Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy All Hallows Even

The youth of my parish had a Hallowe'en party yesterday and one of them apparently saw fit to immortalize the visage of her rector in the medium of a sculpted pumpkin. Well, not "immortalize" exactly; the pumpkin will rot, as indeed will I, though, I hope, somewhat later.

I am barely even an amateur psychologist. I know enough to be dangerous. (I know what you're thinking: "Is he any better a psychologist than he is a statistician?") And while I don't uncritically accept everything Carl Jung ever wrote, he is something of a taproot for me. And in that vein, my concern-that-is-not-quite-anxiety over sharing a fate with the carved pumpkin that represents me gets to the spiritual heart of Hallowe'en. Tomorrow is All Saints' Day (All Hallows)--a luminous feast in which the Christian family celebrates its essential unity across not only space but also across time, and therefore also across the exquisitely thin membrane that separates this world from the world to come. I've long thought that Thornton Wilder's play Our Town offers a wonderful insight into the mystery of the creedal affirmation of "the communion of saints." (In the era of my own youth, at least, this was produced by virutally every high school drama department approximately every four years.) During the course of the action, characters die, and move to the village graveyard, which consists of a couple of rows of chairs on one end of the stage. There the deceased are not silent, however; they observe and comment on what's happening at the center of the stage. There's a divide, but it's a porous divide. Everybody is on the same stage, part of the same story.

All Hallows' Eve is the Jungian dark side of the light-filled feast of All Saints. Tonight we confront our uneasiness about the fact of our mortality, not yet with the triumphant assurance that we have been "knit together in one communion and fellowship" (Book of Common Prayer, Collect for All Saints), but by mocking, trivializing--in street vernacular, "disrespecting"--the powers by which we feel threatened. We thumb our noses at death and decay by dressing up in it and making it the subject of a burlesque. I would suspect that the genre of horror movies, which have been inescapble to channel surfers for about the last month, and which will mercifully go away after tonight (I don't like them), is an attempt to do the same thing.

Now, I realize that there are some Christians who in recent years have worked up a lather trying to trash Hallowe'en as nothing more than a pagan holiday. Well, yes, there was a northern European pre-Christian observance that had some of the themes we associate with Hallowe'en. But I would suggest that those who carry such concerns might consider doing three things: 1) learn about All Saints' day and the doctrine of the communion of saints, 2) read some Jung, and 3) stop celebrating Christmas, at least on December 25th, because it too is linked to a pagan celebration.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Anecdotal Taxonomy

What follows is not in any way scientific. I have no training in the science of statistics anyway. I’m not sure it can even be called an educated guess. But it’s more than just a shot in the dark. It’s an estimate based on a lot of anecdotal experience. I “get around” some in the Episcopal Church.

On the “far left”—there are certainly some Episcopalians who would have to cross their fingers in a big way to say the creed. They are not at all committed to traditional theological categories and language about such things as Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, or even the personal nature of God. They believe Jesus was the proverbial “great moral teacher” who “shows us how to live.” One honestly wonders (at least I honestly wonder) why such persons even call themselves Christians, let alone Episcopalians. The retired Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, would be the poster boy for this category of Episcopalians. My guesstimate is that they represent 2%-4% of the clergy and maybe somewhere in excess of 5% of the laity, especially in the major urban dioceses.

Slightly to the right of this group is a class of Episcopalians who cross their fingers while saying the creed, but only loosely. They would affirm much of the language of traditional Christian theology, but substantially qualify their assent to the concepts themselves. They believe in some sort of personal God, and that Jesus is somehow an expression of that God, and that the world would be a better place if more people shared those beliefs. They are attached to the liturgical and sacramental ethos of traditional Christian practice, even while rejecting (or at least benignly neglecting) the underlying theology. Many of them are immensely faithful in worship and active in their parishes. Markus Borg and the Jesus Seminar would be the poster children for this group. My intuitive guess is that around 15%-20% of the clergy and a roughly equal percentage of laity fall into this category. However, they are collectively “louder” than many others, and, hence, it seems like there are more of them than there actually are.

