The gospel of Luke narrates the story of Jesus’ birth in greater detail than any other gospel, and it includes the account of Jesus’ parents presenting him at the Temple to be dedicated to God’s service (Lk 2:22-24), as was customary for the firstborn son of a Jewish family. Luke says they brought two turtledoves for this sacrifice.

That reference immediately reminds a modern reader of the traditional Christmas song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which says that two turtledoves are the second day’s gift. Might there be a historical connection between the scripture and the song?

Church historian Hugh D. McKellar believes there is.[1] The song didn’t appear in print until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, but McKellar has found anecdotal evidence that it was a traditional Catholic folksong in northern England well before that. He believes Catholic parents used it to teach the catechism to their children while Catholicism was banned (1559-1829). This is an intriguing possibility.

We don’t have conclusive proof of the song’s provenance, but McKellar’s explanation is consistent with the way parents use holiday symbols to anchor biblical content in the minds of their children. Christmas gifts from our parents illustrate how we receive generous gifts from our heavenly Father. Advent candles remind us that Jesus came as the light of God’s love in an otherwise dark, forbidding world. And each gift of the Twelve Days of Christmas remind us of an aspect of Jesus’ life (see McKellar’s article).

While we enjoy the pageantry and playfulness of the Christmas season, let’s be alert to the eternal truths behind it.

[1] https://www.scribd.com/document/74456918/Twelve-Days-of-Christmas

Was Jesus of Nazareth the unique physical incarnation of God? Does he now reign over creation alongside God the Father? And will he be the ultimate Judge of all humanity?

These questions frame a controversy that rages among seminary students and pastors today. It is not simply a matter of theoretical speculation, but a genuine inquiry into the core beliefs of Christianity. What we believe about Jesus is the essence of our Christian faith, so the debate isn’t merely trying to determine whether a particular position is logically sound or historically consistent. Rather, the goal is to discern what position is authentically Christian.

Even that question isn’t as simple as it seems. Christianity underwent tectonic plate shifts in the first three centuries after Jesus’ ministry, so at what point did it become what most of us would recognize as authentic Christianity?

The Gospels were written decades after Jesus spoke, so they express the beliefs of a second-century church. Shall we call that authentic Christianity? The whole New Testament canon was finalized in the fourth century; did that make it a more accurate expression of what Jesus taught? If not, which pieces of the New Testament express the original teachings of Jesus and which pieces express later teachings? (This is the central question of the Jesus Seminar.)

Western Christianity has long held that historic creeds are reliable touchstones of orthodox Christian belief. The Western church anchors its belief and practice in those creeds. (This is even true of Restorationist groups which disavow the authority of  “manmade” statements of faith.)

So when we deal with questions about the divinity of Jesus, it’s appropriate to ask what  the creeds say as well as what the New Testament says. It’s also appropriate to ask how church leaders have interpreted these biblical and creedal statements in successive generations. While we cannot know what Jesus himself said, we can know what the church has said about him. This was the faith entrusted to the Christians of past generations and now to us (see Jude 1:3).

Beliefs about Jesus of Nazareth formed the church as it is today and guided the lives of our Christian forebears. This long tradition of living our Christian convictions and earnestly attempting to articulate them is what constitutes authentic Christianity. It moves beyond what we can rationalize or speculate about God to encompass what we experience with wondering hearts.

Francis and Youth

God Is Young, by Pope Francis with Thomas Leoncini (New York: Random House, 2018).

Pope Francis justly deserves his reputation as a courageous leader of the Roman Catholic Church. Within the first decade of his pontificate, he has boldly made chinks in Catholicism’s wall of silence on the most controversial issues of our day, including homosexuality, corporate greed, and the legitimacy of women’s call to ministry. One hopes that he will have a long enough tenure and a strong enough conscience to keep chipping away at this barrier.

This new book by the pope raises such hopes. God Is Young was produced for the 2018 Synod of Young People, to “create a bridge between young and old” within the church. Cast as an interview between the pope and Italian journalist Thomas Leoncini, the book ranges over critical issues such as consumerism, addiction, and violence.

Repeatedly, the pope expresses dismay over society’s exploitation of the young. He counsels older people to treat the young with tenderness and understanding instead of assuming that they are irresponsible ne’er-do-wells.

Yet the book does not address the scandal of widespread clerical sex abuse. Surely on this occasion a courageous church leader would speak candidly about this global, decades-long victimization of youth. But such candor is not forthcoming.

