Friday, December 31, 2021

Jason Isbell, Morgan Wallen, and Redemption


This is one of those stories I'd ordinarily not talk about here.  I do so mainly because it illustrates the failure of our modern culture to appreciate the value of redemption.

For those who are unaware of the story, Morgan Wallen is a country music artist. I have never purchased one of his albums, nor seen him in concert, and for the most part he is not the sort of fellow I'd give much of my attention to.  This was made all the more so when, in February of this year, a video of Wallen circulated wherein he was highly intoxicated and used the n-word to refer to a friend of his.  The friend is apparently not black, though I'm not sure which would be worse.  This sort of colloquial use of that word is one for which I have little use; however, suffice it to say, there is not a white person in this country who ought to use that word in any context.  It was bad.

Wallen was rightly, and quickly, criticized by nearly everyone.  He was also remorseful and apologetic.  You can read (or watch) his complete statement here:

He also pledged $500,000 to black-led groups, earmarking part of it in $15,000 chunks in the names of 20 people who counseled him following this incident, and leaving with them the option of donating to the charity of their choice or keeping it within the BMAC, the organization to whom he donated the money.  

Is that sufficient remorse?  It's not for me to say.  Ultimately, those he has harmed must answer that question, as must his fans and the country music industry.  The latter, at least, have answered that question by continuing to purchase his albums and go to his shows.  In droves.

Enter Jason Isbell.  Jason Isbell, by contrast to Morgan Wallen, is one of my favorite songwriters and recording artists.  I love his work with the Drive-by Truckers, and I love his solo work, especially his 2013 masterpiece, Southeastern.  Jason Isbell writes songs about redemption.  His redemption.  In a particularly strange twist of irony, perhaps the greatest of these songs is a song off of Southeastern entitled "Cover Me Up."  "Cover Me Up" was covered by Morgan Wallen.  This embarrasses Jason Isbell, in the bright light of 20/20 hindsight.

"Cover Me Up" is a song about a drunk, high, stoned, arguably abusive Jason Isbell, and how his now-wife, then-girlfriend Amanda Shires helped him through that period in his life to become a better man. The lyrics include masterpieces such as these:


 Days when we raged, we flew off the page
Such damage was done
But I made it through, 'cause somebody knew
I was meant for someone

* * *
Put your faith to the test 
When I tore off your dress
In Richmond on high
But I sobered up, I swore off that stuff
Forever this time
The old lovers sing
"I thought it'd be me who helped him get home"
But home was a dream
One I'd never seen 'til you came along

It is a particularly beautiful song, one that sounds themes of weakness, pride, hurt and ultimately humility, humiliation and eventual redemption. It is a song about brokenness, recovery and hope.

Because Morgan Wallen covered "Cover Me Up," Isbell thought it right to condemn Wallen's words when they were initially made public. He called them "disgusting and horrifying." He was right. They were. And he was also right that Wallen owed an apology and much, much more. For his part, Isbell donated the songwriting royalties for the Wallen version of "Cover Me Up" to the NAACP. This, too, was a noble act. After announcing the donation of the Wallen royalties to the NAACP on Twitter, Isbell's manager said he does not plan to comment beyond the tweet. This month, Isbell broke that promise.

This is, in part, because Wallen's redemption has been more than expected, certainly by Isbell at least. Morgan Wallen had the best selling album of 2021. Not the best-selling country album, the best selling album in any genre. His tour has played to sold-out venues all summer. One can imagine lots of reasons why, but two seem readily apparent. First, the attempt by people like Isbell to "cancel" Wallen generated a backlash. Second, people love a good redemption story.

Isbell talks about the second of those in a recent interview. Referencing George Jones, he says "excuses have been made over and over to try to craft that same white male narrative. It’s just part of the story. It’s like, ‘yes, sometimes, as white men who’ve been put upon, we slip and we make mistakes, but we can rise again! And that’s country music, folks.'" So to the extent country music fans, and Americans in general, believe in rising above your mistakes, Isbell thinks this is a terrible thing. Well, except for the success of his own version of "Cover Me Up," which is ironically about that very thing. Isbell sounds the themes, reaps the rewards, and then refuses to acknowledge that the same impetus that made his fans love "Cover Me Up" is the one that sends Morgan Wallen's fans to buy his album and attend his shows. The irony in this is hard to miss.

However, there is a greater issue, and it's the one Isbell doesn't talk about, except in an ironic sense because he's making it worse. Again referencing George Jones, he says "there’s a lot of shit that George did that was not cool, shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." Well, who is Jason Isbell to decide what one ought to be "completely redeemed from?" Does he want to live by those rules? The guy who "tore off (her) dress in Richmond on high?" Listening to Isbell's music, it is apparent that the very themes he sounds himself are the ones he cries against most loudly when others reap the benefit. This is a textbook example of why the phrase "virtue signaling" was invented.

