Saturday Links 12/26/20

Happy day-after to everyone! Today is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr. It’s a day in which, traditionally, I sit at home and play video games for as long as my wife will allow.

Here are some links for your weekend reading.

Caitlin Flanagan has a very sweet exploration in The Atlantic about the Charlie Brown Christmas special. I didn’t know this, but Charles Schulz had a strong hand in shaping production, and Linus’ famous telling of the gospel story was a non-negotiable for him. Schulz seems to have really understood the world of children and for that reason (not to mention the Vince Guaraldi Trio) the special remains a classic. Flanagan:

Charles Schulz had what Maurice Sendak had: respect for children. He understood the way they think and feel, not the way adults want them to think and feel. He understood that there’s a point in children’s growing up when Christmas doesn’t work its magic as reliably as it once did. Schulz let them explore a taboo subject, Christmastime unhappiness, while still reassuring them that Christmas is a good and fun and wonderful thing.

Click here for more.

Father Aidan Kimel, a Western Orthodox priest, has posted three Christmas poems over the last week by none other than Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, leading lights of the Inklings and (two of them at least) still household names today.

Tolkien’s poem, “Noel,” is here.

Lewis’ poem, “The Turn of the Tide”, here.

Williams’ poem, “Christmas”, here.

In lieu of going to church on Christmas Eve, I tried watching the Vatican’s “midnight” Mass service online, but the internet cut out and I went to bed. What I did get to see was beautiful—but anyway, Rocco Palmo has an English translation of Pope Francis’ homily. A highlight:

 It is true: in our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things and forget the manger of Bethlehem. That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn. Jesus gives us the example. He, the Word of God, becomes an infant; he does not say a word but offers life.

Saturday Links 12/19/20

Iraqi Christans attend Christians Eve Mass in December 2019 at the Syriac Catholic Church in the town of Qaraqosh in Niniveh province, Iraq  (Photo from Vatican News)

This, by Elizabeth Bruenig (NYT) is an excellent bit of reporting on one of the most recent executions by the federal government. The death penalty is considered impermissible by the Church, and Bruenig, a Catholic convert, brings a sharp moral sensibility to the piece.

It’s nearly impossible to live with a conflict between feeling and belief. You end up feeling the way you believe you should, or believing the way you feel you ought to. I have known for a long time — certainly since the murder of my own sister-in-law in our Texas hometown in 2016 — that I had emotions related to the death penalty that had to be reckoned with.

I began to think I wouldn’t know with certainty what part of me was being honest about capital punishment until I saw it for myself.

It’s a graphic piece—Bruenig travels to Indiana to witness the execution firsthand—but it’s an important contribution to the national debate.

Since I’ve been writing a bit this week about the disputed Marian title of “co-redemptrix”, I thought I’d put up this piece by Robert Fastiggi at Where Peter Is about the issue. A few popes have publicly referred to Mary as co-redemptrix due to her singular contributing role in salvation history, but it seems like the consensus has turned against the title due to the many opportunities for misunderstanding. Pope Francis has neither promoted nor condemned the concept, but he has dismissed the idea of any new Marian dogmas being declared anytime soon:

The most that might be claimed is that he considers petitions for new Marian dogmas to be foolishness, but even this relies on an interpretive inference rather than a direct statement. I believe Pope Francis is merely warning us that an over-preoccupation with new Marian declarations and dogmas can lead to foolishness if we lose sight of Mary’s essential identity as woman, disciple, and mother.

The whole piece, by a theologian specializing in Marian theology, is here.

Pope Francis has announced his intention to go to Iraq in 2021 which, between the coronavirus and ongoing instability in Iraq, seems both risky and rather exciting. This piece in Vatican News, by Fr. Rif’at Bader, explains Francis’ reasoning. I was struck by the writer’s stunning rebuke of our American war in Iraq:

The second point is that in March 2003, the American war drums were beating for Iraq, which enjoyed international approval, except for Pope John Paul II, who said: “NO TO WAR”! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” In March 2021, Pope Francis will come to try to restore what was destroyed, as a result of not listening to the voice of his predecessor, the saint Pope…

NO TO WAR! Amen.

Letting Jesus Out to the Street

A graffiti artist in Moscow is taking iconography to a new destination: the street.

I love the concept. It reminds me of the speech Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio) gave to his fellow cardinals at the last conclave—a speech which likely contributed to his election. Behind the locked doors of the conclave, he spoke about how Jesus stands at the doors of the church and knocks—not to get in, but to be let out!

