Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols

This year’s Chattanooga Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols will be presented by the Roueché Chorale and Orchestra on Friday, December 9 at 7:00 pm at First Baptist Church, 401 Gateway Avenue, down-town Chattanooga.  Prelude music will begin at 6:40 pm.

The only way to describe this performance is jaw dropping.  You’ll need to get there early to get a seat.

TAC Archbishop John Hepworth’s Tough Trip to the Bottom

The Catholic Church will allow him to come to Rome as a layman:

John Hepworth, the Archbishop of the Adelaide-based Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC), will be received back into the Roman Catholic Church, but only as a layman.

Sources say Hepworth was given a letter from Rome by the hand of Melbourne Archbishop Denis J. Hart. This was to have been kept quiet to allow the Archbishop a reflection period of several weeks.

VOL broke the news Tuesday in a story “PRIMATE PLUMMETS” saying that he had been denied a return to the Roman Catholic fold as a bishop or priest.

Hepworth has been the Anglican/Episcopal world’s loosest cannon, from an institutional standpoint at least, for a long time.  He’s accused Catholic priests he grew up under of sexually molesting him, and that’s certainly something that needs to be looked into.  But it doesn’t justify the years of manoeuvring that he’s engaged in to try to get the RCC to swallow the TAC whole with him as its head.  That last point is a major sticky wicket: not only did he take orders from the RCC to start with, but also he is divorced:

However, the Complementary Norms attached to Anglicanorum Coetibus are clear in (Article 6 §2): “Those who have been previously ordained in the Catholic Church and subsequently have become Anglicans may not exercise sacred ministry in the Ordinariate. Anglican clergy who are in irregular marriage situations may not be accepted for Holy Orders in the Ordinariate.”

That almost sounds like they wrote the Norms with him in mind.  Now Rome has signalled that it has had enough.  So have the people in the TAC; they’re calling for a new primate, one perhaps (or perhaps not) that could get the TAC into the Ordinariate without him being the chief obstacle.

I suspect that the RCC is trying to make Hepworth an offer he can’t refuse so they can get him out of circulation.  My advice to Hepworth: take it.  There’s life after ministerial credentials, to use the broad term.  These days it’s not hard to make an impact on the Christian world without credentials/ordination, just look at the Anglican blogosphere.  More importantly, though, your relationship with God is more important than the position you hold in the church or the colour of the shirt you wear.  Don’t blow the former for the sake of the latter, for you or anyone else.

A Couple of Things Worth Remembering About Advent

Today is the First Sunday in Advent, and along with all of the coverage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the plethora of Christmas stuff around, we’re also presented with another way of celebrating the time before the birth of Our Saviour: Advent.  The first season in the liturgical calendar, this year promises to be a special one for Roman Catholic as they, extensive preparation notwithstanding, stumble through their “new” revised liturgy.  (This happened the last time a major change took place, it’s the tradition in the RCC.)

On a more Anglican/Episcopal note, Advent is always something presented in church but not always easy to implement in our culture.  Nevertheless in recent years we’ve seen a greater consciousness of the celebration, thanks in no small measure to people like Lisa Robertson, who gave us the executive summary late last week:

Lisa has been a stalwart of the Episcopal Church for many years, both in her own family and elsewhere.  Personally I don’t think TEC is worth the trouble and have basically told her so, but the institutional loyalty the denomination of the “chosen frozen” has engendered is always an amazing thing; sadly it has carelessly squandered that more than once.

In any case, her presentation of the subject left out two things about Advent that deserve mention as we get into the season.

The first is that Advent, like Lent, was intended as a penitential season.  It’s interesting to note, as Hughes Old does in The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 2: The Patristic Age, that Lent–the penitential season par excellence–wasn’t really penitential until the church went over to infant baptism as the norm.  Before that the time leading up to Easter was the time when the catechumens were prepared for baptism and chrismation, a subject I discussed at length in my series on St. Cyril’s Catechetical lectures.  Once infant baptism became the norm, then Lent became a penitential season for everyone and not just for those becoming Christians.

The idea for Advent is that, with the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh, it is our obligation to prepare for his coming through repentance and obtaining forgiveness for our sins.  Thus, traditionally, Advent is a sombre season.  The purple colour that used to deck out every Episcopal church (until they started sneaking in blue) spoke to that penitential call; it’s the same colour used in Lent.  All of the Advent candles are purple until the end because we are supposed to be in a state of repentance until his coming, at which point we can look past a rose-coloured candle at the world.

