Monday, August 31, 2015

Contra Challies (and pro crucifix)

Tim Challies has been "Informing the Reformed" on an eponymous blog for years. I read some of his work, but because he is Calvinist and I am not, there are a handful of theological questions over which we differ. Ironically for the co-founder of a publishing company called Cruciform Press, although not for a man camped in Christianity's most iconoclastic wing, Challies has a problem with crucifixes, and what sounds like disdain for Christians who disagree with him.

In a blog post titled "Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix," Challies airs Reformation objections to the traditional Catholic depiction of Jesus on the cross. Most of his argument comes from J.L. Packer, a higher-profile theologian in his own Calvinist tradition.

From a Catholic point of view, Challies and Packer start conversations about church history at a disadvantage. Although both of them are pastors, they've allied themselves with people who rejected apostolic authority in the sixteenth century. Were they to claim that their theology has apostolic roots, their own bibles would imply otherwise, because their translations pry seven canonical books out of the Old Testament. How and why that happened -- why Protestant bibles are smaller than Catholic ones -- is a post for another day.

Packer (and Challies after him) both assert that the wording of the second commandment plainly forbids making idols out of anything. In that, they are right: The true God commands that we do not worship false gods.

The commandment does not say, however, that creating a likeness of something is an affront to the original thing, or a violation of divine law. The portraits in art museums are typically tributes to their subjects, not insults of those subjects. And then there's the Shroud of Turin: So far as I know, nothing short of a miracle explains the imprint on that fabric that has led so many to venerate it as the burial cloth of Jesus. The shroud itself is obviously not Jesus, but it appears to bear the likeness of his crucified body, and scientists cannot explain how the cloth came to have the marks it does. If, as Calvinists assert, pictures and statues of Jesus come under the ban which the second commandment imposes, then the Shroud of Turin looks remarkably like an instance of God violating His own law, which makes no sense.

Another example, this one perhaps closer to home for our Calvinist friends: Remember the gospel accounts (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) of people who try to trap Jesus into saying the wrong thing about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans? Jesus asks his questioners to produce a Roman coin. When they do, he says "Whose likeness is this, and whose inscription?" Everyone gathered around knows the answer, and the encounter famously ends with Jesus saying, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Is that not an instance of God himself using a picture to make a point? Roman emperors presumed too much, but neither Jesus nor the experts in Mosaic law who were quizzing him stomped Roman coins into the dust as violations of the second commandment.

Aside from the way it uses the second commandment as a cudgel with which to pound medieval and Renaissance art, the other problem with the argument from the  "Reformed" tradition is a logical one: a commandment that forbids bending art into the service of false gods ought not be invoked with equal fervor to condemn art that serves the true God.

Back, then, to the crucifix. If we're going to appeal to authority while speculating about whether crucifixes help or hinder Christian piety, I'll take Thomas Aquinas over J.L. Packer any day, and it was Aquinas who said that he had learned more from the crucifix than from any book this side of the bible.

Violations of the God's law are not usually cited as great helps to faith by pre-eminent Christian theologians, and so we must suppose that Calvinists either found something in scripture that Aquinas (and Jerome, and John Henry Newman, and John Paul II, and countless other faithful scholars) missed, or that the Calvinist critique is weak sauce.

Challies quotes Packer to the effect that "images dishonour God, for they obscure his glory." More specifically, these Canadian Calvinists say, "the pathos of the crucifixion obscures the glory of Christ." I wonder whether they would also have taken issue with Saint Paul for saying "I preach Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul, remember, had seen the risen Christ, and yet he seemed to think that preaching about Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the cross would do more to reveal the glory of God than to obscure it.

Paul was no wild-eyed outlier in embracing the paradox of the crucifixion, either. Anyone who claims that the crucifix "adulterates" the majesty of Jesus, or keeps the faithful from true knowledge of the risen savior, has probably never contemplated the mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of San Clemente, which dates back to A.D. 1200.

The focal point of that mosaic shows Christ on the cross, with the cross also the Tree of Life, from which a profusion of vines grows. Doves that represent the apostles perch on the beams of the cross around the figure of Jesus. The scene speaks of life rather than death, or more accurately, life through death. It's a catechism unto itself -- and it's not wrong.

Packer and Challies also assert -- as though it were a big deal -- that "images mislead us." Well, yes, they can do that. Sistine Chapel ceiling notwithstanding, we know that God the Father is not a muscular old man with snowy white hair. But Michelangelo's fresco nevertheless captures a tiny sliver of truth about the author and ground of all being. Look at the love for Adam in the Father's eyes, and the effortless power in His posture. These are truths that the skill of the artist helps reveal, especially in times and places where literacy is not widespread.

To say that images mislead is exactly like saying that analogies are imperfect. Writers do not for that reason forswear the use of analogy and metaphor. Instead, we learn the limitations of our tools, and use them to the best of our ability within those limitations.

Stained glass windows do not encompass or substitute for the beauty of pearly light and dappled clouds at sunset, but they do not detract from or "mislead" about that glory, either, because they point to and depend on it. So too with crucifixes and the amazing sacrifice that they commemorate, especially in an age that desperately needs reminding about why it makes sense to find strength in vulnerability, and how God himself did what no one else could, turning even a horrific instrument of torture into an unbreakable link between heaven and earth.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dalrymple on Falstaff

From Why We Love Falstaff:

"If we were to describe a man as deceitful, drunken, cowardly, dishonest, boastful, unscrupulous, gluttonous, vainglorious, lazy, avaricious, and selfish, we should hardly leave room in him for good qualities. No one would take it as a compliment to be described in this way, and we would avoid a person described in such a fashion. Falstaff was all those things, but probably no character in all literature is better loved. Only Don Quixote can compete; and our love of Falstaff is not despite his roguery but because of it."

