Monday, March 15, 2010

Easter Theobabble

Along with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Presiding Bishop (in her role as Chief Pastor of the Episcopal Church [USA]) issues an annual "Easter message." They have been remarkable, to say the least, by way of contrast with those which issue from Rome and Canterbury.

This latest product has to be one of the most alien messages ever imparted at Eastertide -- since the very first Easter marked the commencement of the Christian church. Those first Christians who struggled to understand the significance of the empty tomb were very lucky that they did not have to try to assimilate those events through the eyes of the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (USA).

Herewith is her 2010 Easter "message", which for the most part must stand on its own. A Christian must hold himself back from any but the most penetrating questions and comments (but one has to wonder whether the prayer "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in Thy sight . . ." is ever uttered at 815 Second Avenue).
Easter 2010

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.
—Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16

The Diocese of Haiti has observed Lent in a very different way this year.
Is that to say that when one has been deprived by an earthquake of basic food, water and shelter, that one has decided to "observe Lent" by going without those things? I could scarcely imagine a more condescending start to an Easter message than by drawing attention to the plight of the earthquake victims in Haiti, and using that plight as a platform for one's platitudes. Perhaps the author will be so kind as to explain just what she intends to say.
When Bishop Duracin and I spoke just before Ash Wednesday, we talked about how this year would be different.
"Different?" Would that be, perhaps, an understatement (for Haiti, at least)?
He noted that the people of Haiti would need to practice saying Alleluia, so that when Easter came they could enter in with joy.
Ah, I see. It is not the giving up of basic necessities that will mark the celebration of Lent in Haiti this year, but their need, in the midst of their deprivation, to practice saying the "Alleluia" which heralds the onset of Easter. Somehow I do not think that the author of these remarks is on the same track as Bishop Duracin, but let us continue, and see if this is the case.
In the midst of grief and darkness, it can be exceedingly difficult to believe that resurrection is a possibility.
Resurrection a possibility? Only a possibility? And to those who have just suffered total devastation, you offer only the possibility of the Resurrection? Listen -- please listen, for heaven's sake -- to the words of St. Paul:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.
What follows is the very inversion of faith: it turns out that the Presiding Bishop is speaking of man's own ability to bring about what she is calling "resurrection" (note the lower case "r", and the absence of the definite article). Apparently God -- let alone Jesus Christ, whom she has not seen fit to mention yet -- has no role to play in Easter; it is all up to man (and hence the talk of resurrection being only a "possibility"?):
Nora Gallagher makes a similar point in her book, "Practicing Resurrection."

We are not born with the ability to insist on resurrection everywhere we turn.
No ability to "insist on resurrection everywhere we turn"? We, fallen humans shot through with sin, may nevertheless insist on resurrection -- but when we are born, only in certain aspects? Does that mean that our goal as fallen humans is to reach the point where we can insist on our resurrection no matter where we turn?

This theology -- if that is what it is -- makes absolutely no sense to this Christian. But perhaps it gets clearer as we go on.
It takes the discipline and repetition that forms an athlete – in this case, a spiritually fit Christian. We practice our faith because we must – it withers and atrophies unless it's stretched. We must continue to give evidence of the faith that is within us.

Easter prods and provokes us with an immense stretching exercise.
Somehow I sense that "practicing resurrection" does not mean exercising one's faith until one can "insist" on one's "resurrection." But one would not learn that from this pastor. To her, Easter is just a matter of gymnastics, of getting into shape. (But I thought that was the purpose of Lent? This is all so confusing.)
God has renewed a life given to the evil of this world on behalf of those with no other helper. That earth-shattering and tomb-shattering rebirth has planted the seeds of hope in each one of us. Yet those seeds do not produce fruit without struggle.
"God has renewed a life" ?! And Whose life might that be? (No, we cannot mention His name yet.) What is worse, how does Jesus Christ give His life "to the evil of this world"? I thought Christ came to save sinners, not to dedicate His life to their fallen lifestyle.

