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Tribes by Seth Godin

I remember in my second year of undergrad philosophy studying the writings of the pre-Socratic named Heraclitus. I found him most interesting. Whereas others in his era had though that the main element was one of the four elements, wind, fire, water, or earth, Heraclitus thought outside the box. He said the world was in constant flux; it was like a flowing river, no two moments would be exactly alike. Plato quoted him as saying, “Everything changes and nothing remains still and you cannot step twice into the same stream.” As a twenty-year-old, I could very much identify with this image of flux. Stability, even in the midst of a seminary run by Benedictine monks (one of who’s charisms is stability), I felt a constant movement. Maybe that’s what attracted me to Twitter five year later. Emotions certainly are in constant flux. Relationships had, after 20 years, come and gone, some willingly, some regrettably. Paradoxically, I found an idea on which I could hang my hat.

Until, that is, I read Plato, then Aristotle, and finally Aquinas. I cam to realize that there are certain things that are unchanging, namely God, and things connected to Him like truth, goodness, oneness, and beauty. From those things, called universals, one could set principles from which to hold firm amidst the change that happens in a word still experiencing its creations. Spiritually we can hold fast to a God who is an eternal rock. He will not be moved. Intellectually, we can rest ourselves on these universals that guide, direct, and are the end of our thought.

My problem with Seth Godin’s leadership manual Tribes is that he so embraces the Heraclitian concept of change he discards anything that is immutable and unmovable. Inso-doing, he philosophically weakens his assertions, some of which are great insights into leading post-modern man. The core of the leadership ideal in the book is two-fold. 1) Tribes naturally arise in human communities and they yearn for a leader 2) That leader necessarily must be someone who bucks the status quo (he calls this person a heretic) to be a successful leader of a tribe. Both ideals are centered on the concept of the word in constant change and the leader is the one, who understanding this, effects the change instead of being effected by it.

By basing his whole ideal on the fact that everything changes means that, at some point, even what he sets up will no longer be relevant, which seems strange to set up a system that won’t be helpful when times change (other than to say, embrace the change). It seems odd and futile to make any definitive statements when everything is relative to what is beyond the status quo. When you set yourself contrary to something, you bind yourself to the contrary. Once the heretic becomes the status quo he/she is no longer relevant and has let down his/her tribe.

I’m sure he intentionally chose the word heretic because it is an incendiary word and is divisive and so, therefore, grabs the reader’s attention and is memorable. He elevates heretics into saints. Heretics are the good people, he says, because they embrace that change is what drives the world. Heretics, as a whole, looking through history, specifically within the Church,  have rather mucked things up. Arius was a heretic, but he wasn’t bucking a system because Christology hadn’t been fully fleshed out (no pun intended). His challenge to Christ’s eternal divinity ended up solidifying Christology in the Church. His effect was apophatic and so in bucking something he unintentionally solidified what we believed about Christ. Martin Luther, who Godin mentions multiple times, originally didn’t want to be a heretic. As he moved along in his own thought, based on faulty principles (see above), did he separate himself from orthodoxy. Yes, he bucked the system, but I wouldn’t consider his heresy successful only because it started a chain reaction of great division and great confusion in Christianity. It had the opposite effect of unity, one of the universals I spoke about earlier.

Inside of this faulty system though, Godin has some keen insights in sociology, which, in turn, effect the way one can lead. To settle for current operational standards without reflection is never a good thing. To work mindlessly, following the manager blindly, doesn’t build human excellence and is an offense both to human creativity and free will. Such stati quo are unjust to the worker and need reform, need new insight, inventive ways of solving problems, free of  the complacency that maintains what works just because it does. Leaders should and need to build up and effect change that will help their sphere (tribe) excel.

Godin says leaders don’t need to be in positions of power to lead. In fact, in reflecting on many of the Church’s greatest saints, very few started in positions of power. Francis was a hermit. Catherine worked at home. John of the Cross was imprisoned. Frederick Ozanam was a college student. They all saw that different parts of the Church had entered into complacency and so led by example and word. One started a religious order that change the face of religious life in the Church. Another called out the pope in his complacency. Another reformed a complacent religious order. Another saw the need to take care of the poor in Paris and so he filled that need forming a society (St. Vincent de Paul Society) to do so. None were heretics, although at various times some might have been labelled as such. The beauty of true orthodoxy is that is allows for a wide range of expression without ever becoming heretical.

