Book Review: The Borders of Baptism

The Borders of Baptism: Identities, Allegiances and the Church
by Michael L. Budde

2011, Cascade Books, Eugene Oregon

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A provocative collection of essays, arguing that in practice, North American Christians understand ourselves as Canadians or Americans first, and as Christians only second.

Cover image for book "The Borders of Baptism"To accept that claim is to agree that North American Christians often end up denying in their social and political practice, the very claims of the faith they profess each Sunday. In other words, Christ is our King, as long as his claims don’t conflict with those of the nation to which we give our primary practical allegiance. As the cover image suggests, Budde is an American, and his examples and arguments are mostly from that context, but as a Canadian I think much of the book is still relevant.

As the title suggests, the book’s essays compare the respective claims and formative influence of church and state on the lives of modern western Christians. And Budde argues that, in practice, the claims of the state tend to trump those of Church for most of us.

One of the underlying premises of Budde’s work is that even we Christians tend to discern among the respective claims on our allegiance of church and state on terms that are in fact, defined by the state.

Specifically we tend to adopt the prevailing understanding that government is “public” and objective and faith is “private” and subjective. And so there must exist a “public” space into which “private” Christian claims regarding justice and morality must enter to be adjudicated. The trouble with this is that it presumes that those Christian claims are by definition partial and incomplete — hence private. And further, that somewhere out there in the “public” space, we can find a more comprehensive standard by which Christian claims can be judged. Not exactly words we would be eager to apply to the Gospel!

The usual rationale for such a public/private distinction is the mere existence of various competing claims regarding justice and morality. But for the distinction to be necessary, we must also assume it is impossible to discern any hierarchy of truth among those competing claims. Only if both are true – if there are a variety of competing claims and no way to meaningfully discern among them — does the rationale of a public/private distinction seem plausible.

But even if we accept its plausibility, what often seems to happen in practice is not so much a rational discernment among competing truth claims, but the hidden privileging of one set of claims against another. Anyone who has tried to argue for the Church’s teachings on marriage and family, for example knows that they are very often not so much argued against, as simply declared illegitimate. And this, I would suggest, because they are understood as “private” — or its virtual synonym, “religious” — convictions.

You can find a better elaborated exposition of this argument in the work of Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh, especially in his small book, Theopolitical Imagination. (And a more pointed version in this essay). But Budde provides a number of interesting case studies in these essays.

One of the most interesting comes in the chapter titled: “Whose Communion?: Globalization, Solidarity and Communion.” Here Budde cites (not uncritically, but mostly approvingly) the Post-Synodal exhortation “Ecclesia in America” written by John Paul II in 1999.

The synod from which the Pope’s exhortation flowed had the advantage of considering the place and life of the Church not merely in industrial, technological North America but also in South America. Consequently, says Budde, it focuses strongly on the bonds of solidarity that flow from our baptism. Such a focus contrasts the willingness of many Christians to fight, torture and kill other Christians, in wars and “police-actions” whose justice we seem content to have determined solely by the state. That those interests are most often put forward under the rationale of promoting justice and freedom, does not free us from the obligation to discern them in the light cast by the good news of Jesus Christ, Budde says

Ecclesia in America he continues:

“gives some understanding of how, when taken seriously, baptism and eucharist are radical processes that create a new people and new persons. By bringing into the world that which the world cannot know on its own – Christ as the ultimate gift and revelation of God – the church exists as a people gathered out of the particularities of nation and tribe, gender and race, even as it affirms whatsoever is good in the particularities of these identities and distinctions. In choosing the church to continue Christ’s work in the world – the priorities of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount … God offers the world an experiment that dares to suggest that forgiveness and reconciliation, rather than violence and exclusion, can sustain a people.” ( Budde, p. 132).

Budde is passionate in his convictions, and compelling in many of his arguments. But the practical challenge as always, is how to turn theoretical critique into Christian praxis. To do so effectively, we will need much more attention given to what we North American Christians too often assume is the unproblematic relationship between our Christian calling and our secular citizenship. Reading this book might be a worthwhile starting point.

The ipod (well Blackberry) shuffle post

After many years of not listening to the hundreds of lps and cds I collected over the years, I took the Christmas season to get much (not yet all) of it into MP3s and moved onto my phone. Hopefully I will now listen to at least some of it, in contrast to these past few years of listening to virtually none of it.

In honour of the auspicious occasion here’s a list (with my comments) on the first 10 tracks that came up when I pressed the shuffle button on my phone’s MP3 player.

