Harry Potter, Martin Luther, and Martin Marty…

If you’ve never been introduced to the fascinating world of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, then you’ve been shortchanged a chance to read some of the most engaging reflections on the confluence of theology and culture, religion and politics. The Marty Center publishes an online journal of occasional essays, many of which are written by graduate students from the divinity school. The internet journal, entitled Sightings, “reports and comments on the role of religion in public life via e-mail twice a week to a readership of over 5,000. Through the eyes, ears, and keyboards of a diverse group of writers—academics, clergyman, laypeople, and students—Sightings displays the kaleidoscope of religious activity: a reflection of how religious currents are shaping and being shaped in the world.”

Today’s column, Severus Snape and the Transparency of Evil, is authored by Elizabeth Musselman, a graduate student in theology. Her brief characterization of the moral tensions raised in the bestselling Harry Potter series is worth reading. I reproduce the article here with permission from the Marty Center:

On July 21, children across the country will stay up all night reading as the narrative of Harry Potter draws to a close. Many adults will also stay up all night reading the final chapters in J. K. Rowling’s imaginative epic of teenage wizards negotiating the forces of good and evil. Perhaps if Martin Luther were alive today, he too would find himself drawn into the textual world of Harry Potter — for Harry’s world bears some striking resemblances to Luther’s theological realm. Appearances are deceptive, and human reason is not to be trusted; spoken words carry the power to defeat danger; and the ongoing struggle between good and evil finds no easy resolution.One of the most contentious questions in the online world of textual interpretation (blogging, fan fiction, and the like) concerns the moral status of Severus Snape, Harry’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” teacher. Snape is the only character whose moral status has remained unknown through the series: while this greasy-haired teacher appears on the surface to be more evil than good, by the end of the sixth book the reader is still left questioning Snape’s motives and disposition. Continue reading “Harry Potter, Martin Luther, and Martin Marty…”

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 7

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

National Holy Days and Holy Places

Robert Bellah recognized the important place of national holidays in the cultus of American civil religion and the ways that “the public school serves as a particularly important context for the cultic celebration of the civil rituals.” It is not only that the public school year moves along the cycle of national holidays, but that the classroom and hallways are decorated and the entire school environment infused with the symbols of national holidays which necessitates considerable attention when assessing the nature of civil catechesis in the American context . Gamoran comments:

Because the holidays are expressed in the same way in school, they carry a common message: being American means celebrating these festive occasions. Consequently, I consider all these holidays as part of a civil religious ceremonial calendar. Although they clearly vary in the extent of their spirituality and in the centrality of American themes, taken as a whole they represent a yearly cycle of collective celebrations that define and organize the American calendar.

While purely secular holidays have entered into the national public school calendar (Labor Day, Memorial Day, and others) and achieved the necessary public observance to receive vacation time, other holidays (Valentine’s, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day) which have a more explicit religious heritage have all but lost that heritage and now consists of detached symbols alone, thus not receiving vacation day status. Yet other holidays, which have not lost their explicit religious history (Thanksgiving and Christmas), provide the most controversial instances of perceived “establishment” by a host of national observers. Long before George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation, and long before Pilgrim harvests and Governor William Bradford, there were traditions of agricultural festivals in the Hebrew and Christian traditions with which the earliest colonists would have been familiar. And unlike the observance of more secular holidays in the school calendar, Thanksgiving is an event which is celebrated at home though it is more likely that the educational framework and meaning of the holiday is provided by the public school.

Still, there is the threat that an overtly and true religious message might overshadow the secularized civil religious message when characteristically sectarian holidays are observed, to any degree, in the public schools—the democratic creed could be robbed of the universal priority it is afforded in public education by those confessions whose creed’s transcendent themes incline the hearts of men with more persuasive force. Nevertheless, the pattern of the American calendar with respect to public education demonstrates that the national “holy days” are of at least equal significance with those true holy days whose traditions, festivals, and rites they parallel. They are sanctified and hallowed in the classrooms, and children are taught to respect the men and events which they commemorate with solemnity and pride.

Closely related to national holy days are those holy places where the observance of these days is commemorated in the American public consciousness. Places like the Washington Monument, as well as the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials occupy hallowed ground along the most sacred landscaped corridor of American public life—the Capitol Mall. The architectural frames of these sacred monuments are built to resemble obelisks of ancient Egyptian religions or temples of the Greek and Roman pantheon. Inside the Lincoln Memorial the high priest of American civil religion is seated on a great, white throne—presumably in judgment—as his gaze is fixed eternal toward the other end of the mall where the nation’s laws are enacted. All who enter the memorial are invited to enter a “temple,” and many remove their hats and speak quietly in due reverence.

