I’ve been curious about women wearing veils at Mass. My family is relatively new to the Catholic Church. Very few women at the Mass (Novus Ordo) we attend wear veils. It’s natural to not want to stand out. Veiling is an entirely foreign concept for us, coming as we are from Protestant-land. But I have to admit, perhaps it’s even a bit strange, that women who wear veils at Mass or in the adoration chapel, somehow appear to me as more beautiful in the moment than those who don’t veil. I wonder why? I find it both odd and compelling.

I want to know more about veiling. My sense is that it’s actually a profound theological fact built into the very fabric of creation, of human nature and natural law, and of the reality of the Church. I believe it may be a natural language giving to us by God, teaching us and forming us. Perhaps when women wear veils before the Real Presence they are more fully complete in some mysterious way. If this is true, then parishes where veiling is largely absent and not promoted are at the very least failing to allow themselves to be taught and formed by this truth given to us by our Creator. At worse, we may actually be sinning by giving in to modernist and false ideas of women, men, the Church, and of Christ Himself. I wonder if the Church should place a higher priority on the practice. I’m leaning to a strong yes.

Why do priest never preach on veiling? Why do they never seek to teach their parishioners on what veiling means, why anyone would or should consider it? I’ve never once heard a homily about it one way or the other. Are they ignorant about veiling? Frightening to speak up? Are they against veiling? Perhaps they believe they are merely being obedient. But I can’t really blame them for not touching the subject if they feel they don’t have to. So, why don’t bishops touch the subject. I don’t know.

I find it interesting that the official Church declaration, Inter Insigniores (1976), states:

But it must be noted that these ordinances, probably inspired by the customs of the period, concern scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance, such as the obligation imposed upon women to wear a veil on their head (1 Cor 11:2-16); such requirements no longer have a normative value.

And yet in the passage it references, 1 Cor 11:2-16, it is clear that St. Paul’s reasoning is not from culture but from the very design of creation and natural law. Although he uses the words of handing on traditions, he also argues: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” And again: “For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.” And again: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” And again: “That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels.” In each case he argues from non-cultural positions, but rather teaches from the structure of creation, of the very origins of man and woman, and of the angels. I think St. Paul would disagree with Inter Insigniores. What do we do with this? Were the writers of Inter Insigniores “infected” with modernism? Were they worried of the biblical language in light of the rise of feminism? The use of the word “imposed” is interesting. In any case, I can’t say. I’m ignorant on this.

Therefore I’m trying to learn. Below are a couple of videos that I find interesting. The first is more theological, and it starts by looking at veiling broadly (why during passiontide do we veil crucifixes and statues? why ever veil anything?), then it looks at women wearing (or not) veils at Mass. I have watched this video several times now. The second video is more about personal testimonies from those who have chosen to veil.

If you so choose, I would love to know your thoughts on veiling. Feel free to add your comments.

Pray for the Church. Pray for the bishops.

babylon
The Babylonians ransack Jerusalem

We are given commandments by God and are expected to keep them. We hear Jesus Himself say things like:

“Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

And the Apostle John writing:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. (1 John 2:3)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. (Revelation 14:2)

We can feel the weightiness of the word “commandments.” For many it seems like an unusually heavy word, a word out of place in today’s world, altogether too severe, to draconian — certainly not American. I sometimes sense that many Christians have a “you can’t be serious” attitude towards the objective seriousness and absoluteness of commandments. Did not Jesus, after all, save us from all that? He took up His cross so we don’t have to, right? Of course He didn’t. Reference the quotes above.

Often these days we hear of a so-called “pastoral approach,” being pushed hard by a number of bishops, that seems to offer comfort and compassion to sinners without also calling for repentance. The argument for this seems to hinge on the idea that the call to holiness (including the call to a marriage that does not end in divorce, or the call that one should not get remarried without a proper annulment, or the call to chastity or even celibacy) is an ideal rather than an expectation with actual consequences.

This seems to be the idea some bishops see the biblical definition of marriage, and even the Gospel itself — as an ideal that inspires. Writing on Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops published a statement on pastoral care of marriage and the family. The bishops wrote:

People see themselves faced by the shattered remains of their life plans that were based on a partnership. They suffer from having failed and having been unable to do justice to their ideal of life-long love and partnership.

Notice that “life-long love and partnership” is presented as an ideal. I suppose holiness is an ideal too. Right? The use of the word ideal in this instance, I would argue, comes from the desire to view holiness as an inspirational concept that can help us in our individuals pursuits of “the best version of ourselves.” But we are called to pursue holiness without compromise. Holiness is both an ideal and an objective. Is the Gospel itself an ideal too? If by ideal we mean something not truly attainable, or not something we should expect people to attain, then that would seem to contradict both Holy Scripture and Catholic Tradition. But, of course, the German bishops are not writing without precedent. Here is a key sentence from Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, as quoted by the German bishops in their letter:

“The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements.” (AL No. 308)

Given the continuing issues with the German bishops desiring to water down both the Gospel and Tradition, it would seem they see “ideal” as being a mostly unattainable goal primarily reserved for those who have the faith and goodwill of saints, but not anything more than an an example and a slim hope for most Christians.

Naturally, we often hold up ideals as inspirations for motivation, but not as something we can have any hope of attaining. However, many see ideals as only that and no more. Is this how God sees ideals? Or, perhaps a better question, does God see His commandments as ideals at all, or as requirements? Are we called to try to be holy while believing it’s actually impossible to do so, and also that God doesn’t really care all that much anyway, nor will He truly hold us accountable? Or are we to be holy?

Consider this passage from Deuteronomy 30: 11-20

11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Did the Israelites keep these commandments? No. Again and again no. Did God know they would break them? Yes. Of course He did. Did they break the commandments because of sin, weakness, outside pressures, temptations, foolishness, and folly upon folly? Yes. Did they always have some “reasonable” justification in their own eyes for doing so? Probably. They must have.

And yet, God says: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you.” In light of this cannot the German bishops, and all bishops for that matter, hold Catholics to the actual standards God has given us, offering council, forgiveness, and mercy as is appropriate, but never ceasing to call us all to Christ without compromise? But the way of the German bishops, and too many others as well, seems to imply preaching the Gospel itself is, in fact, too difficult any more.

The evidence before us, declared from headlines and testimonies, says many bishops refuse to hold themselves accountable to God’s demands for holiness. Naturally, therefore, they might want to change the “rules” a bit, tweak the definitions of words, and shift the focus to the environment and refugees rather than ask anyone to truly keep God’s commandments. Perhaps their only integrity is refusing to ask others to do what they themselves refuse.

What was God’s “pastoral” care for His people? God says: “But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.”

Was God too harsh, too draconian on the Israelites? Was the Babylonian captivity God showing a lack of charity? Was the Father sending His Son to die on a cross to much? Some bishops of the Church, it would seem, must think so.

Thank God that we also have many good bishops. Pray for them. And pray for the rest too.

[Final thought: Sometimes it seems that criticisms aimed at traditionalists come from a place that prefers an easier, less judgmental faith than Catholic orthodoxy. Thus, criticisms of the Traditional Latin Mass, or Catholic traditions in general, though often couched in terms of the need for the Church to be less stuffy and get with the times, may actually be expressions of the desire to avoid the call to holiness–at least the kind of holiness demanded by God and sought after by the saints. Traditional Catholicism does not see holiness as merely a nice or inspirational ideal, but as a requirement, and as possible with God’s grace, and requiring God’s mercy when we fail. And traditionalists, as I have observed, tend to seek out the Church’s traditions as a means to help in the striving for holiness, not because of a “holier than thou” attitude. Is it not true that the person of faith longs for holiness and its demands, and the person without faith seeks to avoid the demands of holiness? Is this not fundamental? If so, what might this say about a significant number of Catholics, including all too many bishops?]

This lecture is worth the entire two and half hours. And it is a packed two and a half hours. Every bishop should watch it. Every priest too. It is profound and filled with riches to ponder and meditate upon. It is also filled with many challenges. Share it with others. Discuss it.

I am not a conspiracy nut, nor am I a staunch traditionalist, nor am I prone to sectarianism or division, etc, etc, but…

Given the connection between the message of Fatima and the Mass, and given a number of connections and observations Mr. Rodríguez makes, it makes sense that the third secret of Fatima has not been fully revealed. It seems rather clear that the message is very likely a direct challenge to the spirit of Vatican II and the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Mass. And given that the third secret was to be revealed in 1960 and wasn’t, and also by that time the pope and other key individuals in the Church were intent on changing the Mass and bringing about a glorious revolution, no one in leadership (including popes St. John XXIII, B. Paul VI, John Paul I, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis) has wanted to open that can of worms — whether to cancel the council, or redirect its purpose, or not promulgate a new rite of the Mass, or call all of it into question after the fact. Perhaps they would all feel (or have felt) like they would need to officially abandon the Novus Ordo Mass altogether and they just can’t handle admitting that Vatican II was not the work of the Holy Spirit but of man alone. If this is true, then certainly what we have seen in the Church over the past fifty years are the profound and terrible results of God’s judgement — the list of troubles is staggering. Of course, I cannot say all this is true for I know almost nothing about it, but I wonder, I really wonder. Certainly it is deeply sobering to consider. (And the only “arguments” against this that I’ve come across consists of eye rolling. Thin arguments indeed.)

