Advent in America: The Presence of Tradition

Before the president was, Jesus claims, I am. At least this is what we would hear him saying if we read the Bible like he does. Before any crown or empire, before words like “nativity” or “Christmas” ever had a real-world referent, before the spirit ever descended to the status of a feeling, God was, which is to say is. Continue reading “Advent in America: The Presence of Tradition”

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Advent in America: The Presence of Prayer

Last week I attempted to show how one “tradition” of scripture might help us bring back the sense of God’s presence in our rancorous time and place. And indeed, just as they were for that very first Advent in Bethlehem, much of the prophecies of ancient Israel continue to be of great importance for any potential appearance of God in America. To understand this scripture properly, however, is not ultimately to memorize a verse but to intuit a spirit. It was with this sense of scripture that Jesus proclaimed, along with Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa. 61:1; Lk. 4:16-21); and it is with this same sense that we might lament with Moses, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:29). Because the true “spirit of Christmas” depends upon how fully we follow “the word of the Lord”—the “word” (davar) being that concern-becoming-accomplishment of the creator toward and with and through creation. To hold to this version of scripture is not only to see God’s will in the heaven of our heads, but also to show it to the earth around us. To prepare for the coming of Christ is to make God more social than we have previously allowed.

But there is also a tradition of scripture that honors that inextricable personal dimension in us. And this is good, as the privacy of the self is both indeterminately deep and endlessly treacherous. Even as scripture works as an external witness of God’s righteousness, it also becomes an internalized representation of God’s relationality. Scripture, in its vital self-awareness, actually addresses the supposed perception of God’s presence in the mind. In its critical iconoclasm, it questions any ossifying image of the invisible. It even searches after the humanity that may hide behind the very anticipation of the divine in order that it might arrive at a profounder view of God. In other words, this sort of scripture clears the mind of false Gods just as it connects the mind more closely to the one true God. It is therefore a more private form of preparation for divine advent. Continue reading “Advent in America: The Presence of Prayer”

Advent in America: Preparing for the Presence of Scripture Today

Advent is traditionally a time of preparation for the arrival of God. Historically the sense of this arrival is threefold: in the Bible as the parent of Israel and as the person of Christ; in our lives daily; and in our world to come. Unsurprisingly, there is a certain continuity to the presence of eternity in time. The parousia is always here.

But our brains, so bound up with time and things, do not always testify to this reality. In fact, they more often than not seem not to. The God who speaks is thus a God whose words must be written down. The God who arrives also reminds. Hence, tradition.

This Advent finds much of American Christendom in a kind of twilight. There are serious concerns about the waning status of scripture in our lives—about the rise of so-called “biblical illiteracy.” Judging from the reduced form that scripture takes in so much social media—limited to cliché in garish font if it should appear at all—the “Word” often wanders in our private memories. Continue reading “Advent in America: Preparing for the Presence of Scripture Today”

The Real Life of “Santa Claus”

Today marks “Santa’s” one and only day on the Christian calendar. (At least on the Western calendar–he gets a second on the 19th in the East.) It is of course Saint Nicholas’ day. But as with any other saint’s day, it is meant to stand for that eternal day in which we always dwell, whether are awake or sleeping, helping or hurting, alive or dead. And like any Saint, he is meant to stand for the Person we might be more like, if only we were awake and alive enough to help.

The person of Saint Nicholas is certainly more like God than any human being I have met. For that he is perhaps too alien for us to fathom. Too hard for us to comfortably admire. No wonder we turned him into Santa. Continue reading “The Real Life of “Santa Claus””

Advent in America

What do Americans expect from Christmas these days? What does it really mean to them?

These questions are being asked all over the place, and not just by Hallmark movies. The claim of “That’s what Christmas is all about!” was perhaps first popularized by Charlie Brown (or rather that little saint, Linus), but it has become a strong if semiconscious impulse in our culture wars. It has become like that notorious description of pornography: we can’t define it, but we know it when we see it. In other words, Christmas has become a source of purely material provocation. Whether our reaction is excitement or scandal, we seem to relish the shared spectacle and the easy high it gives us.