But in today's Church, that is what is claimed all around us: Christ was "welcoming, and all-inclusive. He rejected no one." Thus is His message transmuted from a call to a repentance to an affirmation of one's chosen lifestyle. In the words of J. Gresham Machen, "the Church today is engaged in an almost impossible task: she is busily engaged in calling the righteous to repentance." To continue:
The people of Haiti are finding new life in the midst of death and struggle. As a nation and a people they have repeatedly practiced resurrection through centuries of slavery, oppression, invasion, corruption, and privation. The joy of their art forms – music and painting in particular – gives evidence of the hope that is within them as a people.
So now we have gone from a message about what Easter means (not!) to Christians to a discourse on the Haitians "as a people"? As a people, they have practiced what the author earlier called "resurrection"? So "resurrection," for the Haitians, does not have anything to do with Christianity's Easter message, but instead with pulling yourself up out of "slavery, oppression, invasion, corruption and privation"? Have I lost the thread here?
They know, deep in their cultural DNA, that God is continually bringing new life out of death.
Wait a minute -- God is now back in the picture again. But is this the scientist speaking, or the chief pastor and primate of the Episcopal Church (USA)? The Haitians know God -- not through the efforts of the many missionaries who brought them Christianity, but through their inherent "cultural DNA"? (Then what good did it do to bring the Gospel to them, if they had it in their DNA already?)
Yet each person must discover and nurture that hope. It is made far easier in community.

The shared hope of a community is essential. Most human beings cannot long survive the evil and death of solitary confinement or a concentration camp. It is the shared sense of suffering and the shared nurture of even tiny embers of hope that offers life. The greatest cruelty of places like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib is the removal and destruction of such hope. The absence or disconnection from other people as sources of hope leads to suicide and even that mysterious ailment in young children called "failure to thrive."
Good grief. Good grief!

Guantanamo -- and Abu Ghraib!? These totemic and thoroughly political shibboleths -- in an Easter message? So now George Bush is to pay the price for our sins -- and pay again? While the poor prisoners confined in those shameful places are deprived of their hope of destroying the Great Satan? (Notice: still no mention yet of Jesus. No, one has to bash Bush and America first -- that is much more important in an Easter message.)
The Christian community is about shared hope in resurrection.
No, the Christian community is not about "shared hope in [lower-case, generic] resurrection," Bishop Katharine. The Christian community is all about the shared faith that comes through knowledge of the Resurrection -- Christ's Resurrection! Please go back and read your St. Paul until you can get that right.
The citation at the head of this article first buoyed hope among a people exiled in a foreign land, without the support of familiar leaders or places of worship. That people developed a community that could practice its faith in a strange land, insisting that God was present among them even in exile.
Wait a minute -- did she just say that Isaiah somehow managed to offer comfort (through his words that "buoyed hope") to the Jews in Egypt? We have gone in the blink of an eye from making the Easter message of Christianity a generic one to Isaiah as Back-in-Time Traveler.

Even as typology, it will not do to have Isaiah pointing the way to the Israelites in Egypt. This has to represent some new nadir in current theology. But from here, I regret to say that it all goes further downhill -- rather rapidly. For only now do we get around to mentioning the role of our Savior in Easter -- and what a role it is!
Jesus insists that that light is present even in the midst of Roman oppression, and that he will gather a community to remember that light and practice seeing and discovering it.
Thus, according to the chief pastor, Jesus calls on us as Christians to "remember" a light that we have to "discover". That is the essence of His message, all right. Instead of others discovering His light through us -- "let your light so shine forth . . . " -- we have to practice, as a community, to see and remember on our own -- with no help from the Holy Spirit, evidently -- that which we (think we can) call our faith. (Remember, it's only a "possibility" of [generic] resurrection. We're just not sure.) What we have to do is hope:
The Christian community is meant to be a mutual hope society, with each one offering courage to another whose hope has waned, insisting that even in the darkest of night, new life is being prepared.
And how, given that description, does life under Christ differ from life under Obama? I guess only time (and the Holy Spirit) will tell.
That work is constant – it will not end until the end of all things. And still the community persists, year in and year out, in time of earthquake and war and flood, in time of joy and new birth and discovery. Together we can shout, "Alleluia, he is risen! Indeed, he is risen, Alleluia!" even when some among us are not quite so confident as others.
Do we have a case of projection here? Is it possible that Bishop Katharine is "not quite so confident as others"?
For indeed, the body of Christ is rising and risen when even a small part of it can rejoice and insist that God is renewing the face of the earth and light has dawned upon us.
The "body of Christ" is likened not unto the Bread of Life, but to bread dough? It is both "rising" and risen? Do we punch it down and let it rise again? If it is still rising, when do we say it has risen enough?
Alleluia! Keep practicing that joyful shout. Someone needs to hear its truth. Alleluia!
Yes, just practice it -- because if this had been a real Easter, you would have been given instructions, and told where to go, and what to do. Meanwhile, you never know -- so stay on the watch. Somewhere out there, someone (but certainly not us Christians, mind you -- that would be in poor taste, and might cause offense) needs to hear about Easter.
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop Chief Pastor
The Episcopal Church [USA]