I’m not bothering to list genres, presumably the descriptions and your own knowledge will offer enough info. I’m sure many of these are now available on that Apple download service which shall not be named for reasons having to do with its DRM policies. Anyway, here we go…

Cover image from Colin Davis and LSO 1966 recording of the Messiah

Colin Davis - Messiah

1. All They That See Him The Messiah: Colin Davis and the LSO (1966).
Long considered as perhaps the classic recording of this work, this was done before the “period instruments” revolution, and consequently might be a bit bigger and richer in style than some current recordings, but…. oh my! I try to return to this at least every Christmas – and it makes for good Easter listening as well.

2. Once upon a Summertime Carol Welsman: Lucky To Be Me. (1996).
Actually titled “La valse des lilas” an original composition by the Canadian Jazz/Pop singer Carol Welsman. Welsman grew up in a musical family, her grandfather and brother were/are composers, and this first album contains both original compositions and some classics, as well as lesser known but lovely pieces. In addition to this song’s French lyrics, there are also some in Portuguese — including a lovely cover of Carlos Antonio Joabim’s Girl from Ipanema.

3. Archie Menzie/Fisher’s Hornpipe MedleyWinston ‘Scotty Fitzgerald – Canada’s Outstanding Scottish Fiddler. (c. 1950′s)
We’re deep into Canadiana here. This is converted from one of my Dad’s ancient vinyl LPs. Born in 1914, Fitzgerald was an influence on generations of East Coast fiddlers, including Natalie McMaster (or more precisely on people who influenced her). This album is the real deal when it comes to Celtic fiddling. Fitzgerald never was a full-time musician, and his playing is oh-so-slightly rough technically compared to McMaster and other current players, but the rhythmic vitality of his playing on this album cannot be topped!

Cover image of Theolonious Monk's album: "Himself"

Thelonious Monk

4. I Should Care Thelonious Monk: Himself. (1957)
A solo piano rendering of this classic American Songbook tune by jazz pianist Thelonious Monk. Monk had an utterly unique, angular, rhythmically awkward (by design) piano style. He also composed a few jazz standards like Around Midnight. This solo album recorded for the Riverside label is definitely a jazz classic. Converted from vinyl but reissued.

5. I’ve Got You Under My SkinFrank Sinatra: Live in Australia 1959.
Recorded during an Australian tour, this album featured the Red Norvo Quartet as the backup band. The tune in question is a live version of the all-time Sinatra classic take from the album “Songs for Swinging Lovers”. The great Nelson Riddle arrangement from that recording is still in evidence here.

Cover image of Martha and the Muffins album "This is the Ice Age"

This is the Ice Age

6. This is the Ice Age Martha and the Muffins: This is the Ice Age. (1981)
The title track from a Martha and the Muffins album of the same name. The Album provided a very early producing credit for the now famous Daniel Lanois. It still has as little bit of the quirky humour of the Muffin’s earlier iconic single “Echo Beach”, but this album is a richer, lyrically and musically appealing confection. If you want to hear what new wave pop could be at its best buy this! This was converted from vinyl but it has been re-issued with additional tracks.

7. Boogie Stop Shuffle Charles Mingus: Mingus ah um. (1958)
Full-tilt big band jazz by Charles Mingus. Those familiar with their Latin declensions will appreciate this album’s jokey title. Mingus was a bass player and composer and a major figure in jazz history. He worked at stretching the form with through-composed pieces (though still with room for solos) while maintaining a solid grounding in 12 bar blues and 32-bar AABA tunes that provide the harmonic grounding for most jazz soloing to this day.

Cover image for John Fleagle's album: "World's Bliss: Songs of Love and Death"

World's Bliss

8. Nottamun Town John Fleagle: World’s Bliss: Songs of Love and Death. (1996)
Absolutely beautiful from begininning to end, an album of medieval songs performed on period instruments. Some with traditional melodies, some newly composed by Fleagle. I ran across this recording on magnatune.com a web site which sold cds and downloads with a “suggested” price, but which allowed you to choose how much you would pay. You could also listen to an entire album online, only caveat being that each track was followed by a little advertising blurb promoting the service. Great way to find music you might not otherwise take a chance on. I believe they now offer only a streaming subscription.

9. One for Daddy-O Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else! (1958)
This was the last album on which Miles Davis appeared as a sideman. Alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley was a member of Miles’ quintet with John Coltrane at the time of this recording. In fact, Davis takes the first solo on several of the songs. In tone and mood this album definitely evokes Davis’ classic “Kind of Blue” (on which Adderley would play.) Converted from vinyl.

