Archive for April, 2011

Last weekend, I ended up spending Holy Saturday evening at the Orthodox cathedral in town. My own church doesn’t hold services that day, so I took a friend’s advice to sit in on the Orthodox service. I wanted to reflect upon Christ in the tomb and celebrate his resurrection, and I wanted to do both in the company of other Christians. And while the service allowed opportunity for these things, it also served as a reminder of something else: namely, how traditional liturgy can act as a type of universal language for Christians, offering a glimpse of worship as we will one day experience it in heaven.

I’m sure some of you reading this will be surprised at that assertion, particularly if you come from a more contemporary-driven worship background. For many people, liturgical worship has become synonymous with dead worship. Repeating the same prayers, chanting the same chants week in and week out? Surely it just becomes mere words, said without meaning – a matter of habit as opposed to spontaneous faith.

That may be the case for some (regrettably, no doubt, for too many Christians attending liturgical services). But that a thing can be used inappropriately doesn’t mean that the thing itself is bad. Approached rightly, liturgy offers exactly what I said before: a glimpse of heavenly worship. When we pray the “tired old prayers” so often disparaged by today’s Christians, we in effect proclaim our unity with the Church through the ages. We pray the same prayers Christians a thousand years ago prayed. In fact, we pray the prayer Christ himself prayed. And we confess the same creedal faith the Church has confessed for nearly two millenia. Likewise, we reflect each week that the worship we render here on earth is joined with that offered in heaven. “With angels, archangels and all the company of heaven,” the preface to the Sanctus begins, “we laud and magnify your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'”

The liturgy fosters a sense of timelessness, of worship as something not bound to any particular century or culture. It reaches back to antiquity; it points us forward to the unending depths of eternity. We recognize ourselves as part of that unbroken chain, recognize the unity of the Church past, present, and future.

The Orthodox Holy Saturday service reminded me of that truth in a new way. It reached back as we listened to numerous readings from the Old and New Testaments. We declared the Christian faith according to the Nicene Creed, as it was prepared in the 4th century A.D. Likewise, the sermon was a reading from John Chrysostom’s writings, also from the 4th century. We used liturgical structures developed by the ancient church and used by many Christians over the following centuries. We sang, as so many before us have sung, the Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead / Trampling death by death! / And upon those in the tombs / Bestowing life.”

Likewise we proclaimed to one another the glorious message of Easter: “Christ is risen!” / “Truly he is risen!” In fact, it was that Paschal greeting which made me reflect anew upon the universality of liturgy. And the reason for that was because we didn’t just say “Christ is risen!” in English. We said it in numerous languages. Saturday’s service was the most culturally diverse I’ve ever attended. The priest had a crisp, east-European accent, and he greeted the various people groups in the church in their heart languages. “Christ is risen!” he cried to the English, and we shouted back “Truly he is risen!” He proclaimed the same thing in Greek, and the Greeks responded in joy. He shouted it in Amharic, and the Ethiopians echoed in praise. He called the same in Russian, in Ukrainian, in German, and in a number of other Eastern European languages (and perhaps one Asian) that I could not identify, and every time the people declared the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Though from very different cultural backgrounds, we were all united in that moment. Though speaking different languages, we all prayed and praised God with one voice. And the words of Revelation played through my mind: “I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (7:9-10).

Every nation. Every language. One voice. “He is risen! Truly He is risen! Kristos tenestwal! Wahrlich ist er erstanden! Christos anesti!”

“Χριστός ανέστη!”

Are you a humanist? ‘Cause I sure am. But before you start sending me nasty messages about my being a godless atheist, let me assure that what I mean by the word probably isn’t what you think I mean. To be sure, most people today use the word humanist in a very anti-religious sense. In its secular (and most common) meaning, the word denotes the rejection of supernaturalism and faith as adequate grounds for living life. But it’s in the older renaissance sense of the term that I call myself a humanist: namely, as The Christian Humanist Podcast puts it, as “someone who studies the humanities.” I believe strongly in the value of liberal arts education and the importance of critical engagement with literature, philosophy, and the myriad other things that make up our cultural world.

In this sense, I join a long line of Christian humanists, including such luminaries as Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, the latter of whom’s visage graces the header on this website. Melanchthon, widely known as the author of significant sections of the Lutheran Confessions, is lesser known for his poetry and academic work on rhetoric, classical Greek literature, and education. But for Melanchthon, Luther and the numerous other humanists like them, these subjects and a thousand others are equally worthy of discussion. The world is pretty big ; so too must be the Christian understanding of it.