I worry that a great many cardinals, bishops, priests, and perhaps some popes, from the last half century or more, will end up in Hell because of the destruction they have brought about.

What?!

the-inferno-canto-19

Am I way off? Is Mr. Rodríguez wrong? What am I missing?

revelation

Did the message of Fatima predict the sexual abuse crisis we are facing today? Or the collapse of the Church post-Vatican II? Or the rise of rampant modernism and its evils, even among churchmen?

I find this series of lectures to be both fascinating and profound. In total it’s about fourteen or fifteen hours long. That’s a lot, but it’s worth taking the time. Let me repeat that, it’s worth taking the time. I believe I know the priest’s name, but I will not post it for it has been asked that people not post post his name. I can say I believe he is a “traditionalist” priest of the FSSP, and thus presents what to many listeners might be a very “conservative” — though I prefer orthodox — perspective. He strikes me as a man of deep faith.

I grew up in an end-times obsessed “Christian” semi-fundamentalist Protestant subculture. I read a number of the popular books on the topic in the 1970’s. Eventually I became disinterested and moved on. Now, as a Catholic, I have a different perspective, and I find myself interested again. And this time, largely by way of my growing interest in our Lady’s appearances at Fatima, and in her message, I am drawn to again to the great plan of God and the salvation of the Church as the centerpiece of creation history.

Other than having read many time the typical end-times biblical prophecies, almost all of the content of these lectures is new to me. I cannot say one way or the other that this priest is truly on target, but I find myself compelled to dig deeper. I will say one could find a lot of doom and gloom in these lectures, but I think there is ultimately a lot of hope, great hope in fact. Christ is Lord. God is sovereign. The end is known. Have faith.

[I have gathered together and posted these videos from Sensus Fidelium. I thought there may be value is presenting them as a unit. The priest’s voice is often quiet, headphones help.]

Again, let me repeat myself, it’s worth taking the time.

Lastly, these videos are by a traditional Catholic priest and they contain a traditional perspective on social and moral issues. Clearly this perspective is at odds with the mainstream narrative of our culture. I post these videos not as a wholesale endorsement, but as part of my process of learning about various perspectives in my pursuit of Truth.

This is one of the best (probably the best) series of lectures on Vatican II that I have come across. It is given by Fr Christopher Smith , S.T.D., who (according to OnePeterFive) “is the pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Taylors, SC. He is a member of the Church Music Association of America and contributes regularly to the Chant Café blog. He is also a member of the Catholic Theological Society of America and is a speaker on sacred music, liturgy, theology, and catechesis. In 2013 he was elected to the Society for Catholic Liturgy. In 2014 he was received into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem as a Chaplain.”

I find his lectures to be extremely fair and even handed. Although he gives some opinions, he avoids taking a polemical stance. This is good, for the council, and all that has come after it, has been a complex mess involving many good and faithful people. We should base our opinions on clarity and fact whenever we can.

Interesting, and probably sad, how affected Catholics are by the Second Vatican Council and yet have little knowledge of it or little time for listening to such a lecture series. I feel this is worth more than one listen. It would be wonderful if most parishes had similar lecture series. Of course that would take time and education that many priests just don’t have.

I’m reposting this, because it is so good. But also because we live in a society that has become a slave to sentimentality. This is also true of Christianity — sentimentality affects so much and we are so blind. O’Connor hated sentimentality. Ralph Wood speaks to this in the midst of so much else he says. A rich talk indeed.

flannery_oconnor_painting

A truly great lecture…

flannery

peasants

BTW, our eternal destiny — salvation or damnation — is based on the works we do.

huh?

Growing up in church* I frequently heard teaching that included something like this: “I know it may seem the passage (or verse) says X, but in fact it really means Y.” In other words, although on the surface it looks clear, don’t be fooled. Since we know that such and such doctrine must be true, we therefore know that this passage can’t really mean what it seems to mean. This kind of approach was most evident (to me at least) on the topic of faith versus works. Since, of course, we know we are saved by faith alone (sola fide) then we know passages that say we are saved by works must actually be saying something else.

But do they? A good question to ask is, if the writer (St. Paul, St. John, etc.) of any passage in question meant what one has now figured out it “really” means, then why did he write it the way he did? In other words, if the writers of the New Testament meant to say we are saved by faith alone, then why didn’t they write that way? So many times they wrote we are saved by works, as well as by faith, grace, mercy, baptism, etc., that one wonders how did they get their doctrine so messed up?! But of course their doctrine was correct, and it is we who must correct our thinking.

As an example of what I mean, below are examples where New testament writers (many of the words are from the mouth Christ) point to something other than sola fide.

Anyway, I too feel convicted of often letting myself off the hook thinking it doesn’t ultimately matter how I live my life as long as I have faith. It’s a trap I fall into too often. I think we all do. Perhaps it’s a human tendency, perhaps a product of my Protestant upbringing (though I see it everywhere). And caring to do good is not the same as doing good. Caring may be enough, I mean I’m going to fail again and again, so caring has got to count for something, but I wonder.

Some might say that God doesn’t intend us to actually do good works, only that we try, miserably fail of course, and then turn to Him. That that is the purpose of having good works set before us as a goal; not that we do them but that we try and learn we can’t. I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture.

Some might say that good works are fine, and of course we should do them, but they are ultimately meaningless, that any work we do is really worthless. Again, I don’t see that teaching clearly articulated in scripture. In fact, clearly the opposite.

What I do see are repeated calls to good works, and that those works are critically tied up in our eternal destiny, and our movement towards becoming one with Christ and holy like our Father is holy. I also see we are utterly sunk without God’s grace and mercy. But still, we are called to be holy, to do good works. Our eternal destiny depends on it.

Judgement and works brothers and sisters. What do we do with this? What do we do with these verses?

Matthew 7:19 “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . .”

Matthew 7:21 “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Note: See the next several verses (7:22-27) to get a fuller picture of the implications.

Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of man . . . will repay every man for what he has done.”

Matthew 25:34-36 “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” (cf. 25:31-33, 37-46)

Luke 3:9 “. . . every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

John 5:29 “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Romans 2:5-13 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,  but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-11 . . . inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and work of faith by his power, . . .

1 Peter 1:17 . . . who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, . . .

Revelation 2:23 . . . I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.

Revelation 20:12 . . . And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. (cf. 20:11-13)

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Revelation 22:12 Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.

Those are just a few of many passages.

Peasant's Head
darn

*Sometimes I joke that I was moved from the hospital directly to the First Baptist church nursery, such was my experience.

Do we use creeds to protect us from others, from the world? Or do our creeds give us the freedom to risk love, even to risk God? Do we grab tightly to faith statements out of a need to control the world around us rather than truly taking up our crosses and following our Lord where ever he goes, even to a total trust in the Father?

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Throughout the history of Christianity, how one views the Bible has been a key indicator of one’s stance towards Christian orthodoxy. For example, whether one takes the Bible as being inspired by God or not means a great deal to most Christians and has been one of the primary lines drawn in the sand over the centuries. Given the contentious history of debates over scripture (and over the divinity of Christ, the sacraments, etc.)  the existence of the great creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene, etc.) come as no surprise. It is also not surprising that many individual churches (esp. Protestant)  and various Christian organizations (such as schools) adopt “statements of faith” or minor creeds that highlight where they stand on key issues. [As an aside it is worth noting that for many Protestant churches, especially non-denominational, evangelical, and various Baptists, these minor creeds or statements of faith are the only creeds used, since there is a tendency within these groups to avoid the traditional creeds of the historical church for various reasons of which their members are largely unaware.]

Here is the first paragraph of a Statement of Faith (SOF) used by a Christian educational organization of which our family is a part:

All Scripture is self-attesting and being Truth, requires our unreserved submission in all areas of life. The infallible Word of God, the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is a complete and unified witness to God’s redemptive acts culminating in the incarnation of the Living Word, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, is the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks.

Notice the key words employed: self-attesting, Truth, submission in all areas of life, infallible, Word of God, complete and unified, uniquely and fully inspired, supreme and final authority. Also notice that sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are called out, and that scripture applies to “all matters on which it speaks.” Without going into depth here, it is clear that this SOF’s provenance is of the Reformed/Protestant worldview (only 66 books instead of 73, Scripture is the “supreme and final authority” instead of the Church, etc). And it should be noted that even within traditional, conservative, Protestant Christianity, there is not a little debate over each of the words and phrases above, especially regarding “all matters on which it speaks” — which itself is a highly debated phrase. Notice one other thing: the omission of the idea of “literal interpretation.” I do not believe this omission is an oversight.