The concept of building tribes, although not new, is very well articulated by Godin. It’s important for a leader develop a group that is aligned with his/her values vis a vie then goal he/she is trying to achieve. Francis ended up starting an order of religious. It’s wasn’t his original intention, but men began to follow him in the ideal of living simply. It was the same with John of the Cross in the Discalced Carmelites and Ozanam in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. They sought fill gaps in what was needed in the church and men and women followed. They didn’t seek to start a tribe, a tribe organically grew around their leadership and so they effected changed, not for the sake of change but rather because change was needed.

I’m glad I picked up this book. I bought it to reflect on a different leadership practices and Godin seem to be a contemporary leadership guru. Although I think his concepts lack necessary philosophic depth, they aim at one thing, if not directly so, human excellence.

photo taken by Marco Derksen

Christianity in a Post Religious Culture

Many scholars speak of the “Post Christian” world and ask how “religion” and “faith” should fit into this world. I think that these designations reveal the prejudices of such scholars. As a Christian myself, I think it much less provincial, and much more vital, to ask “what place does Christianity have in a Post Religious culture?” For the last century-and-a-half, culture has chosen to ignore religion in general. It is not the first time in human history that the gods have been thus ignored. Nor do I think that it is attributable to any doctrine besides that of the Fall. The more humanity gains knowledge of evil, the more it is aware of its own nakedness in a sea of threats. So, as in Genesis 3, it becomes afraid and it hides from God.

This “hiding from God” is what most characterizes the present circumstances. It is not, as far as I can tell, that humanity is any more optimistic about its fate. If that were the case, the argument could be made (and some sociologists do maintain this argument), that humanity has “progressed” or “advanced” beyond its need for reliance on the uncertain spiritual myths of ages past. This bland answer fails to take into account the extreme angst of the two world wars, the nuclear age, the digital age and the socio-economic unrest of the last 100 years. It does not seem that humanity has any reason to be more optimistic than she was just prior to the beginning of the 1914. In fact, hindsight being 20/20, it is a wonder that she has any optimism left at all.

I do not think that we can blame this “flight from God,” this fugo Dei, on mere secularism. Mere secularism has always been around. There has always been an element of culture and society that has looked at God, religion and prayer as a waste of time. Quite often, it has been a large element. It has always been a rich and influential element. Many of the aristocrats of the late middle ages & early Enlightenment were just as “worldly” as the present day upper-lower-middle class first-worlder. The difference, I believe, lies not in what a secularist believes (or claims not to believe), but rather in how a secularist lives. It is the lived-contradiction of the old aristocrats that makes them different from the contemporary secularist. The old secularist still gave lip service to God, faith and the like, even if they were an utter Philistine behind closed doors. Contemporary secularists is of a much less duplicitous mind. They will proudly proclaim their agnosticism. They go out of their way to make it clear that they could are less about the existence of an Eternal Truth.

The new skeptics cannot forgot about God, but desperately desire to seem like the whole question of His existence is somehow “beneath” them. Here, I believe is the significant point of departure between the Old and New secularist and what makes the new secularist truly “post religious.” The new secularists are determined
to remain undetermined. If told they had to reveal their naked conscience, they would rather walk through the streets naked (and most explicitly choose this latter option…at least, they do here in New Orleans). Their logic: in order to “do business” in this society, they must be perceived as a tolerant, open-minded, quasi-educated 21st century person. Religious conviction of any sort gets in the way this goal. Therefore, they pretend not to care about truth, faith and the question of God’s existence. Their posture, or pose, allows the secularist to meet with the least social friction as possible. It is “cool” to be a slightly sympathetic agnostic skeptic. It gives you access to the most wealth and opportunity with the least resistance.

The funny thing about this state of affairs is that these new secularists do NOT disavow sin. They are just as keen on “social justice” as ever, even if they ignore Divine Mercy. They might act as if Heaven is empty, but they still seem quite frightened at the prospect of Hell. This is why it is best to refer to this period, not simply as “post Christian” but “post religious.” It lacks that most vital quality of any religion: hope. The secularists of this age know quite well that the world might be going to Hell in a hand basket. They can be just as scathing a social critic as any Christian preacher or Jewish prophet ever was, and have just as dire predictions about the fate of humanity. The difference between the secularist and the believer, however, is that the believer still looks to heaven on the horizon.