Behind the Lincoln Memorial and across a land bridge is the Arlington National Cemetery, where thousands of the nation’s sons and daughters are buried, their blood sacrifice commemorated by endless and sime simple, white headstones dotting a sloped, green lawn. There are the generals and the common soldiers, the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim. There are the presidents and governors and the unknown soldiers who died in defense of the national faith at home, or seeking to advance it in opposition to tyranny abroad. Every year, the sitting president makes his obligatory visit to the national cemetery to pay his tribute, place a wreath, and bow his head in momentary, prayerful reflection. America, indeed, needs to see its highest leader at such ceremonies and on such occasions in order to reinforce perennially the deep and democratic faith.

But the national holy days are not only commemorated at the temples of American public life, but at city centers, town squares and county seats all across the country. Mayors and councilmen, judges and clerks gather on momentous and nationalized occasions of public life to pay, each in his turn, their respects. July Fourth, Thanksgiving, and Christmas parades are marked with equal interest, usually ending or passing at some point the town hall, the county courthouse, or the civic center. And while these occasions are not universally observed in the public school, it is there that the nation’s children inevitably receive their indoctrination into the meaning and significance of these events. Without the public school, appreciation for and allegiance to the national faith could rob the holy days and shrines of their privileged place in hearts and minds of the body politic within one generation. The need for regular reinforcement is necessary to preserve the “shining city on a hill” that is the United States of America with such frequent reference that many Christians hardly recognize the particular biblical reference to the followers of Christ and the body he left empowered for prophetic witness of the resurrection life.

Religious Belief and Public Morality…

In one of the more articulate and compelling speeches he ever delivered, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo addressed the students and faculty of Notre Dame in 1984. At the time, Cuomo was a leading Democrat with presidential possibilities and a strong chance of becoming a United States Supreme Court Justice. In earlier days, I would have dismissed anything spoken from the lips of any New York liberal as unworthy of any substantive interaction or intellectual engagement on my part. Something about higher education, however, triggers within any aspiring scholar the desire to read honestly, critique fairly, and integrate cautiously the ideas of your ideological counterparts.

This search for an exposition of moderate and liberal political philosophy has led me to believe that Mario Cuomo is one of the more careful exegetes of the modern Democratic Party — both the philosphical commitments and practical legislative agenda thereof. In fact, compared to the likes of Howard Dean, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and John Murtha, Mario Cuomo stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is, to be sure, a moderate/conservative Democrat rather unlike the brand of social tinkerers and legislative amateurs who have seized the Democratic Party by the throat and lost the ability to understand or sustain the core values of the American Republic. Reading Cuomo makes political thinkers — both liberal and conservative — pine for earlier days when Kennedys and Moynihans and Humphreys steered the course of the Democratic Party.

I commend to you heartily Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech, entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality.” I trust that its reading will reassure or introduce you to the fact that you that were days long ago in a land not so far away when Democrats had a coherent — albeit quasi-utopian — political philosophy. And now, for two of the many money quotes:

Politics as an improper use of ecclesial authority:

Now, of course the bishops will teach — they must teach — more and more vigorously, and more and more extensively. But they have said they will not use the power of their position, and the great respect it receives from all Catholics, to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties. Not that they couldn’t do it if they wished to — some religious leaders, as you know, do it. Some are doing it at this very moment. And not that it would be a sin if they did. God does not insist on political neutrality. But because it is the judgment of the bishops, and most of us Catholic laypeople, that it is not wise for prelates and politicians to be too closely tied together.

Religion as an improper basis for political discourse

I’m free to argue for a governmental policy for a nuclear freeze not just to avoid sin, but because I think my democracy should regard it as a desirable goal. I can, if I wish, argue that the state should not fund the use of contraceptive devices not because the Pope demands it, but because I think that the whole community — for the good of the whole community — should not sever sex from an openness to the creation of life. And surely I can, if I am so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion, not because my bishops say it is wrong, but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life — including life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.

Now, no law prevents us from advocating any of these things. I am free to do so. So are the bishops. So is Reverend Falwell. In fact, the Constitution guarantees my right to try. And theirs. And his.

But should I? Is it helpful? Is it essential to human dignity? Would it promote harmony and understanding? Or does it divide us so fundamentally that it threatens our ability to function as a pluralistic community? When should I argue to make my religious value your morality? My rule of conduct your limitation? What are the rules and policies that should influence the exercise of this right to argue and to promote?

To download the entirety of Cuomo’s speech, click here.