This is the same vague sensational Christmas that our president has sought to promote. Continue reading “Advent in America”

Thanksgivenness

There are many verses in the Bible about being thankful. For anyone who grew up hearing scripture read out loud, the mere sound of the phrase “give thanks to the Lord” is enough to conjure up entire lines of psalm. These verses are a cause for thankfulness in themselves, as they release us from our petty worries by reminding us of profounder joys. “Give thanks to the Lord,” is the great refrain, but the praise is incomplete without the reason: “for he is good; his love endures forever.” It is for this reason that many American Christians may be still consulting them to this day. No matter the amount of falsehood or division around us, we hold onto the promise of a true and abiding love inside us.

But there is still more to thankfulness than this, and anyone who has read the Bible beyond hearing it aloud will be able to think of examples of this claim. Continue reading “Thanksgivenness”

Write the Bird: Skepticism and Knowledge in the Age of “Fake News”

“My people go into exile for lack of knowledge.” -Isaiah 5:13

“Therefore be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” –Matthew 10:16 

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I began this blog with a couple of very post-2016 intentions. One was to question the media, specifically the nature of my increasingly mediated experience—my participation in media and its effect on me even without my choice or knowledge. The other was to make my America more than Donald Trump. This last intention I attempted largely through evasion of his name, which, after all, has become such a buzzword that it drones us out of other topics. And for a time it was easy enough to explore the contradictions and deeper resources of myself and my society as I saw it by using a healthy-minded skepticism. I was able to operate under the illusion (perhaps then-useful) that I was at least on a personal level outdoing the Internet by bringing my books to it, by filling my negligent corner of cyberspace with mile-long sentences and more timeless (or merely interminable) thoughts. I was writing essays in the magnanimity of Montaigne, not blog entries with the animus of a talking head. The many platforms might be ever-flattening themselves and their users, but as for me and myself, we would fill our souls.

I was, at times, really that unrealistic.

But over the past few months I have seen what I think are the limits of my attempted healthy-mindedness. With its zero-tolerance immigration policy, I have found it no longer viable to ignore the current administration even in my meditations. And with his most recent truth-claims and –denials, I have found it impossible to avoid thinking and writing specifically about Trump. Continue reading “Write the Bird: Skepticism and Knowledge in the Age of “Fake News””

Somewhere Between Salem and Gehenna: Christian Complicity in the Immigration Crisis

Comfortability is not a word, and it is far from a theological norm. To put it otherwise, such a concept does not spring from the impassioned heart and mind of God, and it does not issue forth from any of the Name’s unsettled messengers. The word “comfort” does, but not this modern mode of being (and, one might even say, inveterate life-goal). The concept of comfortability is nonexistent in the vast majority of our truly rugged human history, so agonized and antagonized. Comfortability is, in fact, an exclusively modern first-world contrivance, and a very current idol in our country—the infinite abstraction of an earthly boon.

I should be clear from the beginning, first and foremost for myself, but no less importantly for anyone who might read this. Where I see and think and speak from, especially within the parameters of this essay, is what might be termed an overlapping of Christianity and Americanness. My relation to these two forms of identity is dynamic and plural, just as these forms themselves encompass a plurality of perspectives throughout past and current culture. But for all their flux and manyness, my Christianity and Americanness presuppose a continuity in human experience and thus an interconnectedness with other people who participate within their circles. In fact, both, to my understanding, postulate such broad and indefinite circumferences that much of church and American history, respectively, with ethics either theological or democratic, might be understood as the attempt to comprehend the many forms of humanity in a more ultimate sense, whether in their relation to eternity or to country, to God or to the entire race.

But this is also to say that there are assumptions that these forms of identity take, or rather that I take through them. In saying “Yes,” I must also sometimes say “No.” The intention with both my Christian and American “No”-sayings is not a violent severance of any and all interrelatedness, but rather a clarification of the particular dynamic within it, and thus a proper maintenance of it. To say “No” to you, to disagree, is not the same as saying you are not “you,” or even that we cannot be “we.” It means that in some effective sense you are you and I am not, and vice versa. It means that either one of us, and preferably both, can say, in fuller clarity and confidence, that we do not agree on this—whatever “this” might be. Any language that does not honor such interconnectedness bespeaks a thinking that too often leads to noetic and rhetorical homicide. There is such language today—much, too much of it—and I hope in my “Yes” I can say also say “No” to it.

