop a false conscience about avoiding the occasion of sin and scandal. (So much for "make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof." [Romans 13:14] I really do not think Tushnet knows her Bible well at all.) Is she totally crazy?

Read the rest of the article for the ad hoc moves needed to rule out "avowed friendship" between a married man and a woman other than his wife whom he can never marry. Wouldn't it just be loverly for a husband to have an "avowed friendship" with a woman other than his wife? What about a husband who has same-sex attraction and who has both a wife and an "avowed" same-sex friend? Tushnet's answer, apparently, is that it is perfectly okay for a person who suffers from same-sex attraction but has married a member of the opposite sex to have, in addition to his vows to his spouse, vows to a same-sex "friend." But it's never okay for an opposite-sex-attracted person to have an avowed friend (with whom he is never supposed to have sexual relations) of the opposite sex. Because reasons. Got that?

A person who is same-sex attracted and attempts to carry out a normal, opposite-sex marriage is already in an extremely difficult position. Tushnet's idea that he might be justified in further complicating this by also having a same-sex "friend" (who might also be sexually attracted to him) to whom he has taken vows which might compete with the duties implied by the vows to his wife is a recipe for disaster. Her smug answer is telling:
Won’t avowed friendships infringe upon one friend’s marital or familial obligations at times? Probably, Tushnet submits, advising empathy and noting that medieval ballads concerning committed friends often reported conflicts in that vein—many of which did not turn out in the favor of the wife and children. 
To which I reply: a) Medieval ballads are not authoritative sources of moral instruction, and if a medieval ballad is telling you that it's okay for you to keep some sort of commitment to your same-sex friend that harms or slights your God-recognized relationship with your wife and/or your responsibilities to your children, then the medieval ballad is giving pernicious moral advice. This is true even when we assume that the friendships involved have no aspect of sexual attraction to them. b) Tushnet is (as far as my knowledge extends) interpreting medieval literature in a typically perverse way if she thinks the friendships therein are between same-sex attracted people. Taking a vow to continue to be connected forever to a person you are sexually attracted to which might conflict with your commitment to your wife and children is so wildly imprudent that "imprudent" doesn't even begin to cover it.

The CHIs' ideas are more pernicious and dangerous the more one learns about them. If you have any influence, be sure to spread this information around and make sure that your Christian institutions shun their ideas and their influence.

Update: Re-reading this post I realized that I should clarify one point: The person who was previously the leader of Wheaton's GLBT club was a student, not a staff member. He was hoping to found a "gay-straight alliance" at Wheaton and feels that the administration's taking control of the club and putting a CHI staff member in charge is a step backwards. But I did not mean to give the impression that he himself was a staff member.