St. John the Almsgiver, 2017

    1. Obviously, these prophets didn’t understand
    2. Contemning “thoughts and prayers”
    3. The last idol still standing
    4. Historical Ignorance, Moral Arrogance
    5. Absolute passion, utter fragility
    6. John the Merciful

1

Centuries before the birth of Christ, the tiny and vulnerable kingdom of Judah faced an existential threat from the Assyrian empire. The prophet Isaiah’s message to the Judean king, Hezekiah, was clear: Trust God for your salvation. He alone can and will protect his people. The demand for trust was so absolute that Isaiah unequivocally condemned any quest for a military alliance for protection. His words echo through the ages:

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord.

Consider the challenge here: A king is told to shun a military alliance with a pagan power and to face death and destruction alone, trusting solely in God’s deliverance. I never forgot the lesson. I remembered the admonitions of Sunday-school teachers, my Bible professors at college, and my pastors: Christians, never forget, our ultimate hope is in the Lord. Be wary of an alliance with evil, even when the need seems overwhelming.

Obviously, these fools didn’t understand the importance of electing a junior senator from Alabama to fill out a partial term of office. Sure, Hezekiah faced the Assyrians, but by golly we face Doug Jones. We’ve got no choice but to ally with a dangerous, unfit man — a man who proclaims Christianity while systematically violating the law, seeks to deny the most basic civil rights to his fellow citizens, and now faces heavily sourced and corroborated claims of past sexual misconduct with minors.

(David French, who has become a serious and very hard-working pundit of very high integrity—easily the best reason for a National Review tab in my browser)

2

What does it mean when a political leader says that the nation’s “thoughts and prayers” are with those who are in sorrow and grief? It could mean nothing. Or even worse than nothing, the words could be evasive and misleading, covering political irresponsibility or conveying no more than empty sentiment. “Thoughts and prayers” could be a quick way of moving on without meaning to do anything.

Or it could be an expression of what is called “civil religion,” the common spiritual language of the American people. Robert Bellah, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, famously argued that “every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not.” Some critics clearly do not like it. Nevertheless, expressions of civil religion are necessary for a president of the United States — any president — who must lead the nation as mourner in chief.

To the deeply committed Christian, civil religion is far too little in terms of theological content. To the atheist or agnostic, civil religion is far too theological. Thoughts might be okay. Prayers are a step too far.

To millions of Christians in the nation, saying that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the needy, the hurting and the sorrowful comes as naturally as our own requests for prayer. Praying is not a way of avoiding responsibility, but of affirming it. Prayer is not escapism. It is obedience to Christ and following the example of the apostles.

When we say our “thoughts and prayers” are with them, we are not washing our hands of duty; we are expressing our heartfelt urgency to pray. We are affirming the power of God to save, to heal and to comfort. We are praying for human agents, doctors and first responders, friends and neighbors, to do what we cannot, prompted by the leading of God.

(Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the Washington Post)

I think that’s a pretty fair statement.

Now a question to the other side: What does it mean when a political leader says that the nation’s “thoughts and prayers” are worthless?

3

Let me begin with a confession. I spent almost a half century producing pop culture, mostly for television. This admission is an act of penance but also suggests a degree of generational responsibility … I want to offer some observations based on personal experience as to what pop culture means and its long-lasting effects.

I will dispense with my long-honed theatrical skills and blow the ending of my story up front. The key to understanding modernity and its ultimate demise lies in the many failed efforts to find replacements for religious faith. These efforts included creating identities based on nationality, class, and race as well as utopian ideologies. But it was the mass media fostering a “pop culture” that was the most influential and powerful substitute for a meaningful worldview. It remains perhaps the last idol still standing.

I am impressed by the many brilliant analyses of Hamlet, Odysseus, and Huckleberry Finn, particularly considering that they are fictional characters. They were fascinating but never existed. Similarly, I’m impressed with equally insightful studies of American popular culture, because it, too, never existed. Popular culture was never popular nor a culture.

So let’s examine the terms. “Popular” suggests something enjoyed by, if not derived from, ordinary people themselves. This stands in contrast to classical or high culture and implies less stringent standards of judgment.So far, so good. There is no doubt that mass media products were enjoyed by millions and still are. So when I claim that pop culture isn’t genuinely popular, I mean only that it is not derived from the natural or organic way of life of a people. It is a synthetic industrial product. Nor can “popular” be justified by mere scale and quantity. Plagues are vast, and heroin isn’t as popular as it is addictive …

Dictionaries typically define culture as a common way of life based on enduring relationships usually rooted in some definable place. A culture produces habits, customs, rituals, and works of art, yet is more than its parts. Culture implies a way of life with shared values and a vocabulary to express them.

By this definition, pop culture is by no means a genuine culture. It is a pseudo-culture at best, and as such constitutes a deprivation of genuine values …

At the end of the seventies, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre concluded that what passed for public morality in contemporary America was a form of emotivism, a judgment based almost solely on deep emotion. This subjectivity, however, is often disguised by the use or misuse of traditional language and moral categories.

Emotion is, of course, the chief product of the mass media. Whether comedy, quiz shows, sports, or breaking news, what is sold is raw emotion. Even commercials have thunderous soundtracks. The fact that we are all inured to it by years of exposure doesn’t mean that the emotional conditioning is lessened. Again, we were warned. Hannah Arendt had observed in the fifties that no genuine culture could survive for long if subsumed into the marketplace, which degrades all works into commodities with price tags, including art and people. In the media market, emotion became a packaged product.

(Ron Austin, Neither Pop nor Culture) The December First Things, in which this jeremiad appeared, is uncommonly good. Unfortunately, a paywall for non-subscribers is up until around December, I believe. You can cure that by subscribing or by following First Things on Facebook, where most of the articles will eventually be linked for free.