The second thing is that Advent, while leading up to the first coming of the Saviour, also speaks about us preparing for the second.  People raised in the Episcopal Church will recall hearing Charles Wesley’s hymn Lo, he comes with clouds descending–an old Anglican favourite, and justifiably so–but in recent years Our Lord’s second coming has become such an inconvenient truth that many of us who sang it were hard pressed to understand why we were doing this so near Christmas.  (A similar analysis should be applied to the better known “Joy to the World.”)   Although Evangelicals are generally triumphalistic about the whole business, a little humility and repentance wouldn’t be a bad idea, especially since at the end “…in adoration of the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth, And that every tongue should acknowledge JESUS CHRIST as LORD–to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10, 11.)

Advent, thus, is a time which runs against many grains, both in our churches and in our society of large.  That and that alone makes it worth reviving, if not for everyone else’s benefit at least our own.

Pentecostal Biblical Studies: Is Going Back to the Source Really All That Bad?

It seems that my friends in the Pentecostal academic world have come up with another interesting link, this time to Jaques Berlinerbau’s An Afternoon With the Society for Pentecostal Studies.  It’s an opportunity for me to opine on a subject that has lurked in the background ever since my brother’s unfavourite Episcopal minister taught me Theology I  in prep school: the whole business of modern and (now) post-modern Biblical studies.

Berlinerbau put his photo on a large number of dartboards five years ago with his article “What’s Wrong with the Society of Biblical Literature?”  But he’s back to review the Pentecostal contingent of this organisation.  There’s one comment that really struck me as rather strange:

Still, none of that astonished me as much as the way that the presenters reasoned through their subject matter. Their stated remarks were devoid of nearly any reference to biblical scholarship. The speakers each built their arguments almost exclusively by citing scriptural passages in an effort to figure out what the Bible was trying to say.

This is highly unusual—the typical exegete’s research leans heavily on the findings of modern biblical scholarship and those findings are prominently integrated into the substance of the analysis.

Making this more unusual was the fact that all of the presenters had considerable training as biblical scholars. All had professional familiarity with ancient Greek and probably biblical Hebrew. A glance at their footnotes (two of the presenters handed out copies) indicates that they were, in fact, acquainted with secondary scholarly literature, especially biblical commentaries.

But that secondary literature was relegated to the backmatter. It could not, for some reason, intrude upon the presenter’s interpretation of scriptural verses. These verses were assumed to link together into a larger pattern of meaning; a meaning which constituted the truth of the Scripture and the labor of the scholar.

While grateful that a non-Pentecostal would break down and admit that we can, indeed, read, write, and complete a sentence (which is more than some other Christians can bring themselves to do) I think it strange that he would unfavourably comment on those who, rather than contenting themselves on what others said about the Bible, would actually want to find out what it said for themselves.   For all his criticisms of the SBL, in a way he’s stumbled onto the reason why the SBL–to say nothing about much contemporary Biblical scholarship–is so irrelevant both to society in general and Christians in particular.

The basic problem we have is that the Bible that is the subject of most academic Biblical criticism and the Bible as understood by Christianity’s supporters on the one hand and its detractors on the other are two entirely different books.  Academic Biblical scholarship has undermined its own reason for existence through a number of processes that have gone on for a long time, the most significant of which is source criticism.  By undermining the veracity and integrity of the Bible’s sources, they have reduced the relevance of its content.  In some ways an atheist who takes the written word at face value and attacks it has a higher value of the truth content of the Scriptures than many academic Biblical scholars do.  In the past liberal churchmen and women have relied on this approach to the content of the Bible as a foil to literal fundamentalism, but we’ve seen in recent years a switch in strategy to a more post-modern approach of “let’s admit it says X for sure but then interpret it to mean Y.”

Beyond that academic Biblical scholarship is excessively riveted to the idea that the Bible spoke first and last to its own time–that is, when they could agree what that time was (and the dating issue is always a fun one in Biblical scholarship.)  They overlook the fact that, if the Bible is only a historical book, it’s probably not worth the study put into it.  Most academic Biblical scholarship doesn’t really tell people what they need to know about the Scriptures to apply it to their current existence.  That problem is made worse by frequently weak approaches to the surrounding disciplines such as history, sociology and economics.  (An exception to that is here.)