William Willimon for Southern Baptists…

One of those added benefits of my education in North Carolina was the proximity of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary to the campus of Duke University some thirty miles away. One of the frustrations concerned the unwillingness of my pastoral ministries professor — in spite of my many and sustained protestations — to utilize the most comprehensive and valuable text I’ve ever read on pastoral theology and ministry. In Willimon’s book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, the man who’s been called one of the greatest preachers in America had this to say about the pastor as prophet:

The prophetic community is composed of young and old, maids and janitors, sons and daughters, those who have not had much opportunity, in the world’s scheme of things, to speak. In other words, the Holy Spirit produces uppity speech. When I once asked an African American friend of min, “Why does African American preaching tend to get loud and raucous?” he replied “Because my people have been told so often, for so long, that we ought to be seen and not heard, or better, invisible and quiet. We are to stand politely on the margins while the majority culture does its thing. So the church gathers my people and enables them to strut and shout, to find their voice, to stand up and be heard.

…The consequences of Spirit-filled speech tend to be political, economic, and social, therefore we must discipline ourselves to read Scripture congregationally, ecclesially, and therefore politically, rather than therapeutically, subjectively, inductively, or relevantly, as the world defines relevance. Harold Bloom has demonstrated that the peculiarly American religion is the notion that we and God are tight. We sense little disjunction between us and God…. The world, when it is in the mood for change, seeks some efficient, significant, usually legislatively coerced means of modifying itself. When Jesus wanted to change the world, he summoned a rather ordinary group of inexperienced, not overly talented folk to be his disciples. This is the typical way Jesus does revolution. Although to the world means such means may seem hopelessly ineffective, unrealistic, and impossible, the church is, for better or worse, God’s answer to what is wrong in the world. Just let the church begin telling the truth, speaking the truth to power, witnessing to the fact that God, not nations, rules the world, that Jesus Christ is really Lord, and the church will quickly find how easily threatened and inherently unstable are the rulers of this world. If Christians were not being persecuted in China and the Sudan, and being ridiculed in Hollywood and Athens, we might think that the age of prophecy had ended. That thousands still pay for this faith with their lives and their freedom is proof positive that God is still able to raise up a family of prophets. At least give the principalities and powers, as well as the rulers in high places, credit for being able to look at the poor old church and see there a threat to everything upon which their world is built.

Civil Religion and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 6

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

The National Hymns

America The BeautifulClosely associated with the pledge of allegiance is the singing of national hymns and anthems that further nurture the inculcation of an American civil religion. Gamoran observes: “The pledge is often followed by a song [which] carries the theme of the pledge, and when sung immediately following, must be seen as a part of the civil religious rite. Though they lack mention to God, they refer either to a sacred object or to the death sacrifice of the nation’s founders.” On a profound and fundamental level, the national hymns serve to inspire, challenge and unite the American people. The most hotly contested sports event is preceded, in most cases, by the national anthem, during which both fans and contestants remove their hats, emblazoned with symbols of cultural partisanship, cover their hearts, and with authentic reverence join voices in solemn pause. During moments of national crisis, the bitterest of political opponents can join hands and sing more explicitly theistic national hymns, entreating divine blessing upon the land and its citizens. We all remember Democrats and Republicans alike standing on the Capitol steps — much to the chagrin of the ACLU — and singing “God Bless America” during the 9/11 crisis.  These are not holdovers from a day gone by where Americans believed that God was superintending the affairs of men, but rather reflect the enduring ability of a childhood catechism to unite the nation’s citizens throughout their entire lives even if it takes 19 terrorists and a few airplanes to forge that bond of citizenship.

The Saints and the Martyrs

Tertullian of Carthage is credited with having observed that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” Alongside those whose death-sacrifice warranted special attention in the life of the church are saints whose lives exemplified the religious ideal, and an essential part of catechism is the telling and re-telling of the lives and deaths of the saints and martyrs so that the abstract nature of faith does not eclipse the practical potential that the faith actually works to embolden the church’s witness.

It is no different with the structure of America’s civil catechism. When democracy is taught in public schools, it is taught most frequently by chronological and biographical narratives surrounding the personalities whose lives inform the civil catechism: presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan; military leaders like Lee and Grant and Patton and MacArthur; intellectual elites and innovators like Benjamin Franklin, Edison and Einstein; women like Betsy Ross, Dolly Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt. Among the saints of American civil religion, it is noteworthy that the presidents play a supreme role, even to the degree that the veneration of these men (the building of monuments and memorials, the carving of their likenesses into mountainsides, the marking of their birthplaces and burial grounds, the naming of public schools and the renaming of airports) can approach deification. All other players on the national stage must, in some part, derive their respective identities from the personalities who comprise this pantheon of former presidents. Charles Henderson is especially insightful in this regard:

Presidential politics is clearly the arena in which the implicit religion of the people is made explicit. While leaders of the established churches are virtually ignored by the general public, all eyes turn toward the president. This is the context in which the root symbols, beliefs and attitudes have their most dynamic relationship to everyday life. (The only religious leaders who are significant on the national scene are those who manage to place themselves, in one way or another, near the presidential power.) But the presidency is the stage on which the nation’s leaders play their parts, acting out their priestly and prophetic functions, piecing together those constellations of meaning which become the precarious vision of their various constituencies. It is not the nation which is the focal point of civil religion, but the presidency.