All this to say, there seems to me no need to be intimidated by the dreams of the contemporary secularist attitude. It is a ghastly depressing thing that says that humanity’s greatest hope revolves around comfort and convenience. They imagine we live in a paradise of spas and smartphones…and nothing more. It is their despair that should shock us and move us, not to fear, but to a strong and persistent pity. Therefore we must, as Pope Francis has said, be the field hospital. We must make hope our banner. Yes, these are depressing times, but not for the Christian or religious person. Rather, the post religious period is most depressing for the secularist. Their hope has been extinguished and they pray not for dawn. Its a good thing, then, that we are the light of the world…

Wonderland Un-Eclipsed (Or, the Best Play I’ve Seen in Years)

“‘In vain,’ I cried, ‘though you too touch
The new time’s desecrating hand,
Through all the noises of a town
I hear the heart of fairyland.’”-GK Chesterton

Last night, I was privileged to enter into fairyland in the heart of New Orleans. Indeed, every New Orleanian knows innately that fairyland’s borders lie right around eachcorner. The scent of a nearby crawfish boil or the strains of jazz carried by the winds of our city keep us ever in proximity to that child-like land of milk and honey. Yet, last night, in the middle of City Park, the sheerness of the veil was illuminated and, like a scrim on stage, revealed the heart of the child that lies in each one of us.

The play was “Alice in Wonderland” and it was staged (if ‘staged’ is even the right word: a whole garden is used as the acting space) by the formidable artists at the nolaproject theatre troupe (http://www.nolaproject.com/). Complete with the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, the Queen’s Croquet, a disappearing-reappearing Cheshire Cat and the countless other characters, Wonderland was re-created in the NOMA Sculpture garden. It was a “choose your own adventure” style performance, where audience members pick their guide when they purchase their ticket. You could run with the Red Queen, prattle along with Alice or watch the Mad Hatter and Co. re-enact the whole story from the comfort of the Tea Party.

Now that you know the facts, you must be made aware of the more essential information: the nonsense. It is timed to coincide with the sunset, so the play begins in daylight, passes through twilight and ends in almost darkness. The statues in the NOMA garden, including a few token Rodins and Renoirs, are poked fun at and even made into characters. The young adult cast does more cartwheels, somersault, singing and fighting than occurs at your average kindergarten recess. Finally though, and most significantly, the lines of Lewis Carroll are delivered flawlessly in casual, if not flawless, British dialects. All these elements are sown together by the outdoor location, which provides punctuations of bird songs, wind, cloud and crunch as one steps across the grass to reach the different sets. So intoxicating and inviting is the experience that there moments of almost somatic surrender. I have never in my waking life questioned whether I was truly dreaming or just daydreaming until last night’s production. It was like the last chapter of the “Man Who Was Thursday” brought to life. (If you have not read GKC’s masterpiece, you need to drop what you’re reading and read it now).

Now that you have the nonsense, you should be made aware of the substance. This staging of Alice in Wonderland has, at it’s foundation, the same essential message (I won’t call it a “lesson” or “moral” for those words are just not silly enough!) that Chesterton makes at the end of “The Ethics of Elfland.” The message is, to quote the Mad Hatter, “that the world needs less facts and more mystery.” Children are often right, and adults are often dead wrong, when approaching the question “Why?” A child is comfortable waiting for the story to unfold, whereas the impatient adult wants the answer right away. Alice is happy to travel through Elfland for hours. Tedious and terrible adults can barely stand the place for a few minutes. Yet, humanity needs Wonderland, for a land without wonder is hardly worth fighting for, much less living in. God looked into the Abyss and said “Let there be light!,” there by conquering in one Word forever the darkness of a mere dark fact.