This isn't the first time Isbell has done this either. In June of 2020, Mike Fuller, who makes Fulltone guitar pedals, made a comment on his own website about the rioting in Los Angeles, where Fulltone is based. He decried the looting "with 100% impunity," and said the mayor and governor don't care about small businesses. For this, Isbell took to Twitter to tar Fuller as a racist. He said "Check out black-owned pedal company Dogman Devices. I’ve not used them but they seem to be good and fulltone has always made overpriced junk." So Isbell doesn't purchase Dogman Devices pedals, he calls Fulltone Pedals "overpriced junk" (which is nonsense -- I own two of them and they are fantastic pedals, whatever one thinks of Mike Fuller's politics), and he gets in his Twitter virtue signal and his shot at Fuller. But what has he actually done? Maybe he began purchasing Dogman Devices pedals? Even assuming so, before that he had ignored them in favor of other manufacturers. He wasn't promoting that pedal company except in an attempt to tear down Mike Fuller's pedal company. So what makes him better than Mike Fuller? Mike Fuller never trashed Isbell's music publicly, after all.

All of this highlights the real issue. Isbell is not speaking now because Morgan Wallen's apology, donations and remorse are insufficient. And being honest, he's not speaking now because Morgan Wallen did "shit that you really should not be able to be completely redeemed from." That's not his call to make. He's speaking now because he has a large following on Twitter, and he has made a name for himself in large part by calling for the cancellation of people he disagrees with. And let's be even more honest -- that desire to destroy Wallen is precisely why Wallen's fans flock to him all the more. It's why Wallen's albums outsell Isbell's by multiples, and why Wallen sells out bigger venues routinely. Granted, part of this is the different way they make music -- Isbell is and has always been a smaller operation, and as a songwriter he is not willing to make the compromises people like Wallen make to be a bigger artist. That is commendable. But after that video surfaced, Wallen's career could easily have been over. Instead, people like Isbell unwittingly encourage his fans to embrace the redemption story. And that is a good thing, if only Isbell could see it.

The prideful impetus that makes Isbell feel he has to speak out against Wallen is not based in a desire for Wallen's redemption. Far from it. Isbell seeks Wallen's destruction in order to appease his fans. And ironically ends up helping him to be bigger than ever. It is an indictment on our society that this is encouraged by anyone, or seen as virtuous. And while I doubt I will ever buy a Morgan Wallen record or concert ticket, I have not yet lost so much of my humanity that I don't appreciate the value of redemption. It is the core of what the Christian Church teaches us. We are all rotten. But there is hope, and that hope is in Christ, Who calls us to become by grace what He is by nature. Who, yes, redeems us.

It is, I suppose, a great irony that if I did not believe so much in the value of redemption, I wouldn't like Jason Isbell's music as much as I do. And it is a great tragedy that he fails to see that.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Vaccine Skepticism, Vaccine Skepticism Disguised as Vaccine Promotion, and Love of God and Neighbor


This little speck has caused untold damage to our world.  The damage I write about today, however, is the damage it has done to our souls.  
I still frequent a handful of internet discussion boards that discuss theology and theological matters.  On one in particular, I was saddened to see the politics of COVID override Christian love of neighbor.  In this case, it dealt with those who were fearful of their unmasked and unvaccinated neighbors.  Such people were called "crazed," and at least one person said he "lacked sympathy" for anyone who would not get vaccinated. Today, in a comment that caused me to reconsider my hesitance to publish this, one of them said that healthcare workers' lives were "endangered" by the unvaccinated.  

I also, in contraindication of the health of my own soul, still frequent social media sites.  On one of those (likely the one you received this link from), another person suggested that anyone who vaccinates their minor child is guilty of "child abuse."  I'll elaborate on my thoughts about both downstream.  I'll say at the outset, this is not intended to be a condemnation of the people who took these positions.  It is, rather, a case study in how we as Christians actually deal with each other (all involved are professing and practicing Christians), and an encouragement as to how we should.  The people who said these things are not mentioned for that reason.  It isn't about them, it's about us and how we treat one another.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is the general polarization and ugliness of our politics.  We are not a tolerant people.  We were not a tolerant people when the self-styled champions of what they called "tolerance" (but which was actually authoritarian thought policing) still pretended to believe in it.  So it is to be expected, I suppose, that it is not enough to disagree.  We must also tear down, ridicule, lampoon, demean, and seek to control and conform.  We spring to hyperbole as if it were the most persuasive way to discourse -- there is a reason this moment in time has required the coining of Godwin's Law.  We blame social media for this, but the truth is it is who we are, what we allow ourselves to be.  But the problem also stems from fear and a desire to control others, and therefore the natural outcome of man's fall into sin.  These are the points I want to drill down on.  