The idea of taking the Bible literally has its own history and debates, and sharp lines have been drawn. In particular, those of the more Fundamentalist persuasion (such as many Baptists and many American Evangelicals) have tended toward a literalist interpretation in their battles against the theory of evolution. The history here is key, and demonstrates that the argument, at least for the Fundamentalists, has been largely defined by the evolutionists. The literalist stance is an historically recent phenomenon, and is essentially a reactionary position. The literalist is more likely to interpret the first chapter of Genesis as clearly speaking of a literal six-day creation story, and must therefore logically hold to a staunchly anti-evolution (and battle-hardened) position  On the other hand, a non-literalist, who may also be just as against Darwin’s theory of evolution as the Fundamentalist, will be more open to the idea that the six days of creation could, for example, be a poetic description of six ages rather than days (both views presupposing God as sovereign creator). And we should keep in mind that an anti-evolution argument based on a literal interpretation of Genesis is very different than an anti-evolution position based on scientific principles and logical arguments. Keep in mind as well that many orthodox Christians see evolution as a potentially valid explanation of one way God actively works in His creation. But that’s another topic for another day.

Bible believing Christians continue to debate these issues, with some Christians believing there is room for interpretation and some who do not. Those who do not also tend to draw lines in terms of authentic belief along the literalist divide. In other words, and for various reasons, the literalists will tend to equate authentic Christian belief with their literalist perspective—all non-literalists are questionably Christian at best. It doesn’t take much to show that this equation lacks both from the reasonableness of good logic and from an understanding of how the biblical authors themselves understood Holy Scriptures. But convictions run deep in times of war, and Fundamentalists are, for better or worse, at war.

From the SOF above we can conclude three things: a) it is unambiguously of the Reformed/Protestant worldview, b) it is, however, not of the more narrow Fundamentalist worldview, at least in terms of demanding a literalist interpretation of scripture, and c) while making clear demands in terms of infallibility and inspiration, it does not demand strict interpretive rules (whether in terms of literalism or other approaches), and thus does not preclude some variance among adherents to the SOF in understanding Genesis 1 (or other passages of scripture). Thus, while clearly stating there are certain key points on which the organization will not budge, there are other points on which it allows for some flexibility in light of the SOF as a whole.

Why bring up this SOF? We have recently had the privilege to clarify our own beliefs within a Christian community because of some accusations of unbelief leveled at one of its members who is in a leadership position, leveled in light of the SOF above. (It’s not the only issue on the table, but it’s one of the biggest.)  One of the points of tension specifically pitted the literalist perspective of the accusers against the non-literalist perspective of the accused.  Though this is an old debate, it caught the accused off guard and reminded me that the literalist perspective is alive and well. (Keep in mind the accusations were leveled in a relatively loving style, though if it was actually loving is questionable.)

Typically those in leadership and/or positions of responsibility within a Christian organization are asked to faithfully adhere to that organization’s statement of faith. This is a generally accepted practice. And certainly, if one  in such a position has sworn an oath or signed a contract to adhere to a statement of faith, then one should keep one’s word or probably abdicate one’s position. It is important to know what one has sworn to uphold, but also what one has not sworn to uphold. Consequently, some such organizations take the crafting of their statements of faith very seriously by being careful in the words used and, just as important, the words not used. And yet, most Christian websites I’ve perused seem to put up statements of faith by merely copying them from other Christian organizations’ web sites, such as the SOF above (at least the portion shown). Regardless, for those who are unfamiliar or unaware of the historical battles fought over creedal language, it may come as a surprise when issues flair up and heated debates begin to rage. For this reason some Christians are anti-creedal, but this is throwing out the baby with the bath water for reasons I can’t go into here.

It may also come as a surprise when an individual within an organization, who is understood as being a true brother or sister in Christ is, nonetheless, asked to leave the organization over a particular point in a statement of faith. Sometimes the breach is significant and warrants serious evaluation. Many times, however, the issue revolves around expectations particular only to a specific group or individual, or specific interpretations of vague or even missing language, and even in terms of matters of style. We forget how much of our judging of other Christians comes from whether they look and talk like us. And, as happens in these situations, the literalist position assumes a whole host of necessary implications stemming from the non-literalist stance — such as the non-literalist MUST be a relativist at heart, shaky in his/her faith, on the verge of denying both the inspiration and infallibility of scripture, and willing to make the Bible say whatever is convenient. Only conformance to the narrow creed or expulsion from the group are the options offered — and not offered out of anger, but out of a perceived fidelity to faith.

Perhaps it is more serious when contentions arise from an overreaching of the SOF by imposing expectations not specified or clearly stated in the SOF. In other words, if individuals within an organization demand either a particular interpretation of an SOF (when there is, in fact, legitimate room for a breadth of application), or claim the SOF implies language (such as a literal interpretation of scripture) not actually stated in the SOF, then it becomes too easy for some to make perhaps unintended, and yet unscrupulous, choices or, perhaps worse, wield a kind of destructive power within an organization for their own purposes, however noble they may be perceived. It may be interesting to consider who, in these kinds of Christian power-play politics, is the weaker brother—though that kind of thinking inevitably goes both ways and should call all to repentance and humility.

Sometimes the accusations merely come from a misunderstanding of the role the SOF is meant to play within an organization. It is too common within Christian organizations that SOF’s are seen (or assumed) as designating the faith of the adherents—though this is a highly questionable, and probably un-biblical position for faith is much more of a mystery. Even those with faith often don’t truly know they have faith until trials and suffering reveals it to them. Nonetheless, we tend to like shortcuts to making judgements than doing the hard work of relationships. Also, and this is a critical distinction, in many educational organizations, including the one in which we participate, the SOF is technically an academic requirement, not a measure of faith. In other words, tutors declare with their signatures that they will teach in accordance with, and in light of, the SOF—but they are not required to believe everything in it personally. If they deviate or transgress their obligation of adherence, which can happen for any number of rather innocuous reasons, then very often a course correction is warranted rather expulsion from their role within the organization. This means that, for example, an Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian tutor could fulfill the requirements of the SOF above by adhering to the academic requirements in a faithful manner, though the SOF is essentially Protestant. Whether such a person would want to do this, or would actually be free to do this, is another matter. This in not to dismiss the importance of creeds actually representing, in some important way, the faith held by the adherents, for this is no small thing. But those calling for expulsion over creeds all too often have convoluted the academic (or other organizational) requirement with personal faith, and thus jump to equating the external with the internal, and blown up minor points of interpretation into outsized issues.

Sadly, what happens, and in this case has happened, is to accuse others of unbelief. Or, more specifically, to say the individual is an unbeliever, which often means (and in this case is meant to mean), to say this individual is damned. That’s a strong word, and it often is avoided with language like “I don’t doubt we are all believers here” or “I know you love God” and then inevitably followed with the big “but, you see…” That language is, ironically, only meant to fool the one’s using it. The problem here is that none of us can know if another is “saved”. That is up to God alone. But it is a big temptation to put oneself in the place of God, to level the finger at others and declare “I see through you.” Creeds can become a handy weapon in the hands of unscrupulous Christians. The irony in this particular situation, and I imagine in many others similar ones, is that the accused, by his responses and demeanor, has exhibited more Christ-like behavior than some of the accusers. The problem may merely be that his demeanor is very a-typical for middle-class, Protestant, Fundamentalist society, and therefore is a natural target. But it is a common occurrence for any of us to have both Christ-like behavior and a creed displayed before us, and to choose the creed over Christ.

An important question all of us must ask, especially those of us in positions of influence withing Christian organizations, is whether our intentions and actions truly correspond with those of Christ. If we are honest, we must conclude they often do not. In fact, more frequently than we want to admit, or are even capable of seeing, we tend more towards the attitude of the Pharisees than of Christ. We tend to live in fear while calling it prudence or even wisdom. Fear is corrosive. This is true especially when it comes to how we educate our children, and thus plays a big role in many Christian schools (including the pressure put on schools by fearful parents). And finding the balance in love is extremely difficult. We want to guard our children’s hearts, but education also requires risk—and I don’t mean it sometimes can gets risky, like straying inadvertently into a minefield, but that education requires risk from the beginning.

Given this fact, it is not inconceivable to think that Christian Fundamentalism (and much of American Evangelicalism) is probably incompatible with the Classical Christian Education model. This is a separate issue, but it resides at the heart of much of what our family is about.

A question each of us might ask is whether we have entrenched ourselves within a creed because it is easier to do that than to risk trusting in God. One of the great ironies of the history of creeds is that they were typically, traditionally created for the purpose of finding as much room for inclusion within the Body of Christ as possible, but then tended to be wielded for the purpose of exclusion. In other words, an activity whose origin is for unity is eventually employed for division. This is the result of that common occurrence whereby we Christians (yes, all of us are affected at one time or another) tend to slide from freedom in Christ to pharisaism.  This slide, which is fundamentally the result of fear, unfortunately represents much of the history of the Church and has torn too many Christians, and Christian organizations, apart. As the old saying goes, those who do not study history are destined to repeat it.