  1. While not attempting to laud the Easter message as a whole, I think it is possible that the reference to "exile" is intended to evoke the Babylonian captivity rather than the Egyptian; whether connecting Isaiah's words with the subsequent captivity makes sense is at least arguable rather than laughable.

    On the whole, though, I'm not so sure that this little gem is "theobabble". It does seem fairly coherent when viewed from a Gnostic perspective, which in my view fits the overall trend of Western Christianity and of ECUSA in particular.

  2. chrylis, as a reference to the Jews exiled in Babylon, the “people walking in darkness [who] have seen a great light” makes even less sense to me. Even Matthew, in quoting the passage, puts it in context to refer to the area north of Galilee, to which Isaiah refers in v. 1. But it was the people in the southern kingdom who were exiled to Babylon; they would hardly draw hope from, or even see the relevance of, a prophecy pertaining to God’s Messiah bringing light to the “Galilee of the Gentiles”.

  3. I agree that this qualifies as "Theobabble" udern the subcategory of "Episcobabble" or "EpiscoBabel."

    I just hope I never see this is the form of a bulletin insert.

    Easter as a "stretching exercise," I am shaking my head at that one; at least she is stretching my neck muscles. Easter yoga, welcome the Sun!

  4. Oh, I agree that the reference is poorly chosen; it's simply that I do see in the PB's words and actions over several years a theological and philosophical consistency rather than an incomprehensible mush. I disagree with it strongly, but her worldview does seem to have an internal consistency.

  5. UP, I'm afraid your worst fears are about to become true. According to the main link (to the PB's "message"), the bulletin inserts for Easter will contain the verbatim text of the PB's Easter screed.

    chrylis, you are welcome to your perception of a thread of consistency; I would be the last to wish to deprive you of it. What I am lamenting is the PB's inability to articulate it in a way that would relate to orthodox Christians of every stripe, and not just to those of extraordinary abilities.

  6. My apologies if I've given the impression that I believe that the PB's apparent beliefs are either orthodox or spiritually beneficial to Christians or anyone else. It simply seems that (in a very similar vein to the legal filings in the diocesan suit) the PB is consistently expressing an opinion that would make sense did not reality intervene.

    (As an aside, I'd also like to thank you for your clear and meticulous analysis of ECUSA's legal and theological wanderings of late. If this branch of the Church is going to pursue such enterprises, it's best to keep well-informed even--especially--for those of us who believe her mistaken.)

  7. *sigh* . . . I too thought the reference was to Babylon, which would be in keeping with the 'deutero-Isaiah' theory. But then I remembered that 'deutero-Isaiah' generally isn't held to begin until chapter 40. Apparently the PB can't even get it right when doing liberal criticism.

  8. I have always thought the Isaiah quote was a Christmas message of hope to a world in darkness.

    For the PB to use it as a metaphor of hope to the exiles in Babylon makes it even worse.

    Typical Jefferts Schori twisting of Scripture to suit her ideology.

  9. Instead of "Christ is Risen", it's now "Christ may or may not be Risen." INDEED!