Pentecostals understand better than just about anybody in Christianity that the Church isn’t worth much without the living presence of the Spirit, and a part of that is a Biblical exegesis that is alive.  Implicit in that idea are two things.  First, much of the academic work done on the Bible is simply in the way of its understanding, irrespective of what level of life you’re working from.  Second, although Pentecostals are usually characterised as literalists, in many ways the exegesis I hear from many Pentecostal pulpits has what used to be referred to in polite company as the sensus plenior: the Patristic idea that the inspiration of the Scriptures and the nature of the text requires an interpretation that goes beyond the immediate.  For all of their differences, academic scholars and fundamentalists agree on one principle: the only sense of the Scriptures is the one that can be narrowly drawn from the written text, even though their concept of the reliability of that text is different.  To a large extent academic Biblical scholarship has laboured to expunge the sensus plenior, and to bring it back requires the ejection of a lot of baggage.

Under these circumstances, the whole business of Biblical studies as an academic discipline is redefined, and it’s no wonder Pentecostals take a different approach to their work.

Finally I find any idea that secondary material–even if it consists of primary academic work product–should take some kind of priority in discourse is counter-intuitive.  It recalls the warning that Moses Maimonides gave to Muslim and Christian scholars many years ago:

…when they laid down their propositions, (they) did not investigate the real properties of things; first of all they considered what must be the properties of the things which should yield proof for or against a certain creed; and when this was found they asserted that the thing must be endowed with those properties; then they employed the same assertion as a proof for the identical arguments which had led to the assertion, and by which they either supported or refuted a certain opinion…Therefore when philosophers of a subsequent date studied the same writings they did not perceive the true character of the arguments; on the contrary, they found in the ancient works strong proofs and valuable support for the acceptance or rejection of certain opinions, and thus thought that, so far as religious principles were concerned, there was no necessity whatever to prove or refute any of their propositions…

On my website vulcanhammer.net, I have at the masthead the rather pretentious “…a bulwark against the creep of ignorance in geotechnical and marine engineering.”  That was based on a statement by a civil engineering professor at West Point, who lamented that “In this modern information age, it is hard to believe that important knowledge could simply vanish through disuse, but the sad fact is that it happens.”  Even in really scientific disciplines, it’s easy for important things to get lost in the layering of academic work.  Perhaps this is yet another way in which the “breath of the Spirit” can move in the church–that is, if we can avoid getting bogged down in others’ bad habits along the way.

Certified for Occupancy: Will the Re-Opening of the Palm Beach Publix be the Next “Event of the Season?”

Publix has cleared yet another hurdle in its process to re-open its Palm Beach store:

The new Palm Beach Publix was issued a conditional certificate of occupancy Wednesday from the Town’s Planning, Zoning and Building Department.

The store was inspected Tuesday and late last week.

“This essentially means that the project is substantially complete,” said Bill Bucklew of the Planning, Zoning and Building Department. “It allows Publix employees and vendors to get inside the store and begin the stocking process.”

Readers of this blog will remember my Christmas piece The Event of the Season, which described the opening of the original Palm Beach Publix in 1971.  I still find it amazing that a chain supermarket can make such a splash in an elite place such as Palm Beach, but that’s the moral to the whole story:

The first lesson from this is that, no matter how much money you have, saving it is important. In a nation which loves to “flash the cash” or worse the credit, this bears repeating. If people in Palm Beach like to save money, you should too.

Second, some of the most important things in life are the most ordinary. Amidst the ritzy charity balls and celebrity events that mark the season in Palm Beach, the opening of a grocery store made an enormous impact.

That’s the way it is with Christmas and the Incarnation. Jesus Christ came in very ordinary circumstances, born of a mother whose family had come down a long way from the time when they were kings of Judah and Israel. After escaping Herod’s attempt to eliminate him as a power challenger, he grew up in Nazareth, than and now not a place associated with the elites of this world. “’Foxes have holes,’ answered Jesus, ‘and wild birds their roosting-places, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,’” (Matthew 8:20) characterised his life, and after being executed between criminals he was laid to rest in a borrowed tomb.

But the ordinary became the extraordinary when he ended his rest and rose from the dead, making it possible for us to do the same and to have eternal life. Like the opening of the Publix in Palm Beach, the whole history of Jesus Christ–his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return–is the “event of the season,” but in this case the season is human history. We are a part of that history and can be a part of its greatest event by not being ripped off by the Devil and by accepting the free gift of eternal life which only Jesus Christ can give.

The re-opening of the Palm Beach Publix is 19 December 2011, just in time for us to celebrate the incarnation.

“Extreme events induced by man:” the new euphemism for acts of terror

While digging through my email, I could not help but notice this, from the promotion of a new publication by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO):

New and extensively researched, Bridge Security Guidelines offers guidance on bridge design for extreme events induced by man. This document provides the designer with information on the response of concrete bridge columns subjected to blast loads as well as blast-resistant design and detailing guidelines and analytical models of blast load distribution.