The veil of fact was held up to the light last night and what shone through was the Divine spark dwelling in actors and audience alike. We are all children playing in the Garden, even if most of the time we are acting like naughty children who have spoiled the Trees. The message at the end of the tale (for, again, it was neither a lesson nor a moral) is that learning to say sorry in the right way and learning to share your talents with God and others are the ends we must pursue. It is a message that every child of the Father must learn. Sometimes, nonsense is a better teacher of these truths than all the facts in the world. In a society increasingly organized by economy, bureaucracy and efficiency, I am tempted to change that “sometimes” to “most of the time.” Instead, I will leave you with this paraphrase of the play’s penultimate line; “I am sorry for being selfish. I am not sorry for being imperfect, but I will try, in both cases, to be better in the future.” Wonderland can and does bring us this message. Just remember that the border between here and Wonderland is paper thin…

Loss & Mystery (And Why We Care About MH370)

“There’s a plane missing in the Indian Ocean,” says the guy in front of me in class. He then pulls up a website with all the data, information and stats, a website exclusively devoted to the search for Flight MH370. It was 12 days ago and I had my mind on so many other things. I have watched countless documentaries on the history channel about plane crashes and objects lost mysteriously at sea. I was late for class, overwhelmed with homework and not particularly keen on hearing yet another “unsolved mystery.” I blew off his obvious enthusiasm and moved on with my day.

A week later, I had become intrigued. Apparently, this was no ordinary plane crash story. Vague clues and details were coming in by the hour. The transponder had been deliberately turned off. The plane had taken a radical turn to the west. It had flown well above it’s ceiling, then dropped to only a few thousand feet when flying over land. It had disappeared off of radar with hours of fuel onboard…yet still had not appeared on any other radar. The last satellite “ping” placed it either in the middle of Asia’s most formidable desert or in the southern Indian ocean, far away from Antarctica and Australia alike. Finally, and most perplexingly, not a single one of the over 200 people on board had made any attempt to text or call loved ones while the plane remained in flight. How on earth could all these details fit together given the motives of the human heart? Why change course? Why no ground contact? Why fly a plane into the middle of nowhere?

It was the personal motives that intrigued me. The only thing that all authorities seemed to agree on was that someone who knew what they were doing (the pilot? the co-pilot? a member of the crew or hijacker?) had deliberately turned off the transponder, tuned out of the radio communications and drastically diverted the plane’s course. Why? No one seemed to know, yet no one seemed reluctant to guess. CNN set up 24 hour coverage which was quickly criticized. The governments of the over-25 countries involved held a string of press conferences, sometimes verifying and sometimes contradicting the official facts. Family members cried hysterically for definitive answers in the midst of so much blind speculation. The mystery of MH370 had gone from a strange news piece scrolling at the bottom of the screen to a full-fledged mystery. What pushed it beyond the boundaries of normal news was when it went from being a missing plane to being about missing people.

A missing plane is problematic. Missing people are a mystery.
Mystery involves the seen and unseen. It involves motives, clues and signs that point to things greater than themselves. A plane that crashes in the sea might make the evening news. A plane that vanishes can cause much speculation. But a human being who deliberately steers a plane off its course for unknown motives and reasons is a mystery proper. It is the personal aspect of the problem that allows it to transcend the worries of aviation experts and close family members, touching the hearts of all humans who hear about MH370’s plight. Where mere mechanics are at stake, people can understand the tragedy but not the complexity of the situation. However, when human motives are the essential factor, the story becomes much more complex than a jet engine and far more universal.

Mystery must be personal, or else it is merely problematic. That, at least, is an amateur theologian’s takeaway from the story of MH370.

“Our Finest Hour” (Or, American Christianity Today)

When I get on the blog-o-sphere these days, I get the unsettling vibe that many of my brothers & sisters in Christ are none too pleased to be a Christian in American these days. Admittedly, this is not the Christian faith’s most popular hour. When a Christian misrepresents a concept, they are lambasted as naive. If they mispronounce a word, they are called ignorant. Any attempt to represent their moral views opens them up to being attacked as judgmental, backwards or even hateful.

Yet, for all this, I can’t help but feel that this is precisely the hour that we are called to silently raise our heads high. It is for this hour that we have been kept on earth. The world writhes in pain even now. We bring the remedy. They may chide & criticize, but we know that Christ’s message of contrition & committed love is the only real answer to life’s deepest longings.

Where the world offers “free sex” and when the unborn are reduced to “unplanned” side-effects, it is our opportunity to remind the world of the dignity of human life.

When the world claims to know the meaning of love, but then is quick to accuse it’s enemies of “hate crimes,” it is Christians who must be peaceful enough to accept the accusation in stride.

When the powers-that-be use healthcare politics to pick on nuns serving the poor, we should have no doubt who David & Goliath are in that situation. And, of course, we stand with David.