So while men like Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, and other religious leaders have a place in America’s civic faith, their place is not so much grounded in a contribution to the theologies of their respective denominational loyalties as much as a proximity to and influence upon the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Martin Luther King, in particular, will be an interesting addition to the roster of national saints, and the degree to which “MLK Day” will be celebrated like other national holidays is dependant on the attention it receives in the festal calendar of American public schools.

A Eulogy for Miss Ollie…

(Every minister has one of those little old ladies in his pastoral career that stands out from the rest. She is your biggest cheerleader, your most faithful prayer partner, your personal chef, and the only one who buys all your sermon tapes. In 2003, I lost mine after a short illness that claimed her life and sent her home to glory. This past weekend, while archiving some files, I ran across the eulogy I preached at her funeral on December 4, 2003. I post it now as a tribute to her, and as an encouragement to those who search for words to express on those most somber occasions.)

Members of New Hope Baptist Church and brother pastor, extended family and friends, I rise today on the occasion of home-going for one of God’s choice lambs, a godly woman of humble means, to offer my final tribute for Ollie Collier. The air outside chills our skin, the season of winter is begun, but the warm assurance of faith that Miss Ollie has gone to her eternal reward at the feet of the risen Christ gives us cause to rejoice rather than grieve.

The English language is handicap to convey my deep appreciation to the Collier family for inviting me to be here for them, and for Miss Ollie. On many occasions she would insist that, if at all possible when the day would come, I should return to Fayetteville and see that she was laid to rest properly. The Collier family has honored her by inviting me, and you have honored me as well.

Even though we who know Christ are comforted that our beloved sister is with Him in Heaven, it is through tears that we express our joy. It is through pain and grief that we allow the angels to meet her over whom they have watched these many years. It is with tightness in our throats that we affirm today, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

If you had the privilege and blessing of God to spend even one moment with that holy woman lying before me, then you share with me in a sense of real and mournful loss. But you also must share with me in remembrance of the profound and irreplaceable gift of God that was, and forever will be, our dear Miss Ollie.

Last evening, as I was flying from Texas to be here today, the sun had long set and there was a glittering of lights out of my window as the shadowy landscape passed under in near immobile torpor. As I looked out the window, I thought to myself about how something that seems to move so slowly is actually passing quickly; and I was immediately aware that life with Miss Ollie was like that.

In my mind I can trace moments of uproarious laughter with her—at times Miss Ollie would get completely embarrassed at herself for laughing so heartily—I can remember times of quiet reflection about life, the Scriptures, and how things were “getting along.” These days are in my mind as a sequence of eternity—a realization that God filled our lives with scenes that will never be forgotten, moments of endless joy.

But now those moments are gone.

Funeral services can be daunting tasks for preachers. You want to say the right thing. You want to say it well. You want to give expression to grief and assurance of the future. You want to say everything that needs to be said, and no more. The difficulty with a Christian funeral is that in speaking too much about men, we often say too little about God. I can hear Miss Ollie telling me, “Pastor Ben, you tell them about Jesus…you make sure they hear about Him. Don’t bother saying too much about me.”

But what Miss Ollie’s humility would never allow her to admit is that to speak about her IS to speak about Christ. For in her, as in no other that I have known or ministered to, the living Christ was present.

Continue reading “A Eulogy for Miss Ollie…”

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 5…

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Public education in modern America serves as the primary venue for overtly democratic catechesis. When assessing the way that civil religion has taken shape within our contemporary political milieu, the work of sociologist Adam Gamoran of the University of Wisconsin is helpful. Public schools, Gamoran argues, play a key role in producing and transmitting American civil religion and in teaching appreciation for the symbols and practices that accompany a robust nationalistic faith.

Among Gamoran’s more useful studies is one conducted over a calendar year in a public school located in a Chicago working-class neighborhood. Supplementing his research about the recitation of the pledge, the singing of national hymns, and the instruction regarding national holidays and heroes, Gamoran provides both his own memories from a public elementary and secondary education as well as the insights from profiles and reflections written by his students in an undergraduate sociology course taught at the University of Wisconsin. Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that there exists a distinctly religious tone to the structure of public education, and Gamoran provides a critical analysis of that evidence.

