Monthly Archives: December 2010

>Jacques Ellul: Anarchy and Christianity


I am thus very close to one of the forms of anarchism, and I believe that the anarchist fight is a good one. What separates me, then, from the true anarchist? Apart from the religious problem, which we shall take up again at length, I think that the point of division is as follows. The true anarchist thinks that an anarchist society – with no state, no organization, no hierarchy, and no authorities – is possible, livable, and practicable. But I do not. In other words, I believe that the anarchist fight, the struggle for an anarchist society, is essential, but I also think that the realizing of such a society is impossible.

~ Jacques Ellul

Here is the text of Ellul’s Anarchy and Christianity from Google books.

The link to the book is here.

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Filed under Kingdom of God, Politics, Reading, World View

>Merry Christmas

>Today Christ is born of the Virgin in Bethlehem. Today He who knows no beginning now begins to be, and the Word is made flesh. The powers of heaven greatly rejoice, and the earth with mankind makes glad. The Magi offer gifts, the shepherd proclaim the marvel, and we cry aloud without ceasing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.

(From the Festal Menaion of the Orthodox Church; hymns from the Third Hour and Matins.)

Nativity, by Andre Rublev (or a follower of Rublev?)
Moscow School, early 15th century.
From Zvenigorod. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 71 x 53 cm.

The following description by Alexander Boguslawski of this painting  is taken from here.

This icon is interesting for several reasons. Some scholars attribute it to Andrei Rublev or one of his close followers. That immediately makes us pay attention to the excellence of the icon’s composition and to the depth of the message conveyed by the author. Moreover, while the figures and actions are depicted clearly (elements of monumentality) there is also complexity in the number of figures and diversity of actions. At the same time, this complexity is carefully controlled and does not detract from certain important, spiritual ideas represented in the icon. One of these ideas seems to be the miraculous power of God and the perfection — the completion — of His divine will on earth. The painter succeeded in showing this “simplicity through complexity” by making each auxiliary scene reflect a reaction to, a consequence of or an event connected with the birth of Jesus. In this way his birth acts as a unifying force in this icon, as it has been for many believers around the world; these considerations add to the icon’s symbolic power.

Another interesting facet of this icon is that although Mary is the largest figure, she does not seem to be its most important (though perhaps she is the most visually noticeable) feature. Though one’s eyes may be drawn to her immediately, the entire composition of the icon reveals that it is what Mary represents – the power, mercy, and fulfillment of God’s will – that is given the most emphasis, not the woman herself.

The colors are warm and, by their complimentary nature, contribute to the unity of the whole. Touches of white are used to highlight both the cliffs and the clothing of almost all the figures – a notable exception would be that Mary’s clothes lack any such highlighting and, in consequence, appear very flat. Though this lack of highlights may be due to the state of preservation of the icon, observations of most, if not all, Russian Nativity scenes will reveal that Mary’s figure is usually depicted in an especially immaterial, “spiritual” way. Perhaps this was done to ensure that her presence, her very physical state of having just given birth, are both portrayed with fidelity to the spiritual reality of what has just occurred as opposed to the portrayals of the auxiliary figures, which are perhaps closer to physical reality.

This icon is quite faithful to the traditional iconography established for the Nativity of Christ. Important features of this composition include:

  • Mary (usually disproportionately large) as the central figure, resting on a bier
  • Joseph, usually tempted by the devil (an old man with a cane), but sometimes facing a shepherd
  • Baby Jesus swaddled in his cradle, shown in a cave
  • Two servant women preparing to wash or washing the baby
  • Angels, the messengers of God
  • The Magi bearing gifts
  • The shepherds, announcing the good news
  • A few farm animals. [C.B.]

© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2000

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baby Jesus

There are many depictions of baby Jesus, and of the Nativity. Sometimes baby Jesus looks like this:

Sometimes the Nativity looks like this:

Neither of these are accurate. The baby Jesus did not look like that and the scene of his birth did not look like that. We know this, but we don’t complain a whole lot. We are used to sentimentality at Christmas, and anyway we don’t have any photographs of the actual scene to compare.