Moving in the same direction, we next have a category of Episcopalians who can recite the creeds with a fair amount of integrity, and would certainly have a self-perception as “orthodox,” in that, by and large, they would wish to retain the language and categories that arose from the great Christological and Trinitarian debates of the third through fifth centuries. So they are not overly antagonistic to the Prayer Book—in fact, they have made something of a shibboleth of the “Baptismal Covenant”—and may profess genuine fondness for some very traditional elements of Christian spiritual practice (the Daily Office, spiritual direction, meditative prayer, for example), though most of them would want to delete, or at least significantly dilute—masculine pronouns about God, and other terms they consider loaded (Lord, Kingdom). They understand both theology and mission in largely social terms, as if everything the church does, in order to be authentic, must be ordered toward the unified objective of “peaceandjustice.” Ironically, while they observe institutional authority quite strictly much of the time, they have the capacity to sit very loosely to what might be called “meta-authority” in the church (like scripture and organic tradition). Both the Presiding Bishop and the Presiding Bishop-elect could stand as representative symbols of this group. I would suspect that something in the neighborhood of 50% of the clergy could be included in this category; it represents the paradigm that has been engendered in most of our seminaries for a number of decades now. However—and this might be the actual big story in my non-scientific analysis—I believe that only about half this percentage of laity fit such a description. There is a huge discrepancy here between the ordained leadership of the Episcopal Church and those entrusted to their pastoral care.

Sidebar: Without a doubt, virtually 100% of those in the above-defined groups would be at least conceptually supportive of the church providing blessing rites for same-sex relationships and removing any restriction on ordaining persons involved in such relationships, although some (less than a third, I would say) might be open to exercising restraint in those areas for the purposes of maintaining ecclesial communion.

Next we have a category that is diverse within itself—comprehending elements from both the Catholic and Evangelical (including the Charismatic) strains of Anglicanism—but is united in a transparent affirmation of both the language of the creeds and their underlying theology. The classical categories touching on human sin, the person and work of Christ, discipleship and growth in holiness make sense to them and energize their faith and practice. They are not “fundamentalist” in the popularly-accepted sense, in that they have a capacity for major-league scholarship and intellectual sophistication, and much of their theological expression can be quite irenic. While cautiously suspicious of modern biblical criticism, they do not dismiss its insights out of hand. They see themselves without affectation as the mainstream heirs of the Anglican tradition. Instead of a representative individual, I would suggest the periodical The Living Church as an appropriate emblem of this category. My intuitive guess is that nearly 30% of Episcopal clergy could be numbered here, but probably two-thirds of the lay membership, mirroring the discrepancy noted above. (Full disclosure note: I number myself in this category.)

Note: The great majority of Episcopalians in this last group would be opposed to the sort of blessings and ordinations that are favored by the other categories, though a relatively small number might believe that the subject is worthy of further exploration and discernment.

Finally, there is a small percentage of Episcopalians who might legitimately be labeled as fundamentalists. They would adopt an inerrantist view of scripture, believe in a literal six-day creation, and be adamantly hostile to the insights of modern biblical criticism. My sense is that this category might include 1% of the clergy and maybe 2% of the laity.

My point? We all need to be wary of using too wide a brush with which to paint our picture of the Episcopal Church. Simple (simplistic?) “two religions under one roof” analyses offer a certain appeal, but leave an awful lot un-accounted for.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Keeping First Things First

Somehow it seems like cheating for a blogger who's also a preacher to post a sermon. But I'm feeling a little naughty tonight--just a little, that is, so I'm only going to post the last four paragraphs. (Should you be so masochistic as to want to see the entire text, go to my parish website and follow the yellow brick road.)

But a setup is necessary: The gospel yesterday was from Mark 10, with the Zebedee boys asking Jesus if they can be his special go-to guys after the inauguration, the other ten pitching a fit, and Jesus setting them all down to say, "Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all." And now we join my sermon in progress, as I come in for a landing:

In the economy of the Kingdom of God, time is too short and the mission of the Church is too important to give much slack at all to anyone’s ego, whether that ego is individual or collective. A stagnant church is full of egos that want stroking. A dying church is full of egos that get stroking. But a healthy church, a faithful church, is by necessity and definition also a servant church.

