Archive for December, 2008

Questions for community

A recent exchange with roses brought the idea of this post to my mind.  In our exchange, roses raised the idea of the faith community. In part of my response I asked some questions about this community. I’m interested in fleshing these out as an item of independent interest to me, only peripherally related to the other discussion. (Roses originally meant something more like the idea of faith, and here I’m riffing on something that came up in our dialogue, not ripping her position.)

I want to propose a set of questions that any community should be able to answer. I poked around for resources on a theory of community, and found only this, so if anyone knows of a better resource let me know. (Alasdair MacIntyre‘s After Virtue is in the queue, and will hopefully soon make an appearance in some posts. In the meantime, let me just say that I know I’m woefully uninformed.)

I take it as axiomatic that any notion of community involves boundary, a sense of who’s in and who’s not, and that this need not be hostilely exclusive, but is necessary for a community’s self-definition to be coherent and not vacuous. (So “I am a citizen, not of Athens, nor of Greece, but of the whole world” is incorrect if Socrates wants citizenship to reference involvement in a community.)

Finally, since terminology like ‘the faith community’ or ‘the math community’ is pretty well established and yet not what I want to describe, let’s do what we do in math when the terminology well runs dry and coin ‘strong community’ or, better, ‘community in the strong sense.’

Any community in the strong sense should be able to positively and substantively answer the following questions:

  1. How is community membership defined? What defines the community’s shared identity?
  2. How and where are social networks between members created and used? (Here we need real interaction, preferably but not exclusively physical, face-to-face interaction.)
  3. What commitments are expected of community members? More particularly, what responsibilities to they have to one another? (Real, meaningful mutual obligation is necessary for community in the strong sense.)
  4. What behavioral norms are expected of the members?
  5. What symbols, rituals, habits or language characterize the community?

Lest it seem like I’m cooking these up to end up with church as the only community in the strong sense, take as examples some subsets of the math community: the community as a whole, the dynamical systems (here, DS) community, the community of my department. On question 1: membership is defined around shared expertise, and the dynamical systems community is more like a community in the strong sense than the math community. For question 2: conferences (the yearly Penn State-Maryland cycle for the DS community), and local seminars, colloquia and afternoon tea for the department. For question 3: writing letters, giving talks, writing reviews for MathSciNet, refereeing journals, attending seminars, answering questions — all more pronounced at the more specific DS level than at the general math community level — and normal department requirements. On 4: cooperation, friendliness, professionalism, participation lightly characterize the DS community and much more heavily the department. And yes, for 5, there are rituals and habits. We all applaud twice after a talk, once when the speaker concludes, once after the question time, prompted by the obligatory “if there are no further questions, let’s thank our speaker again.” A (minor) symbol: no one puts their own name on a theorem; you only self-reference with an initial, M. or perhaps M—. (It’s truly remarkable to me how pervasive this bit of symbolic humility is.) Each department surely has its own little habits, and it’s clear that a common language not shared by the outsider characterizes math as a whole, it’s subfields even more strongly. (Technical language, yes, but other usages as well — ‘community in the strong sense’ is itself somewhat a tongue-in-cheek reference to such language.) These aren’t strongly formative things, but they are definitely indicative of close and initiated involvement in the community.

Conclusion: There is probably no such thing as ‘the math community’ in the strong sense as it totally fails on 2 and only answers the rest weakly.  The DS community has a much stronger claim to such a distinction, and a healthy department could very reasonably be community in the strong sense. What abut the faith community? I think there’s even less reason to believe there is a ‘faith community’ in the strong sense than that there is a ‘math community.’ Individual faith traditions, denominations or sub-confessions therein and local congregations could all exhibit community in the strong sense increasingly well. Those of these that I belong to, however, do not always (often?) do so terribly well.

A proposal: the word ‘community’ is very popular in church usage. But in Christianity, where community is not just descriptive of something we like when we have it, but where strong community is constitutive of the faith itself, maybe we should reserve the word only for something more like community in the strong sense, or our attempts to attain it.

can I just say, I’m excited?

Just got my copy of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza‘s Revelation: Vision of a Just World. Here’s her dedication:


         Idania Fernandez
         Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan
         Dorothy Kazel
         Elisabeth Käsemann
         Celina Maricet and Elba Julia Ramos


I’m really looking forward to her reading.

Idania Fernandez was a Nicaraguan martyr heavily involved with liberation theology, who fought with the Sandinistas.

Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were three American Catholic nuns and a lay missionary (respectively) martyred in El Salvador.

