Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rhythm of the Week

It's nearly impossible for me to do anything productive on the weekend. My body seems to be programed with a circadian rhythm that is sensitive to the magnetism of Saturday and Sunday. No matter how hard core I can go during the week, replicating even a fraction of that effort on a weekend day takes a Herculean feat of willpower. I have issues dieting, exercising, and especially reading and writing anything academic. For now I cannot tell if I should exert some effort in overcoming this block, or whether it is not instead a gift of sorts. God telling me that if he worked at a 6:1 ratio, humans were meant to be least as relaxed.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A simple problem that I cannot solve

One of the more difficult tasks facing inherent idealists such as myself is to what extent our faith groups must accommodate the cultures in which they reside.

There is a strange negative reciprocity within faith groups on how to do meaningful ministry in a culture that most regard as hostile towards basic Christian morals. On the one end you have the accommodationists, who can run the gammut from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Both of them share the same basic idea, however different they may appear. They both buy into the model that says worship styles and ethical understandings are highly inculturated, and must be so, both for the attraction of new membership, and also for easing the transition between internal and external identity. They both tap into the same need to engage the culture on its own terms, and accept whichever of a couple of options we find ourselves left with. In this respect, they're very much in line with the two-party American political system.

Then there are the outcasts. I suppose my little Orthodox crew has to be considered as one of these as much as anyone. We tend to view that our culture is itself the problem, and conversion into our ranks is simply assumed to be a culutral change (or at least the choice of a distinctive subculture), and it is also assumed that some of our cornerstone teachings are too transcendent to be compromised. Indeed we tend to feel that any tweaking of the way we do this is a step in the wrong direction, as it threatens the intricate complex of interlocking self-definitions that make us distinct. For example, Baptist feel free to scrap whole forms of worship when they are deemed "not relevant" to youth, whereas most Orthodox pop gaskets if you propose even modest liturgical shifts.

So I find myself in this quandry. What is the balance? Should the particulars of worship forms and wording of dogmatic formulae be considered "packaging" that must shift in time and place, or is it true that shifts automatically represent a subtle departure that indirectly affect a longstanding ethos that has been responsible for creating those particulars. Can a non-Eastern liturgy really say the same thing? Must the spoon give way to the wafer, the wine to grape juice, and the daily repetition of set prayers to more emotive impromptus? Can the relatively simplistic "praise and worship" music of today truly touch the depths of spirituality of hymns that have been reviewed for hundreds of years for their precision and cyclic "feel" within a coherent cycle of worship?

Obviously I have chosen what I prefer, but I cannot help but look at those I consider very deep Christians who seem to have gotten there by other means. I also cannot help but look at those around me and wonder if the treasures I have found in accepting an alien brand of my faith can be meaningfully imparted in Greco-Roman clothing? Can I really see farmers in small town Arkansas ever coming en masse to be at home with methods and allusions that are not the creations of their forefathers? Or must I meet them "where they are"? And if so, what must be compromised to journey there with them?

It's a simple quandry, but one that I am completely unable to solve.

Friday, July 04, 2008

On the priesthood of believers

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of
darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you
are God’s people;once you had not received mercy, but now you have received
mercy. Live as Servants of God. Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to
abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct
yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as
evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to
judge. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

I was reading this verse today and thinking on a book I have been reading (The Omnivore's Dilemma) along with many other sources of input I've had as of late. Most of these sources have to do with our consumerism, both at the financial and cultural/personal levels.

It's difficult when you realize just how engrossed we are in consumerism; difficult on the soul. At least for me, there's a sense of anguish about the whole system. Must we be resigned to living in a cultural structure that is foundationally built on the peddling of unneeded, often unwanted, and even more often harmful goods?

As is often the case in such ponderings, one must eventually devlove the nucleus of an answer around some excellent advice from Fr. Hopko: "Try and think of the solution that involves as much of yourself as possible." That is to say, try and think of which form of solution you can affect the most by a change in yourself, and let the macro-problem fall where it may.

The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that Christianity is not a majority religion. It cannot be. Indeed, the life of a Christian is far less fulfilled when they are lured into believing that they live among a "majority Christian people." Such thinking perverts the point made by Peter from a responsibility into a right (specifically a bragging right). A person believing that they are a Christian person living among a Christian nation believes that Peter is speaking about a group right that they, and those around them with similar identity, inherently possess: We are God's people, therefore he loves us more.