Thinking locally, as St John’s continues to live into the vocation that was embraced by our founders 156 years ago, we will know ourselves more and more to be a servant church. We will develop a collective heart for our neighbors—our weekday neighbors downtown, our 24/7 neighbors all over central Stockton, and our regional neighbors throughout San Joaquin
. We will be so consumed by serving our neighbors that we will have little time for anxiety about mere institutional survival. The primary sign of our servant ministry today is that we are on the brink of closing the Budget Shop. Our reasons for doing so are sound, but the way we do it, and how we use the resource of that property, will speak volumes about our commitment to servanthood.

Thinking at a diocesan level, we will know ourselves to be a servant church, not by bathing indefinitely in the refined waters of our theological and moral orthodoxy, but by how we use the gifts that have been entrusted to us—including the gift of orthodoxy—for the furtherance of the larger Church’s mission. The decisions we make in this diocese, including and especially some decisions we will make in convention on the first weekend of December, will have a tangible impact not only on ourselves, but on other Episcopalians throughout the country and other Anglicans throughout the world. When the clergy and lay delegates assemble in Fresno six weeks from now, we will make faithful decisions only to the extent that we know ourselves to be a servant church.

Finally, thinking at the level of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to the extent that we pat ourselves on the back for our open-mindedness, good taste, and beautiful worship, and then retire to the wine and cheese reception, we will have betrayed our inheritance. Anglicanism, quite frankly, was conceived in sin and midwifed by political expediency. We have no abiding reason to remain permanently separate from either the mainstream of western Catholicism from which we diverged four and a half centuries ago, or from the evangelical movements, symbolized by Methodism, that diverged from us two and a half centuries ago. We have prided ourselves on being a “bridge” church. Right now, we have some gaps in our own living room that need to be bridged. Either we will claim the grace to bridge those gaps, or, I suspect, God will just bench us and send in replacement players. We will learn how to be a servant church or we will no longer be a church. My prayer is for the former, of course—that Anglicans will persist in our willingness to forego all preferences of our own, and grow a heart for the unity of the whole church, that we may serve God’s kingdom not by our pride, but by our willingness to become extinct for the greater glory of God and for the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory for ages of ages. Amen.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Must Read for Anglicans

When I started blogging, I determined not to become too cannibalistic, and just pass on links to other blogs. To date, I have successfully resisted this temptation. So, forgive me, but, if you're an Episcopalian or any other sort of Anglican who is concerned about the ills that beset us, you will not want to miss this address by Bishop Jeffrey Steenson of the Diocese of the Rio Grande. It is the finest, most penetrating, and thoroughly Christian assessment of our situation I have yet read. If I could do cartwheels to get everyone to read it, I would.

The Manager is Fired, Long Live the Manager

The Chicago Cubs have introduced Lou Piniella as the latest designated Messiah. Indulging the fantasy that my opinion matters to anyone, I add my voice of welcome and best wishes as he acclimates himself to the friendly confines of beautiful Wrigley Field. I welcome him as one would welcome a sailor to the Bermuda Triangle. I welcome him as Saul welcomed David to do battle with Goliath. And if he brings a World Series title (what the heck...even a World Series appearance) to the north side of Chicago, I will invite him into my heart to stay. But I'm not getting my hopes up. I had hope for Leo Durocher. How long ago was it when he announced, "This is not a ninth place ballclub"? He was right. They finished tenth his first year.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Live-Blogging "Six Feet Under"

I tend to bring up the rear of the popular entertainment parade, one indication of which is that I don't have HBO. But Six Feet Under has now finished its premium cable life and is now available to the rest of us who have something more than basic cable. So I'm catching up...at this very moment...as I write.

I've already slipped into the "Hollywood doesn't understand religion" niche with respect to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I hadn't planned on diversifying, necessarily, but here it is, right in front of me. My interest was piqued anyway because, way back in a previous lifetime (aka the mid seventies, when I was a graduate student in music history), I worked part-time in a mortuary. And as a priest, of course, I have had a couple of hundred opportunities to interact professionally with the funeral industry. In a way, morticians are para-colleagues of mine.