In my “Yes” today I must say “No” to comfortability, because my theological resources tell me that it is vanity to escape in any static sense the experience of being uncomfortable. My Christianity tells me that in fact the embracing of truth worlds away from my own might prove the greatest blessing. And this negation-affirmation coincides with a democratic claim, proven so many times in American history (even as it has also struggled for validation), that the welcoming of the new, no matter how apparently different and strange-seeming, despite the threats of test and tension, can open up individual and collective experience toward larger, heretofore unthought-of liberties. In other words, of comfortability’s desire to stay permanently in the house, my resources tell me there is no such possibility. As an American, I am always involved in otherness. And whether I like it or not, my little Christian self is always meant to be at home with the stranger.

This is all to say that I feel deeply involved in the immigration situation happening at our borders, and I believe I am given to say something about the issue. Being an early childhood educator, my participation in recent events has greatly increased due to the specific treatment of children under the current “zero tolerance” policy of this administration, but my engagement with the stranger should have occurred no matter their age, nationality, legal status, or any other factor of identification. Being a theologically educated person, my sense of involvement has turned into a full-on call based on the scriptural rationales that certain officials have averred in defense of their aggressive, absolutist policy. Continue reading “Somewhere Between Salem and Gehenna: Christian Complicity in the Immigration Crisis”

The Met Gala 2018: Holy Stuff and Mostly Nonsense

This week I learned something new: there is such a thing as the Met Gala. And something else: there was once a cohesive, classic design movement called “the Catholic Imagination.” And something more: there is now incontrovertible, well-documented proof that there is no such thing a shame. As Tuesday made garishly evident, vanity never goes out of style.

Having lived in Manhattan for five years, I am proud to say that I have been to the Met many times, have in fact had a semi-casual acquaintance with it (and its sister up the hill, the Cloisters), and thus know how wonderful a place it is. I have even been there on a Monday (a thing anyone acquainted with the Met will know is a pretty special occasion).

So I am in no way intending to disparage or indict such an indispensable cultural institution. If my beef is with any branch, it is with the Costume Institute, which it seems claims the most responsibility for the elaborate dress-up session. But how can I fault the center responsible for generally pulling off exhibitions as culturally innocuous as “Man and the Horse: An Illustrated History of Equestrian Apparel”? Jockey’s keep mostly to the track, and “the horse” has it pretty good after its prime (my last trip to Kentucky revealed that there are such things as “horse retirement farms” (no seriously)).

Well, it seems that the Institute has finally broken its harmless streak with “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” This year the highest fashionable powers that be happened to land on a subject or theme that was almost guaranteed to offend at least some unimportant Catholics and definitely did offend at least one self-important non-Catholic. Because the event, in my eyes, was nothing less than a scandal to theological decorum (because there is such a thing, according to me).

Continue reading “The Met Gala 2018: Holy Stuff and Mostly Nonsense”

Words Incarnate

What’s the Good Word?

It is a very special revelation indeed to see that someone, in person, in the flesh, literally suspects you of evil. Something like a switch in the universe goes off, or on, and something like a reversal of the normal laws as you knew them ensues. You were up, but now you’re down. You were big, massive even, an entire cosmos unto yourself, but now you’re a pissant. Or maybe you just always thought you were average, of no particular account in the universe, and have just found out that you might be the moral equivalent of an asteroid to a small community. Call me Wormwood.

This was my experience, at least, in Alaska in the late winter of 2007, when the pilot of my skiff, an Orthodox layman (whom I shall call “Ivan” for respectful anonymity’s sake) from a remote fishing community, who had just ferried me across a little watery notch of the Kodiak archipelago, and was now slowly steering the boat into Monk’s Lagoon of Spruce Island, in a low voice asked me just what I was going to be doing here at St. Michael’s Skete. And then, because that didn’t come close enough to the mark—and, as I read it then, not being one to sin through polite indirectness or vain intimation—he came straight out and said, “You’re from the Baptist mission. You aren’t going over to evangelize the monks, are you?”

Continue reading “Words Incarnate”