The iconographer, Alexandre Tsypkov, shares the pope’s sentiments:

“In ordinary churches today, we see gilded, staid, sentimental images that appeal to church babushkas. You see but you don’t believe — the gilding feels false. Sometimes the church instructs the artist to make the cheeks of the Virgin rosy, and to make her beautiful and her hands so alive you want to touch them. That’s not good. I always wanted to draw freestyle on the street, not to depend on anyone, to look at examples from the 15-16th century and try something of my own.

That’s what we call a living tradition.

I like the willingness to transgress certain customs here, but especially the movement of Christ out of the gilded cages we build for Him and into the street.

Here’s another sample:

Also critical: Tsypkov refuses to part from the canon. The work is transgressive, yes, contemporary, yes, but also rooted in the tradition.

More examples here.

Saturday Links 10/31/20

The church door in Wittenburg, Germany, where Luther nailed his 95 theses.

Happy holidays! Tonight begins the fall triduum of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), All Saints, and All Souls.

Today is also Reformation Day for my Protestant friends, so it seems timely to share this piece from Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant professor of ethics at Duke Divinity School and an all-around rock star in world of Christian scholarship. Asked to comment on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, he wrote this:

Five hundred years after its inception, we are witnessing the end of the Reformation. The very name “Protestant” suggests a protest movement aimed at the reform of a church that now bears the name of Roman Catholicism. But the reality is that the Reformation worked. Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make have been made.

I found this piece early on in my own conversion process a few months after he wrote it. Read the whole thing here. It’s worth your time!

Big news for American Catholics this week as Pope Francis named Archbishop Wilton Gregory as one of 13 new cardinals. He’ll become the first Black cardinal from the United States, and one of the people who will elect the next pope.

Heck, as a cardinal, he might even be the next pope.

Mike Lewis at Where Peter Is has a nice reflection on the significance of the decision:

This is a historic appointment, not only because of Gregory’s tremendous history as a faithful shepherd, but because he will become the first Black cardinal in the history of the US Church in a year filled with racial tension and conflict. But this year has also seen many Catholics begin to wake up and realize the depth to which deep-seated racism and eurocentrism have corrupted our Church and our ability to share the Gospel.

When I visited D.C. last May for a friend’s wedding, I made sure to visit St. Augustine’s on Sunday morning, one of the more vibrant Black parishes in the United States. Surrounded by Black Catholics piously kneeling in the pews, singing gospel hymns, hearing a sermon from a Black priest serving under a Black archbishop . . . I figured I’m headed in a good direction.

After the brouhaha over Pope Francis’ comments about same-sex unions in a recent documentary, many in the West argued about what it meant for LGBT folks here, both Catholic and not. But few considered just how significant Francis’ comments might be to LGBT people living in countries where homosexuality is taboo or illegal:

It definitely will save lives, especially in countries where there is active persecution of L.G.B.T.Q. people,” added Father Massingale, who regularly speaks publicly in support of L.G.B.T. Catholics. He said the pope’s recently publicized comments were consistent with his pastoral approach, by “putting the focus on gay and lesbian persons, not seeing them as ‘walking sex acts.’”

For L.G.B.T. Catholics living in places where homosexuality is outlawed, hearing Pope Francis stand up for the rights of L.G.B.T. people in a new documentary is something of a Godsend.

Pope Francis is, I agree, a Godsend.

Finally, I can’t help but mention the attack this week at the cathedral in Nice, France, where three people were killed. Here’s a decent article about it. Please pray for the victims, their families, and the perpetrator and his.

Peace, everyone, and enjoy the fun this weekend.

Saturday Links 10/24/20

For more from The Atlantic’s fall photography feature, click the image above.

As often happens, there was a media firestorm this week about Pope Francis, who in a new documentary (re-)stated his support of civil unions for gay couples. This isn’t precisely news, but it did light up the internet, and (predictably) almost everyone misunderstood what was being said and its significance.

Mike Lewis at Where Peter Is has it right:

The words Francis spoke were neither unprecedented nor inconsistent with what he has said in the past. Those who were hoping that this was a watershed moment or change in Church teaching on human sexuality will be disappointed. Those who imagined that these words somehow meant that Pope Francis had crossed an integral doctrinal line are also terribly mistaken.

Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology did a series this week about election-year politics, affective polarization, and Christian witness. Here’s a sample:

The reason heroism is connected to hostility is that people who espouse values different from our own threaten the validity of our hero project, calling into question the metrics of our meaning. This unsettles us, makes us anxious. And in the face of that anxiety we lash out at those people who hold different values and beliefs, the people who vote differently than we do.

The first post is here.

This has little to do with theology, but The Seattle Times has a nice feature up about how friluftsliv—Norwegian for “outdoor life”—can help us get through the long COVID winter. It’s sort of the outdoor flip side of hygge: just as you can focus on making a cozy, comfortable indoor space during the long dark of winter, so too you can intentionally spend time outside, however bad the weather:

In Noway, friluftsliv is so deeply ingrained into daily life that it starts in kindergarten. “Norwegian kindergartens are famous for being outdoors,” said Meyer. “In all weather, you will go outside for recess, if not for a good portion of the day.”

Bekah, you should definitely read that one!

Saturday Links 10/10/20

Photo credit: Franco Origlia / Getty Images

Pope Francis released his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”, on Sunday. Here’s a short summary from Vatican News.

The pope seems to have accomplished a lot here. Among other developments, he just doubled down on the death penalty being “inadmissible”. James Martin, SJ, at America:

Today the pope placed the full weight of his teaching authority behind this statement: The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition.

Courtney Beck at America: “What 10 years in a Protestant church taught me about my Catholic faith”:

Catholics and Protestants alike can and do lose their faith. My personal understanding of the divine that took root in Catholic churches and Catholic schools never allowed me to jump off the deep end when things got complicated. I have had my share of disenchantment. Yet I have always sensed that, given enough time, God would show himself and his purposes once the smoke cleared.

This is a really technical theological piece from John Stamps at Ecumenical Orthodoxy. But if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s worth reading. The post is titled, “Four or five pretty good reasons why Jesus isn’t a space alien or an astronaut”:

Incarnation is not a change in who or what God is. God is omnipresent. Incarnation is not a change in God, but is God’s manifestation in a new and particular way.

Pope Francis is Very Online

Reading through Pope Francis’ new encyclical (a fancy term for “letter from the pope”), you can’t help but think he’s more online then he lets on:

True wisdom demands an encounter with reality. Today, however, everything can be created, disguised and altered. A direct encounter even with the fringes of reality can thus prove intolerable. A mechanism of selection then comes into play, whereby I can immediately separate likes from dislikes, what I consider attractive from what I deem distasteful. In the same way, we can choose the people with whom we wish to share our world. Persons or situations we find unpleasant or disagreeable are simply deleted in today’s virtual networks; a virtual circle is then created, isolating us from the real world in which we are living.

Hello. Also, I might be forgiven for thinking he’d just caught the new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. These lines are basically the entire premise:

Nor should we forget that there are huge economic interests operating in the digital world, capable of exercising forms of control as subtle as they are invasive, creating mechanisms for the manipulation of consciences and of the democratic process. The way many platforms work often ends up favouring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate. These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.

The whole thing is worth chewing on, but it’s quite long; I’m taking my time with it this week. Here’s the link.

Saturday Links 10/3/20

Pope Francis sent out an apostolic letter on Thursday, the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome. It’s a (long) exposition of the saint’s life and his continuing relevance for today, when knowledge of Scripture is so desperately lacking among Christians, not least due to the difficulty of finding trustworthy interpreters:

Biblical passages are not always immediately accessible. As Isaiah said (29:11), even for those who know how to “read” – that is, those who have had a sufficient intellectual training – the sacred book appears “sealed”, hermetically closed to interpretation. A witness is needed to intervene and provide the key to its liberating message, which is Christ the Lord. He alone is able to break the seal and open the book (cf. Rev 5:1-10) and in this way unveil its wondrous outpouring of grace (Lk 4:17-21). Many, even among practicing Christians, say openly that they are not able to read it (cf. Is 29:12), not because of illiteracy, but because they are unprepared for the biblical language, its modes of expression and its ancient cultural traditions. As a result the biblical text becomes indecipherable, as if it were written in an unknown alphabet and an esoteric tongue [ . . . ]

Jerome can serve as our guide because, like Philip (cf. Acts 8:35), he leads every reader to the mystery of Jesus, while responsibly and systematically providing the exegetical and cultural information needed for a correct and fruitful reading of the Scriptures. In an integrated and skillful way he employed all the methodological resources available in his day – competence in the languages in which the word of God was handed down, careful analysis and examination of manuscripts, detailed archeological research, as well as knowledge of the history of interpretation – in order to point to a correct understanding of the inspired Scriptures.