I want to explore a common misunderstanding.

Question: Is it true that the author of the letter to the Hebrews proclaims the Bible to be “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”? I grew up believing that it is, and I hear today from some Christians, mostly Protestants, that it is. But is that what this verse means?

No. That is a misinterpretation of that passage.

If we read Hebrews 4:12 in its context (see all of chapter 4 below) it becomes apparent that the issue at hand is whether the readers of this letter will enter into the “sabbath rest” because they have heard the word of God and obeyed it, or whether they will fail to enter that rest because, after hearing that word, they reject it and fall into disobedience. The author of Hebrews draws the connection up front: “For good news came to us just as to them”. And the problem of those who failed to enter God’s rest is because the good news “did not meet with faith in the hearers”. The author makes the comparison with those of the past ages by bringing up the creation story, Joshua, and David. When he says, “and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience,” he wants his readers to understand the history of this good news, that it has been there from the beginning, is here today, and that all are called to respond. He wants his readers to respond positively and enter into God’s rest. He even says, “let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.”

So why is this “word of God” not the Bible? First, we should remember that the phrase “word of God” is often used in Scriptures to mean Christ; see John’s Gospel chapter 1: “In the Beginning was the Word…” and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. The phrase is more often used to mean the Gospel, or message of salvation: “And the word of God increased…” (Acts 6:7), “But it is not as though the word of God had failed.” (Romans 9:6), “…are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear.” (Philippians 1:14), “But the word of God is not fettered.” (2 Timothy 2:9), and many more. None of these passages diminish the Holy Scriptures, but it is clear that in the minds of the Apostles the phrase “word of God” has everything to do with what has been proclaimed by God since the beginning and what was being proclaimed to the world by the apostles, namely Christ.

If this is true, then we should ask what does it mean that this word of God “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Think of how many times in the New Testament, particularly in the Acts of the Apostles, that upon hearing the Gospel people respond (remarkably, miraculously) with belief: the Gospel is proclaimed and, along with the work of the Holy Spirit, the hearers are cut to the quick, convicted of their sins, repent, and seek reconciliation with God. That is the power of this Gospel. The author of Hebrews says, “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” To be open to that “word” is to be on the path to God’s rest. The other option is to harden one’s heart and turn away in disobedience.

Does the Bible proclaim the Word of God? Absolutely! Are the Holy Scriptures one the “tools” God uses to convict sinners of their need for repentance, as well as of the incredible mercy of God? Yes! The Bible is our primary source for the teachings of the prophets of God, of the Apostles, and of Christ Himself. But, according to the author of Hebrews, the word of God is “living”, that is, it is the continuing proclamation of the Gospel through the ages, actively promoted by the Holy Spirit through the words and witness of the followers of Christ. The “word of God” is the good news, the promise of salvation, the Gospel. And that good news is is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.

Hebrews 4

¹ Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them; but the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall never enter my rest,’”

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way, “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this place he said,

“They shall never enter my rest.”

6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he sets a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, when you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.”

8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later of another day. 9 So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God; 10 for whoever enters God’s rest also ceases from his labors as God did from his.

11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Final thoughts:

Growing up a Protestant I know the lingo and presuppositions that pervade that sub-world, and lifting up the scriptures above all else is a big one. Now, Christians have always had a high view of the Holy Scriptures, and this is as it should be. For “God is the author of Sacred Scripture. ‘The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'” (CCC 105) Protestants often claim to have a higher view of the Holy Scriptures than non-Protestants. Sola Scriptura is the classic rallying cry of Protestantism. Hebrews 4:12 is one of the popular texts frequently used to argue for this unique place of scripture as against tradition. Perhaps other arguments can be offered for this perspective, but Hebrews 4:12 offers none.

Why bring this up? Recently I have had the privilege of being in the midst of a debate on how to teach the theory of evolution within a Christian Classical Education context. Central to the debate is how we are to interpret scripture. All involved proclaim the importance of the Bible and see it as the inspired word of God. Not all agree, however, as to the specific nuances of what that means. I am inclined to see Holy inspiration as being more mysterious and unknowable than some. But the real crux came not about whether the Bible is the word of God, but rather what method of interpretation should one employ. In other words, some assumed that a literal interpretation — especially in regards to the first chapter of Genesis — was required in order to also assume inspiration and infallibility (an assumption that doesn’t make sense to me), and were surprised to realize that not everyone, including the tutor, held their perspective. In fact, the subtext, which remained barely below the surface (and not really below the surface at all) called into question the “authentic belief” of those who were not literalists. At one point Hebrews 4:12 was tossed on the table with almost the wave of a hand in order to champion the high place of Holy Scripture. The irony was that the true meaning of Hebrew 4:12 — that is, the deep and profound embracing of the Word of God through the conviction of the Holy Spirit resulting in a heart that loves truth and loves God — was evidenced by the non-literalist tutor in the responses given to serious accusations.

Perhaps the tendency to see the Bible as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” is because some like the idea of the Bible being a weapon against the world, of cutting others to the heart, of fighting the good fight. But to see this living, two-edged sword instead as the Word of God, as that which convicts and lays bare, as that which calls each of us to repentance, is to weep and call upon God for mercy. One perspective attacks, the other welcomes; one pushes away, the other embraces; one emerges out of fear, the other out of love.

My desire is that I would be someone who embraces the word of God. As a parent I am faced continually with the question: How do I model this for my children, how do I live it before them?

Finally, let us remember with humility, as the passage in Hebrews above begins, that “while the promise of entering his rest remains, let us fear lest any of you be judged to have failed to reach it.” The clear implication is that some of us will start of this journey to God’s rest and then fail to enter it. Perhaps that is because we hear the Gospel, embrace it at one level, but fail to love others as Christ loved us. God have mercy.

The following is from FAMILIARIS CONSORTIO:

The Right and Duty of Parents Regarding Education

36. The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a fully human life. As the Second Vatican Council recalled, “since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring. Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and others that a well-rounded personal and social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those social virtues which every society needs.”(99)

The right and duty of parents to give education is essential, since it is connected with the transmission of human life; it is original and primary with regard to the educational role of others, on account of the uniqueness of the loving relationship between parents and children; and it is irreplaceable and inalienable, and therefore incapable of being entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.

In addition to these characteristics, it cannot be forgotten that the most basic element, so basic that it qualifies the educational role of parents, is parental love, which finds fulfillment in the task of education as it completes and perfects its service of life: as well as being a source, the parents’ love is also the animating principle and therefore the norm inspiring and guiding all concrete educational activity, enriching it with the values of kindness, constancy, goodness, service, disinterestedness and self-sacrifice that are the most precious fruit of love.

This gets to the heart of why we have chosen to homeschool our children.

The Apostle Peter is a fascinating man in the New Testament. In the Protestant world it is common for pastors to say they love Peter because he was such a  goof-up. Peter gives us all kinds of hope that any of us can be saved. But anyone who has grown up in, or spent a lot of time in, the Protestant world and worldview knows it is Paul who is Apostle number one. There are at least two good reasons for this. One is that Paul wrote those books of the Bible that are most central for Protestants: Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, etc. Second is that Protestants are wary of Peter because Catholics say the true Church founded by Christ was founded upon Peter (the rock) as the first of the apostles, as the first “pope”. Get too close to Peter and one might be tempted to think Catholics are on to something.

But Peter is a big deal. To my count Peter is mentioned in the New Testament something like 155 times, whereas the rest of the apostles combined are only mentioned around 130 times. Of course mere numbers don’t necessarily add up to importance. It’s how Peter is mentioned, what he does, what he says, what others say about him, and especially what Christ says to Peter that show Peter is the central Apostle, the key figure of the New Testament Church. As we look at the Biblical references to Peter the picture begins to fill out.

An aside: I have heard many Protestant teachings on the famous Matthew 16:18 passage where Jesus says “upon this rock I will build My church.” That passage in isolation can be taken any number of ways. But after looking at a more complete picture of Peter as the New Testament writers saw him, I must say the Roman Catholic understanding of Peter as the Rock upon which Christ will build His Church makes the most sense. In fact, even without this particular passage, the other passages below add up to the same idea. Rather than seeing the Catholic position as some kind of crazy overlay to this passage, it now seems clear to me that it is the Protestants who must come up with a better argument. So far I have not heard anything better. Of course, this makes me, an old Protestant, very curious.

Below are the New Testament references I was able to find regarding Peter. I have tried to group them a bit, and added a few of my thoughts. I have not ranked them in any particular order. I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes. All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

Peter listed/mentioned first with the apostles

Peter being mentioned or listed first among the apostles:

Matt. 10:2  Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;
Mark 1:36  Simon and his companions searched for Him;
Mark 3:16  And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter),
Luke 6:14-16  Simon, whom He also named Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James and John; and Philip and Bartholomew;  and Matthew and Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot; Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Acts 2:37  Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”
Acts 5:29  But Peter and the apostles answered, “ We must obey God rather than men.