Near the end of the movie Apollo 13, the administrators at Mission Control are speculating that, should the astronauts not survive re-entry, it could be “the greatest disaster in the history of manned spaceflight.” Overhearing their comments, the Flight Director Gene Kranz turns to the suits and blurts out “With all due respect, I believe that this will be our finest hour.” I cannot help but share his sentiment. The Church was made for moments like this. Christ has given us the Holy Spirit, promised not to leave us orphans and has assured as that the Enemy will not prevail against us. Why are we so slow to believe Him and so quick to listen to the world?

So, as things get worse before they get better, as it becomes more and more difficult to stand up for what (and Who) we believe in, we must remember that it was for hours like this that Christ has left us on earth. Let us not get our feathers ruffled. Lets not lose heart, our patience or our courage. Should His love be our guide, no matter how many voices rise against us, this indeed will be our finest hour.

Let Men Their Songs Employ? (Or, What to Do About Bad Christmas Music)

Music is the breath of culture, just as cuisine is it’s body and worship it’s soul. A civilization is judged as weak or strong according to how well it engages in art, cooking and prayer. These are the three things that human beings do at their own prompting, the three things that, unlike any other activities, we perform not simply because we have to, but because we want to. And while it is true that there is certain necessity involved in each, that without food we could not live, without creative we could not communicate and without praise we could not commune, it is likewise true that humanity always uses these things to transcend the raw utility of life. I have seen men starve themselves because the purely-utilitarian meal prepared for them failed to feed their humanity. We have seen revolutions overthrow governments when people are prevented from praying.

Likewise, when song is reduced to mere ceremony, men abandon hope, women abandon compassion and culture begins to asphyxiate. That is why bad Christmas music does more than simply annoy. When a culture fails to robustly celebrate a holiday, when artists neglect rigorous writing, it is symptomatic of decline. The artists of our day seem to care more about fulfilling contractual obligations than celebrating even a secular Christmas. For those that are Christians, all I can say is that their devotion and artistry have, in large part, failed to produce anything other than watered-down versions of the rich hymns produced by older believers who now sleep in Christ.

I do not believe that this is because we have given up on Christmas. Nor do I question the sincerity of the faith of those artists honestly trying to tell the Christmas story in verse. What I do question is the amount of care and attention our culture puts into deeply communicating it’s true message, the “Christmas ‘kerygma’.” It is not impossible to produce profoundly moving art based upon this age old story of the God-man born in Bethlehem. In different cultures, and in other mediums within our own culture, there have been wonderful examples of good Christmas art. Yet, in the realm of music (as also in the realms of decoration, preparation and gift-giving) we have surrendered our sacred heritage in favor of a quicker, more consumeristic approach. Like I stated at the beginning, this demonstrates a decline in the life-breath of our culture.

The fact of the matter is that the Christmas story remains as radical as it ever has. God becomes man. King Herod persecutes the King of Kings. A star rises in the east, like a newer, smaller dawn, and sages travel by its light to be taught at the feet of a baby. The God who created the universe is born underground, into the heart of the earth. A silent father listens to the inspiration of angels and a holy mother ponders all these things in her heart. The story lacks none of the necessary ingredients for poetry. Yet, our musicians consistently fail to communicate the drama, the passion and the amazing grace. Or, they simply choose to sing about snowmen, ringing bells or yuletide romance. The back of their album cover boasts a glossy picture of our artists smiling in green and red, claiming to be able to bring us in touch with the true meaning of Christmas. Pop the album into the stereo, however, and the best you can hope for is an electronic remix of an old song that you could have sung more meaningfully all by yourself.

We simply must not settle for this! Christmas is deeper, simpler and stranger than any amount of dime-store Christmas CD’s would lead us to believe. And I do believe that there are artists out there trying to communicate this Christmas mystery with greater acumen. I will leave you with one example of what I mean. At first, it will not sound like a Christmas song at all, but I think that its merit lies precisely in that fact. It breaks from the idea that Christmas music must be comforting and cliche. It reintroduces as sense of penance and praise. But most of all, it is a simple and good song:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8U0_OYCqHPM

Zombies, Being Like Angels, and the Resurrection of the Dead

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Deconstructing “Montana” (Or, Miley Cyrus Naked on a Wrecking Ball)

When my students first told me about Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (which together with her twerking has made her an Enemy of the State with concerned parents everywhere), I dismissed it as a fad. I saw a clip of the video, could tell why adults were upset and teens aroused, and left it at that. After of weeks of trending, however, it seems that Miley’s nude demolition has not itself been demolished. Parents are still distraught. My students are still distracted. Even Hollywood and the recording industry are discussing it (and, surprisingly, often on the side of the distraught).