The Creed

It has been nearly sixty years since a case of any magnitude involving the pledge of allegiance was granted certiorari by America’s high court, but cases are forever under appeal challenging the words ‘under God’ in the national creed. And while it is improbable that the Supreme Court will remove the “offending” prepositional phrase, the legal precedence regarding the pledge should serve as a sobering reminder of how quickly the gears of American jurisprudence can be reversed.

Continue reading “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 5…”

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 4…

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

When Your Children Shall Ask, “What Mean These Things?”

More than a quarter century ago, Gladys Wiggins observed that the mere existence of a public school in society indicates that some degree of enculturative responsibility has been usurped from the family and absorbed into existing governmental structures. In this way, “the modern state, unlike earlier kingdoms and feudal manors, is kept alive either by an actively participant people or by an acquiescent people.” Mass education, Wiggins suggests, “ushered in by Protestantism for religious reasons, is made imperative by nationalism because of a new kind of political—some would say religious—faith.” Education, both civil and political, is the most efficient impetus for societal cohesion. Perhaps no better explanation of the precise way that a public school system functions as the locus of civil catechesis and parallels the sectarian interests regarding indoctrination of the young has been offered than by Durkheim, who demonstrates persuasively that all societies, religious or otherwise, share a common need for regular assembly and creedal reaffirmation:

There can be no society which does not feel the need for upholding and reaffirming, at regular intervals, the collective sentiments and ideas which animate both its unity and individuality. Now this moral reconstruction cannot be achieved except by means of reunions, assemblies, and congregations, in which individuals, being brought together, reaffirm their common sentiments. From this source arise ceremonies which do not differ from properly religious ceremonies, either in their object, the results which they produce, or the processes employed to attain these results. What essential difference is there between an assembly of Christians celebrating the primary holidays associated with the life of Christ, or Jews remembering the Exodus from Egypt or the reception of the Decalogue, and a gathering of citizens commemorating the institution of a new moral or legal system or some other significant event in the nation’s history?

The public schoolhouse, it seems, is the place wherein the nation’s children assemble to learn about the rituals and rites associated with the founding and perpetuation of the American republic. Like true religion, the civil religion that receives pedagogical entitlement is accompanied by forms, festivals, rituals and offices, which, while meaningful in their own right, enjoy heightened curricular interest on account of their quasi-religious, and sometimes overtly religious, character. Like true religion, American civil religion has its creeds, hymns, saints, martyrs, temples, holy days and clergy; and while any one of them cannot justify the opprobrious epithet ‘religious,’ together they nonetheless create the environment whereby the public school comes to resemble a church and its teachers, catechists.

Continue reading “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 4…”

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 3…

Part One

Part Two

These Things You Shall Teach Diligently Unto Your Children

If the lessons of history taught ancient Israel anything, it was that failure to impress profound appreciation for and obedience to the laws of God upon the minds of their children wrought disastrous consequences both in terms of cultic dissolution and national instability. In the same way, the enduring Puritan strain of American civil religion and its underlying thesis regarding the perceived inviolability of the United States as a covenanted, millennial and chosen nation has guided the development of a sophisticated system of catechesis for the nation’s young. By the same logic, failure to educate future generations of democratic citizens will result in disasters similarly suffered by previous ‘chosen’ nations. Even those who cannot embrace this Puritan strain readily emphasize that the future economic, political, and military stability of the United States depend upon the strength of American public schools.

Inherent in the democratic faith is an evangelistic and catechistic principle by which the nation simultaneously exports democracy abroad and expounds it at home. As Jacques Maritain has succinctly observed, “the body politic has the right and the duty to promote among its citizens, mainly through education, the human and temporal—and essentially practical—creed on which depend national communion and civil peace.” Moreover, “the educational system and the State have a duty to see to the teaching of that charter of common life, and thus to defend and promote the common good and the fundamental statute of the body politic even up to the common secular faith involved.” If it can be shown that an American civil religion parallels a true religion with respect to its accoutrements, structures, and offices, then it follows that the means by which that civil religion is transmitted might also parallel its symbiotic churchly forms.

The nation that seeks to inculcate its civic faith must establish for itself the instrumentality by which its catechistic purposes are achieved. For the nation that has anchored its soul firmly upon the vigilant refusal to allow the establishment of a national church, let alone the excessive entanglement or admixture of church and state, there arises no insignificant constitutional impediment from the very article it seeks to inculcate—in this case, the First Amendment. It cannot require that the nation’s free churches expound the democratic charter; neither can it establish for itself a true church wherein its own prophets reinforce the national creed. Even if the organized churches could be forced to teach the democratic charter, as Robert Michaelsen has noted, they would only garner limited returns, “not because the churches disagreed with the democratic proposition but because they disagreed among themselves.” What is required, therefore, and what some of the constitutional framers sought from the beginning, is “a system of public or common education, open to all, financed by taxation and under the direction of no particular sectarian group.”

