September 26, 2011

Objectivity and Common Prayer

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

In his provocative (and sometimes wrongheaded) Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day stresses that the liturgy is not only corporate, as opposed to individual, but that it is also to be carried out with objectivity rather than subjectivity.  In the ritual, he says, individuals surrender to something bigger than themselves, so that instead of emphasizing their own individuality or their subjective experience they are taking part in something corporate.  Worship is “common prayer,” not a bunch of individuals who are each praying their own prayers.

Take the Scripture reading, for example:

A good example of objectivity in place or removed for purposes of de-ritualization can be found in the manner of proclaiming scriptures aloud at a liturgy.  According to the traditional method, someone chants the words from the Bible or reads them in a neutral tone of voice; that is, objectively.  The words themselves might tell of something joyful or horrible or ecstatic, but the voice of the reader remains steady and objective.  According to the latest de-ritualizing technique, the reader dispenses with all efforts to remain objective and, instead, colors the story with little, personal touches: dramatic pauses, emphasis on certain words, quotations spoken “in character,” and so on.  The reading takes on the style of one of those novels or children’s stories on tape; everything is all very vivid, to be sure, but, without the objectivity, those words of scripture disappear behind the display of personality.  We do not hear the words of Genesis or Matthew or Paul; we hear (and watch) Bob or Suzy or Joe give us a personal interpretation of scripture.  Bob, Suzy, and Joe do not want to be participants in a collective action; they want us to remain aware that, above all, even above and beyond the words of scripture, they are Bob, Suzy, and Joe (45-46).

I hasten to add that Day is not saying (and I certainly am not) that liturgical reading of Scripture ought to be monotonous, robotic, with nary a trace of emphasis anywhere and never a change of pitch.  What he is saying (and what I want to stress) is that the Scripture reading is not a time for the reader’s own individuality to come to the fore, not a time for him to draw attention to himself.  It’s not appropriate to dramatize the reading, giving the various disciples their own distinctive voices or sounding as if you’re weeping when you’re “being” Mary and Martha at Lazarus’s tomb or raising your volume to shout “Lazarus, come forth!” or … adding … dramatic … pauses and emphases and changes of pitch.   All of that may be fine and appropriate when you’re reading a novel to your kids at home — by all means, give Long John Silver a distinctive voice when you’re reading Treasure Island — but in the liturgy the reading ought to draw attention to the text, not to the reader.

What about some other aspects of our common worship?  Take the phrase “common prayer,” which is the term used to describe the whole liturgy in the Anglican tradition (The Book of Common Prayer).  The liturgy is full of prayer, but these prayers are not the time for the display of one’s own personality or one’s own experience.  The prayer of confession in the Sunday morning service is not the time for weeping and gnashing of teeth as one mourns one’s sin.  The prayer for the needs of all Christendom (often called “the long prayer”) is not the time for the minister to launch into flights of eloquence (“Oh, Pastor, you pray so beautifully!” someone says). The various prayers the congregation prays are not the time for the members of the congregation to express themselves with overly dramatic enunciations, which rank up there with lagging behind the congregation or rushing ahead of them as a liturgical annoyance.  Such things draw attention away from the prayer itself and to the pray-er, and may (at least in the case of the eloquent pastoral prayer, give the congregation the impression that to truly be able to pray well, one must be able to come up with sponteneous tour-de-force prayers the way the pastor seems to every Sunday).

Add one more thing: the pastor’s clothing.  It’s possible that some people think that distinctive clerical garb is a way of drawing attention to the pastor, and it certainly can be.  If the clothing is garish and gaudy or even if the minister wears it out of pride, then it doesn’t serve its purpose.  But its purpose is not to emphasize the personality of the minister.  Quite the opposite: The purpose is to de-emphasize his personality, to cover him up so that no one can see what sort of tie he’s wearing today or wonder why his wife let him out of the house wearing that, and instead to emphasize his office and the role that he’s performing during the service.

The Lord’s Service is corporate, and so it ought to be objective.  The focus ought to be, not on me and my experience or my abilities or my personality — even if I’m the minister. Rather, the focus ought to be the liturgy itself, on the text of Scripture, on the words we’re singing or praying, on what the group is doing together and on what God is doing to us as we draw near to Him.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:15 pm | Discuss (0)
September 21, 2011

Deschooling Society

Category: Education,Medicine,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is, in many ways, a disappointing book.  The problem is not just that it’s outdated.  The problem is that the flashes of insight that impressed me at the beginning of the book were reduced to a trickle midway through and that, while I appreciated a lot of Illich’s critique of compulsory government schooling, his own suggestions for a “deschooled” society struck me as quixotic and utopian, bordering on ludicrous.