Now, I don't go looking for reasons to play the curmudgeon. They just find me. In the episode before the one currently showing, David, one of the members of the mortuary-owning Fisher family, anounces that he is being considered as a "deacon" in his church. (We discover this when he explains to his gay lover why they won't be available to get together on Sunday.) Well, that's fine. I grew up Baptist, and deacons were the elected lay leaders of the congregation, the governing board. Very shortly thereafter, however, I'm hearing language that is familiar to my ears: "For David, chosen deacon in your church, let us pray to the Lord," to which a congregation responds, "Lord, hear our prayer." Then follow the next several petitions from the Litany for Ordinations, right out of the Book of Common Prayer. There's a clergyman, vested in alb and purple stole, presiding over a congregation gathered in a large gothic structure. (Later we learn that it's called St Bartholomew's.) And there's David. Is he kneeling, wearing an alb, with a bishop somewhere in the picture? No, he's wearing a business suit, standing next to the clergyman, looking quite beatific.

Obviously, the script writers have chosen to combine the ecclesial and liturgical trappings of the diaconate as it is understood by churches in the Catholic tradition with the function of the diaconate as it is understood by churches of the left-wing Reformation tradition. That's their prerogative, I guess. It's their show. I'm not the dispenser of artistic license, and if I were, I don't think I would be particularly stingy. But it bothers me. It's like when the secular news media mess up on their coverage of religion (which, as far as I can tell, is most of the time). It makes me distrust them when they talk about things of which I am truly ignorant. If the writers and producers of Six Feet Under can't find a way to just pick a church for the Fishers--any church, it doesn't matter--and represent that church accurately and without affectation, what makes me think they can represent, say, the funeral industry, or teenage girls, or middle-aged widows, or not-quite-completely-out gay men, or single straight men who have just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles?

Oh wow...a chance for a live update. Now watching the beginning of the episode I came in during the middle of. David meets the clergyman on the steps of St Bartholomew's and addresses him as "Father." Then Fr Jack, right there on the church steps after a Sunday service, casually mentions that he would be happy to recommend David (who just told him, apparently falsely, that he's been attending another church--St Stephen's in the west valley--for the last several weeks) to the Bishop for consideration as a deacon, since, after all, his late father was one. Makes sense to me. Later, Fr Jack takes David to meet a purple-shirted bishop in an Anglican "dog collar." The bishop promises to let David know of his decision in a week. (I know several aspirants to the diaconate who would like that bishop's address and phone number.) Do you see my point? Most of the outward signs suggest that Fr Jack and the Fishers are Episcopalian. But it's a kind of Episcopalian bad dream.

Even more troubling, of course, is the fact that none of the members of the church-going Fisher family seem to integrate their religious practice--let alone actual faith--into their lives away from church. In this they are certainly not unique, even in the real world (quoth the jaded pastor). But between the four of them, only David's brother Nate confesses any actual faith in God, and then only in a vague "force," something quite a few degrees removed from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

It's All About Ecclesiology, Stupid

I’m not actually trying to insult anyone with that title. Just trying to get some mileage from the mantra that some say got Bill Clinton elected president in 1992.

(Note to non-Anglicans: There’s going to be some inside jargon in this post. My apologies. Please deal with it as best you can. If you’re insanely curious, contact me privately and I’ll ‘splain things to you. Or you can just take a pass until I next step into my media critic persona.)

Some of my best friends are Evangelicals. (I use the upper-case ‘E’ to denote both the amorphous genre of what might also be called “orthodox Protestants” and also the more definable “party” within the Anglican stream, and to distinguish both from “evangelicals” in the pure semantic sense—i.e. anyone who proclaims good news.) I was raised in that subculture (just a few miles from Wheaton, Illinois, which used to be the center of the Evangelical universe before it moved to Colorado Springs some years ago). Purebred Anglican Evangelicals have been a bit of a rare species in United States for about the last 150 years, but I do know a few, including one presbyteral colleague here in my diocese (San Joaquin) who hails from New Zealand, and with whom—amid our good-natured sparring over theological and liturgical minutia—I have a relationship of great affection and esteem. We’re together on the core issues of Christian faith and discipleship.