Side note: More than one reviewer described Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces as "Falstaffian."

UPDATE for the curious: Theodore Dalrymple is is a British psychologist and writer well-known in some circles for his work with prisoners. Sir John Falstaff is a large and lazy knight made famous by William Shakespeare in three plays, most notably Henry IV, where he is the drinking buddy of Prince Hal (the future King Henry IV),  In fairness, Henry IV did not have Kenneth Branagh reciting a stirring speech to his troops the way Henry V in the video above did, but Shakespeare wrote about both kings.

Monday, August 24, 2015

They kept the pun

There was a riff on "blind ambition" in the title of a book review that I wrote about Ann Coulter's new work. That the editor at American Spectator Online let the pun stand is one of the reasons why I like him.

Some of the readers that web site attracts are sketchy characters with poor reading comprehension skills, but the staff seems entirely decent and competent.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Colbert quoting Tolkien is awesome

I know that adjective at the end of the blog post title deserves to be retired, but it fits better in this context than it would in many others.

Writer and comedian Stephen Colbert talked about the nature of suffering with a writer from GQ magazine (how's that for an unexpected sentence?). He made such an impression on his interviewer that the resulting cover story is surprisingly full of wisdom about how "our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it."

"Tragedy is sacred," Colbert suggests; "People's suffering is sacred."

When a man paraphrases the Incarnation that way, you listen -- or I listen, anyway. And paraphrasing the Incarnation is exactly what Colbert was doing (as he might have said, had interviewer Joel Lovell been as steeped in Catholic theology as Colbert himself is).

Do read the article to find out why Colbert says, "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened."

The benevolent spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien shows up to shed light on that statement when Colbert quotes from a letter that Tolkien wrote to a priest, because that letter contains at least one profound rhetorical question: "What punishments of God are not gifts?"

By "of God," Tolkien meant "from God." As for the question itself and the man passing it on -- Wow!

Even the timeline and sequence involved deserves grateful scrutiny: This is a literary triple play I hadn't seen coming -- Tolkien to Colbert to GQ (!). Wow again.

I can't remember the last time I read an essay that made me want to shake the hands of both interviewer and interviewee, but this piece in GQ deserves a round of loud huzzahs, and then (also, wonderfully) quiet contemplation.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Watching the elephants

I missed the early "undercard" debate, but I'm glad everybody says Carly Fiorina won that one handily.

The prime time debate was more entertaining than I had thought it would be. The winner there was Senator Ted Cruz. He was the most consistent, and arguably the best prepared. I also think Dr. Ben Carson was a surprisingly solid second.

Donald Trump came very close to embarrassing himself. He didn't quite fall over that imaginary line, but we all could see the line, and how close he was to it. As a result, he failed on temperament.

In the contretemps over massive and warrantless data gathering between Rand Paul and Chris Christie, I'd say Paul won by TKO, because Christie resorted to bluster, and tried unsuccessfully to use the 9/11 attacks as a shield for his own views.

Kasich? Meh. Rubio? Meh, except for the line about how Hillary Clinton could not possibly lecture him about living paycheck to paycheck because he was raised that way. Walker? Meh -- and he admitted as much.

I believed Jeb Bush when he said he was his own man, but he should have had a better answer for the question about whether people are right to worry about dynasties in American politics. If your dad and brother are both former presidents and you sound a little defensive when asked about that, then you're not the populist you claim to be.

Huckabee had some good lines, but not so many that he'll be memorable.

UPDATE: Friend Chuck emailed to say that he didn't think he and I watched the same debate. By way of explaining that comment, Chuck said that Trump seemed "not very much in control of himself." I agree with that, and thought I had said as much, because it's what I was getting at when I wrote that Trump "failed on temperament."

Chuck also said that he thinks Kasich and Walker came out of that debate as the candidates to watch, but I think he's wrong about that. Kasich benefited from what, for him, was "home field" advantage. Walker held his own, but his closing statement was a meandering bit about moral behavior. In fairness, the moderators probably derailed several closing speeches  by asking in a preamble to closing statements that candidates explain whether they thought they had received a "word from God" about "what they should do and take care of first."

It was an odd question and a tricky one, sent in from Facebook and perhaps designed to expose any candidate harboring some problematic combination of ego and presumed intimacy with our Creator.

But the question was posed first to Senator Ted Cruz, and his answer was masterful. "Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures," Cruz answered. "And God speaks through the Bible." Cruz then personalized the answer by describing how Christian faith rescued his father from alcoholism. He finished by pivoting gracefully from that back to politics: "I would also note that scripture tells us, 'you shall know them by their fruit.' " The verse fit: "We see lots of  'campaign conservatives,' " Cruz explained, "But if we're going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative."

Kasich offered only "I believe in miracles" pabulum in response to the same query. Walker's endorsement of moral behavior was more original, but he also agreed with an article that had called him "aggressively normal," and that can be interpreted as refreshing or as self-sabotaging. To me, it sounded timid.

I think Chuck likes Kasich and Walker because, like him, they're midwesterners.

Chuck wants to hear more about entitlement reform, which is a good idea, but you know what? Chris Christie, not a midwesterner, said more about entitlement reform than the comparatively colorless Kasich and Walker.