We know from the Scriptures and the Church Fathers that the problem of man is the problem of mortality.  Stripped bare of our communion with God, and therefore imprisoned in this body of death, we turn inward, and seek to protect ourselves first.  We seek to do so often by attempting to control the behavior of others.  Lacking trust in God and love of neighbor, we put our needs above our neighbor and seek to survive.  This is why, some Fathers suggest, all sins ultimately trace back to pride and love of self.  It is why the great ascetics, and monastics like St. John Climacus, make such a great deal of denying the self.  It is why we fast.  It is why we do prostrations.  We teach ourselves to deny the self and live for God and neighbor.

So returning to these two objections in this light.  The first, that those who will not get vaccinated (or wear masks if they are vaccinated) are in essence bad people, is obviously about fear and control.  One person who took that approach suggested that absent a doctor's excuse, anyone who refuses to be vaccinated should be forbidden from going in public spaces.  Forbidden from holding certain jobs.  Forbidden from using public transportation.  (Whether these are good or bad policy provisions is beyond the scope of my point -- I am speaking about how we as Christians view our neighbor).  When pressed, he said they should not be allowed to use the public accommodates he uses.  Since he was the fearful one, I asked why he did not stay home.  I did not receive an answer.  Today, as noted, this same person suggested that the mere presence of the unvaccinated threatens the lives of healthcare workers.  Even though healthcare workers were the very first in this country to receive the vaccines, this person thinks unvaccinated people are a threat to their lives when they come to the hospital for treatment.  Who is the real vaccine skeptic here?  Most of the people in the discussion -- even those of us opposed to vaccine mandates, but still in favor of vaccine promotion and encouragement -- at least believe the vaccines work.

This person is vaccinated, as am I, and as was, best I was able to tell, everyone else in the discussion. Yet his fear of being around those who are unvaccinated was practically palpable, and it was highlighted best in the comment today.  This fear and skepticism caused him to suggest his neighbor should essentially be imprisoned in his own home for the crime of endangering people who took steps to mitigate the danger, as if those steps are insufficient.  It didn't matter that the unvaccinated neighbor actually poses very little real public health threat at the moment, much less a threat to this man in particular or vaccinated healthcare workers.  No, he thought everyone should get a vaccine, and therefore he was willing to take away the freedom of his neighbor in order that he might travel freely and without his own irrational fear of illness or death.  He and a couple of others said expressly they could conceive of no good reason why anyone might want to avoid being the first in line to take a vaccine that is not FDA approved, and the long-term efficacy of which is still undetermined.  I can articulate many good reasons why I got the vaccine as soon as it was available (and I do so below).  But these men could think of no reasons why anyone else might have taken a different approach than they, and I, did.  For those of you who are similarly unable to conceive of why anyone would not want to get a vaccine, I offer this:

At any rate, lacking trust in God and love for neighbor, these folks are willing to harm their neighbors to make themselves feel better.

On the other side of the aisle, so to speak, is the man who proclaimed it "child abuse" to vaccinate minor children.  He also commented recently, demonstrating his pride that he would not be getting vaccinated.  The reasoning is sound enough for him to make that decision for himself and his kids -- minor children are generally unaffected by the COVID virus and therefore for him the risks of the vaccine outweigh the risks of the virus.  If he doesn't want the vaccine for a variety of good reasons, as noted above, that's certainly rational, even if I would (and did) disagree.  So far, so good.  

For our family, I disagreed for several reasons.  First, I don't want my children to be a danger to others.  It was love of neighbor that prompted me to get the vaccine myself, and to encourage my wife and oldest child to get it, and that same love prompts me to encourage my youngest two to go now that they are able (both received their first dose of Pfizer yesterday and are doing well).  I understand there are risks associated with this vaccine, and others, but I also understand that the best way to defeat the virus, best we know, is to have more people inoculated.  It will not go away, we understand that.  But being able to fight it off will return us to a post-pandemic world with less sickness, less death, and less pain than simply waiting it out and hoping enough of our loved ones survive to obtain herd immunity.  Second, the newer COVID variants, especially the currently prevalent Delta variant, affect younger people differently than the initial outbreak.  So we don't really know that minors are unaffected by mutations of the COVID-19 virus.  That's my reasoning, and it is at worst equally sound.  

Yet, despite the fact that my children are not his children, not his to raise, and not his to influence, this person decided to announce publicly that I am abusing them by my decision to vaccinate.  No, he did not direct those words at me personally.  Rather, he directed them at everyone thoughtlessly (I do not think he was being malicious).  Why?  Because he holds a very strong distrust toward the vaccines, and so lacking fear of God and trust in neighbor, he wrote to discredit the vaccines rather than simply trust that others could engage in good decision making without his judgment.  As part of that, he engaged in hyperbole that puts me and others like me on equal footing with people who beat their children or deprive them of food.

I'll repeat here that I don't write this to condemn any of these men.  For one, I am hardly innocent of the charges of fear and desire to control others to conform to my way of thinking.  I'm sure my words could as easily be used in someone else's blog post.  And I am hardly innocent of being judgmental of others and lacking in love for my neighbor, both before and since the word "COVID-19" came into our common lexicon.  I write because both are such good illustrations of how this pandemic illuminates our spiritual illness.  We fear disease of body, and we end up ignoring our diseased souls.  Often, the very basic dignities and freedoms of humanity are the first to go out the window.  