Peter is first when entering upper room after our Lord’s ascension:

Acts 1:13  When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James.

Peter leads the fishing and his net does not break. According to Catholics, the boat (the “barque of Peter”) is seen as a metaphor for the Church:

John 21:2-3  Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come with you.” They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing.
John 21:11  Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.

Though Peter and John are both very important figures in the early church, Peter is always mentioned before John:

Luke 8:51  When He came to the house, He did not allow anyone to enter with Him, except Peter and John and James, and the girl’s father and mother.
Luke 9:28  Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
Luke 22:8  And Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, so that we may eat it.”
Acts 1:13  When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James.
Acts 3:1-4  Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer. And a man who had been lame from his mother’s womb was being carried along, whom they used to set down every day at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, in order to beg alms of those who were entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms. But Peter, along with John, fixed his gaze on him and said, “Look at us!”
Acts 3:3  When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he began asking to receive alms.
Acts 3:11  While he was clinging to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them at the so-called portico of Solomon, full of amazement.
Acts 4:13  Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.
Acts 4:19  But Peter and John answered and said to them, “ Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;
Acts 8:14  Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,

Peter is mentioned first as going to mountain of transfiguration. He is also the only disciple to speak at the transfiguration:

Luke 9:28  Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
Luke 9:33  And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, “ Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah”— not realizing what he was saying.

Peter is the first of the apostles to confess the divinity of Christ:

Matt. 16:16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Mark 8:29  And He continued by questioning them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
John 6:69  We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”

Peter ranked(?) higher than John

John arrived at the tomb first but stopped and waited for Peter. Peter then arrived and entered the tomb first:

Luke 24:12  But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened.
John 20:4-6  The two were running together; and the other disciple ran ahead faster than Peter and came to the tomb first; and stooping and looking in, he saw the linen wrappings lying there; but he did not go in. And so Simon Peter also came, following him, and entered the tomb; and he saw the linen wrappings lying there,

It is Peter that is named as the eye witness even though both Peter and John had seen the risen Jesus the previous hour:

Luke 24:34  saying, “ The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.”

Peter seen as the Leader of the Apostles

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks Peter, and no one else, why he was asleep. It would seem Peter is held accountable, on behalf of the apostles, for their actions:

Mark 14:37  And He came and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour?

Peter is designated (called out) by an angel as unique among the apostles:

Mark 16:7  But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘ He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’”

Peter receiving Special Instruction and Revelation

Peter alone is told he has received special, divine revelation from God the Father:

Matt. 16:17  And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

Jesus instructs the disciples by specifically instructing Peter to let down their nets for a catch. Peter specifically is told he will be a “fisher of men”:

Luke 5:4,10  When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch… and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “ Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.”

Peter speaking/Asking on Behalf of the Disciples

Peter asks Jesus about the rule of forgiveness. Peter frequently takes a leadership role among the apostles in seeking understanding of Jesus’ teachings:

Matt. 18:21  Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”

Peter speaks on behalf of the apostles by telling Jesus that they have left everything to follow Him:

Matt. 19:27  Then Peter said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?”

Peter speaks for the disciples on their following Jesus:

Mark 10:28  Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.”

Peter speaks for the disciples about their witnessing Jesus’ curse on the fig tree:

Mark 11:21  Being reminded, Peter said to Him, “ Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.”

Peter functions as the spokesman or representative (or vicar, to use popular a Catholic term) for Jesus:

Matt. 17:24-25  When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?” He *said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?”

When Jesus asked who touched His garment, it is Peter who answers:

Luke 8:45  And Jesus said, “Who is the one who touched Me?” And while they were all denying it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing in on You.”

It is Peter who seeks clarification of a parable on behalf on the disciples:

Luke 12:41  Peter said, “Lord, are You addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well?”

After many of the disciples leave Jesus, it is Peter who speaks on behalf of the remaining disciples and confesses their belief in Christ after the Eucharistic discourse:

John 6:68 Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.

Peter as Christ’s Representative on Earth

Protestants debate this, but it would seems that Jesus builds the Church primarily (only?) on Peter, the rock:

Matt. 16:18  I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

Only Peter receives the keys of the kingdom of heaven:

Matt. 16:19  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Peter, by paying the tax for both Jesus and himself, is acting Christ’s “representative” on earth:

Matt. 17:26-27  When Peter said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.”

Peter given charge/care of the other disciples

Jesus prays specifically for Peter, that his faith may not fail, and charges him to strengthen the rest of the apostles:

Luke 22:31-32  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

In front of the apostles, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Jesus “more than these,” which likely refers to the other apostles. Peter has a special role regarding the apostles:

John 21:15  So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.”

Jesus charges Peter to “feed my lambs,” “tend my sheep,” “feed my sheep.” Sheep appears to mean all people (or all believers), including the apostles:

John 21:15-17  So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He *said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “ Shepherd My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “ Tend My sheep.

Peter Leading the Early Church

Peter initiates the selection of a successor to Judas immediately after Jesus ascended into heaven. Note: This passage also supports (or establishes) the concept of apostolic succession:

Acts 1:15  At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said,

Peter is the first apostle to preach the Gospel:

Acts 2:14  But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words.

Peter is the first to preach on repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ:

Acts 2:38  Peter said to them, “ Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Peter performs the first healing miracle of the apostles:

Acts 3:6-7  But Peter said, “I do not possess silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you: In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—walk!” And seizing him by the right hand, he raised him up; and immediately his feet and his ankles were strengthened.

Peter is the first to teach that there is no salvation other than through Christ:

Acts 3:12-26  But when Peter saw this, he replied to the people, “Men of Israel, why are you amazed at this, or why do you gaze at us, as if by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses. And on the basis of faith in His name, it is the name of Jesus which has strengthened this man whom you see and know; and the faith which comes through Him has given him this perfect health in the presence of you all. And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also. But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. Moses said, ‘ The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed to everything He says to you. And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.’ And likewise, all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and his successors onward, also announced these days. It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘ And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.”

Acts 4:8-12  Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”

Peter resolves the first doctrinal issue on circumcision at the Church’s first council at Jerusalem, and no one questions him. After Peter the Papa spoke, all were kept silent:

Acts 15:7-12  After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Only after Peter finishes speaking do Paul and Barnabas speak in support of Peter’s definitive teaching:

Acts 15:12  All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

The church prayed for Peter while he was in prison:

Acts 12:5  So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the church to God.

Peter acts as the chief elder (or bishop?) by exhorting all the other elders of the Church:

1 Peter 5:1  Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed,

Peter brings the Gospel to the Gentiles

Peter is first Apostle to teach that salvation is for all, both Jews and Gentiles:

Acts 10:34-48 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)— you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “ Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days.

Acts 11:1-18  Now the apostles and the brethren who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those who were circumcised took issue with him, saying, “ You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began speaking and proceeded to explain to them in orderly sequence, saying, “ I was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object coming down like a great sheet lowered by four corners from the sky; and it came right down to me, and when I had fixed my gaze on it and was observing it I saw the four-footed animals of the earth and the wild beasts and the crawling creatures and the birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord, for nothing unholy or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a voice from heaven answered a second time, ‘ What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.’ This happened three times, and everything was drawn back up into the sky. And behold, at that moment three men appeared at the house in which we were staying, having been sent to me from Caesarea. The Spirit told me to go with them [m] without misgivings. These six brethren also went with me and we entered the man’s house. And he reported to us how he had seen the angel standing in his house, and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and have Simon, who is also called Peter, brought here; and he will speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘ John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”

Peter binds and looses

Peter exercises his binding authority by declaring the first anathema of Ananias and Sapphira (which is ratified by God):

Acts 5:3  But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land?

Peter again exercises his binding and loosing authority by casting judgment on Simon’s quest for gaining authority through the laying on of hands:

Acts 8:20-23  But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

Peter heals others

Peter’s own shadow has healing power:

Acts 5:15  to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them.

Peter is mentioned first among the apostles and works the healing of Aeneas:

Acts 9:32-34  Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years, for he was paralyzed. Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed.” Immediately he got up.

Peter is mentioned first among the apostles and raises Tabitha from the dead:

Acts 9:38-40  Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, having heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him, imploring him, “Do not delay in coming to us.” So Peter arose and went with them. When he arrived, they brought him into the upper room; and all the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing all the tunics and garments that Dorcas used to make while she was with them. But Peter sent them all out and knelt down and prayed, and turning to the body, he said, “ Tabitha, arise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter, she sat up.