If we are not going to be able to precisely and accurately create a perfect nativity, how then should we portray the birth of Jesus? This is a big question. Since the early days of Christianity many artists have tried their hand at depicting the scene. There are many approaches, especially since the painter is making up much of the scene and therefore has some freedom in what kind of message will be conveyed. Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) depicted the scene several times. Here is one of those times:

Nativity, 1504, Albrecht Dürer, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Here is another of those times:

The Nativity, 1514, Albrecht Dürer, Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna

Consider the first of the the two engravings above by Dürer. It is the one with the earlier provenance and is somewhat more rich in detail. We see a medieval house and courtyard with a well. There is no attempt to replicate a Mideast Jewish home of centuries past. The house is dilapidated with portions of the structure falling apart. One might even sense a falling from wealth into poverty. Visually one’s eye is drawn first toward a crouching man pouring water next to the well. He is at the lower edge of the frame, but he is placed horizontally at the center. The building structures, from the sloping roof line, to the archway, to the diagonal rope of the well, all point towards the man. He is the central figure of  the picture. Secondly one sees the woman and baby to the left, within the house’s frame. She is also placed near the lower edge of the picture. 

We can safely assume that the man is Joseph, the woman is Mary, and the baby is Jesus. There are several key elements that make this image a “nativity.” Even without the engraving’s title we could assume (with our knowledge of western art) that an image where a baby lies as this one does, with a woman in a posture of veneration towards the baby as is this woman, would be a nativity. On the other hand, there are many elements that undercut the expectations of the genre.

Where is Mary and Jesus? They are placed lower left, small compared to the overall composition, and somewhat lost in the most detailed section of the image. Joseph is visually the central figure of the composition. And yet it is he rest of the picture, the dilapidated house and structure, the strong vertical elements drawing our eyes upward away from the figures, the arch and tattered roof, the tree growing out of the ruins at the very top, that make the nativity content seem almost secondary. This is a mundane scene. The people are little, the world is running down, the baby is of no real consequence. But, of course, we know otherwise. The history of the world, of all of creation, turns upon this baby. He is the incarnate God humbled. He will grow, mature, become a man who will teach, heal, die and rise to life again. He will return as king, bring into fullness his kingdom. The world, from that point onwards will never be the same; it is not the same even now. Then why not create an image more glorious, more focused on the savior, more rich in “God beams” and adoring onlookers? Where are the shepherds, the wise men, and the star glowing above? They are all absent, and I believe Dürer knew what he was doing.

The cute little pictures of baby Jesus and the quaint and sentimental nativities do not highlight the utter absurdity of the gospel. The way God does things is patently crazy. Many notable thinkers have pointed this out, but even the average person like myself can see the strangeness of it all. The wisdom of God is foolishness to humans. When Christ was born it was a huge event cosmically, but it was as insignificant as a birth could be humanly speaking. Mary and Joseph were ordinary people living ordinary lives. They were poor folk living in a backwater. Their daily lives were mundane, filled with common tasks. At least that is how everything they were and everything they did would have looked to you and me if we had been their neighbors.

Dürer knew this. In his engraving he captured the remarkable ordinariness of the event. It is a message of the humanity of Christ, the frailty of his life, the absurd contingency placed upon the incarnate God. Jesus was a marginal person. Of course, it is not a factual picture, as though Dürer imagined himself there in time and space, rather it is a truthful message of the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in radical contingency – not only contingent upon God, but contingent on these two young adult humans (Mary may only have been fifteen years old) and their community. And who are we? We are merely actors in a story. We are entirely contingent on our creator. We are glorious creations who are as ordinary as can be. Jesus was one of us.

That Joseph should be the focus of this nativity is key. Mary and Jesus are, historically and possibly cosmically, a kind of unit. Mother and son. They get their own portraits as well. There are many a Madonna with baby Jesus on her lap. In this nativity Joseph is serving his wife and son. Joseph doesn’t get a lot of play in Christian history. He is merely a member of the supporting cast, as he is here. And yet, are we not all members of the supporting cast? Is not, then, Dürer saying something about the rest of us in this nativity? Rather than drawing you into a sentimental nativity scene where one’s focus is on baby Jesus, we are given a scene in which the central figure is the one humbly serving the baby Jesus and his mother. It is as though we are told, “If this (God become man in the humble form of a baby) then this (you become someone for whom serving others is your vocation).” Dürer may be asking, in the most subtle way, where do you stand?