Elisabeth Käsemann was one the ‘desaparecidos’ in Argentina and (wow!) daughter of the New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann.

Elba Julia Ramos was the housekeeper for six Jesuit intellectuals involved in the liberation theology at the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador. She and her daughter Celina Maricet were killed along with the six Jesuits.

Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: IV (finale: faith and historical sensibility)

Thesis: How one feels about these Christian sites in Jerusalem — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in particular — mimics how one feels about the relationship between faith and history in their attendant creeds. For myself, the part of me that finds the Church strange, off-putting, concerning, is my Protestant half; the part that finds it appealing despite everything else is the half of me sympathetic to the older creeds.

Perhaps the following is true: For the Protestant, 1700+ years of church life at this spot, the accumulated tradition and mechanisms of devotion, are incidental to, and quite possibly detrimental to, what its meaning should be. The real historical event is obscured under layers that seem tawdry in comparison. Theologically, veneration is incidental to the base historical fact of the crucifixion and resurrection, and possibly obstructs our understanding of it. Historically, years of veneration, ornamentation, tradition, two or three different routes for the Via Dolorosa, all detract from any sense of the place as historically accurate to what it was. Nothing looks like a tomb here — that was quarried away at the earliest possible moment by Constantine’s stonemasons. Perhaps in the Protestant mindset, what is desirable is a direct connection to the first century that can circumvent the intervening millennia. It’s no wonder that Gordon, a convert to the evangelical movement, sought and found the Garden Tomb, a place that would provide just that.

For the Catholic or Orthodox, perhaps the history of veneration in and of itself adds to the wonder and importance of the site. At least that part of me which appreciates those creeds feels a connection with those who through history have imperfectly honored and decorated the site. (Not to mention feels a real longing to participate in ritual with them, to kiss the stones, genuflect, back away from the tomb; my tradition provides NO PHYSICAL VOCABULARY to deal with sacred space!) Maybe we can say the following: Theologically, the resurrection cannot stand alone as a historical event only, the continuing recitation by the church is essential. Historically, meaning is vested not only in the first-century events but in a church with a continuing history; the Church at this site belongs to the ongoing church and the Holy Spirit.

(Ironically, the historical bona fides of the Garden Tomb are basically non-existent. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has much better claims to a real connection to the first-century events, and the Garden Tomb is as much or more a creation of the accumulated intervening sensibilities of its supporters.)

Question: How could we shape the aesthetics of our practice and presentation of the faith to reflect the strong points of both of these approaches? How might we shape worship, worship space, art, etc. that 

  • (a) confronts us with the founding first-century events in some measure of accuracy, allows a sense of direct relation to the events as they really were, does not forever cry out for more ornamentation, and
  • (b) honors tradition as the ongoing and essential recitation of these events, doesn’t pretend to have understanding of the events apart from the ongoing recitation, allows for veneration and celebration that enhances and doesn’t distract?

Bibles, red and green

A recent post by periphery alerted me to the existence of the new Green Bible – a bible made from recycled materials and with passages relating to creation and environmentalism printed in green.  Particularly for those seeking to up their hipster cred, it seems like part of the appeal has got to be its hipster redux of red-letter bibles. One wonders, then, if we can learn something about what’s going on here from the red-letter predecessor.

The English Standard Version blog has an article on the origins of red-letter Bibles here.  They date from 1899, the idea of Louis Klopsch, editor of the Christian Herald magazine.  In his version (The New Testament… With All the Words Recorded Therein, as Having Been Spoken by Our Lord, Printed in Color) OT passages referenced directly by Christ were marked by a red cross and prophetic references to him are marked by red stars.  A couple of quotes from Klopsch on his project:

Here the actual words, quotations, references and allusions of Christ, not separated from their context, nor in a fragmentary or disconnected form, but in their own proper place, as an integral part of the Sacred Record, stand out vividly conspicuous in the distinction of color. The plan also possesses the advantage of showing how frequently and how extensively, on the Authority of Christ himself, the authenticity of the Old Testament is confirmed, thus greatly facilitating comparison and verification, and enabling the student to trace the connection between the Old and the New, link by link, passage by passage.