It’s no secret that if Evangelicalism—either the generic variety or the Anglican party—has a theological Achilles heel, it’s in the area of ecclesiology. It’s not so much that Evangelicals have no theology of the Church as that they have a underdeveloped theology of the Church, one lacking in the sophistication and nuance that characterizes, say, their soteriology (how does Jesus save us?).

Consequently, Evangelical theology turns out to be somewhat of a blunt instrument when dealing with the questions that are on the Anglican table at present—questions that focus on the visible superstructure and institutional infrastructure of the Body of Christ, and how relationships within those structures ought to be carried on. So when we find that there are church members and church leaders who are, for whatever reason, unable or reluctant to use certain language to talk about, say, the uniqueness of Christ as the bearer and agent of human salvation, or who studiously avoid the classical Trinitarian language of “Father” and “Son,” a crisis ensues, not merely a dispute, but a crisis of communion, of ability to co-exist in the same community of faith.

This is not difficult to understand if one sees the Church as a voluntary society of like-minded believers who come together for common worship and mutual support rooted in a shared experience of faith or perception of certain cardinal realities. If it turns out that there is, in fact, no shared experience or perception, no like-mindedness, there is no energy to hold such a society together. Maybe there once was an authentic commonality, which creates a certain degree of inertial momentum that can sustain institutional unity for a time. But, eventually, that momentum spends itself, and there is an inevitable atomization, and possibly a reconfiguration of the constituent parts.

In short, from an Evangelical perspective, there is no reason to keep company with unbelievers as though they were believers. It is dishonest to all concerned, and dishonors that very gospel that it is the vocation of Christians to proclaim. Hence, we hear clarion calls from Evangelical Anglicans to “come out from among them” and “be not unequally yoked,” etc. etc. There are “two religions” within the one institution of the Episcopal Church, and what should one, after all, have to do with the other? Would it not be better to make a clean, honest break, and have everyone get on happily with their lives?

Like I said, some of my best friends are Evangelicals. But I’m a Catholic. We may have our weak points, us Catholics, but ecclesiology isn’t one of them. Ecclesiology is our thing. The Catholic vision of the Church is richer, more refined, more resilient, and more versatile than that of “some of my best friends.” For a Catholic, the Church is less of a voluntary society of the like-minded and more of an organic family of the like-born—or reborn, to be precise. The Prayer Book states that “the bond that God establishes in baptism is indissoluble”—admittedly, a very Catholic notion. In the organic family of the Catholic Church, we don’t get to choose our relatives. When some of them misbehave and embarrass us to tears, we can avoid them and hang out with those we get along with, but we cannot, in the end, deny them. No one will be fooled; the family resemblance is too striking. When they say foolish things at family gatherings, we can get angry, but they’re still family. When they act in ways that are contrary to the traditions of the family, we can roll our eyes, but they’re still family. Even when they betray the vital interests of the family, we can see that they are subject to discipline, but they’re still family.

In short, from a Catholic perspective, schism and excommunication are, like divorce, always signs of failure, never of success. Is it not striking that, among those sectors of Christianity that have an organic ecclesiology, there is a high degree of sacramental fellowship and institutional unity, even in the midst of wildly diverse spirituality and culture, while among those sectors that have a voluntary association ecclesiology, there is atomization to an exponential degree? Theological integrity, yes. But an astonishing amount of division.