I finally watched the whole thing this morning. It is disturbing, but I do not think that it’s visuals are primarily to blame. Yes, there is Hannah Montana, stripped of all her Disney accessorizing, twerking in slow-mo on wrecking ball. Having never heard the song, though, I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the lyrics. Believe it or not, I found the message of the music most distressing. The story she sings is one I have heard many times over during my decade-plus in youth ministry: girl meets boy, thinks she can ‘save’ him, throws her self at him like a wrecking ball…and ends up broken herself. Thus, the image of a naked 20something hanging on to half-a-ton of forged steel. There are many who would say that the image is pornagraphic, but within the context of the song it is something far worse: it is suicidal.

So, here and now, I would plead with anyone reading this to stop criticizing Miley for her risque behavior. She is not so much Madonna as she is Lindsey Lohan. It is not self degradation, but self destruction, that lies at the heart of all this. From a cultural standpoint, I can understand why parents are upset at the nudity, but from an artistic standpoint, they should be more concerned about the wrecking ball. After all, when a naked person of any age, sex or background rides a wrecking ball, the concern should not be for their modesty but for their safety. And Miley’s music is much closer to the edge than her video.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a short philosophical perspective on what this is really about. Miley grew up with Hannah Montana. Hannah told Miley (along with all the pre-teens that watched the show) that love is as simple as throwing your attractive-teenage self into life. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you meet some boy who has walls, give it all you got and you’ll watch those walls fall like Jericho. Only, Billy-Ray’s casual Bible references totally missed the mark. It wasn’t the Israelite’s good intentions and sweet-sounding music that felled the walls: it was their faith in God. Without that faith, the walls won’t collapse: we will. Miley hurled herself naked on a wrecking ball of self-confidence, hoping to heal achy-breaky hearts. Instead, she got her own heart broken by a world of teen-gossip, tabloids and tediously-low ratings. Therefore, she sings sincerely about being broken by the wrecking ball. That is precisely what has happened in her own real life.

That is the story we see in the music video. When the critics are right it is always for the wrong reasons: they are right to say that it is hedonism, but its not the sexuality that makes it so. It is the hopeless, whiny tragedy of it that makes it hedonistic. They say that Miley has gone of the deep end, and they are right, but they are wrong when they associate it strictly with the fact that she has taken off her cloths. Miley is merely expressing a disillusionment with candy-coated-middleclass-materialistic sort of love. It is a disillusionment that her fans share: its just that Miley is their sacrificial victim.

(Perhaps that seems too strong an ending, but, upon second glance, I’ve kept it because it expresses my thesis: Miley is to be pitied, not prodded, just as her fan base is to be pitied.)

OMG! St. Paul Endorsed Slavery! (Or, Why Hasty Political Exegesis Shouldn’t Alarm Us)

Recently, many highly public Christians have endorsed gay marriage by citing the concept of the ‘development’ of Christian theology since the time of Scripture’s authorship. Kevin Rudd, an Australian politician, gave the most recent example when asked by a pastor why he didn’t believe the words of Scripture on this topic; “Well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition…because St. Paul said in the New Testament, slaves should be obedient to (their) masters. And therefore we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.” (BBC News, Sept 3, 2013). I cannot in so small a place do justice to so wide a topic as the Christian theology on human sexuality. However, since there is some precedence for blogs being used for Bible Study, I can quickly address the strange ignorance of Scriptural theology that the above statement represents.

To do justice to Mr. Rudd’s position (a position he shares with our very own Barack Obama and Chris Christie), the logic seems to follow this path: St. Paul, as a man of his day, presented Christianity in a world where both slavery and homosexuality fell into certain social categories, the former acceptable and the latter unacceptable. In order to present the Gospel in such a way so as to be palatable to the people of his time (and perhaps to be presentable to his own conscience), St. Paul merely presumed upon the necessity of these social mores and neglected to fully challenge their legitimacy in the light of the gospel. Therefore, it has taken millennia for the Christian people to ‘progress’ beyond the original inhibitions of St. Paul and the Apostles in order to fully realize their gospel of love. With the aid of contemporary psychological science and liberal democracy, we are now able to overcome these prejudices of the first Christians.