To his credit, the interviewer keeps circling this subject, giving the pope repeated opportunities to deal with it. At one point, he quotes Francis as saying, “The difference between sinners and corrupt individuals is that the former recognize the sin as such and wrestle with it humbly; the later systematically elevate their way of life and sin without regretting it” (43). Aware of what the journalist has in mind, the pope responds, “Young people are pure because they have not personally experienced corruption. They are to a certain extent malleable, and this can also prove to be dangerous because they purity they have can turn into something ugly, impure, dirty, especially if they have to cope with repeated attempts at proselytism and mass conformity” (43).

Not a word about priests who have done precisely this–sexually exploited young people in the name of Christian discipleship and conformity to parish custom.

Perhaps the pontiff did not want to mar the jovial atmosphere of the Synod by dealing with this most obvious abuse of the church’s responsibility to young people in its care. But somewhere, soon, and without ambiguity Francis must call the church to confess, repent, and make restitution for its betrayal of the God who is young.

This year has brought me a series of medical setbacks so that I have great difficulty walking, and recurring pain keeps me awake at night. Strangers blithely say this sort of thing is to be expected since I’m in my late sixties, but friends try to be more encouraging. They often say they’re praying for a miracle.

So what is a miracle? And do I expect one in my situation?

Our word miracle comes from the Latin mirari, which means “to marvel” or “to be awed,” so a miracle is literally an occurrence that fills us with awe. A solar eclipse is a miracle. The migration of Monarch butterflies is a miracle. The birth of a child is a miracle.

So make no mistake: If I am relieved from pain after all these months of suffering, that will be a miracle. If I’m able to walk without a cane and climb stairs again, that will be a miracle. Regardless of whether it happens suddenly or gradually, whether physicians can explain it or not, I will be awed by the recovery. My friends will be, too. That alone will make it a bona fide miracle, and it’s well worth praying for.

However, I don’t think that a miracle is a supernatural phenomenon, in which God interrupts the normal course of events to favor chosen persons. Although the Bible describes examples of this (the parting of the Red Sea, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, etc.), we need to remember that the Bible is not simply a book of objective history  but also a book of faith stories and ethnic legends. I believe these stories of dramatic divine intervention belong to those latter categories.

Why? If God literally suspended the laws of nature to demonstrate love for certain persons, it would make the rest of what the Bible tells us about God a lie. God then would be a “respecter of persons” (contra Acts 10:34).

Such statements will annoy you if you read the Bible literally. But if you walk prayerfully with God, you know these things are true. You know what George Croly called “the patience of unanswered prayer.” When an illness or disability lingers, you know that God loves you nonetheless.

Someone gave me a subscription to Sports Illustrated for my birthday this year. This person must not know me very well because my ignorance of sport is profound. I don’t know the top-ranking team in any sport, or their current celebrities, or even the most rudimentary rules of play. (My wife Maribeth is a passionate Oklahoma football fan, and she can’t fathom how I got to be my age without knowing what a first down is.)

In fact, the only time I engage in a conversation about sports is when I’m held captive in a barber’s chair. Inevitably, the barber will be monitoring a game on radio or TV. She’ll banter with nearby patrons about what’s going on, and she’ll look expectantly to me.

I grunt. I groan. I snicker. Surely, no politician is more sensitive to the sentiment in a room than I am at that moment. Any discerning barber must notice that I contribute nothing to the conversation, beyond enthusiasm. (I have all the enthusiasm of a bobble-head doll.) So  I’m quite certain that the barber is not my benefactor.

There has been no card or e-mail from SI to tell me who to thank. In a sense, I feel like I’ve received a generous check from John Baresford Tipton, that cagey benefactor of the old TV series, “The Millionaire.” Tipton’s assistant spied on the lucky recipient to see what that person did with new-found wealth. If that’s the game here, let me save my donor the trouble: I stack the magazines on the kitchen counter, unopened, until the heap gets so large that Maribeth sweeps them into the trash.

Perhaps this person hopes to broaden my horizons. Such a noble objective that would be! I’ll grant that my reading should be more eclectic and I could certainly do without my daily diet of political commentary. But alas, my well-intentioned friend, your gift has made me none the wiser for filling out a football bracket or handicapping a golf tournament.

In your case, virtue must be its own reward, because your generosity has not created another sports fan. May there be a special place for you in the winner’s circle of life. My apologies in advance if I miss that. I’ll be holed up in a library carrel somewhere, reading a journal of theology.