It was an e-mail from an old friend, a priest in another (very mainstream) diocese, that got me thinking along these lines. So I will conclude by quoting from his very insightful reflections:

The longer I serve as a priest, the deeper (I think) I am understanding the meaning of obedience. Over the years, I've read a fair amount regarding Benedictine matters, and find that this practice challenges my selfish and anxiety-borne tendency to panic or seek quick, satisfying solutions to challenges in discipleship. … [A]n authentic witness in our setting requires us to embrace obedience to our vows much in the same way as Christ embraced the Cross in obedience to His work of reconciliation, rather than pushing the schism button before the Mind of Christ is laid out by the Instruments in a clearer, more truly Catholic sense.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Harriet Hayes Update

Last week I wrote about the "openly Christian" character in the new NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, one Harriet Hayes. (No, I'm not going to give you a link; just look upstream a couple of posts.) I opined that she is a symbol of irony, because one of the axes she grinds is that Hollywood doesn't get Christianity, but the very ways the script writers have her make that point only serve to demonstrate that they, in fact, do not get Christianity.

Anyway...I told you so. In last night's episode, while trying to achieve that elusive quality of clarity in her relationship with ex-boyfriend and current boss Matt, Harriet says something along the lines of, "Of course it would have never worked out between us. You're an east coast Jewish atheist and I'm a Southern Baptist who believes you're going to burn in hell." (I assume she meant Southern Baptist and not southern Baptist--there is a significant difference, but would Aaron Sorkin actually know that?) OK, even allowing for a certain element of hyperbole, that is more than a little over the top. Now, I will grant you, there are Christians who are inordinately fascinated by questions of who gets to burn in hell. I even know a couple. But I don't think there are nearly as many such Christians as there are non-Christians who are incensed that such Christians exist in any quantity whatsoever and who salve their indignation by projecting the offending attitude onto the entire class of Christians. Poor fictional Harriet Hayes is only the most recent victim of such religious profiling.

I'm tempted to conclude by saying something like, "If you don't agree with me you can just go burn in hell." But then someone might not get that I'm trying to be wry and ironic, and that would not be good.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Stretching the Comfort Zone

I don't dislike animals. Often I even enjoy them. I've toyed with the idea of getting a talking bird, and teaching it liturgical responses. (OK, I'm a liturgy geek. There are worse things.) But I'm realistic enough to realize that I would not be happy as a pet owner. It's a big responsibility, and there are too many other worthwhile things going on in my life that I want to pay attention to.

That said, the same concerns, alas, are not shared by those who have shared and continue to share my domestic life. At present, my living space is invaded by a five-year old Border Collie named Lucy (aka Lucifer) who belongs to my wife Brenda and a six-year old psychotic male orange tabby who is a vestige of my younger daughter's need to decompress when she lived at home for a few months following her college graduation. Brenda also feeds an eleven-year old long-haired female tabby who abandonded us some years ago for the front porch of some neighbors two houses up the street.

Given my general temperament, then, I have never, in seventeen years of ordained ministry, succumbed to the increasingly popular practice of liturgically blessing animals on or around the feast day of St Francis of Assisi. Until now. Maybe I've had a pastoral epiphany. Maybe I'm getting all emotionally squishy in my old age. Maybe my Jungian uncounscious really adores animals. Or maybe I'm shamelessly pandering to popular demand. But with comparatively little publicity, 31 humans, an uncounted number of dogs, one (very brave) cat and one (rather oblivious) fish turned up in the Hoffman Memorial Garden at St John's this afternoon for the Blessing of Animals. There were only a couple of minor canine scuffles. Beyond that, everything went smoothly and expeditiously, and everyone (the humans, at any rate) seemed pleased.

When I was first ordained, the rector whom I served as curate told me he had abandoned the practice because some child's pet rodent had keeled over and died immediately upon receiving a blessing. Such events raise rather tricky issues of pastoral theology that a prudent cleric would want to avoid if at all possible. By God's mercy, I was spared such a fate today, for which I am immensely grateful. So I suppose I'll do it again next year.