Continue reading “Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 3…”

On Southern Baptists and AIDS/HIV ministry…

Today, I reviewed the remarkable epistle of Martin Luther entitled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” In this open letter to the Johann Hess, pastor of Breslau, Germany, and his congregation, Luther captures the heart of ministry to those afflicted with incurable, terminable diseases. I encourage you to procure a copy of Luther’s Basic Theological Writings and to read it carefully.  The following exerpts may be found on pages 736-755.

This we would humbly submit to your judgment and to that of all devout Christians for them, as is proper, to come to their own decision and conclusion.  Since the rumor of death is to be heard in these and many other parts also, we have permitted these instructions of ours to be printed because others might also want to make use of them.

To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague.  Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment.  They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God.  Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office.

I cannot censure the former for their excellent decision.  They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in God, and deserve commendation because they desire every Christian to hold to a strong, firm faith.  It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread.  Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing.?  They willingly accept God’s chastisment, doing so without tempting God, as we shall hear later on….

Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.  We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.”  For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.  However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such to be sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary….

Examples in Holy Scripture abudantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself.  Abraham was a great saint but he feared death and escaped it by pretending that his wife, Sarah, was his sister.  Because he did so without neglecting or adversely affecting his neighbor, it was not counted as sin against him.  His son, Isaac, did likewise.  Jacob also fled from his brother Esau to avoid death at his hands.  Likewise, David fled from Saul, and from Absalom.  The prophet Uriah escaped from King Jehoiakim and fled into Egypt.  The valiant prophet, Elijah, had destroyed all the prophets of Baal by his great faith, but afterward, when Queen Jezebel threatened him, he became afraid and fled into the desert.  Before that, Moses fled into the land of Midian when the king searched for him in Egypt….

Yes, you may reply, but these examples do not refer to dying by pestilence but to death under persecution.  Answer:  Death is death, no matter how it occurs.  According to Holy Scripture God sent his four scourges: pestilence, famine, sword, and wild beasts.  If it is permissible to flee from one or the other in clear conscience, why not from all four?

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also punishment from God.  Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to divine punishment from God….Ultimately, such talk will lead to the point where we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer and no longer pray, “deliver us from evil, Amen,” since we would have to stop praying to be saved from hell and stop seeking to escape it.  It, too, is God’s punishment as is every kind of evil.  Where would all this end?

Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.  First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.  I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh.  Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our own lives in this manner as St. John teacher, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart.  He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life…Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.  And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil:

‘Get away, you devil, with your terrors!  Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor.  I’ll pay not attention to you:  I’ve got two heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels; by this deed I do God’s will and render true service and obedience to him.  All the more so because if you hate it so an dare so strongly opposed to it, it must be particularly acceptable to God.  I’d do this readily and gladly if I could please only one angel who might look with delight on it.  But now it pleases my Lord Jesus Christ and the whole heavenly host because it is the will and command of God, my Father, then how could any fear of you cause me to spoil such joy in heaven or delight for my Lord?  Or how could I, by flattering you, give you and your devils in hell reason to mock and laugh at me?  No, you’ll not have the last word!  If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague?  If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me.  If you can kill, Christ can give life.  If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.  Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil.  Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work.  Let Christ prevail.  Amen!'”

…This I know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper.  Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.  And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me….’  If you wish to seve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand.  Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.  If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there.  Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person.  Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well….

This is what we think and conclude on this subject of fleeing from death by the plague.  If you are of a different opinion, may God enlighten you. Amen.

First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die….

Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight.  He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God….

Third,  if someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come, let the sick person send word in time to call him and let him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind before the illness overwhelms the patient….”

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 2…

Civil Catechesis, Pt. 1… 

University of Chicago Professor Martin Marty has noted that “Americans had civic faiths from the time of Columbus or the Mayflower; Native Americans had tribal equivalents before that, [and] the founding fathers expressly advocated what has since been called ‘the religion of the Republic.” This civic faith, according to Marty, has taken various forms throughout the nation’s history either as a folk religion, a transcendent universal national religion (not to be confused with religious nationalism), a democratic faith, or many times as Protestant civic piety. Nevertheless, in every instance whereby the American body politic has coalesced, particularly in times of war and societal conflict, a civil religion has emerged as the “real religion of the American people by mere fact of their being American people.” Americans have not, however, developed without antecedent the notion of civil religion; that credit belongs in large measure to the 18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his seminal work, The Social Contract.