 

413qb8bIfBL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Being Christian in the Twenty-First Century, by Sam Gould (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 160 pbk.

Perhaps no one is better qualified to assess the health of the American church than a layperson. Professional ministers and theologians have written a good deal on this question, but Sam Gould brings the pragmatic perspective of one who has worshiped in a wide variety of Protestant churches and now affiliates with the movement known as Progressive Christianity (more about that later).

Gould says bluntly that the American church is becoming a relic of the past. He believes it has ceded its role in society to government agencies and humanitarian organizations. Church attendance has dropped precipitously over the past three decades. As he sees it, those who continue to attend church accept its teachings uncritically, but a growing number of people reject them as irrational and superfluous. He counts himself among them.

In Being Christian in the Twenty-First Century, Gould refutes traditional teachings about the inspiration of scripture, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and the depravity of humankind. His arguments are brief and non-technical. They stake out no new positions on the theological landscape but summarize the teachings of liberal Protestantism in ways that laypersons can understand. In this respect, the book falls short of Gould’s aim to revitalize the church with a fresh perspective. These ideas have been taught in major denominations for a long time, yet this has not slowed the exodus of people from the pews.

Progressive Christianity is a loosely organized movement that describes itself as “post-liberal” in its theology. Its eight-point manifesto calls for the church to be all-inclusive, and states that faith in Jesus is “but one of many ways to experiences the Sacredness and Oneness of life.” Accordingly, Gould believes that the church’s dualism (seeing each person as “in” or “out,” “believer” or “unbeliever”) is so out of step with the eclectic spirituality of our time that no sensible person truly believes it.

This assertion is not credible. The social benefits of church affiliation are significant, but not so great that millions of Christians would live in voluntary delusion. If orthodox Christian teaching is illogical and counter-intuitive, this is not as obvious to the great majority of American Christians as Gould believes.

On the other hand, Gould justly condemns the church’s failure to champion the poor and disenfranchised of American society. This criticism is spot on. The church has been a potent force for social change over the past two millennia, and our new century cries out for its intervention again. This, rather than the failure to think uncritically about our theology, is the greatest challenge of being Christian today.

Active LifeThe Active Life, by Parker J. Palmer (New York: Jossey-Bass, 1990), 162 pbk.

Quaker educator and social activist­ Parker Palmer is best known for The Courage to Teach and other books on the vocation of an educator. He lays the groundwork for an authentically Christian understanding of vocation in one of his earliest books, The Active Life. Though nearly thirty years old, it remains in print because its insights are timeless.

Palmer believes we will be frustrated in our vocation if we try to maintain a false dichotomy between action and contemplation. He defines action as “any way that we co-create reality with other beings and with the Spirit,” while contemplation is “any way that we can unveil the illusions that masquerade as reality” (17). It is naïve to think we can allocate our time between action and contemplation because they are different facets of the same calling.

This insight came as Palmer tried to enter monastic life. Christian spirituality in the late twentieth century stressed the importance of monastic practices—especially solitude, recollection, and prayer—so Parker supposed he had to become a monk to achieve spiritual maturity. He soon realized that he didn’t have enough detachment from material concerns to devote himself to these practices. He was an activist. He could not merely be a spectator or commentator in the face of social injustice. He had to do something to combat it, even if the effort was futile.

Palmer further learned that action and contemplation are not separate compartments of an authentic Christian life, but the connected poles of a living paradox. A Christian engages in both simultaneously.

Perhaps the most helpful insight of The Active Life is its distinction between instrumental action (what we do to accomplish specific results) and expressive action (what we do to demonstrate our own gifts or viewpoints). Modern society is preoccupied with ­­­­success or failure (the goal of instrumental action), while a Christian is called to authentic personhood (the goal of expressive action).

Palmer devotes much of the book to a commentary on poems from Taoist, Hasidic, and Latin American Catholic cultures that explore the spiritual significance of vocation. Some of these comments are obviously contrived to read Palmer’s conclusions back into them. However, his discussion of Julia Esquivel’s “Threatened by Resurrection” well reveals how a poet can use irony to provoke our reflection on the deepest truths of life.

Esquivel says that when revolutionaries threaten to destroy our accustomed way of life,  they “threaten us with resurrection.” Likewise, the revolutionary impulses of an individual’s heart. When we boldly attempt to actualize the purpose for which we were created (through action), we discover  what is false in our lives (through contemplation). Those false characteristics and impulses must die, yet beyond the pain of death we find resurrection.