In the Red Letter Bible, more clearly than in any other edition of the Holy Scriptures, it becomes plain that from beginning to end, the central figure upon which all lines of law, history, poetry and prophecy converge is Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world. He expounded in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself and the Divine plan for man’s redemption, and the Red Letter Bible indicates and emphasizes this Divine exposition and personal revelation at each successive stage, making them so clear that even the simplest may understand. It sheds a new radiance upon the sacred pages, by which the reader is enabled to trace unerringly the scarlet thread of prophecy from Genesis to Malachi. Like the Star which led the Magi to Bethlehem, this light, shining through the entire Word, leads straight to the person of the Divine Messiah, as the fulfillment of the promise of all the ages.

Modern Christianity is striving zealously to draw nearer to the great Founder of the Faith. Setting aside mere human doctrines and theories regarding Him, it presses close to the Divine Presence, to gather from His own lips the definition of His mission to the world and His own revelation of the Father… The Red Letter Bible has been prepared and issued in the full conviction that it will meet the needs of the student, the worker, and the searchers after truth everywhere.

I found some blog-based discussion of these Bibles as well.  A standard critique can be found here; essentially, the whole Bible is inspired, if anything is red, it should all be. (The author’s identification of red-letter Bibles as friendly to the development of liberal theology via their failure to treat all Scripture as equally inspired, however, seems off the mark to me, for reasons I will discuss below, and because Klopsch was a great friend and benefactor of D.L. Moody and his Bible Institute.)  This writer gets a little closer to the point, I think, at the very end of his post.  Here a blogger for Christianity Today raises some concerns about the Green Bible; he asks the right question in his comment, i.e., putting feelings about environmentalism aside, whether highlighting themes is a good or bad idea in general. (Most of the post’s comments discuss the Bible via the appropriateness of green concerns.) Apparently a movement is afoot as well for “Red-Letter Christianity” (here’s a piece describing it by Tony Campolo, and his book of the same name; Jim Wallis is involved as well).  The Bible-coloring suggestions for the Emergent church movement here are entertaining.

Most of the commentary I’ve found on the red-letter bible is, I think, off target.  In fact, I’d say Klopsch himself better understands the import of his edition than the subsequent commentators. In the first two quotes above he presents a pretty clear picture of how he intends the form of his edition to highlight a message, to affect how it is read. I wish I knew more about editorial theory to speak more informedly here, but its framework seems like the better way to approach colored-letter versions of the Bible. The levels-of-inspiration arguments are beside the point, for example – we need, regardless of Bible edition choice, an understanding of how different parts of the Scripture lay claim to our lives (OT vs NT to begin with, but there are plenty of other questions) that goes far beyond just saying that the whole thing is inspired. We should instead approach these editions by trying to understand how editorial choices affect our reception of the text.

Questions for a red-letter edition include how determining which verses should be treated as quotation (even John 3:16, for example, is unclear) affects our understanding the Gospel writer as narrator/commentator (though this problem already exists with the addition of quotation marks). We should observe how Klopsch’s identification of prophecies predicting the Messiah seriously restricts the range of readings these verses can sustain and promotes, as he understands, his desired christocentric reading. The issue that strikes me most strongly about such editions is that the emphasis on the spoken words of Chirst alone is an editorial choice interpreting Jesus primarily as a moral teacher, and the central substance of the Christian life as a decontextualized set of moral principles and teachings. When this happens we have a major problem with theology and ethics. My favorite description of the framework for ethics in which these decontextualized moral principles naturally live is due to Bernard Williams; he calls it a “midair” stance*.  Moral issues can be addressed from midair, the actor having stepped back from the problem, used abstract principles to work from a relatively objective position, likely with feet about six feet off the ground, and the properness of his ethical reflection can be read from the accuracy of his manipulation of these quantities.  I think this is a seriously mistaken approach for the Christian, and indicates a problem that the red-letter bibles are likely based in and likely promote. For another example of a theological position encouraged by the editorial choice, see the third quote from Klopsch above. For a simple argument this is not the way the faith ought to operate, consider only that if red letters is what the church fathers had been after, we would be reading the Gnostic and not the Synoptic Gospels.

There’s no ridding ourselves of a multitude of editorial choices when reading the Bible. Therefore, what I want to suggest here is that those looking to use the Green Bible should consider the red-letter editions and their impact. Not having access to a Green Bible myself, I can’t analyze its presentation of the text; rather, I want to suggest a framework for thinking this through. I’m arguing that concerns around the relative importance of red versus non-red verses or the details of which verses should be regarded as quotation should be secondary to a consideration of how this editorial choice has shaped our theological and ethical reading. In the same way, a defense of the appropriateness of green concerns for Christians and the details of which verses ought to be green might need to be secondary to a careful account of how the editorial choice of the green lettering reflects and shapes theological concerns and ethical reasoning. I suspect it does so in a direction quite different from that of the red-letter Bibles, but maybe in the end no more satisfactory.