Conversely, if you take my starting point, that Christianity is always a minority faith, even among a "churched" people, then the verse becomes one of resistance, intended primarily to be read by an embattled minority who understands themselves as an ALTERNATIVE to the world around them.

But what does it mean to be not only the nation of God, but specifically a nation of "priests"?

I believe the point lies in appreciating the role of the priest in Jewish understanding. The priest is not simply an interpreter of the Law - a role far more specified to the rabbis. A priest is essentially one who sacrifices on behalf of all the people. To be a priest is by definition to be "set apart", and one cannot be set apart if one is part of the mainstream. Indeed, the moral law given by God to govern the Jewish people was a much smaller than the elaborate laws given only to the priests. One could say, at risk of extreme simplification, that the book of Leviticus is a book of laws given over entirely to the specifics of being a priest-within-a-people; one who is set apart for special behavior, even among those who are ruled by God's law.

Practically speaking, this means that Christians are called to live in opposition to norms of the culture around them. Now this is not a culturally elitist point. All cultures (to my knowledge) contain both baptizable and irredeemable aspects. "Christian culture" is in fact a perpetual subculture of the few who have been truly transformed by God's love and sacrifice (God's priesthood, if you will). The paradigm of this love is the one who sacrificed himself for an unappreciative majority. He wished to save those who wished to kill him.

This last point cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Christians cannot realistically expect that people will come around, or at least not until they've gotten in their lashes on the backs of those who would try to save them. Druggies will not thank you for taking the crack pipe at the height of their habit, though they may retrospectively fight the habit for the honored love of a friend lost trying to save them. I believe the same basic logic works for people in general. The priests will initially be feared and loathed, precisely because they represent an uncomfortable alternative. They have chosen to put themselves under the stricter law; the harsher requirements.

And here I differ entirely with the Reformers. While we can all agree that one cannot "work their way into heaven" in such brutish form, I also think the wording of this passage excludes the possibility that our actions and virtues do not matter, or are not expected to be exceptional "among the Gentiles" - which is default for "nonbelievers". At some level Christians are called to model this alternative priestly life that they preach. We are not only to follow Christ, but to model Christ, in whatever broken form we can muster. Ultimately, the gentiles will not be drawn to something unless they can first say with some certainty "these people do represent something different from myself and what is commonly around me."

But what is around us? Honestly we can come up with plenty. But given my current readings and reflections, I think we are obliged to call out one of the strongest demons who we do combat with on a daily basis - Consumerism. This is the force that tries to control us by offering excessive bounties of goods. And I don't just mean STUFF. I mean those forces that try to commodify and secularize our very minds. I mean especially those forces that try and convince us that there is no unseen reality, and that our actions only have the consequences that we can measure in numbers and feel in physical and psychological damage. In short, Consumerism is the devil that tries to convince us that all of human interaction is easily categorized as a DEAL or a BARGAIN. That there is nothing sacred in life except sticking to promises we shake on with the contingencies we built into them. I can't think of anything that says "letter of the law and not the spirit" quite like this business model of living with others who we are supposed to treat as sacred vessels of God's creation.

Again I say, this demonic force is so large that its strongest power is in its sheer vastness. Nearly everything from the music we listen to, to the movies we watch, and the foods we buy, are tainted with its influence. Even our casual notions of "romance" are, on closer inspection, just creations of the demons of sales and marketing.

Take for example our expectant zenith of courtship - the diamond ring. Did you buy your wife a diamond ring? Don't think that has roots in consumerism? Look it up. Read on the history. We've been sold a bill of goods. It wasn't even a tradition until De Beers told us that it was, while at the same time sentencing the center of a continent to virtual slavery to provide our blood-soaked romantic baubles.

Before we can truly live lives differently from what is around us, we must first be aware of what it is that is around us. Be aware of where our food comes from, what our laws are based on, and generally we must become a more reflective people. Perhaps at the end of the day the fight against Consumerism starts with an understanding of how entranced we are by the aural culture and its neophilia. Perhaps being a nation of priests will only begin when we can first get some idea of what is profane, so that we might promote something sacred in its place.

But don't expect thanks. Questioning a lazily contented peoples' modus operandi, even at the level of something seemingly simply like a recent tradition manifested in a courtship bauble, is an invitation to harm. An apathetic pig with a full gut will tusk you for touching its trough of intoxicating slop, just as surely as a starving man will fight to the death for a morsel of grain. The sacrifice must be made with full appreciation that the majority will not love you for it, and will do unto you as it did unto your master, whom they hated first.