10. It’s not forever Andrew Cash: Time and Place (1989)
A track from Cash’s first solo album. A member of Toronto punk/new-wave band L’Etranger in the early 1980′s, Cash put out a couple root of very good “folk/rootsy” albums in the late 80′s/ early 90′s. In the early days Cash and fellow L’Etranger groupmate Charlie Angus were loosely associated with the Toronto Catholic Worker movement (C.W. was founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York way back when.) To my knowledge he has pretty much renounced his Catholic roots — these days (2012) he’s an NDP M.P. from Toronto – but this album and the succeeding “Boomtown” are still well worth a listen. Converted from vinyl but reissued on CD.

A tale of two funeral homilies

Christianity vs. …. it’s hard to say

My own limited (but growing) experience with our Catholic faithful’s attitudes towards death and dying suggests we have our work cut out for us in combating the “new agey” understanding of spirituality, death and dying that’s everywhere in the culture around us. In other words there’s still a great need for teaching and proclaiming that our hope is in Jesus Christ. (Surprise!)

I watched the Jack Layton state funeral late this summer mostly as an exercise in what I call “discerning the culture”. Jack Layton was an icon of Canada’s self-understanding as a model “progressive” society, and I figured that his funeral would be a fine example of just how our society treats death.

I was not disappointed. The service opened with the body carried in by a cadre of RCMP officers to a choir singing the Agnus Dei. The second item on the agenda was a native Canadian chief who prayed to his ancestors to banish evil spirits from the worship space. And the inclusivity had only begun!

More relevant to my interests (especially as a newly ordained Deacon) was the funeral homily. In the end it was about what I expected, and by the fall I had consigned the whole experience to the far corners of my memory. But then I happened upon the text of Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins’ homily at the funeral mass celebrated for his predecessor Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic. The contrast between the two was stunning, and I thought worthwhile to take the time to point anyone interested to the texts of the two homilies.

I’ve quoted a couple of representative passages below, but anyone with an interest should follow the links and read the full text of these two funeral homilies, delivered weeks apart in Toronto Ontario.

Archbishop Collins at Cardinal Ambrozic’s Funeral Mass — A Christian Homily

Archbishop Collins

In his homily the Archbishop beautifully situates Cardinal Ambrozic’s life and his death within the context of his baptism, his ministry, the Eucharist and of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From many highlights I’ll pick just one:

Death reminds us all of the fragility of earthly life, and of our need to place our hope in the Lord alone, he who guides us on our pilgrimage through this vale of tears to the house of the heavenly Father. When we come together in the solemn rites of mourning of the Church, of our family of faith, we are ourselves strengthened through the Word of God, and through the Eucharist, and through our renewed awareness that when the time comes for each of us to die, we too will come before the Lord supported by the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Archbishop is a master at his craft, and this homily, in my (perhaps insufficiently humble) opinion is a model to be emulated. He reads the Cardinal’s life through the lens of the Gospel. To me that is the task at every Christian funeral. Not all of our lives will present our funeral homilist with the model of prayer, dignity in suffering and Christian charity of Cardinal Ambrozic, but we can all hope that when the time comes, we too will be blessed with a homilist capable of performing that task. Not for our sake, but for the sake of those brothers and sisters whose prayers will accompany us and for whom we ourselves will be praying as we continue our journey to the Father.

Reverend Brent Fawkes at Jack Layton’s State Funeral — A not so Christian homily
( Texts from other parts of the event are also on this page so search for the word “homily” or scroll down to the text in question. )

Reverend Fawkes is a pastor at the community church that Jack Layton and his wife apparently attended. From their web site it seems clear that they don’t see themselves as a traditional Christian denomination (“There are many paths to God and one of them is Christianity”). Without further discussion, an excerpt from his funeral homily.

Life is amazing. Every morning when you wake up a new day, a new beginning, every breath that you take, an opportunity to love and to be loved, an opportunity to go deeper spiritually. It’s not about which spiritual path you choose, it’s about choosing a spiritual path and going deeper and respecting people on various paths. It’s about learning and growing and coming together. And, ultimately, it’s about making the world a better place for those who will come after us. Yes, in life, there will be disappointments. Yes, in life, we will have the death of those close to us. And it’s about how we face those situations, those disappointments and how we get back up and where we go from there.

It certainly not without its charms, and there’s even some truth in it — but what noticeably is not in it (or the rest of the Homily) is Jesus Christ. And without Christ, without his cross and resurrection, you just don’t have Christianity. But, I fear, Reverend Fawkes’ words might nonetheless be well received in many Christian Churches. Indeed I wonder how many Catholics might also give Rev. Hawkes a cheer for: “It’s not about which spiritual path you choose, it’s about choosing a spiritual path and going deeper and respecting people on various paths.” More than a few, I suspect.