Although this is an important topic, there are many “extreme events induced by man” wrought on bridges and other transportation related structures, including impact by wayward ships.  But I guess our bureaucrashpere holds the whole concept of “terrorism” in such dread (following the lead of the Chief Bureaucrat) that they don’t like to mention the word in polite company.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that AASHTO is a tireless advocate for getting our transportation infrastructure upgraded, and that’s certainly needful these days.

Baptists: the “One Way Calvinists” Split Over Making It a Two-Way Street

George Conger documents the growing split in the Southern Baptist Convention over the adoption of Calvinism:

The question of Calvinism is one of the major challenges facing American Christianity today, a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) said last month.

In an 18 October 2011 interview posted on the website of SBC Today, the Rev Frank Page, the chief executive of the SBC executive committee said “one of the issues which is a tremendous challenge for us is the theological divide of Calvinism and non-Calvinism.

“Everyone is aware of this, but few want to talk about this in public,” said Dr Page, who served from 2006-2008 as president of the SBC – America’s largest Protestant denomination and second largest religious group after the Roman Catholic Church.

Looking at this theologically, the issue isn’t whether Southern Baptists want to be Calvinists at all but whether they want to be Calvinists in full.

From a practical side, there are two parts of Calvinism: election and perseverance.  True Calvinists have always taught that both are irrevocable and immutable acts of God in the life of every believer.  Southern Baptists, however, have traditionally rejected Calvinistic election but have embraced Calvinistic perseverance, as any Methodist or Pentecostal will attest.  Where the debate is centred these days is on whether to adopt Calvinistic election, which would radically alter the dynamic of Baptist evangelism and outreach.  Thus, the “one way Calvinists” are now being challenged within their own ranks to go all the way with the system.

As Conger’s article points out, new seminarians are more likely to embrace complete Calvinism (“TULIP”).  This is because Calvinism is generally the most intellectually respectable position in Protestant seminaries, and is getting into churches far more Arminian than Baptist ones.  This respectability is only a sign of the weakness of the current state of Protestant theology.

Baptists are right to want to eliminate their current theological incongruity of election and perseverance, but Calvinism is the wrong way to do it.

Reply to Brian McLaren: If Church is the Problem, Maybe We Should Get Rid of It

I have to confess that Brian McLaren’s piece Seminary Is Not the Problem — the Church Is is one of the most curious pieces I have ever read.  It’s not often that an academic (?) so baldly proclaims that the “real world” is so deficient that it should be remoulded to follow the academic one but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

My own career spans both the commercial and ecclesiastical worlds, and some (current) academic experience to boot.  It’s hard to know where to start to respond to such a thesis, but let me start here: if I were to get up and proclaim to my peers that the civil engineering practice and its practitioners were so hopelessly philistine that the entire profession should be overturned to be more like engineering schools, I would be laughed out of the room.

In my profession, the whole point of education is to prepare men and women for an effective career designing and bringing to reality things that ultimately are safe and useful to the public.  Academia is an important anchor in the scheme of things but ultimately it’s the work product of those who come out of our institutions of learning that defines our profession to the public and ourselves.  And that largely takes place outside of the halls of ivy (or kudzu in this part of the country.)  Academia’s role is best when it serves the world around it, which is the best form of leadership.  (I wonder where the idea of leading by serving comes from…)

There are always those who do best in an academic environment.  But to say that the church world is so dull that it needs to be more like seminary (and anyone who’s been around academia of any kind knows that we carry our sinful nature there, too) has put the cart before the horse.

Taking McLaren’s sweeping generalisations for what they’re worth, there’s one statement that has a ring of truth:

It may sound harsh for me to say, but I think it is unethical to send gifted, idealistic, and high-potential young leaders into intractable, dysfunctional congregations that will grind them up, disillusion them, and damage them for life.

Most churches are unsuited for the ministers that our seminaries produce.  But he needs to be careful in making that proclamation: if Evangelical Christianity had a stronger system of lay discipleship, many of our ministers would be redundant.  If that ever happened, our seminaries would be in serious trouble, because it would fundamentally challenge the whole ministry paradigm that is their raison d’être.

McLaren’s solution would get rid of church as we largely know it.  He needs to be careful: he many end up getting rid of seminary as we know it too, if some of us get to take things to their logical conclusion.

HT to Regent University’s Kim Alexander for putting me on to this.