St. John Climacus wrote: “The blessed living corpse grows sick at heart when he finds himself acting on his own behalf, and he is frightened by the burden of using his own personal judgment.”  John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent (New York: The Missionary Society of St. Paul, 1983), 92.  He also wrote: "Repentance goes shopping for humility and is ever distrustful of bodily comfort," and "the penitent stands guilty – but undisgraced.”  Ibid, 121.  Finally, he wrote: “The first stage of blessed patience is to accept dishonor with bitterness and anguish of soul,” while “[t]he perfect stage, if that is attainable, is to think of dishonor as praise.”  Ibid, 149.  As Christians, this is our calling.  We don't often like it, and I for one frequently rebel against it.  But we are called to put ourselves behind our neighbor, most especially in terms of offense, bodily comfort and pride.  We are to put our neighbor's ease ahead of our own.  As noted above, for good or ill, whether I was right or wrong, this is one reason I chose to get vaccinated early.  I knew that in order to ask my family and friends to be vaccinated themselves, I had to step up to the plate.  I knew that if there were any ill effects (there were, all temporary, but all miserable in the short term), I could not ask others to withstand them if I was unwilling to do so myself.  I don't say this to suggest I am such a good person -- again, I judge, I mock, I scorn, I fear.  It is to say I hope I repent, and I hope others do as well.  

We are truly all in this together.  Until you have seen someone you care about out of work due to the pandemic, or been there yourself, you have no call to suggest people be deprived of their livelihoods.  Until you have seen someone you care about suffer, perhaps even die, or been there yourself, you have no call to suggest people who attempt to avoid the ill effects of this disease by getting vaccinated are evil.  I hope that as we move forward, we can take another look at how we deal with one another, and apply a healthy dose of charity and grace to our neighbor.  Especially as Christians, we have a holy obligation to put the best construction on our neighbor's words and actions.  I write to ask that everyone get in line behind me to repent of those many times we fail in that obligation.

Sunday, December 27, 2020



Ten years ago at Nativity, my family and I were chrismated as newly illumined Orthodox Christians.  In that ten years, my life has changed in immeasurable ways.  I was tonsured a reader fairly early on -- about two years in.  I managed to complete the St. Stephen Course in Applied Orthodox Theology this past year, a goal I set for myself when we became Orthodox.  I have attended two Sacred Music Institutes and hope to attend more still.  I have visited the Antiochian Village, venerated the relics there, and prayed at the resting place of the saints buried there.  I have met many of our bishops and priests and deacons, and more, subdeacons who eventually became deacons, then priests.  I have watched as the priestly ranks grew from the elevation of my friends.

I have learned that the Orthodox Church is not perfect.  This is something we knew going in, or said we knew.  We now know for sure.  The Church is populated by sinners, of whom I am chief.  We make messes of things, and fail to love one another as Christ has loved us.  I have learned, notwithstanding this, that the Orthodox Church is herself perfect, in that her sinners are being saved, and we seek forgiveness where we err, and strive to love one another despite our many faults.  We are being conformed to our Lord, Who is perfect.  I have learned more than I care to know about church politics and governance, and I have learned far less than I care to know about Byzantine chant, Church history, theology, ecclesiology, and a host of other topics about which the St. Stephen Course has barely whetted my appetite.  Mostly, I have made many great and lifelong friends, who share this journey with us, who learn the same lessons we learn, and strive to serve Christ in the same way we do.

Ten years really marks nothing of significance.  The road is to eternity.  Still, it seemed fitting to take a moment and reflect.  We have been Orthodox Christians a decade now.  We remain, still, home.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Nine years in....... regrets.  This journey has led me from despair as a late-stage Baptist, to some semblance of solidity as a nascent Lutheran, to shaken foundations as a relocating Lutheran, and finally back to true solidity in the Orthodox Church.

We are in the Church.  And that is enough.

Blessed Nativity, 2019!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Lutherans, step into my office for a moment please.....

An interesting, if misguided, article has been making the rounds among some of you that I would like to address this Reformation Day.  Why Reformation Day?  Not to be inflammatory, but to remind us all of why we ended up here, and why some of the premises in this article are so badly wrong.

The article, from Real Clear Religion, is well intentioned.  I won't link to it, mostly because those of you who are interested have already read it and I'm not inclined to give it wider distribution.  It notes, correctly, that some evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism for ancient faiths, and it posits that a viable alternative is the ancient faith, as Lutherans see it, that is Lutheranism.  So far, no harm no foul.  I don't begrudge Lutherans their distinctives nor their outreach.  In fact, one reason I became Lutheran was the insistence on grounding doctrine not only in "the Bible" as any single individual may see it, but in the Bible as understood by the Fathers of the Church, the Councils, etc.  Lutherans believe that "Popes and councils can err," a broad statement that we Orthodox could agree with in part, but which I think overstates the case.  After all, Lutherans do not profess to believe that, for example, the Ecumenical Councils erred.  Your confessions cite to them often.  It is this citation that drew me to Lutheranism in the first place.  Here is a faith that is not grounded in subjectivity.  It has roots.