This might be a stretch, but notice the building has a sign hanging from its upper reaches. On that sign is Dürer’s signature. He may be making a connection, of sorts, between himself and this dilapidated building. Could he be saying symbolically that Christ has come to dwell in him?

Ten years later Dürer created another nativity scene (the second engraving above) in which he continued the ordinary human quality of the earlier engraving, but this time Mary is central, with all three players grouped together. It is less about the setting and more about these three humans in the midst of something they know is radically important though none else do. I imagine that Dürer had grown closer in spirit to this little family since the time he created the earlier engraving. In a sense one might say he moved from making a theological point of sorts to a position of affection. Can one not say this is also the same movement many of us make as God takes us through the process of sanctification? One thing for certain, Dürer was not making Christmas cards, he was telling us about his faith.

Final note: There is much more one could say about these engravings. Albrecht Dürer was part of the Protestant Reformation. He was profoundly affected by the social and theological implications of that historical sea change. He was also a key artist in the Northern European Renaissance. His art reflected changes in art at that time, which included changing perspectives on humanity, nature, and personal freedom. I have not bothered to dive into how these images are part of all that. Nor have I tried to unpack them phenomenologically or psychologically (in terms of the “beholder’s share”). They are far more rich and complex in those terms than this post warrants. If I tried I would be over my head, and this post would become a book.


Filed under Art, Gospel, Kingdom of God, Theology

Harke, despair away

Nativity, Marc Chagall, 1950. Galerie Art Chrudim.

Away despair! my gracious Lord doth heare. Though windes and waves assault my keel, He doth preserve it: he doth steer, Ev’n when the boat seems most to reel. Storms are the triumph of his art: Well may he close his eyes, but not his heart. Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di’d? Then let me tell thee a strange storie. The God of power, as he did ride In his majestic robes of glorie, Reserv’d to light; and so one day He did descend, undressing all the way. The starres his tire of light and rings obtain’d, The cloud his bow, the fire his spear, The sky his azure mantle gain’d. And when they ask’d, what he would wear; He smil’d and said as he did go,He had new clothes a making here below. When he was come, as travellers are wont, He did repair unto an inne. Both then, and after, many a brunt He did endure to cancell sinne: And having giv’n the rest before,Here he gave up his life to pay our score. But as he was returning, there came one That ran upon him with a spear. He, who came hither all alone, Bringing nor man, nor arms, nor fear, Receiv’d the blow upon his side,And straight he turn’d, and to his brethren cry’d, If ye have any thing to send or write, I have no bag, but here is room: Unto my Fathers hands and sight, Beleeve me, it shall safely come. That I shall minde, what you impart;Look, you may put it very neare my heart. Or if hereafter any of my friends Will use me in this kinde, the doore Shall still be open; what he sends I will present, and somewhat more, Not to his hurt.  Sighs will conveyAny thing to me.  Harke, Despair away.

– “The Bag” from The Temple (1633), by George Herbert

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To sing of it we’re bound

The Second Shepherd’s Play Scene 8 
(Medieval mystery play, 15th century)

The stable or manger in Bethlehem The shepherds enter and kneel before the Virgin and Child.

First Shepherd

Hail, comely and clean, hail, young child. Hail Maker as I mean, born of maiden so mild! Thou hast banned I deem the devil so wild. The evil beguiler now goes beguiled.

(pointing to the Child)

Lo, Merry He is! Lo, he laughts, my sweeting, A welcome greeting!

(offering the Child some cherries)


Second Shepherd

Hail, sovereign Savior, for Thou hast us sought! Hail Nursling, leaf and flower, that all things hath wrought! Hail, full of favor, that made all of nought!

(offering a bird)

Hail, I kneel and I cower-A bird have I brought. Without mar. Hail, little tiny mop, Of our creed thou art the crop; I would drink from thy cup, Little day-star.