First off, this bland version of ‘progressive theology’ hardly does justice to the story of Scripture itself. Did St. Paul, as a devout Jew, look approvingly on the social institution of slavery? Most certainly not! The whole story of the Jewish faith is of a God who saves the Children of Israel from the “cruel slavery” of Egypt.(Ex 1:13, 6:5, 20:2; Dt 6:12, 7:8) The Jewish law, whom Paul was an expert in, is composed in light of a mercy toward slaves “for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” (See Lv 25:39-42, Dt 5:15; 15:15, 23:16, 24:18-22) And while it is true that the Old Testament fails to challenge slavery as a social institution, it would be incorrect to assume that it thusly taught to embrace slavery as such. St Paul knew that the the Old Testament theology, speaking “in partial and varied ways,” (Hb 1:1) could not in-and-of-itself end all injustices. Remember: it is not until the New Testament that God’s people are ordered to spread the morality of Monotheism beyond the borders of Israel. Until the coming of Christ, the assumption was the Polytheists experience “conflicting thoughts in their hearts” yet failed to repent were to be judged accordingly. (See Rm 14-16) Therefore, if St. Paul did indeed endorse a “theology of slavery,” then, Scripturally speaking, it indicated that a retrogression and NOT a progression had occurred from Old to New Testament!

Yet, St. Paul (and St. Peter, for that matter) happily and repeatedly called himself a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Rm 1:1, Gal 1:10, Phil 1:7; Titus 1:1) This would be a radical thing for a Jew to say, and not the least because 1st century Pharisees were fond of pointing out that they had “never been enslaved to anyone.”(See John 8:33). Even a cursory glance at St. Paul’s writing reveals his strange affinity for the state of slavery. Beyond begging slaves to be “subject to their masters” (Eph 6:5; the phrase ‘subject to’ is difficult to translate from the Greek. It seems to indicate “a loving acceptance of” or a “filial obedience to”), St. Paul also asks for children and wives to act the same way towards the head of the family (Eph 5:22, 6:1; Col 3:20), for Christians to be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Eph 5:21) while always remaining respectful of the presbyters, bishops and leaders. (See Rm 13:7; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:19 Heb 13:17[not written by St. Paul, but in his tradition]) In fact, it seems that, according to this reading, St. Paul wanted everybody to be slaves to everybody else!

One could argue, however, that the above examples simply represent St. Paul’s pastoral zeal. Accordingly, he didn’t envision the Church entering into an official state of mutual slavery so much as a Christian love that takes the form of interdependent servitude. Such a pastoral exhortation only reveals that Paul, like Christ, was willing to use profane metaphors to make spiritual points. (See Matt 12:29, Luke 14:31) That line of thought may be true. However, the most glaring exception to that rule would be the short but terribly important letter to Philemon, in which Paul explicitly sends Onesimus, an escaped slave, back to his master. Both Onesimus and Philemon are Christians, and therefore equal in the eyes of the Church. Nonetheless, St. Paul orders Onesimus to return to his master rather than asking for his release. This must be taken as, in the very least, a passive acceptance of the social institution of slavery itself. However, when we look beyond the action itself and read the words of St. Paul, something strange appears. St. Paul begs for mercy from Philemon, seeming to place the blame on himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” (Phm 1:8-10) Next, he states that his ‘usefulness’ is now characterized by the relationship of love in Christ (v 11) and that Onesimus is Paul’s very heart (v. 12). Finally in verse 17, St. Paul entirely self-identifies with Onesimus, asking Philemon to accept him not as a slave but as a ‘partner’ in Christ. One could call this the first example of a theology of ‘solidarity,’ a very progressive stance indeed!

So is St. Paul’s theology ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’ Was it open to further development? And as it regards ‘social ethics,’ does it represent the final word of Christian theology?