But here is my issue.  The article also states the following, regarding the proverbial "swimming" of the Tiber or Bosporos (shorthand for becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, respectively -- forgive me the presumption that readers will understand the references or at least consult a map and figure them out):

Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism.
The latter, Church history, is the ground on which I became Lutheran and eventually left to become Orthodox.  I will address that point in a bit, but I certainly respect that Lutherans have a valid claim to hold to at least a substantial volume of the dogmatic proclamations of the pre-schism Church.  But the notion that people leave any tradition because they are enamored with externals like "ceremonial aspects" or "art and literature" is a common Lutheran trope, and a silly one.  I know a lot of former Lutherans, most of whom are Eastern Orthodox, some of whom are Roman Catholic.  Of those, I don't know a single one who would say "our liturgies are prettier" or "I really like the aesthetics of icons (or statutes)" as the reason why they left.

Were that my only complaint, I probably wouldn't write this at all.  But the article goes on to address, or more accurately gloss past, the real reason most of us left -- ecclesiology.

But Jesus does not lay out a proper form for his church. A true church, as limned in the New Testament, is one whose ministers teach the gospel purely and administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper rightly, according to Christ’s institution and mandate. That’s all. If your church does that–and the Missouri Synod hangs its hat on this directive–you belong to the true church.
Now, this is certainly the Lutheran view, and I do not take issue with it as a Lutheran view.  What I take issue with is the begging of the question in favor of the Lutheran understanding of the Church, and the glossing past history which shows that view to have some holes in it.  That is, I object that the very historical and Apostolic foundation being appealed to here is treated as if it can be reduced to locating the Church where the Gospel is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered in accordance with their institution, over and against those communions who maintain the Apostolic structure.  As we all know, Jesus never said "the Church is found where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered in accordance with their institution" either.  So to understand either view -- the view of the historic communions such as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, some Anglicans, etc., versus the Lutheran view -- one must look past the Scriptures and get deep into that very history the author appeals to here, but fails to adequately address.

It is true that Jesus does not "lay out a proper form for His Church," inasmuch as Jesus does not say "these are the things which constitute the Church" in so many words.  But Jesus did appoint men to carry on His ministry.  John chapter 20 is one of numerous places we see this.  "Receive the Holy Spirit," said Jesus.  "Whoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven.  Whoever's sins you retain, they are retained."  We both share that Apostolic foundation.  The Bible, after all, is the Apostolic record.

The view Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, among a few others, share is that the Apostles then passed on their ministry to the episcopacy.  That is, bishops were appointed to head the various sees established by the Apostles.  Over time, those bishops had their territories expand such that they could not effectively act as pastor and overseer, and so the office of presbyter developed, with the presbyter being responsible for being the bishop's representative in a parish.  The diaconate came about much earlier, as recorded in Acts.  So it is the office of the parish pastor that developed over time, not the office of the bishop.  In the nascent Church, the parish pastor was the bishop.

This is the basic structure of the Church in history.  It is attested to as early as the late 1st to early 2nd century, with no objection to the structure itself being raised.  It is utterly uncontroversial.  St. Ignatius of Antioch, the bishop of an Apostolic see first headed by St. Peter, wrote:

Take care to do all things in harmony with God, with the bishop presiding in the place of God, and with the presbyters in the place of the council of the apostles, and with the deacons, who are most dear to me, entrusted with the business of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from the beginning and is at last made manifest. 
— Letter to the Magnesians 2, 6:1

He also wrote:

Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid. 
— Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8

Now, this clearly sets forth not simply a loose, "wherever" standard for the Church, but rather a tight, "where the bishop is, there the Church is" standard for governance.  Nor is this historical truth controversial in the slightest.  Nearly everyone agrees this is what St. Ignatius said about the Church save those radical "Age of Apostasy" Protestants and ahistorical atheists, some of whom deny that Ignatius was even a real person.  And this is not only the same structure for the Church we see in Ignatius' late 1st century to early 2nd century writings.  It is the same structure we see, for example, in Acts 15.

So leaving aside the trope that people become Catholic or Orthodox because they want more pretty shiny stuff, we are left with the idea that they seek out these communions because they appreciate Church history.  And the very same history that leads one to appreciate Lutheranism, if plumbed to its depths, leads in a straight line back to the historic communions.  The article even notes that Luther did not seek to leave the Church, only to restore it.