4

A generation is good or evil according to its genuinely possible actions. No one gets extra marks for avoiding the sin of pillaging villages when he has no villages to pillage. No man deserves a cookie for forsaking religious fanaticism when he lacks the gumption necessary to muster up a religious belief. We have been patting ourselves on the back for resisting the urge to burn a witch; a witch-burning generation may as well pat itself on the back for avoiding the atom bomb.

This vilification of the past to aggrandize the present only obscures the past …

We … draw a flattering comparison between our age and our forefathers’. In doing so, we transform them into a generation that faced the same temptations as our own—and thereby become “the good guys” of the two. We resist the temptations; they didn’t. Moral arrogance and historical ignorance reinforce one another. To ennoble ourselves, we make irrational barbarians out of our ancestors and ignore the complexities of their times.

… Shaming punishments—like shaving the head of an adulteress or dunking a crooked merchant in the river—worked, and they worked because a person really could be ashamed to have broken the peace of an actual community of neighbors. Now, our whole system of punishment involves the removal of the criminal from the community that he wounded. If medieval France put its offenders in the stocks, at least the offender remained in community with the people he offended. He would be the object of scorn and ridicule, to be sure, but another possibility was opened to him as well. He could become the object of mercy and charity, his shame (if he accepted it) serving to end the disturbance of the actual community he had offended.

Modernity allows for no such resolution. It builds massive cities of criminals barred from the communities they have offended ….

(Marc Barnes, Historical Ignorance, Moral Arrogance, December First Things. Same caveats apply about paywall as in the preceding item.)

Note why those shaming punishments worked: Do I hear an echo in this blog?

UPDATE: It appears that this article may now be free via Facebook.

5

I live in Berkeley, one of the most religious cities in America. Its churches are being converted into mosques and Buddhist temples, but its one true faith endures. A popular yard sign states its creed: “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, and Kindness is Everything.” The sign is both profession and prophecy. Like the biblical Joshua whose promise it echoes (“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”), my neighbors are in a holy vanguard. They have seen the future America, have identified its present enemies, and are leading us into a promised land.

The biblical politics of my secular neighbors would not have been lost on Ernst Bloch. Bloch was an atheist who believed Jesus was the Messiah, a Stalinist who disagreed with Marx, and a materialist who embraced natural law theory. For the moment you will have to take my word that this can make sense and that it is worth the modest effort to understand how …

Unlike the German student movement of the 1960s, my neighbors are not petitioning to rename the local university after Ernst Bloch …

Marx is somehow back. This time not in the militant labor unions and socialist summer camps of the old left, but in the journalism and podcasts of progressive millennials. Bloch is one of the many people they have not read, but they are his fellow travelers, however unwittingly. Their Marxism is not that of the economic doctrines and predictions of Marx himself. They are attracted, as Bloch was, to the Marxist vision of a society that heals our past and sanctifies our future. Professing secular views, they still see politics in essentially redemptive terms. “There is no anxiety or sadness or fear you feel right now that cannot be cured by political action,” a Democratic senator recently said, speaking for many young progressives. To adopt this creed is to join a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. It does not bear witness to God, but it seeks to create and protect meaning itself. For that is, ultimately, what their progressive causes are, and what gives them that paradoxical quality of absolute passion and utter fragility ….

(Matthew Rose, Our Secular Theodicy, December First Things. Same caveats apply about paywall as in the preceding items.)

6

Today, we observe St. John the Almsgiver/Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria in the 7th century, and my patron. He became my patron because I couldn’t find lawyer saints in the Eastern Church (maybe there are some, but I was, like, new to the tradition, y’know) and for two other reasons which shall remain unnamed.

On the twelfth of this month we commemorate our Father among the Saints, John the Almsgiver, Archbishop of Alexandria.

Since John gave and dispersed to poor men and paupers,
Now standing before Christ what gifts he receiveth!
The Almsgiver, owning naught, departed on the twelfth.

In mercy, O wondrous John, you followed the most merciful Master.
You cast forth your bread, O venerable one, distributing to those in need.
Therefore, O holy one, your memory is truly eternal.
We celebrate it with faith and love.
By your supplications save us from temptations and tribulations, O most wealthy bishop!

He Who sees what is hidden elevated you to a most magnificent throne.
He foresaw your purity,
the rightness of your mind, and your godly presence.
He anointed and perfected you with chrism, O wise one,
openly appointing you to be the shepherd of His flock.
You guided them to the heaven of divine desire, O divinely-eloquent John.

The Lord granted all the requests of your heart, O truly wondrous one.
You observed all the laws of salvation,
for you loved God and neighbor without limit, as your very self,
O divinely blessed one.
You satisfied those in need.
Therefore, O John, we honor you today

John, the great pastor and beacon of Alexandria,
the follower of Christ, was a wellspring of mercy.
His true sympathy overflowed with increasing compassion for those in need.
Come, let us who are poor in spirit drink our fill!
Let us practice his serenity!
With a truly compassionate presence, he showed hospitality to Christ in
the person of the poor
Like Abraham in days of old,
he was counted worthy of blessedness.
He prays with boldness that our souls may find mercy.

By endurance you gained your reward, venerable Father;
you persevered in prayer unceasingly;
you loved the poor and provided for them in all things.
Blessed John the Merciful, intercede with Christ God that our souls may be saved!

You distributed your wealth to the poor
and in return obtained wealth from heaven, John the Merciful.
Therefore, we honor you and celebrate your memory,
O namesake of mercy.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

One thought on “St. John the Almsgiver, 2017

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