Angels are active in Peter’s life and ministry

Cornelius is told by an angel to call upon Peter. Peter was granted this divine vision:

Acts 10:5  Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter;

Peter is freed from jail by an angel. He is the first Apostle to receive direct divine intervention:

Acts 12:6-11  On the very night when Herod was about to bring him forward, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and guards in front of the door were watching over the prison. And behold, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared and a light shone in the cell; and he struck Peter’s side and woke him up, saying, “Get up quickly.” And his chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, “Gird yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they had passed the first and second guard, they came to the iron gate that leads into the city, which opened for them by itself; and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel departed from him. When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I know for sure that the Lord has sent forth His angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.”

Other Apostles Testify to Peter’s Teaching and Leadership

James speaks to acknowledge Peter’s definitive teaching. “Simeon” is a reference to Peter:

Acts 15:13-14  After they had stopped speaking, James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.

Paul says he doesn’t want to build on “another man’s foundation” which may refer to Peter and the church Peter may have built in Rome:

Rom. 15:20  And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation;

Paul distinguishes Peter from the rest of the apostles and brethren:

1 Cor. 9:5  Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Paul distinguishes Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to Peter from those of the other apostles:

1 Cor. 15:4-8  and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

Paul spends fifteen days with Peter privately before beginning his ministry. This comes even after Christ’s revelation to Paul. Paul needed Peter’s acceptance and blessing:

Gal. 1:18  Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.

Interesting

Peter is the only man to walk on water other than Christ:

Matt. 14:28-29  Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus.

Jesus teaches from Peter’s boat. The boat may be a metaphor for the Church, the so-called “barque of Peter”:

Luke 5:3  And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat.

Peter speaks out to the Lord in front of the apostles concerning the washing of feet:

John 13:6-9  So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “ If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter *said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”

Only Peter got out of the boat and ran to the shore to meet Jesus:

John 21:7  Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea.

Jesus predicts Peter’s death:

John 13:36  Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, where are You going?” Jesus answered, “ Where I go, you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later.”
John 21:18  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will gird you, and bring you where you do not wish to go.”

Peter is mentioned first in conferring the sacrament of confirmation:

Acts 8:14  Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John,

Peter was most likely in Rome. “Babylon” was often used as a code word for Rome:

1 Peter 5:13  She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings, and so does my son, Mark.

Peter writes about Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death:

2 Peter 1:14  knowing that the laying aside of my earthly dwelling is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.

Peter makes a judgement of Paul’s letters:

2 Peter 3:16  as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

Peter was the first among the Apostles, perhaps struggled with that position at times, but proved to be the servant of all:

Matt. 23:11  But the greatest among you shall be your servant.
Mark 9:35  Sitting down, He called the twelve and *said to them, “ If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”
Mark 10:44  and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all.

The following quote is from Marcus Grodi’s testimony on how he journeyed from being a Presbyterian pastor to being a Catholic:

Every Sunday I would stand in my pulpit and interpret Scripture for my flock, knowing that within a fifteen mile radius of my church there were dozens of other Protestant pastors—all of whom believed that the Bible alone is the sole authority for doctrine and practice—but each was teaching something different from what I was teaching. “Is my interpretation of Scripture the right one or not?” I’d wonder. “Maybe one of those other pastors is right, and I’m misleading these people who trust me.”

I don’t want to make a judgement here on Grodi’s conversion to Catholicism, but I do think this quote captures the tension in brief of what every Protestant minister feels, or should feel, when he (or she) steps into the pulpit.

Found in Surprised by Truth, ed. by Patrick Madrid, page 38.

It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

I’m pondering the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist−something I know nothing about. I begin with a couple of passages, one from the Gospel of John and the other from Pope John Paul II.

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:48-56).

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity. Ever since Pentecost, when the Church, the People of the New Covenant, began her pilgrim journey towards her heavenly homeland, the Divine Sacrament has continued to mark the passing of her days, filling them with confident hope.

Pope John Paul II, from the intro to his encyclical: Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Last Communion of St. Jerome (frag.) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1494-1495)

So… is Christ really present in the Eucharist? The Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is the belief that Jesus Christ is literally, not merely symbolically, present in the Holy Eucharist—body, blood, soul and divinity. But many Protestants believe the Eucharist is merely symbolic, that the real presence of Christ is not in the bread and wine. What makes the most sense−real presence or merely symbolic? Did Jesus mean us to understand his words as pointing to a symbolic rather than a literal interpretation?

Consider these verses

  • (John 6:53-56 RSV) So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; {54} he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. {55} For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. {56} He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
    • In the Aramaic language that Our Lord spoke, to symbolically “eat the flesh” or “drink the blood” of someone meant to persecute or assault them. See the following… (Psa 27:2 KJV) When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
  • (Isa 9:18-20 RSV) For wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest, and they roll upward in a column of smoke. {19} Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts the land is burned, and the people are like fuel for the fire; no man spares his brother. {20} They snatch on the right, but are still hungry, and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied; each devours his neighbor’s flesh,
  • (Isa 49:26 RSV) I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
  • (Micah 3:3 RSV) who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron.
  • (2 Sam 23:17 RSV) “Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
  • (Rev 17:6 RSV) And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.
  • (Rev 17:16 NIV) The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.

Thus, if Jesus were only speaking symbolically about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, as the Protestants say, then what He really meant was “whoever persecutes and assaults me will have eternal life” − which, of course, makes nonsense of the passage!

Bread and wine are not normal or natural symbols of flesh and blood. To call a man a “fox” is an understandable symbol for cleverness. To call a man “bread” is not an understandable symbol, without some explanation. Either the symbols would have been clearly explained (which is not the case) or Jesus spoke literally (which is the case!).

I found the text above here. Although I think it possible that Christ was creating a new metaphor to understand a new symbolic act, the argument above makes enough sense that a quick dismissal of a literal understanding seems foolhardy. Minimally the doctrine deserves a close look rather than the wave-of-the-hand dismissal I was taught to give as a Baptist and semi-Reformed Christian.

Still, while I wonder if the Protestant position suffers from certain anemia, I also wonder if the Catholic position is too much of a forced overlay on the text. Sometimes it feels that way (I say this with little understanding). I do not yet have an answer.

Last Supper (1446) by Fra Angelico

Although I am not sure where I stand, my leanings are toward a more Catholic view. My Baptist training taught me to understand communion (God forbid we call it the Eucharist) as a merely symbolic act−something we did only 4 times a year with tiny crackers and tiny plastic cups of grape juice. Some Protestants might chafe at saying communion is “merely symbolic” by arguing that it is a symbolic act loaded with meaning, but once we turn our remembering of the incredible sacrifice of Christ into a liturgical activity without anything deeper than an act of outward piety and an inward emotional moment, then it is only “merely symbolic.” It cannot be anything more, except on a personal, emotional level, which is what so much of Christianity has become in the past 150 years. But should we see the Eucharist (or communion) as nothing more than a Christian version of saluting the flag or shooting off fireworks? Is it more than merely a memorial (not to denigrate memorials)? Sometimes I think the Catholic Eucharist, that is, the real presence, is calling to me. In fact I’m rather sure it is.

My more recent quasi-Reformed non-denominational non-liturgical almost-not-a-church experiences were fundamentally, and I should say radically, non-sacramental. Thus communion was extremely rare and only symbolic. Sadly, on the few occasions that we did have communion in a formal sense it felt strange. On the one hand it seemed like it didn’t belong (what a strange thing for us to be doing). On the other hand I, and I think many others in the group, had strong positive emotions to the act such that I wondered why we didn’t do it more often. The more I look back the more I realize a kind of hollowness of culture in that communion experience (and in the more general experience with that group of “doing” church), though the friendships are real and good. If I am right about that hollowness, then it follows the teaching (which was the primary reason for that “church’s” meeting on Sundays), however excellent in many ways, must also be skewed toward some level of falsehood. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I was blessed frequently by the teaching, but just like bad Christian art evidences bad theology, I wonder about an anemic church culture−what does it declare? Is it an essential kind of purity and clarity of understanding, or a malnourished and truncated offspring of the Reformation? Personally I have felt malnourished for years.

My most recent experience is in a church that celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday. I love this. Where has this practice been all my life? And even though some emphasis is placed on preaching, the whole liturgy points to, and culminates in, the Lord’s table. There is something right about this that words don’t fully convey. But it is still not Catholic, which may or many not be an issue, but it has me curious. Do we have the real presence at our Lord’s table?

I have been trained to think there is no real presence, except for Jesus in my heart (which is a very vague doctrine if we pause to think about it). The problem is that if one has been trained to think a certain way, then one is predisposed to presume some doctrines are more likely true and some must obviously be false. I was trained to presume that all things Catholic must obviously be false. So the difficulty of accepting the real presence as true may come more from a deeply ingrained refusal to accept it because it is a Catholic doctrine rather than from good arguments and evidence. But isn’t that the typical response of Protestants confronting Catholicism? Maybe it is a typical defense mechanism of anyone comfortable in their social group. I have been feeling less and less comfortable in the Protestant Christianity in which I live, thus my defenses are lowering.