Of course, the problem with that premise is Luther did not simply restore.  In many ways, he did in fact leave.  Some of that I account to historical accident.  If the bishops are corrupt, and if the bishops will not ordain or recognize your pastors, there is not much to be done, if one believes one's view to be correct, but to leave the bishops.  The problem is, that true history is glossed past in favor of a question-begging narrative that pretends the 16th century Lutheran conception of the Church is just the way things always were until everything got corrupted.  When the corruption entered is not stated by the author, and in fact the very notion that it was corrupted is hinted at only vaguely, but I have shown above that it would have to be in the very first generation of Christians.  Ignatius, after all, was born in 35 AD or thereabouts.  His episcopacy was before any of the councils or Popes Lutherans believe erred.  His writings were widely disseminated.  Antioch was one of the five pre-eminent Sees in the early Church, along with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem.  In order to claim the current Lutheran understanding of what the Church is was the "early Church" view, one has to also adopt the view that the entire ecclesiology of the Church was corrupted right about the time the last Apostle died.  And yet, I don't know a single Lutheran who believes that.

There is a proper Lutheran view of history that accounts for this.  Many of my friends in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod hold the view, for example, that the parish pastor fulfills properly the role of the bishop in the ancient Church.  That is, as they see it, their ecclesiology has been reformed to a more proper model consistent with that of the early Church, where there were no overseers, only pastors.  Again, that is well and good and I don't quarrel with it, though I do disagree with it.  The problem is, in disseminating articles like this one which fails to make that case, or even attempt to, one invites prospective evangelical converts to delve into the history behind the claims.  When they do, they will inevitably find that the claims are inadequate, and frankly, wrong.  That does no one any good.

I don't write often on Lutheran distinctives.  I look back with fondness at my time in your midst, and I was formed by the teaching of theologians whose views I value to this very day.  I do not write this as an attack on you or your tradition.  But I do wish some of you would consider how this comes across, not only to those of us who left, but perhaps chiefly to those the article addresses -- potential converts.  Because the honest truth is, I believe it tends to come from a position of weakness and ignorance.  Too many of you cannot understand why we do not see what you see.  And instead of questioning us about it, or trying to figure out why we reject Lutheran theology in the end, assumptions are made.  Assumptions such as no one would reject Lutheran theology if they understood it, therefore, it must be something else.  This article grasps blindly for "something else."  It attributes it, in the first and second instances, to a superficial love for shiny pretty things, and in the third, for an appreciation of history that is marred by the very claims the article attempts, weakly, to make.

An anecdote to make the point further.  When I was still firmly a Lutheran, in June of 2009, Pastor David Jay Webber did a 3-part series on the Lutheran radio show, Issues, Etc., on Eastern Orthodoxy.  Even then, having no interest in the Orthodox Church, but having read volumes of Church history, I knew it was badly wrong.  For example, rather than placing the genesis of the Great Schism properly at the extent and scope of Papal jurisdiction and authority, culminating in the Filioque controversy, Webber's view was that the West went with Augustine and the East went with Pelagius on the central article (as Lutherans see it) of justification.  Pelagius, that great Protestant boogeyman, was thus presented as the central figure in a schism that occurred over 600 years after he died.  Augustine, that great Protestant hero (when he isn't talking about imitating the lives of the martyrs, sharing in their merits and being aided by their prayers), is posited as the hero of a schism that occurred nearly 600 years after he died.  This sort of ahistorical, anachronistic nonsense does not win people to your cause, at least not after they learn they have been lied to.

When we were exploring Orthodoxy, in mid-2010, well-meaning Lutheran friends sent me articles written by Lutherans who said things like "the Orthodox don't take sin seriously" and "the Orthodox don't believe in original sin."  The first of those statements is laughable, as I wrote about here.  The second is true only in a word-concept fallacy sense -- we believe in a concept called "ancestral sin," and the differences are beyond the scope of my point here.  Suffice it to say, at the level of theology, both statements are horrifically wrong.  And things like that naturally made me ask a question:  "if they're wrong about that, what else are they wrong about?"

It turned out the answer was "quite a lot."  Most Lutherans, even most Lutheran pastors and theologians, do not understand Eastern Orthodoxy.  I've written about some of the differences here before, but the conceptual framework is so vastly different that one really must spend a lot of time defining terms and understanding basics before one can even have a conversation.

My advice, then, is stop trying to tell us why we left and what we believe, and start trying to understand.  That begins with listening, and I am happy to offer my thoughts anytime any of you would like to discuss it.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Christchurch New Zealand: the Church and Islam

Last week in Christchurch, New Zealand, a terrorist attacked two mosques, killing 49 people and injuring at least 48 others.  The shooter -- who I will not name in order to deny him the notoriety he coveted -- was an Australian born white supremacist and nativist.  The manifesto he left behind indicates a desire to preserve a future for "his people," that is, white people, and to create a climate of fear for Muslims.

I don't write here as much as I used to, but those who follow this blog know that I have written an unfortunate number of such posts over the last couple of years. I have addressed varying forms of bigotry, hatred and sectarianism hereherehere and here.  That's just since 2017.  I'm frankly weary of it, yet it appears this sort of attitude toward one another is all too prevalent, and so I speak.