I do apologize to St Francis, though. He has, I fear, been kidnapped by the cult of cute. Were he alive today and doing what he did, there are several diagnosis codes in DSM IV that would apply to him, and he would probably be institutionalized, or at least under a conservatorship. He was crazy for the sake of the gospel, and I'm not sure that blessing pets does justice to the virility of his witness.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Media Watch

I can't remember ever not being cynical about the way movies and television (not to mention the literature of the last century or so) generally portray religion and people who seriously practice religion. One favorite archetype is the Elmer Gantry figure--a venal hypocrite whose inevitable downfall casts not-so-subtle aspersions on the whole faith that he purported to espouse. Another is Father Mulcahey from Mash--likable and well-intentioned enough, but definitely running on a low dose of testosterone--in short, a wimp. The Camden family from Seventh Heaven is at least allowed to be somewhat real, but in a very syrupy way; I mean, who can really take that much sweetness? Plus, the nitty gritty of their religious practice is never exposed; everything is kept rather superficial. Eric Camden is some sort of (mainline?) Protestant minister, but that denotes a wide universe, and to keep it that general also keeps it proportionately unrealistic. Then there was the short-lived Book of Daniel, which was overtly Episcopalian, and I actually kind of enjoyed. But it was also bizarrely Episcopalian, an exaggerated caricature of every weird thing the Episcopal Church is currently into, which is no mean feat, since the Episcopal Church is currently into some very bizarre and weird things.

This Fall's primetime network fare features two new programs--both on NBC--that attempt once again to integrate "people of faith" (I really do hate that expression, but...whatever) into the cast and plotlines. One is Friday Night Lights, based on the movie of the same name, and therefore focusing on small-town Texas' obsession with high school football. My brother Steve (yeah, literally my brother) has some pertinent comments about this program on his own blog. I haven't seen it myself, but from two eyewitness accounts I have read, it is a dead-on accurate and unaffected representation of the dominant Christian piety of west Texas.

The other entry is Studio 60 On Sunset Strip (Monday, 10 Eastern & Pacific). This show marks the return of the writing and producing team of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, who distinguished themselves in the first four seasons of The West Wing. I am openly a West Wing junkie, still in serious grief over its demise, so I've watched the first three episodes of Studio 60 in seach of a fix. It's cruel. Sorkin and Schlamme have an unmistakable literary style in the dialogue they write, and a trademark technical and narrative style as well. Plus, one of the lead roles is played by Bradley Whitford, whose Josh Lyman was a mainstay of the Bartlett administration. The other leading character is played by Matthew Perry, who had a several-episode gig on "the wing" as deputy White House counsel. So there is the patina of the experience of watching The West Wing (did I mention that the music is done by the same person as well?), but, alas, it's not.

Enough of my whining. One of the characters in Studio 60 is Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), who is--Is there a better way to say this?--"openly Christian." She (the character, that is) is a comedic actor who is a member of the cast of the show for which Whitford and Perry's characters are the writers (it's clearly a stand-in for Saturday Night Live). In every episode so far, she has been in a position to make a point about how Hollywood just doesn't "get" Christians or Christianity. She appropriately rolls her eyes and grimaces and throws out "Aren't you clueless?" one-liners. Now, this has to be one of the biggest ironies of the decade, because the character of Harriet Hayes is a neon illustration of how Hollywood--are we ready for this?--just doesn't "get" Christians or Christianity. In contrast to the honest if unsophisticated piety of Friday Night Lights, Harriet's Christianity tries to be uber-chic and sardonic. Tries, but fails. In an effort to be cool and avoid the sticky sweetness of a Seventh Heaven, as well as the hypocrisy and primness of the classic archetypes, Sorkin and Schlamme have turned Harriet into...well, I don't know what, exactly. Just not a believably authentic Christian of any stripe (the implication is that she is an evangelical). I could illustrate with prayers for falling objects on ex-boyfriends and malicious riffs on the theme of "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior," but the hour is late.

In order to write convincingly, you have to write from the inside. (That's why I never believed that, had The West Wing been allowed to continue, Arnold Vinck [Alan Alda] would have been allowed to win the presidency. I don't know that Hollywood can do Republicans any better than they can do Christians!) You can't just learn some of the vocabulary and some of the symbols and throw them into a script. Practice makes perfect, though. Maybe someday they'll get it right.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On Intercessory Prayer

A long time friend of mine recently eMailed me about her concern for a friend of hers who has just been diagnosed with serious illness, asking for prayers, of course, but also reflecting on the experience of intercession and petition. I thought our exchange worth sharing:

[It's been said that ]one prayer is enough; that the instructions in the Bible about prayer are aimed at keeping us in communion and communication with God. After
all, God doesn't keep a balance so when x number of people have prayed for something or someone the answer changes from no to yes. I once read that prayer is laying hold of God's highest willingness. Whether all of this makes sense or not, I'm sure it's so: one prayer is enough. Amazing grace! Your thoughts?