Why is it the more I study Church history, Christian classical education, theology, and the lives of notable Christians, I keep finding more and more heroes that are Catholic? Why is it that again and again comparisons show me the poverty of Protestant culture (not entirely) and the richness of Catholic culture? This has me very curious.

Finally:

“That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that ‘cannot be apprehended by the senses,’ says St. Thomas, ‘but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.’ For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 (‘This is my body which is given for you.’), St. Cyril says: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.'”

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

So which is true, real presence or merely symbolic?

This timeline only covers some Greek, Latin, and English translations. And there’s really only a handful of the available English translations. Still it’s fascinating.

[UPDATE: My friend Kim says this timeline is incorrect. Some of the connections are wrong and some critical pieces are missing. Even though there should be nothing wrong with the diagram since I found it on the Internet (and the Internet never lies) I trust Kim’s judgement.]

Click (or click twice) to enlarge:

I would love to read Latin well enough to read St. Jerome’s translation.

I found this timeline here.

I have been reading through The Iliad of Homer as part of the CiRCE Apprenticeship. This is my first time through the book and I am thoroughly enjoying the reading. Enjoying may not be a strong enough word. At the beginning of the journey we were asked one simple questions: Is Achilleus over-reacting? (I am using the translator Richard Lattimore’s spellings of the names.) What a little question, and yet it has sparked so much discussion. We are still answering it. The following short essay is an exploration, though obliquely, of that question.


Modern man struggles with the rage of Achilleus. We think we understand why he is upset, but after a few books of Homer’s Iliad, and a lot of pages with Achilleus sulking in his anger, our inclinations lean towards a “just get over it already” perspective. Sure, we know Achilleus has been wronged, we know he is mad, we know Agamemnon is a questionable character, but we also see the Achaians getting beat up by the Trojans, and we see Hektor reveling in the glory of his success. How is it that Achilleus will not set aside his rage for the sake of his fellow countrymen? Is not Achilleus over-reacting? Or might it be that what seems clear to us actually distorts how we should understand Achilleus’ rage and his choice to remain angry for such a long time? Can there be some inherent characteristic, some Weltanschuung, of the modern world that hides the true nature of this legendary rage?

Here is the crux of the issue: Achilleus has been publicly insulted but we live in an age that no longer understands insult. In other words, modern man lives and thinks within a social-historical context that does not fathom, and therefor does not value, honor. This is not to say we never act with honor, but it does mean that the structures and institutions that were once so crucial for the establishment of honor and ourselves are now considered impediments. We seek instead the dignity of the individual rather than the honor of the man. We have traded honor for dignity, but more on that later. First let’s look at some evidence that honor has become obsolete. Peter Berger says in The Homeless Mind:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor is revealed very sharply in the inability of most contemporaries to understand insult, which in essence is an assault on honor. In this, at least in America, there is a close parallel between modern consciousness and modern law. Motives of honor have no standing in American law, and legal codes that still admit them, as in some countries of southern Europe, are perceived as archaic. In modern consciousness, as in American law (shaped more than any other by that prime force of modernization which is capitalism), insult in itself is not actionable, is not recognized as a real injury. The insulted party must be able to prove material damage. (p. 84)

In other words, an injury of honor has no real reality. It is merely a matter of one’s feelings and should eventually be dismissed as fundamentally inconsequential. Why modern man should have arrived at such a position is probably too complicated to sort out here, but we can see the historical shift in the concept of man with the birth of modern democracies. In short there has been a shift in consciousness that began more than two hundred years ago (maybe closer to five hundred years ago). We can see it in some of our most important documents. Consider these examples:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, 1776)

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. (Article One of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution, 1789)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […] Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women… (From the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948)

The emphasis is on the human person alone, unencumbered. We see our dignity bound up in the idea of our real selves, that is, the self which is distinct from, and unbound by race, political views, skin color, gender, age, social status, geography, physical condition, sexual orientation, religion, or even actions. According to Berger:

There is an implicit sociology and an implicit anthropology there. The implicit sociology views all biological and historical differentiations among men as either downright unreal or essentially irrelevant. The implicit anthropology locates the real self over and beyond all these differentiations. (p. 89)

Modern civil society is based on this concept of human beings. We have inherent dignity in that we are all equal and have certain, even inalienable, rights. Ironically, this real self is a mystical self, unable to be seen or touched, produced or analyzed. It is one of our age’s most cherished beliefs yet is resides entirely outside the bounds of science.

We can get confused in the distinctions between dignity and honor, for both are goals of moral enterprise. They both require effort to attain, to defend, and protect. And they both achieve their attainment in the individual in relation to other persons. However, dignity, as Berger defines it, begins with the individual alone in the universe, inherently valuable yes, but requires a man find his own self from within himself. Honor, on the other hand, begins with the moral context and social fabric that man is born into, and a man must seek his place and accept his self within that world.

Human dignity is a good thing. As Christians we can affirm the inherent worth of each human being, know that God created each of us unique, placed in us His image, and sent His Son to die for each of us. Christians can also affirm this idea of the mystical self. It is very much like our understanding of the essence of God. We can know each others by what we do and what we look like, but we cannot ever truly know or define the essence of another. However, as moderns we must also realize what we deny and what we lose with each new so-called progressive step forward. Berger notes:

The institutional fabric, whose basic function has always been to provide meaning and stability for the individual, has become incohesive, fragmented and thus progressively deprived of plausibility. The institutions then confront the individual as fluid and unreliable, in the extreme case as unreal. Inevitably, the individual is thrown back upon himself, on his own subjectivity, from which he must dredge up the meaning and the stability that he requires to exist. Precisely because of man’s intrinsic sociality, this is a very unsatisfactory condition. Stable identities (and this also means identities that will be subjectively plausible) can only emerge in reciprocity with stable social contexts (and this means contexts that are structured by stable institutions). Therefore, there is a deep uncertainty about contemporary identity. Put differently, there is a built-in identity crisis in the contemporary situation. (p. 92)

But where does this leave Achilleus? The world of Achilleus is ancient. It is a world where honor ranks high in the social context. When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilleus this was not a blow to his dignity so much as a blow to his honor. Agamemnon publicly insulted Achilleus, and Achilleus became, therefore, not merely indignant but wept in his dishonor. We, who live in a world that prizes dignity but not honor, struggle to understand. We are inclined to say things like, “Just walk away.” “It’s no big deal, there are other women to take from you plundering.” “Think about the others.” “Get over it.” But for Achilleus this insult reverberates with a sound that may be beyond our hearing. Consider the scene where Briseis is taken away from Achilleus:

He led forth from the hut Briseis of the fair cheeks and gave her
to be taken away; and they walked back beside the ships of the Achaians,
and the woman all unwilling went with them still. But Achilleus
weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions
beside the beach of the grey sea looking our on the infinite water.
Many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother:
‘Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
honour at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.’
(Iliad, Book One, trans. Lattimore, lines 346-356)

Notice several things that strike us as odd. He gives up Briseis, but then weeps. Achilleus is a great man and warrior, but to us his weeping seems unmanly. He calls to his mother. Though she is a god, this also seems unmanly. He complains that Zeus should give him honor but instead Zeus has given not even a little. But we would claim his inherent dignity is more important than honor, and that one should not look to another for one’s self-worth. Finally, he complains that he has been dishonored by Agamemnon, who took away Briseis his prize. We think nothing of true personal value, nothing of our character, can be taken by another, and we bristle at the idea of a person being a “prize” of another. But here we have the great Achilleus weeping and complaining to his mother over losing his prize. In the words of a once popular song we might say to this whiny warrior, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” But should we?

What is it that makes a man? In our modern age a man is the product of personal, existential action. But the ancient world was not an existential world. Certainly the individual was important, and certainly people made existential decisions, but men did not seek to discover or to create their identity so much as they sought glory and honor within the prescribed contours of the existing world. Achilleus is not having an existential breakdown in the way we do today. He is not searching for himself. He is not in doubt as to who he is. Rather, Achilleus is raging over a breach in the institutional fabric of reality that defines him. His sociological context, from which he derives his honor, has been torn apart. Modern man tries to preemptively strip away the institutional roles that would define him, but pre-modern man accepts and relies on those roles. Modern man may even make fun of the old soldier pulling out his worn medals, or the civil servant in his uniform, or the wife in her kitchen. More than this, modern man sees in these roles trappings that are detrimental to the process of self-actualization and the nature of identity. Man must throw off the robes of honor that trap him in a self that belongs to another. It is better to live without honor and find one’s true self than play someone else’s game, or worse, society’s game. Berger takes this further:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor may now be seen in a much more comprehensive perspective. The social location of honor lies in a world of relatively intact, stable institutions, a world in which individuals can with subjective certainly attach their identities to the institutional roles that society assigns to them. The disintegration of this world as a result of the forces of modernity has not only made honor an increasingly meaningless notion, but has served as the occasion for a redefinition of identity and its intrinsic dignity apart from and often against the institutional roles through which the individual expresses himself in society. The reciprocity between individual and society, between subjective identity and objective identification through roles, now comes to be experienced as a sort of struggle. Institutions cease to be the “home” of the self; instead they become oppressive realities that distort and estrange the self. (p. 93)

If we live within this worldview then the presuppositions that undergird Achilleus’ actions will be foreign to our minds and his rage will seem grossly misplaced. We will, in short, misunderstand Achilleus.