Two paragraphs back, I quoted The Christian Humanist Podcast. I hope you’re wondering what the heck that is, because that’s the real reason for this blog post. A couple of months back, I happened across their website, though I can’t for the life of me remember how. Their podcast (and accompanying blog) is devoted to discussing “literature, theology, philosophy and other things that human beings do well.” And that’s exactly what the podcast does: it takes up a different question each week, and discusses the ins and outs of the subject while offering a Christian appraisal of the good and bad in said subject. In the process, the hosts offer input based on their own areas of specialization – which, as the show is hosted by a medievalist, a Renaissance (and biblical) scholar, and an Americanist, generally means an overall analysis which succeeds in engaging intellectual thought on the subject from across the centuries.

If I might act like a fanboy for a few sentences here, let me just say that I absolutely love the show. I know no better place to hear such intelligent discussion of so many wide ranging topics. From dogma, to politics, to science, to literary theory, to sports, they take it all on. And they do so in a way which is, in the words of their original audio tagline, “unapologetically confessional and unabashedly intellectual.” I’m hooked. You should be too.

Currently, I’m working my way through their archives while trying to keep up with their new episodes as well. All of the episodes I’ve heard have been excellent, but I thought I’d highlight a few that new listeners might especially want to check out.

1. Episode 1: The Christian Humanist – For a fuller discussion of what it means to be a “Christian humanist,” check out this episode. It gives both a good history of Christian engagement with culture, while simultaneously explaining what the point of the Christian Humanist Podcast is.

2. Episode 20: Judas – Like the title suggests, this episode centres on the betrayer of Christ, discussing first the biblical accounts before later examining literary receptions of him over the next two millenia. It’s also an interesting episode as it highlights some of the theological differences the hosts hold. This isn’t a show with three talking heads simply parroting each other’s opinions. Real discussion of an issue often means recognizing real disagreement.

3. Episode 17: Great Books and Critical Theory – For you English major types, this one discusses the differences between the Great Books movement and Literary Theory, while highlighting the positives and negatives each approach offers the Christian interested in literature (and really, all Christians should be interested in literature if you ask me).

You can see the entire audio archive at their RSS feed here. Be sure to also check out their main site here, where you can also read the accompanying blog, with its episode notes, lectionary reading reflections, and articles on various subjects of interest to Christian humanists everywhere.

This week in links: An eclectic collection of news and views from the past week or so on faith, language, and literature, as well as other topics of interest.

Ben Ehrenreich argues that, contrary to popular opinion, the Book is “not dead yet” (to borrow Monty Python’s words). The rise of digital readers doesn’t mean the end of the physical tome, he writes in an article for The Los Angeles Review of Books, noting that this isn’t the first time the book has been pronounced dead. Maybe it’s just the Easter season, but something tells me it won’t be the last either.

Nearly 2000 years since Christ was nailed to a cross, the Gospel is still violently opposed in many places across the globe. Yesterday a bomb exploded at a Catholic church in Baghdad, wounding at least four people and disrupting celebrations of Easter. See the story by BBC News. A somber reminder that though “the world was made through Him, it did not recognize Him.” And yet also an opportunity for prayer for the persecuted and persecutors alike, that the Gospel would give hope to the former and new life to the latter.

University of Toronto linguist Keren Rice has won the Killam Prize for her career-length work on the Slavey language. The award comes with a $100,000 prize, and is a lifetime accomplishment award given out to Canadian researchers. On a personal note, I studied Rice’s work on Slavey during a morphology course a few years back. Glad to see her (and linguists in general) getting some recognition for their work. See the story in The Globe and Mail.

Ashely Thorne has an interesting reflection on the innateness of morality which uses the new Jane Eyre film as its jumping off point. I haven’t seen the film yet (though I have read the book), but even if you have no prior knowledge of the story, the article is still a good read. A small ode to the idea that the law is “written on our hearts.” Read it over at The Curator.

Confessionalist and Pietist: Chances are if you come from a Reformed or Lutheran background and are a frequenter of theological blogs, you’ve heard those words a fair bit. Michael Horton (host of the White Horse Inn) has an insightful discussion of the supposed dichotomy between the two sides, arguing that “the lines between ‘pietists’ and ‘confessionalists’ are not as thick as contemporary debates often suggest.” His point? These labels are commonly more harmful than helpful.