*Full disclosure: I, unfortunately, only know Williams’s description via Hauerwas’s presentation of it, which I assume is accurate enough.  I’m working here from Ch. 2 of The Peaceable Kingdom.

Rowan Williams on the Church and the tomb

The cave with tombs at the Holy Sepulchre site was quarried away by Constantine’s stonemasons to make way for the building of the first church. The church is now crowded by a press of other buildings. I like this meditation on the Church as tomb, the history of the Church, history and the church.

Constantine knew, of course, just what he wanted:
smooth verticals and marble, crushed glass rolled underfoot,
room for archangels with their orbs and wands,
space for cool power to stroll, relaxed and heavy-footed
Out to the little scented hedges, under a cross that shimmers,
silver and rubies, soft shadows lapping at the ankles.
He cut and smoothed, leveled and piled and spread:
light; crystal; breezy veils; a new, enlightened holy hill.

History (or something) disagreed. The centuries squared up,
exchanged curt, recognizing nods, moved in,
folded and packed, crumpled and stripped and boxed:
the shadows shook themselves, lurched up and smiled

From a new height; people found other things
to do with silver.  Air from the marble lungs
is punched out, and the colonnades are crushed and processed
into a maze of ditches, damp stone capsules,

Whorls, cavities, corners with don’t ask smells
and fairground decoration. A collapsing star, screwing its stuff
into the dark: soaring heat, density, a funnel
spinning towards the opposite of anything.
                      *     *     *
Saturday afternoon, the bodies squashed, wet, boxed,
breathing into the shadows full of smells and tinsel;
flame leaks and spits out of the singularity,
sparks a cracked bell. Iron, rope, smoke

Pant in the tight dark, a light-footed,
hight-strung passing. Afterwards we breathe,
dry of the sweat and crying, ask what history
is after, bullying us into waking, into this oppositeness.

Rowan Williams — “Easter Eve: Sepulchre”

Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: III (tomb sites)

There are actually two sites in Jerusalem claiming to be the location of the crucifixion and resurrection, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. As my man in Jerusalem, Justin, told me, it’s totally the Protestant version of the site, and it’s hilarious.  

The Garden Tomb

The Tomb

The Garden

The Garden

The claim for this site was first made by the British army officer and colonial administrator Charles George Gordon in 1882, and it is currently run by British ex-pats. Its Golgotha is a hill with skull-like features (now topped by a Muslim cemetery); the crucifixion is proposed to have happened at the base of the hill, now paved over for a bus depot.  The grounds are covered by a garden which clearly owes more to the British Mandate than the local landscape and which is sprinkled with little plaques bearing Bible verses.  The tomb is still cut into the rock (in the Holy Sepulchre, the rock around the tomb was cleared away by Constantine’s builders to make room for the first church on the site) and features a channel carved in front of the door to the tomb where a stone could be rolled in front of the doorway (most archaeologists date the tombs at this site to 9-700 BC, however). Unlike the Holy Sepulchre, it is outside the current city walls (later excavations have revealed that both were outside the first century walls).

The literature distributed at the site makes much of these details and their accord with points of the Gospel narratives. The idea of the argument made for the site and of its current presentation seems to be a site frozen in time, unaffected by the intervening years, accessible now as it was, accessible as the Western, Protestant mind had imagined it…

Religious aesthetics in Jerusalem: II (Lutherans too!)

Also interesting for comparison is the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, the big Protestant church in the old city, just around the corner from the Holy Sepulchre. It was completed in 1898. Here’s the sanctuary interior:


the sanctuary in the Church of the Redeemer

the sanctuary in the Church of the Redeemer

It’s open, airy, spacious and clean. It also seems to be run in a rather more organized fashion than the Holy Sepulchre (for example, they actually post service times in case one might want to attend; I went to a nice English-language service as a result). Presumably, administration is also a little less contentious.

Is the church that builds once, preserves a fairly uniform aesthetic, doesn’t acquire religious detritus over the years (and dusts and conducts repairs) preferable? One thing is for sure: the Church of the Redeemer is totally out of place in Jerusalem. Not only does it looked like it was dropped full-formed from somewhere in Protestant Europe, the Holy Sepulchre is much more at home in a city which is itself crowded, haphazard, tangled, accumulated and sometimes dirty.