Such questions, though popular, hardly seem as important in the light of the questions we could now raise: What is mutual subjection? What is ‘slavery in Christ?’ How am I to live so as to be ‘the heart’ of my fellow Christians? Such speculation represents a very brief look at St. Paul’s theological perspective on slavery. It is by no mean exhaustive, but it should at least be unsettling. I leave you with no direct answers, but only with a warning: it is a terrible mistake to assume that the ancient Christian Saints knew less about love than we do. To try to read Scripture in light of contemporary morals and cultural change is to become guilty of the very thing you accuse the Scriptural author of being: namely, a close-minded child of the current age. In contrast, wouldn’t it be better for a Christian to assent to the truth our teaching on human rights has remained solidly on the side of charity since the time of St. Paul? From that perspective, we take his words and actions as an example. We are called to ‘self-identify’ with all people without ever using political or social powers as a means to override the Gospel.

One final word on St. Paul’s theology. Far from being a personal reflection of a learned Christian, it is an essential part of the Deposit of Faith and, along with the words of Peter, John, James and Jude, represents an inexhaustible treasure of Christian truth. To dismiss or defend it with mere soundbites is to do an injustice to Divine Revelation, and to Jesus Christ himself. If this blog represents the briefest of reflections that can occur in good conscience, we should neither be inspired or upset about the off hand comments of an upset politician. Their ‘theology’ is as nothing compared to the vast Revelation that is offered us in the Gospel of Christ. It would be wise to look to Him before looking anywhere else.

St. Chesterton, Pray for Us!?

The idea of St. Chesterton, recently reported on by the Daily Mail and encouraged by words of both Pope Francis and the bishop of Northampton, has left me in a fit of giggles. Not that I doubt the validity of the claim. It appears that Pope Francis is a long time Chesterton fan, blessing book groups of the British journalist in his native Argentina. Bishop Peter Doyle’s simultaneous investigation of Chesterton’s life is the first of many steps toward canonization. (In Chesterton’s case, the longest step might be the thorough examination of his writings for intentional heresy, a process that could take decades given the sheer amount of ink he spilt. Still, I think you will find no shortage of scholars willing to volunteer for the task).

Nonetheless, the idea of Chesterton holy cards, Chesterton icons, St. Gilbert Keith Parishes, GKC novenas and (not so) mini-statuettes is enough to make one giddy with delight. Perhaps the only person besides who would find these things more comical than GKC fans do would be GKC himself. Can you imagine the jokes he would crack on the occasion of the dedication of a St. Chesterton Shrine (They’ll have to have a very large sanctuary to fit a statue of me in it! Accuracy would require there be a pub next door! The holy medals ought to be chocolate, like those fake chocolate coins that children use! What will they do, sell penny dreadfuls instead of devotional in the vestibule after Mass!?). It is simply outrageous that GKC should be made a saint. And yet, it seems he has friends in high places who would like to see it happen. It is a good thing, too, that Chesterton became Roman Catholic: he joined the only church crass and crazy enough to canonize the likes of him!

In all seriousness, though (a phrase Chesterton seems to have hated), the cause for Chesterton’s canonization may be outrageous, but it is not offensive. However, from reading the comments on the Daily Mail article, one gets the sense that the good people of London are scandalized that a newspaper man from their own city should be up for sainthood. Perhaps it is with good reason. GKC was the first to admit that he belonged to a profession that attracted the slothful and the spineless alike. He would join their voices of dissent at the idea of a London journalist joining the canon of Saints, save for the strange fact that he is most assuredly no longer alive in London. I cannot suppose his current location, seeing as Pope Francis thinks it possible that he is far better off than any of us thought possible.

Possible is the key word in all this. All this news means is that the leaders of our Church think it possible that GKC is in heaven. The smiles and the scandal surrounding such a statement tell us more about ourselves than they do about Chesterton. Is it so terribly silly that so great a theologian be admitted to heaven, even if he was nothing more than a journalist? Why are we put off by the idea of his sanctity, when it would be a comforting thought that a man as full of life as GKC might have made it through the pearly gates? Perhaps it is because we like gritty, challenging saints, not jolly orthodox ones. Maybe it is because we like controversialists with new ideas, not contrite coots with old ones. Chesterton self-identified as a liberal who fought for the poor. At the same time, he defeated heresy and converted CS Lewis (and countless others). He argued against communism, capitalism and fascism all while they were still popular. He perfectly met all the demands of the era and did it all with his unique brand of optimism and common sense. Optimism, common sense and sanctity: how many of us can claim such a trinity? So, why not a St. Chesterton?

GKC, ora pro nobis.