Third Shepherd

Hail darling dear, full of godhead! I pray The be near when that I have need. Hail! Sweet is Thy cheer! And my heart must bleed To see Thee sit here clothed so poor indeed, With no pennies. Hail! Thy hand put forth to us all—I bring thee but a ball; take and play with it withall, And go to the tennis.

The Virgin Mary

The father of heaven, God omnipotent, That set all aright, his son has He sent. My name He chose forth, and on me his light spent; And I conceived Him forthwith through His might as God meant; And now is the Child born, May He keep you from woe! I shall pray him so. Till the glad news as ye go, And remember this morn.

The First Shepherd

Farewell, Lady, so fair to behold. With thy child on thy knee.

Second Shepherd

But he lies full cold Lord it is well with me! Now we go as ye behold.

Third Shepherd

In truth already it seems to be told Full oft—

First Shepherd

What grace we have found.

Second Shepherd

Come forth! Now we are won!

Third Shepherd

To sing of it we’re bound: Let us sing aloft!

(they leave the stable singing)

-Source:pp.123-127. Medieval and Tudor Drama, ed. John Gassner, Bantam 1963. Found online here.

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Filed under Christmas, Church History

The Astrologer (was right)


We have an old book called “The Æsop for Children.” In this book is a fable called The Astrologer. I want to present it here and then propose another ending. Here is how it is in the book:

     A man who lived a long time ago believed that he could read the future in the stars. He called himself an Astrologer, and spent his time at night gazing at the sky.
     One evening he was walking along the open road outside the village. His eyes were fixed on the stars. He thought he saw there that the end of the world was at hand, when all at once, down he went into a hole full of mud and water.
     There he stood up to his ears, in the muddy water, and madly clawing at the slippery sides of the hole in his effort to climb out.
     His cries for help soon brought the villagers running. As they pulled him out of the mud, one of them said:
     “You pretend to read the future in the stars, and yet you fail to see what is at your feet! This may teach you to pay more attention to what is right in front of you, and let the future take care of itself.”
     “What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.

My alternative ending:

…”What use is it,” said another, “to read the stars, when you can’t see what right here on the earth?”
     The astrologer went home somewhat embarrassed for having fallen into the hole, but not yet convinced by the villagers, for he knew what he had seen in the stars.
     The next day was a great earthquake. The villagers ran from their houses and looked to the sky in fear for the sun had turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
     Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, including the villagers, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from this calamity that has befallen us! For the great day of wrath has come, who can withstand it?”
     Take care of the big things for the little things will be of no consequence.

Christians are often known for believing in some pie-in-the-sky story that gives them both comfort and guilt. This vision is often derided as wishful thinking and used as one of many excuses for not believing in the gospel. Others, many of whom are Christians, emphasize the here-and-now aspect of the kingdom of God (the kingdom of God is within you) and propose that Christians spend more energy looking at the world before them, helping others, feeding the poor, etc. They would deride the pie-in-the-sky idea as merely a means to avoid the world of the here-and-now. The truth being, we are called to help the needy and poor, we are commanded to love our neighbors, but we are also longing for the kingdom still to come. Though the kingdom of God has come in one sense—with the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the  spirit of God—we wait still for its final establishment and the corresponding removal of sin from our lives. Our problem, however, is not that we don’t pay more attention to what is right in front of us, and don’t let the future take care of itself. Our problem is that we are too easily rooted in the things of this world; too easily living in fear of what this world might do to us—holes in the ground and all.

In the third chapter of the letter to the Colossians we read, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” This does not mean to disregard the needy and poor, in fact just the opposite. But it does mean that we should be captivated by what God is doing in history, concerned for the future, knowing this world will pass away, and longing for the kingdom come. But we are told differently; the world would have us say it is of the highest importance, its villagers telling us foolishness is to miss the world’s details in favor of the bigger picture. If we listen to the villagers we may never again fall into the hole, but we then might be destroyed when we most need salvation.


Filed under Reading, World View

Annunciation by Denise Levertov


‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos 
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

*painting Virgin of the Annunciation, Antonello da Messina (c. 1470’s)

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