In my previous post I said that I am a kind of “by default” post-modernist, that it is the sea in which I swim, and that I love aspects of it, but that I also loath it. My desire, as I said, is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to the Truth. I was reminded of a post I wrote a while back on another blog about this post-modern sea we swim in. I am re-posting it here.

We have learned to trust the photographic image. Can we trust the electronic image? With painting everything was simple. The original was the original, and each copy was a copy – a forgery. With photography and then film that began to get complicated. The original was a negative. Without a print, it did not exist. Just the opposite, each copy was the original. But now with the electronic, and soon the digital, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is a copy. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out of fashion.

~Wim Wenders, 1989

The following screengrabs are from Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They are all of images within images, and represent/re-present places within places and ideas within ideas.

My mind wanders over these images and then wanders beyond them, both outside their frames and to my own presuppositions and fetishes, and I think of Baudrillard’s quote:

It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.

-from Photography, or the Writing of Light (2000)

Of course Baudrillard is wrong if we take him literally. Reality has not disappeared. But Baudrillard is right, as all postmodernists are, that the way we understand reality is heavily mediated for us (and by us) to the effect that reality, or “reality”, would seem to be an image created for us, is an image presented to us, is an image we carry with us, is an image we remember, and is an image we create. And, as an image is worth a thousand words, or a million, and therefore images are stories, fragmented or otherwise, connected and intersecting with other stories, stories referencing other stories, images referencing other images, we can apparently say all is reference. With Wenders we have the added question of the ever changing and never original (or always original) electronic image coupled with the question of what is fashion.

I suppose this blog plays a part in how I mediate the world for myself. I write for an audience, largely imaginary, but I also write for myself. Subconsciously, and maybe sometimes consciously, I write so that I can understand the world and my place in it. In this sense I can say that I have my take on reality. But the question is, are all distinctions truly arbitrary? And can this notion apply beyond the world of images to the rest of life?

So some degree Wender’s position hearkens back to his explorations in such films as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire. In those films we see characters struggling to communicate across great barriers (physical, psychological, spiritual) with those whom they love, or believe they love. In Wings of Desire the barrier is the difference between the world of human beings and the world of angels. The film’s story revolves around the idea that to become fully human one has to give up being merely an observer and enter in, that is, to immerse oneself in the tangible messy world we humans call reality. To cross that chasm is to take a leap of faith.
But is faith a leap? In the so-called Western/Christian tradition the word faith has a lot of gravity. Faith is one of those words, like love and happiness, whose meaning we all know and yet can never seem to finally pin down. For many the word has precisely to do with some kind of existential or spiritual leap. And for some that leap is a leap into the unknown or the unsure, or even the absurd. Interestingly, when we read the word faith used by the early Christian writers, such as the Apostles Paul or Peter or John, it is, in fact, the ordinary Greek word for belief. It does not appear that the Apostle’s intentions were to convey any idea of a leap of faith, or of faith being a kind of spiritual ecstasy. For what I can tell they were merely telling others to continue to believe what they have heard about Jesus because it is true, and that they can know it is true because the Apostles were eye witnesses.
Which brings us back to Notebook on Cities and Clothes and the idea of mediation and its relationship to truth. The fact is we are immersed in a world of images, and we seem to understand our world more and more in terms of those images rather than words, and those images are increasingly potentially untrustworthy. We are also in a world in which, while many of the barriers between people and cultures still remain, we are intersecting more and more with an increasingly broader scope of people(s) and a multiplicity of voices. Which means that we live in a world of references, that is, a world in which everything begins to reference something else and is built upon other references.
Maybe no other living filmmaker has more fun with playing with references than Quentin Tarantino. Part one of Death Proof immerses the viewer in a 1970s pastiche, full of faux antiquing of the film, samples from 1970s films, and stylistic choices right out of now classic B-movie road and slasher films. The film is designed to draw attention to itself. Tarantino winks at the audience and the audience winks back, along with the occasional high-five and an “oh yeah!” If a drinking game were devised for Death Proof, where viewers had to down a shot for every meant-to-be-obvious filmic reference, players would die of alcohol poisoning after ten minutes.

Examples include this appropriated “restricted” card from the early days of the MPAA rating system:

And this created title that looks like it came directly out of an early 1970s Disney film starring you know who:
Other examples include faux scratches and dust on the film and numerous jump-cuts that simulate a worn out film jumping in the projector gate because of splices and damaged sprocket holes.

But what is so fascinating is that Tarantino is not making a 70s film. He is making modern film. Consider that while the characters seem to live and play in a archetypal film of a previous era, and while the film makes a point of looking aged and worn out, characters still drive modern cars and use cell phones – like Jungle Julia below.

And yet, I doubt many viewers found this disconcerting, or even noticed, because there are no longer any meaningful distinctions (apparently). For a director like Tarantino there are no boundaries between films or genres or eras, there is only the magnificent cloth of cinema where every film participates in the weave, connecting and intersecting in the psychic playground cinephilia. For Tarantino, I would argue, faith is not a belief in what is true, but in what is cool and can be appropriated. And cool is another word for fashion.
In such a world where does one find one’s identity? Might one say that we are all only references built up from other references? That is the postmodern perspective, and it is the current version of “God is dead.” But is it true? I would say no. Ultimately there is no such world of only references, and we do not live our lives as though such a world were true. Wisdom would say one should always recognize the potential fallibility of our sacred ideas, but we are all creatures of faith, and faith knows there is a final reality that, at least, haunts us. Maybe, as we are immersed more and more in images, so increases the haunting.

Who is this woman? Is she Mary, the mother of Jesus? Is she Israel? Is she the Christian church? Can we know?

Revelation 12 (English Standard Version)
From BibleGateway.com

1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.

Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer


7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”


Painting by William Blake


13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.

I am posting this from an old, now defunct blog of mine. But I feel there is enough good stuff in it to warrant posting again here. It was originally posted 21 April 2008.

In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless cinematic versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was both thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).


An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
from
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, are also objectively true (arguably). My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence—even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of Pasolini as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God. [Though I would argue they could not exist unless God exists.]

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications across the board.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from within that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:


Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
m
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too—witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.


Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle of the recent film Tranformers.

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, where there is no final truth, and where one can find no source of meaning of life. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are still all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? (Why should anyone wait for Godot?) Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it such that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.


Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy. [Note: Need implies the metaphysical. There is no “need”, no meaningful calling or longing, without transcendence.]

The film’s story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principle deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful. It becomes a “helpful myth” to underscore the moment. [Note: Many materialists see all religion this way. Religion is the “helpful myth” of choice for the individual in the moment—but no more.]

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor, like an ironic t-shirt. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting —I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made an actual conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled; it reminds me of the last shot in The Graduate (1967). Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. Although on what basis can we judge? But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence. After all that his life is meaningless and he will eventually die. The film offers no hope. It cannot based on its presuppositions.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning, then any decision made by Clayton cannot have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true. Because of those beliefs the film succeeds as a kind of cheat. We let it work, we fill it with meaning, though it does not deserve such grace.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following three part video analysis by Anton Scamvougeras is an excellent overview of the film’s themes. If you have not seen the film, then don’t watch these clips yet; first go watch the film!

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]

Finally

I am convinced there is no such thing as a story without some moral content. 
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisions and therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as we make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way, we don’t really believe it. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. We know they are wrong. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity. This is also a good time to go and re-read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound, fundamental connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.

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“translator, traitor”

William Tyndale dying for a translation

Bill Mounce was on the committee that created the English Standard Version Bible, one of many English translations of the Hebrew/Greek Bible. Below is his lecture to his Greek class on the translating process and translations. It is a fascinating talk about bibles and what we take for granted and what we often don’t realize goes into creating a translation.
If anything comes through, for me at least, is how important it is to know Greek rather than rely on others’ translations. Still, I am appreciative of the translations I have.

Umberto Eco wrote some interesting thoughts on the process of translation in his article, A Rose by Any Other Name.

Ninety percent (I believe) of War And Peace’s readers have read the book in translation and yet if you set a Chinese, an Englishman, and an Italian to discussing War And Peace, not only will all agree that Prince Andrej dies, but, despite many interesting and differing nuances of meaning, all will be prepared to agree on the recognition of certain moral principles expressed by Tolstoy. I am sure the various interpretations would not exactly coincide, but neither would the interpretations that three English-speaking readers might provide of the same Wordsworth poem.

~ Umberto Eco, from A Rose by Any Other Name