In Rousseau’s thought, it is of little consequence what the dogmas of any particular constituent religion are so long as they make a citizen love his duties and fulfill his responsibilities to his fellow man. Each citizen is granted license, therefore, to hold any religious opinion he chooses, and those opinions are far beyond the sovereign’s competence so long as they provide for good citizens in the present life. But there will inevitably exist in any given national framework a “purely civil profession of faith whose articles the sovereign is competent to determine, not precisely as religious dogmas, but as sentiments of sociability, without which it is impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject.” The dogmas of this civil religion should be “simple, few, and precisely formulated, without explanations or commentaries,” and Rousseau suggested both positive and negative articles of such a civic faith: the existence of a powerful, intelligent, benevolent, foreseeing and providential God, the continuance of life after death, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and finally, the sanctity of the social contract and the laws. As for the negative articles, Rousseau limited them to one, namely intolerance.

Americans seem to be perfectly suited to fit Rousseau’s model of civil religion, as recent analysis of American religious beliefs confirms. For instance, belief in God is nearly universal at ninety-four percent, while seventy-one percent believe in the reality of heavenly reward in an afterlife. Moreover, eight in ten Americans agree that “Depending on how much strength and character a person has, he can pretty well control what happens to him,” and seventy-nine percent subscribe to the belief that universal moral absolutes exist and should be applied regardless of the situation. Finally, with respect to Rousseau’s negative article, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that every individual should have the right to formulate and possess his own religious beliefs independent of coercive institutional indoctrination on the part of any church or synagogue. These widespread affirmations of the American body politic, while not rising to the level of a systematic metaphysic, nevertheless constitute an unscripted creed which exerts palpable influence on the ways that citizens live their lives, raise their children and relate to their neighbors. And while the American experiment has long since eschewed the explicit theological content of Rousseau’s formula, this public creed, or democratic charter, retains adequate theistic avowals necessary to provide an adequate basis for social unity which “links the social order to a higher, truer realm [by providing] religious motivation and sanction for civic virtue.” In this way an American civil religion may resemble a true religion, albeit a doctrinally minimalist and utilitarian one sufficient only to engineer the good society.

Hence, democracy alone is the faith once delivered to the state and for which every citizen is obliged to contend. And while America may champion the separation of church and state by insisting on the separation of denominational religion from the apparatus of government, there is not, nor can there be a separation of religion and state so long as the national democratic creed remains the uniquely sacrosanct theme of public discourse. So important, in fact, is this democratic faith that some have argued it must be taught in churches and synagogues in addition to taxpayer supported agencies and institutions. It should come as no surprise, therefore, when those same voices call for democracy to be taught “as religion” in the public schools, which themselves must become “veritable temple[s] for the indoctrination of democracy.”

To Be Continued…

Civil Catechesis and the Democratic Creed, Pt. 1…

Reflecting upon his second and final visit among the American churches in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically of his frustration with the shape of Protestantism in the United States, assessing the influence that religious and ethnic pluralism had in the genesis of an anti-confessional, anti-creedal public life. American Christianity, Bonhoeffer observed, had “no central organization, no common creed, no common cultus, no common church history and no common ethical, social or political principles.” This ecclesiastic phenomenon had profound political implications owing largely to the “concept of tolerance among the Congregationalist-Baptist enthusiasts, particularly as it was developed by Roger Williams in Maryland.” In such an environment of absolute religious tolerance, Bonhoeffer continued, “the dominion of God becomes synonymous with the freedom of the individual to follow by himself the inner voice and the inner light.” Moreover, the path is paved wide for the formation of denominations without creeds wherein “the concept of tolerance becomes the basic principle of everything Christian.”

But perhaps Bonhoeffer unwittingly stumbled across the very religious and very nationalistic faith which binds together the ethnically and culturally diverse constituencies of America’s disparate faith traditions. Perhaps, indeed, there exists “alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” And perhaps, with democracy as its creed and tolerance as its virtue, such an American public faith serves the purpose in the United States that a nationalized, confessional church served in Bonhoeffer’s Germany. And just perhaps, in an otherwise astute critique, Bonhoeffer missed both the existence and authenticity of America’s idiosyncratic “legitimating myth.”

If Bonhoeffer failed to recognize the presence and power of an American nationalistic faith, it is certain that many of his contemporaries in the United States did not. Among them, none other than the famed Harry Emerson Fosdick thundered from the pulpit of New York’s Riverside Church against the encroaching and seductive influence of what many have termed “civic idolatry”:

Millions today, some in this country and many elsewhere, are taking that attitude toward the absolute, nationalistic state. It is a substitute religion. It has its dogmas, its rituals, its symbols and its sacraments. At the heart of it is this tremendous matter: the utter devotion of millions of souls to the nationalistic god. Where do you think that substitute god will bring us out? He will tear our world into bloody pieces and make our children’s earth a hell.