That said, there was stuff I appreciated, stuff that (even if you don’t agree with it) makes you say “Huh!  I need to think about that some more,” beginning with the opening paragraph:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them.  They school them to confuse process and substance.  Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success.  The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.  His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.  Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.  Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question (1).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:08 pm | Discuss (1)
September 14, 2011

Educating the Whole Child

Category: Education :: Permalink

Between the two concepts of education, the Calvinistic and that of the Enlightenment and contemporary thought, there can be no compromise.  They are in hopeless contradiction.  The modern concept, with its cosmopolitanism and its clean-tablet ideal, is erosive and destructive of all aspects of culture except the monolithic state, which is then the ostensible creator and patron of culture.  When it speaks of the whole child, it speaks of a passive creature who is to be molded by statist education for a concept of the good life radically divorced from God and from all transcendental standards.  The goal of such education will only be reached when man ceases to be man, and, this being an impossibility, the only outcome of such education can be the increasing resistance of the child to its radical implications.

Modern education thus is statist education, and the state is made the all-embracing institution of which all other institutions are but facets.  The state and the person, government and individual, become thus the two realities of such a world-view.  both demand freedom and power for themselves.  The state recognizes no law beyond itself and the individual insists on his own autonomy and ultimacy.  But the child of the state, being a man without faith, has no vital principle of resistance and thus even in his rebellion is statist.  Every philosophy of autonomous man from the Greeks to the present has foundered on the problem of the one and the many, universality and particularity.  If the one is affirmed as the ultimate reality, the individuals are swallowed up in the whole.  If the many be affirmed, then reality is lost in endless particularity and individuality, and no binding concept has any reality.  Thus, the one and the many are in perpetual tension.  The individual and the state, for example, can only each affirm themselves at the expense of the other.

Against this, the consistent Christian philosophy, as developed by Calvinistic thinkers such as Kuyper, Bavinck and C. Van Til, by beginning with the biblical revelation and the ontological trinity, begins thereby with the equal ultimacy and the fundamental congeniality of the one and the many in the trinity, three persons, one God.

The concept of the covenant furthers this unity in that the self-realization of the individual is the advantage of all and is advanced by and integral with the self-realization of others.  In the modern conception, the fulfilment and self-realization of the individual are at the expense of others and may involve their sacrifice.  For the orthodox Christian, self-realization apart from the covenant is an impossibility, and it involves life in an organism, the true body of Christ.

This latter concept, the body of Christ, asserts emphatically in all its biblical statements that individuality is not monotonous repetition but the fulfilment of varying functions and callings as individuals who are yet part of a common whole.  The service of the body requires the fulfilment of the individual; the eye must fulfil itself as an eye that the entire body as well may prosper. — Rousas J. Rushdoony, Intellectual Schizophrenia: Culture, Crisis and Education, pp. 9-11.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:15 pm | Discuss (0)

Sons of Thunder

Category: Bible - NT,Bible - NT - Luke,Bible - NT - Mark :: Permalink

Everything I wrote about the characterization of Peter goes double for the characterization of James and John, who seem to be taken as a couple of hotheads on the basis of one — count it: one — incident in which they asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire on an inhospitable Samaritan village (Luke 9:54).

Oh, yes.  There’s also the name Jesus gives them: “Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17).  Some people immediately link that name up with the later event in Luke 9:54 and say, “See?  That’s why Jesus gave them that name.  They were rash and impetuous and hotheaded.”  And since Luke 9 happened after Mark 3, they have to add either the claim that Jesus foresaw that they would say what they did in Luke 9 and named them on the basis of that foresight or the claim that the behavior exhibited in Luke 9 was characteristic so that they were already displaying that sort of hotheadedness at the time Jesus named them.

But there’s no reason at all to see Luke 9 as the basis of the name “Sons of Thunder.”  In fact, there is no reason to take “Sons of Thunder” negatively at all, let alone to understand it as a reference to rashness or hotheadedness.  Going further, there is no reason to take that name as referring to anything in James and John’s character at the time that Jesus named them.

Jesus gives new names to only three of his disciples and he does so at the same time.  Simon he names Peter, not because Simon was already such a solid rock but because Jesus intended to make him into a rock who would be a foundation stone for the church.  Just as by changing Abram’s name to Abraham and changing Sarai’s name to Sarah, Yahweh was making them into new people, the parents of the child of the promise, so by naming Simon “Rock” Jesus was making him into a rock, revealing in the name the plan he had for Simon.

But if that’s true of Simon’s new name, then the parallel suggests that it’s also true with James and John’s new name.  “Sons of Thunder” is not a description of who they already were, nor is it a description of some foolishness or wickedness in their character that Jesus would have to change.  Rather, it’s a description of who Jesus was going to make them to be.