The shooter, who had something of an obsession with the history of the rise of Islam, so much so that he visited historic sites of battles between Christians and Muslims, does not seem to be any sort of practicing Christian, but he does place great value on the perceived decline of Christianity, presumably mostly as a white ethnic identity instead of as a faith and life God gives us to live.  This is at once heartening and terrifying.  Heartening because he did not know Christ and therefore his actions do not speak to the Christian faith at all.  Terrifying because he was apparently willing to nonetheless commit unspeakable acts in protest of his perceived loss of Christian (that is, white) identity in the world.

The horror present in this atrocity is appallingly simple.  The shooter, in doing what he did, became precisely that which he claimed to despise.  He did so because he reduced people to the most superficial attributes -- mostly racial -- while simultaneously failing to give any nuance to the most complex attributes, their religious faith.  To the shooter, Christian = European = white.  Muslim = non-European = non-white.  I'm sure there are other, equally superficial, distinctions he made, but I honestly lack interest in trying to find them.  It is enough to say he had a very reductionist view of humanity.

Of course, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Christian history knows that this view is not simply false, it is laughably false.  Middle Eastern Muslims are of similar racial stock to our Lord Himself, and His mother, our Lady the Theotokos.  And before Christianity was much of a thing in Europe, it spread first in the Middle East and North Africa.  The early patriarchates were located in Rome, yes, but also Alexandria, Antioch (in modern-day Turkey, though the Patriarchate is now located in Damascus), Jerusalem and Constantinople.  The main theological disputations in the earliest centuries were between the schools of Antioch and Alexandria.  Christianity is, first and foremost, an Eastern religion.  European Christianity comes to the game somewhat later in time -- even Rome was more culturally Eastern than what most people imagine "European" (that is, mostly medieval Roman Catholic) Christianity to be.

This misunderstanding goes beyond the Christian faith, but to Christian and Muslim persons.  Our bishop, who is visiting us this week, was born in Damascus, and has a still-thick accent even though he has lived here since 1981.  Those who overvalue the superficial might mistake him for a Muslim.  My brother has spent quite a lot of time in Indonesia.  I suppose one can make distinctions between Middle Eastern Muslims and Asian Muslims, but isn't that sort of the point?  Besides, Indonesia is the single largest Muslim nation in the world.  My brother encountered no difficulty there.  On more than one occasion, the kindness of local Muslims -- because of their faith, not in spite of it -- was very comforting to him.

Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo
I do not say these things lightly.  I am aware of the atrocities of Muslim fanatics in this world.  I remember, as do all of us over a certain age, September 11, 2001.  In 2013, one of our Metropolitans, Paul of Aleppo, was kidnapped along with a Syriac Orthodox bishop, John, with whom he was traveling, by Islamists.  Bad people commit bad acts.  And yet our former bishop of blessed memory, Antoun, once told our parish that in Syria, Muslims and Christians get along well.  Being hyper-focused on the superficial, therefore, is not the proper approach.  We condemn actions, not races, faiths or ethnicities.  And we praise actions, not perceived cultures based on skin color or other superficial differences.

I am also aware, as I noted in my last post, that the Orthodox Church has those within it (and others who wish to be within it but are not allowed) who espouse such superficial distinctions between humans.  The simple point I would like to make is this -- those who commit such atrocities, like those who would try to use the Orthodox Church as justification for their racism and hatred, do not do so because of their faith, but in spite of it.  There will be many true Scotsmen eager to point out, rightly, that the Christchurch shooter does not represent Christianity.  I hope they will seek out a mirror, and realize that this is also true of the 9/11 terrorists and those who kidnapped our beloved Metropolitan.  They do not represent Islam.

As I noted a while back in 2 separate posts, we have a choice.  We can choose to see others, even those of different faiths, as brothers and special creations of the Father, or we can choose to see them as evil, as (ironically) infidels, as irredeemable.  The former path is the Christian path.  Christianity is an exclusive faith, in that we truly believe Christ is the only way to reunification with God.  But Christianity does not value superficial distinctions.  Racism is sin.  Xenophobia is sin.  Which is only to say, false witness is sin.  A person is no more or less a Christian because of the color of their skin or their national origin.  A person is no more or less representative of Islam based on the same superficialities.  We are not universalists.  We do believe some will be damned, but we do not get to choose who.  It is not ours to judge.

Bishop Nicholas told us yesterday evening that there are 613 total commandments in the Old Testament, and that our Lord summed them all up in two -- love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  We have a choice.  Choose to love your neighbor as yourself.  And pray for those who lost loved ones, and those loved ones lost, when someone who felt very strongly about the loss of Christian identity missed the entire point of the Christian faith.  Lord have mercy.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anti-Semitism is un-Christian

Sadly, I feel I only write after tragedies these days.  I find myself writing today, just two days after a man shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh for the sole reason that its inhabitants were Jewish.