Reading these two homilies again reminds me of what a truly awesome responsibility we have been given in being ordained to proclaim the Gospel. And every homily, funeral or otherwise is another chance to continue the struggle to live up to that responsibility. St. John Chrysostom, pray for us!

Worth reading? Fourth in a series

English-speaking justice (The Josiah Wood lectures)…

by George Parkin Grant

Cover image for English Speaking Justice by George Parkin Grant

An extremely interesting and insightful book. Originally a public lecture series at a Canadian university, the book provides a kind of “genealogical” critique of the history of moral and ethical reasoning in (as the title suggests) the English-speaking world. Grant’s genealogy ultimately leads him to a discussion the 1974 Roe. V. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion. He situates the decision as the almost inevitable outcome of the errors and assumptions of the tradition of classical liberalism (Hobbes, Locke etc.) that he critiques.

(Check out the original post for the background on where these book reviews are coming from)

“There are two ways through life”

A Christian encounter with “The Tree of Life “- A film directed by Terrence Malick

I saw this film last night (July 9th). It won the Palm D’Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, and has received generally rave reviews, though some have criticized its unwieldy length, particularly the extensive purely visual sequences depicting the creation of the universe, and the evolution of life on earth.

Image of the Movie Poster for "The Tree of Life" directed by Terence Malick

The Movie Poster

As a Christian my interest was piqued by publicity and reviews discussing the film’s opposition of Nature and Grace (my capitalization). Having seen it, I would say that its thrust is better captured by the words that precede those two in the voice over narration that opens the film — “There are two ways through life”…

The film’s drama is founded on the tension between those two ways — ways of “grace” and of “nature” — as they are seen in the parents of a young boy growing up in 1950′s Texas. The film’s narrative follows the struggle within that boy between the two “ways” he sees in his parents. The father, played by Brad Pitt is the exemplar of Malick’s way of “nature” — a wannabe inventor and “self made” man, who works at the local factory, and seems to take out his life’s frustrations on his boys as he seeks to “toughen them up” so they will control their own destiny. The boys’ mother, meanwhile, is the personification of Malick’s way of grace — she sees ( and revels in ) “the glory shining through in everything”.

Monotheist? Christian? or simply mystical?

The film’s family is clearly Christian, but faith as it is explicitly spoken in the film tends to expressed as a simple “monotheism”. Not non-Christian exactly, just not explicitly Christian (as in following Jesus Christ). Not that it’s Malick’s job as a director to set out Trinitarian theology, and it certainly doesn’t hinder him in addressing the questions he’s interested in. But I know in my own life, discussing my faith, I am often tempted to say “God” when I might better say “Jesus”. There’s room for both vocabularies of course. But the extent to which this Christological elision has gone somewhat unremarked by Christian commentators on the film is interesting.

Image of 2nd movie poster for "The Tree of Life"

Movie Poster for "The Tree of Life" (2nd)

This “monotheistic” account of faith is also worth noting, since the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus is Christianity’s response (though not as some might think “solution” ) to the problem of suffering encountered by the family through the film.

Rather, the film opens with a title screen quoting God’s response to Job, namely: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth . . . when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (NRSV Job 38.4,7). Utterly true, the Christian would say, but like all things only to be fully revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

In the end Malick, ( like Job ) sides with God, but that doesn’t mean he dismisses the tough questions about life and suffering. Indeed they are the very heart of the film, of the life of its family, and of the experience of watching it. While the questions might not have solutions, Malick uses the medium of film to offer us an implicit argument for the the “way of grace” as his camera, editing and effects all try to help us see the glory shining through all things.

This mystical approach is emphasized by the relatively minimal amount of dialogue in the film. The actors have plenty to say, but we hear it mostly as one half of a dialogue whose other half — God’s word to Job, if you will — can be found mostly in the film’s images, not its words.

What Christians can learn from Malick

And while his film’s theology may not be particularly Trinitarian, Malick’s trust in “the way of grace” offers Christians a useful reminder that our world is not merely a test of our faithfulness, or of the strength of our will ( that way lies “the way of nature”) but also a glorious gift, a kind of “sacrament” of a God whose wonder our limited natures can only dimly apprehend.

Entered into with patience and an open heart, “The Tree of Life” reminds us of the truth, and strengthens us in our struggle to cling to that truth. I will close this reflection with the text of a poem that greatly reminds me of this film (as regards the “way of grace”), a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, called….

God’s Grandeur

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.