What the name exactly means is disputed by commentators, but many associate it with God’s thunderous voice and with his judgment (Ex 9:23, 28, 29, 33, 34; 19:16; 20:18; 1 Sam 2:10; 7:10; 12:17, 18; 22:14; Job 26:14; 36:29, 33; 37:2, 4, 5; 40:9; Ps 18:13; 29:3; 77:18; 81:7; 104:7; Isa 29:6; Ezek 3:12, 13; John 12:29; Rev 4:5; 10: 3, 4 [this Angel is Jesus]; 11:19; 14:2).  So it seems possible that Jesus is identifying James and John as two witnesses whose speech will be thunderous like God’s speech and will administer God’s judgment, for salvation for his people but destruction for his enemies.

That said, what James and John suggest in Luke 9 — fire from heaven, like lightning associated with thunder — could be seen as a perversion of their name.  Just as Simon is supposed to be a rock, but is anything but when he rebukes Jesus, so James and John are supposed to be sons of thunder but are in danger of abusing their calling.  Luke 9 is not the time and place for that sort of judgment to come from the sons of thunder, and James and John need to learn from Jesus the right way of responding — and the right time and to call down God’s fire from heaven.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:57 pm | Discuss (1)

The Apostle with a Foot-Shaped Mouth?

Category: Bible - NT :: Permalink

Today, as I was driving to work, I happened to overhear some men on the radio speaking about Peter and referring to him as “the apostle with the foot-shaped mouth.”  Good ol’ Peter.  We all love him, they were saying, because he’s the guy who’s always blurting things out, always doing the wrong thing.

So they said.  But I began to wonder.  Of course, they listed their evidence: Peter’s demand to walk on the water to Jesus, followed by his subsequent sinking; Peter’s rebuking Jesus and receiving a rebuke in return; Peter’s insistence that he would never deny Jesus, followed by his doing just that; Peter’s “Of course I love you” after the resurrection, followed by repeated questions about that love and instructions to feed the sheep; Peter’s question about whether John would live till Jesus’ coming.  I suppose they could have added Peter’s comment about building tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration.  They even included Peter’s proposal to elect another apostle to replace Judas (Acts 1), indication (in their words) that Peter was almost ADHD: Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem, but Peter’s squirmy and can’t just wait but has to do something (by implication: something foolish) instead.

And then they reached their conclusion: All of that changed at Pentecost, when Peter gave his great sermon and went on to write his epistles and became a truly wise man.  The application?  Peter’s a lot like us — a guy who blunders around and puts his foot in his mouth — and if God could use him, he can use us too.

Well, I don’t deny that God can use people who have had foot-shaped mouths.  But I wonder if that description really fits Peter.  For one thing, I note that it’s after Pentecost that Peter has his “blunder” with regard to Jew-Gentile relations and receives a rebuke from Paul, which damages their narrative: it turns out that Pentecost didn’t leave Peter as a man who never blundered again.  For another thing, some of the things the guys on the radio pointed to as evidence don’t seem like evidence to me: I see no foolishness in Peter’s proposal in Acts 1, grounded as it was in Scripture (“Let another take his office”).

But it’s not just that I dispute some of the evidence presented.  I wonder, too, about this characterization of Peter before Pentecost.  Is it really true that Peter was, as he is so often presented, a rough-and-ready guy, always putting his foot in it, always getting everything wrong, like a big puppy, tongue flapping, knocking everything down as he skips and hops around his master?

It’s true that Peter sometimes did make mistakes.  He was wrong to rebuke Jesus for talking about his death.  But just before that happened, Peter was emphatically right when he said that Jesus was the Christ.  Far from being routinely foolish, Peter was a leader among the disciples in terms of his God-given insight.   And was Peter blundering when he wanted to walk on the water or was that, in fact, a good thing, a faith-grounded recognition that if Jesus commanded him to do so, then Peter really could do what Jesus commanded?

Perhaps the question is more general: Do we really have enough information about Peter to form a full picture of his character?  I doubt it.   It’s entirely possible that Peter, far from being the guy who blurted out whatever popped into his head, was actually one of the deepest thinkers among the disciples.   It’s possible that he spoke first because he was the recognized spokesman of the group, maybe even because of his general wisdom and insight, not because he opened his mouth before anyone even had time to think.  It’s possible that his mistakes and sins are recorded, not to characterize him as an apostle with a foot-shaped mouth (!), but because they were significant with regard to the story of Jesus the Gospels are telling.

What the guys on the radio said is true: A lot of people love Peter because they see him as the loveable oaf who gets everything wrong and always says the wrong thing at the wrong time.  But it doesn’t seem to me that that characterization has any foundation in Scripture.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:25 pm | Discuss (1)