Finally this week, a Minneapolis church gave out prizes (including a t.v. and game system) to encourage attendence at its Easter service. In an article fittingly-titled “Church embraces bribery to draw Easter audience,” The Huffington Post tells the story of The Crossing church, which has in previous years given away cars at its Easter service. Pastor Eric Dykstra explained it this way: “I have no problem bribing people with crap in order [for them?] to meet Christ.”

For your meditation this Good Friday: the 15th Antiphon for Holy Thursday as sung by Orthodox chanter Fr. Apostolos Hill.

To the Garden of Gethsemane
Follow now the Lord and his disciples.
See him in the throes of agony
As the cords of death about him tangle.
Think upon this mystery:
The pain he feels, he feels for thee.

Here, as pow’rs of darkness him surround,
Hear his double prayer to God for mercy.
See him on his face fall to the ground,
Crying, “Take this cup of anguish from me!”
Watch his sweat drip down like blood,
First trickle of the coming flood.

Yet, though overwhelmed in his distress,
Still submits he to the purpose divine.
Hear him to his Father acquiesce,
Praying, “Let thy will be done and not mine.”
In response, God’s angel nears
And gives him strength to meet his fears.

Now the traitor springs and love profanes;
Comes by night to do his master’s mission.
This is now the hour when darkness reigns –
Now, when rightful king falls to sedition.
Hear the ancient serpent’s hiss!
Oh, see the strike beneath the kiss.

Maundy Thursday, 2011
Mathew Block

This Week in Links: An eclectic collection of news and views from the past week or so on faith, language, and literature, as well as other topics of interest.

Ever wondered what its like to be a bureaucrat and a poet? The recent discovery of thousands of documents written by Walt Whitman during his work as a government clerk may shed light on the subject. Check out the details in Jennifer Howard’s “In Electric Discovery, Scholar Finds Trove of Walt Whitman Documents in National Archives” at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lutherans and Sexuality: Nearly two years after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America affirmed homosexual marraige and the ordination of practising homosexual ministers, its Canadian counterpart – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) -looks poised to take the same steps at its convention this summer. By contast, the Lutheran Church of Canada (LCC), which is also holding its national convention this summer, is expected to pass resolutions affirming the historic position of the Church on the subject of sexuality. You can read about it here at The Canadian Lutheran Online.

In another Lutheran-focused article, Robert Benne provides his take on divisions in American Lutheranism. His article “The Trials of American Lutheranism” appears in First Things, and suggests the “exiles” of the 1960s-70s theological wars in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod were instrumental in steering the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to its eventual split in 2009.

Prominent Saskatchewan poet Gary Hyland passed away just over a week ago. Hyland was instrumental in founding or helping found a number of cultural organizations, including the Saskatchewan Festival of Words and publishing house Couteau Books. He died at the age of 70 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, reports The Leader-Post.

A commentary piece for The Globe and Mail suggests that Canadian evangelical affinity for the Conservative Party is less about issues of sexuality or abortion, and instead more about the party’s defense of religious freedom (at home and abroad). Referencing a publication by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the article suggests that “the story of evangelical voting in the 2000s is not one of evangelicals flocking to the Conservatives but how the Liberal Party drove them away by mocking of Stockwell Day and making anti-evangelical statements.” By contrast, the author says, the Conservatives still enjoy “strong evangelical support because [Harper’s] party has shown that it gets evangelicals as a group, in a way that the Liberals – and much of the media – don’t.” An interesting take on the relationship between faith and politics in Canada.

In an article this past Wednesday, The Guardian tells the story of Nuumte Oote, a dying language whose last two speakers refuse to talk to each other. Like so many other langauge stories, this one seems destined to a tragic ending: previous attempts at language revitalization have petered out and died. The article – “Language at risk of dying out – the last two speakers aren’t talking” – also includes a link to UNESCO’s full list of endangered languages.

Finally this week, in Poland they recently began construction on the biggest statue of Jesus in the world. But don’t think this is a great national artistic project; from the sounds of it, the work is being done primarily by volunteers from the local town and prisoners on day release from the local jail. When asked about the reason for the statue, project founder Father Sylwester Zawadzki replied simply: “”It was Jesus’s idea: I was just the builder.” Read the full story in The Guardian‘s article “World’s biggest statue of Christ symbolizes church’s power in Poland.”

I got an email today saying comments weren’t working on the site. Apparently I made an error when I installed the reCAPTCHA plug-in a few days.  I’ve gone ahead and corrected that, so comments should be working now.