Notwithstanding the perennial controversy about whether or not civil religion is truly an idolatrous counter-religion or merely a term employed euphemistically to describe the near-euphoric confidence of the American people in the democratic ideal, there is almost universal recognition that something exists which serves to unite the American people in spite of religious pluralism. That something is itself, to some extent, religious, if not a religion altogether.

Assuming that Emile Durkheim is correct in his insistence that wherever religious life is observed there exists a definite group at its foundation to adhere to and practice the rites connected with common religious beliefs, and that such beliefs are not “received individually by all members of the group” but are rather that which “give[s] the group its unity,” the question remains as to whether, as Durkheim implies, the civil religion of a nation necessarily results in the creation of a national church. If, then, America is run through with civic piety, and if these religious notions inform every citizen about his place in society and responsibility in the world, where then is the church by which the nation is united and in which its young catechumens receive their instruction in timeless truths held self-evident?

With this question providing the framework for the present inquiry, we shall explore the existence of a national, civil religion in the American context, giving specific attention to the role of public education in the cultivation of a “confessional” citizenry. The discussion will involve both the content of civil catechesis and the ways in which American catechumens are shielded from the “heresies” of compromised religious freedom, excessive governmental entanglement and improper religious coercion. In the end, we will argue that if American civil religion is not a truly established religion and therefore inconsistent with First Amendment guarantees, then it surely looks, sounds, and acts like one in spite of copious jurisprudential objection.

To be continued…

The Decay of Lying…

Oscar Wilde, the late 19th century dandy whose pederastic penchant for Lord Alfred Douglas, et al, landed him in Pentonville Prison for crimes of indecency, is among the finest and most enduring masters of the English language. His sarcastic wit and ability to turn a phrase challenged and provoked the fading mores of Victorian society. We at Baptist Blogger have particularly enjoyed his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which tells the story of a man of eminent social graces whose youthfulness was betrayed by a hidden portrait kept safely in his attic. We also found his peninential epistle, De Profundis, to be one of the finest expositions of vice and virtue still in print.

We recently discovered his short essay The Decay of Lying, written as a dialogue between a man named Cyril and a woman named Vivian. In it, Wilde explores his thesis that art, in its purest form, is a fraudulent and whitewashed representation of the sick, tainted natural order where man and beast exist in tandem futility. Only the wisest and most observant sage is able to parse the difference between truth and falsehood, though his general benevolence overcomes his cynicism and forces him to anesthetize the already opiated masses with poetic deceit.

This, from the final discourse:

“What we have to do, what at any rate it is our duty to do, is revive this old art of lying. Much, of course, may be done, in the way of educating the public, by amateurs in the domestic circle, at literary lunches, and at afternoon teas. But this is merely the light and graceful side of lying, such as was probably heard at Cretan dinner parties. There are many other forms. Lying for the sake of gaining some immediate personal advantage, for instance — lying with a moral purpose, as it is usually called — though of late it has been rather looked down upon, was extremely popular with the antique world. Athena laughs when Odysseus tells her ‘his words of sly devising,’ as Mr. William Morris phrases it, and the glory of mendacity illumines the pale brow of the stainless hero of Euripedean tragedy, and sets among the noble women of the past the young bride of one of Horace’s most exquisite odes. Later on, what at first had been merely a natural instinct was elevated into a self-conscious science. Elaborate rules were laid down for the guidance of manking, and an important school of literature grew up round the subject. Indeed, when one remembers the excellent philosophical treatise of Sanchez on the whole question, one cannot help regretting that no one has every thought of publishing a cheap and condensed edition of the works of the great casuist. A short primer, ‘When to lie and How,’ if brought out in an attractive and not too expensive a form, would, no doubt, command a large sale, and would prove the real practical service to many earnest and deep-thinking people. Lying for the sake of improvement of the young, which is the basis of home education, still lingers amongst us, and its advantages are so admirably set forth in the early books of Plato’s Republic that it is unnecessary to dwell on them here. It is a mode of lying for which all good mothers have peculiar capabilities, but it is capable of still further development, and has been sadly overlooked by the School Board. Lying for the sake of a monthly salary is, of course, well known in Fleet Street, and the profession of a political leader-writer is not without its advantages. But it is said to be a somewhat dull occupation, and it certainly does not lead to much beyond and ostentatious obscurity. The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake, and the highest development of this is, as we have already pointed out, lying in art.”