Probably nobody online has had more influence on my thinking than Richard Beck, a Protestant psychology professor who moonlights as a theology blogger. I found myself nodding in agreement with this post, from a series called “The Teleological Gaze”:

Camus gets right at the question in the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Why is life worth living?

That’s a great question, but without a teleological gaze pretty damn hard to answer. Oh sure, the talented and the affluent answer the question easily. The “winners” are having a delightful time. With their lives full of meaningful work, leisure time, and creative outlets, it’s easy for these few to crush the existential game of building meaning out of the resources at hand within the bounded set. But for the rest of humanity, answering Camus’ question can be difficult. Despair is always close at hand. Our work isn’t engaging, creative, fulfilling or self-actualizing. Opportunities for self-care, restoration, and self-exploration are rare if non-existent. Life within these bounded sets can be very hard.

Consequently, meaning, purpose, value, worth, and significance have to come through an outward turn, from outside the bounded set. This is the genius of religion, that I don’t have to answer Camus’ question all on my own. I don’t, in fact, have to answer it at all.

Man, this sentence from D.L. Mayfield:

I can no longer call myself an evangelical, because what defines a white evangelical in the United States has become a longing for an authoritarian state where Christianity is prioritized and privileged.

The full piece is here. I read Mayfield’s new book, The Myth of the American Dream, this summer. If you’re into a critique of Americanism from an evangelical perspective, check it out.

A few links on politics, if you can stomach it:

The editors at America (a Jesuit magazine) released this piece before ACB was nominated. Hard to disagree here:

What all of these concentric accusations of hypocrisy have in common is that they are largely, if not entirely, about abortion and support for or opposition to Roe v. Wade. Of course, many other important issues come before the court, but its resolutions of other epochal constitutional issues—from rejecting racial segregation to requiring the recognition of same-sex marriage—have helped usher in widespread societal acceptance of major changes. On the other hand, Roe v. Wade ignited a debate that has dominated American politics and deranged the process of Supreme Court appointments for more than 40 years.

Ross Douthat (NYT) on Amy Coney Barrett and conservative feminism (a name I’m not crazy about):

A conservative feminism today, on the other hand — again, if we can say that it exists — is adaptive rather than oppositional. It takes for granted that much of what Ginsburg fought for was necessary and just; that the old order suppressed female talent and ambition; that sexism and misogyny are more potent forces than many anti-feminists allowed. It agrees that the accomplishments of Barrett’s career — in academia and now on the federal bench — could have been denied to her in 1950, and it hails that change as good.

But then it also argues that feminism’s victories were somewhat unbalanced, that they were kinder to professional ambition than to other human aspirations, and that the society they forged has lost its equilibrium not just in work-life balance but also in other areas — sex and romance and marriage and child rearing, with the sexes increasingly alienated from one another and too many children desired but never born.

This diagnosis is not necessarily conservative; some of it might be endorsed by more radical feminists, for whom the alienation and disappointment is proof that enduring features of patriarchy and capitalism still need to be abolished.

Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic, also on ACB:

I’m a Catholic, more or less. I can follow along with the Mass in many languages I don’t know, and at Mass I feel connected to generations of women in my family. But People of Praise is foreign to me. If I were in the Senate, I would want to know quite a bit about it, and in particular about what it requires of its members when they operate within the secular world. In other words, what are the ecclesiastical pronouncements of her faith? These are questions that could be asked in a thorough and respectful manner. Given the national mood, I doubt that will happen.

Fall has arrived in the Pacific Northwest, but we’re still enjoying a solid two weeks of warm weather. I think I’ll see if I can get the whole family out on one last hike, before we head into the long dark.

Do you listen to your angel?

Today is the Feast of Guardian Angels, one of those little things that makes Catholicism more fun.

Pope Francis:

How many people settle down, and don’t set out on the journey, and their whole life is stalled, without moving, without doing anything! It is a danger. Like that man in the Gospel who was afraid to invest the talent. He buried it, and [said] “I am at peace, I am calm. I can’t make a mistake. So I won’t take a risk.” Many people don’t know how to make the journey, or are afraid of taking risks, and they are stalled. 

The angels help us, they push us to continue on the journey.

I want to ask you a question: Do you speak with your angel? Do you know the name of your angel? Do you listen to your angel? Do you allow yourself to be led by hand along the path, or do you need to be pushed to move?