Pittsburgh is a city close to my heart.  For the past three years (and for at least the next two) I have traveled through her borders in order to attend the Sacred Music Institute (the past two years) and the St. Stephen Course residency (this past year and for the next two).  I have gotten to know her people, including several I consider personal friends.  And Pittsburgh is a city of fine people, people who love, who work, who treat others with respect.  She is the best of what our country has to offer.

But this was not an attack on Pittsburgh.  Nor was it an attack on some vacuous notion of "religion."  It was an attack on Jews.  Ethnic Jews.  People who were targeted not because they had done something wrong, but because they are part of a group who was wrongly considered by the shooter to have done something wrong.  To call this an act of terrorism is to understate the problem.  Because it is not the terroristic act that moved him to do it, but the false association of ethnic Jews with all manner of evil.  This was an act of terrorism, but it was a sin of the heart.

The Orthodox Church has recently had some serious issues with anti-semitism.  Fortunately the worst of the worst -- the high profile so-called "white nationalists" who infected certain of our parishes -- have been excommunicated.  That is not to say there are not others.  I'm certain there are.  It is to say our hierarchs appear to be dealing with the problem appropriately.  I pray they continue to do so.  Those who bring hatred into Christ's Church must repent or be expelled.  Their beliefs are an infectious invader upon the Body of Christ.

I'm not sure what attracts such types to the Church.  Perhaps it is the "old world" manner in which our  troparia speak.  Our parish patron's troparion, for example, includes the phrase "for when thou hast censured the Jews' madness thou sawest Christ Thy Savior standing at the right hand of the Father....."  We do not intend such to be a condemnation of modern Judaism, nor of modern Jews, nor even of ancient Judaism or ancient Jews.  It is a simple historical statement. But maybe that is misunderstood by people looking for justification for their anti-Christian views.  And, per the title, anti-semitism is anti-Christian.  Perhaps, instead, it is our roots in traditionalism.  The Orthodox Church cares little whether she is perceived as backwards, old fashioned, stuck in old ways.  Often, we revel in it.  And perhaps those who wish to look to a previous time which they perceive as "better," a time when Jews and others were persecuted, see us as refuge for the idea that any old idea is a good idea.  Perhaps, yet again, it is our own phyletism -- our own ethnic enclaves that seek to exclude and remain exclusive.  Perhaps, that is, it is our own sin that draws such people in.

In any of these events, or in any other, we must repent.  We must repent of our failure to explain our hymnody and writings in a way that makes clear we may speak archaically, but we do not speak bigotry.  We must repent of our elevation of tradition to something higher than Christ and His Church, that is, we must repent of valuing tradition for its own sake rather than valuing Holy Tradition for Christ's sake.  We must surely repent of our own sins and sweep around our own back doors in regards to how we treat our fellow man.

As Christians, we have a duty to reject the false divisions of this world.  "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."  (Galatians 3:28).  We are to see our neighbor as our brother, as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  This is true, perhaps especially true, of our brethren who do not claim Him.  For our Lord did not say to judge and persecute those who reject Him, but to love even our enemies.  And Jews, Muslims and other religious groups are not our enemies, certainly not by the loosest of associations.  How much more are we to love them?

On the subject of loose associations, we have a corresponding duty to refuse to view our neighbor by association with some larger group, the better to tar him with.  Our Jewish friends are not "Jews" (or any of the current code-word associations for people of Jewish ethnicity or identity).  They are the creation of the Father.  They are beloved of God.  Without getting too far into the thorny issues of the exclusivity of the Christian faith and the salvation of those outside the Church, because that is a far longer and more intensive topic than may be dealt with here, suffice it to say that God's earnest wish is that everyone come to know the truth and be saved.  And without reciting the various Christian heresies that lead to a belief that those outside the canonical walls of the Christian Church are our enemies, it should be sufficient for any Orthodox Christian to understand the properly basic Christian belief that judgment is not ours to render.  We are to love our neighbor.  Christ will judge us all.  And who is to say He will judge my self-defined exclusivity and hatred less severely than another's unbelief, weak belief or uncertain belief?  We are not universalists.  Some will be damned.  But it is not for me to say who.

All of which is a long way of saying this:  If you want to know how to be saved, I point you to the Church, to Christ and His Mysteries.  If you want to know who is damned, I can only say that is not for me to say.  And if you want to know who you are called to love, simply look around you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  That is, love everyone.

So it is that we offer prayers to those who lost lives, health, security, friends and family this past Saturday.  We pray for all of our Jewish friends, and for those who suffer under the weight of such tragedy.  We pray for all who are persecuted, hated and reviled.  We pray for those who persecute, hate and revile, that they might repent.  We pray for he shooter, who I will not further enshrine in infamy by repeating his name here, that his heart may be softened and his hatred be quelled.  And we pray for ourselves, that we may do better.  Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.