Intercessory prayer is certainly a mystery. Yes, once is enough. At the same time, Jesus seems to encourage us to "pester" God. So while the former seems more natural to me, I make myself do the latter as a matter of obedience and discipline. Lately, I like to think of intercession and petition, particularly when suffering is the subject, as a way of making ourselves--i.e. our sufferings--"available" to God for him to use in his redemptive re-weaving of the fabric of creation. Rather than passively or grudgingly tolerating suffering, it makes more sense to me to actively embrace it, intentionally identifying it with the sufferings of Christ and, hopefully (in the words of the Book of Common Prayer) "find [the way of the cross] none other than the way of life and peace." Of course, I also find that I'm never too keen on embracing my actual sufferings. It works better in the abstract! But, however imperfectly, I try.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

San Joaquin's Constitution

Word is now out in cyberspace that the Episcopal diocese in which I serve, San Joaquin, will be considering a proposal at its next convention (first weekend in December) that, if passed in two successive regular annual conventions (the second time by a concurrent two-thirds vote among both the clergy and the lay delegates), would amend our constitution in such a way as would effectively remove us from the Episcopal Church. This is a pretty big story, and I expect that it might dominate Anglican discourse in this country for the next couple of months.

I have a lot to say about this. For the time being, however, I'm not going to be saying it in venues that extend beyond the Diocese of San Joaquin. Like this blog. By means of our diocesan intranet, I have invited my brothers and sisters here to similarly restrict their public comments. This is something we need to debate in good faith locally, and it will not be helpful if we are trading broadsides in the blogsphere and on message boards. My own commitment, of course, is contingent on buy-in from others. If members of the diocese choose to carry on the debate in front of the whole world, I reserve the right to do the same. But I hope this doesn't happen.

Monday, October 02, 2006

MLB 2006, R.I.P.

What?! you say. This is just the end of the regular season. There's nearly a month of exciting playoff action yet. (Isn't there something sick and twisted about playing baseball practically until Hallowe'en?)

Well, I'm cursed with being a Cubs fan, so--yes--the season is over. I was ten years old when I first started following them in 1962. (I can still give you the starting lineup from that year, plus most of the pitching staff. Anybody interested?) When I left for college in California at the beginning of September 1969, the Cubs had an eight game lead in the N.L East. But I'm not ready to talk about that yet. The pain is still too fresh. I have not lived in the Chicago area since Richard Nixon lived in the White House. Yet, despite the advice of several friends-cum-therapists, the Cubs are still in my system. The year after next, after all, is the centennial of their last World Series title. Maybe there will be poetic justice.

Dusty Baker will get fired tomorrow. That will be sad for me. I have an autographed picture of him wearing a Cubs uniform, hanging on the wall of my study. (A parishioner of mine is an off-season fishing buddy of his.) It says, "To Father Dan Martins: Keep praying for us. We'll get there." I believe it, Dusty. Just not during your tenure and probably not in my lifetime!

Can anybody tell me why Greg Maddux was traded? Sure, it wasn't a Brock-for-Broglio boondoggle, but still. He was at least a person one could root for even if the team was tanking.

There is an arcane theological concept called Eschatological Dualism. It's an attempt to name the paradox that, while the Kingdom of God is upon us--the power of sin and death is defeated, and Jesus reigns--there is still considerable residue of the old order for us to still deal with. There is a tension between the "now" and the "not yet." Cubs fans intuitively understand Eschatological Dualism. We're well accustomed to the tension between "maybe this year" and "wait til next year." Cubs fans live in a never-ending sense of waiting, hope, and expection--always Advent and never Christmas. That Christ will come again I am well assured. Whether the Cubs will win a World Series before that happens I can't say. Maybe the latter will happen right before the former. How cool would that be?