Friday, September 24, 2010

Thank God Ahead of Time: The Life and Spirituality of Solanus Casey

By Michael H. Crosby, 282 pages, St. Anthony Messenger Books.

The Venerable Solanus Casey's spirituality wed a love for people from all walks of life with a serious, traditional Catholic spirituality that placed God at the centre, often through veneration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This warmth and simplicity meant that this simplex priest (he couldn't hear confessions or preach at Mass) shared God's love with untold numbers in Detroit, Yonkers, and Manhatten until his death in 1957.

His early years mirrored the life of countless Americans. Born into a large and simple farming community in Wisconsin, he began to help support his family at the age of 15, and drifted through different jobs such as prison guard and street trolley driver until his early twenties, when he decided to make the world a better place by becoming a priest. This was no easy matter. He had to do 4 years of minor seminary, then the remaining years in a major seminary – and all in the German in which many seminaries in America's northeast operated in those days. His Latin was, unfortunately, as poor as his German, so Church authorities doubted his academic abilities.

Crosby does an excellent job of portraying the serious, mature spirituality of Casey even in his early twenties. Rather than obsessing about these difficulties, he tended to trust in God. He did have his cold sweats, as when he was deciding whether to join the Capuchins (he hated the beards), which he did.

With thanksgiving to God, he accepted the limiting ordination as a simplex priest, which meant that in his official assignments he had little to do aside from training and keeping the altar boys in line. So he acted as assistant porter to the monastery at his first ministry in New York. His simple, profound spirituality soon developed a following, and people began recognizing God's physical and psychological healing through the priest.

Crosby brings out much of the humor and countryfolk ways of Casey. He loved a good joke, ate hotdogs, played catcher without a mask, and enjoyed car-rides out to people's houses, where he would meet and pray with people too sick to come to him.

Thank God Ahead of Time also emphasizes the practical side of the Casey's spirituality: "Hearing their request, he never allowed people to remain passive. He always invited them to some way to grow in their relationship with God and others. After talking with people, he would build on some positive thing they said; then he would embellish that point with references to God's goodness and love for them. Then he would invite them to deepen their relationship with God or do some good work for others."

Casey's spirituality was not sentimental or abstract. He joined his Marian spirituality and love for God to concern for the poor. In letters and discussions he often voiced his concern for the poor. Towards the end of his life, in the 1950s, he increasingly opposed the materialism and atheism of society, as well as the nuclear arms race. Crosby sees his main contribution to American and Catholic spirituality by being "not only a mystic, but a mystic in action."

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Evangelical Protestant Gimmick #1

The evangelical Protestants are as gimmicky as Lady Gaga.

Here's an example: "Megachurch Pastor Preaches 24 Hours Straight on Audacious Faith", Christian Post (a favorite hotspot of mine for Protestant gimmicks),

If these guys have anything of substance to preach on, why all the gimmicks? Who would listen to preaching for 24 hours? Why not preach for 5 minutes on something of substance?

Not all such gimmicks happen at megachurches. The left-wing feminist United Church of Canada has its own gimmicks, such as feminist or liberation theology whining. It's hard to counter this sentimental gimmickry as much as it is to take non-stop 24 hour preaching seriously.

Evangelical gimmickry proves the need for a deeper ecclesiology. Such Christians need to take another look at the papacy or the Orthodox churches. They need some stabilizer. Their seminaries have obviously failed them, something I saw when I was studying in the United Church - all angry feminist, sentimentalist gimmickry in that case.

A 24-hour preachathon reflects the lack of self-respect and self-confidence inherent in any bravado. This is a form of triumphalism. It is ultimately a failure to communicate the gospel because it reduces the gospel to a marketing campaign. Doesn't it always feel that evangelicals are marketing Jesus?

The biggest threat to American Christianity isn't a new Muslim center in Manhatten. It's this Protestant nonsense. Islam, as well as more traditional forms of Christianity, offer a much deeper, richer spiritual life. I'd prefer having the new mosque to another megachurch. Maybe the preachathon pastor would learn that a quantitative approach to everything - the American way of life, in other words - is insufficient for spiritual living.

These guys always spout the same beans. Change your thinking, become aspirational, live the American dream with a religious stamp on it. Mr Preachathon said: "Your belief system, your way of seeing the world, your framework, what you operate out of is either going to be an outlook of faith or an outlook of fear," he said during the online event. "And the battleground where that all plays out is in your mind." (The Christian Post) Either-or thinking can be ruinous. It reflects the legalistic-juridical theology that, among others, Anselm of Canterbury developed. You owe God something because of the Fall, and only Jesus can give it to you, so say the magical religious formula so you can be saved.

This is a belief in magic. No different from Harry Potter. Then, because this spirituality lacks depth, pastors must use gimmicks to keep the funds coming in. It's not liturgy. It's showtime. Church-as-a-circus. The Orthodox Christians offer a much more mature theology, such as The Melody of Faith by Vigen Guroian, who contrasts the Western juridical theology of redemption with the Orthodox view of Christ as both physician and medicine.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Prophets and Gravestones: An Imaginative History of Montanists and Other Early Christians

By William Tabbernee, 338 pages, Hendrickson Publishers.

"Those listening are stunned. Who is speaking? Is it Montanus or is it some supernatural spirit? What does it all mean? Is the voice coming out of Montanus giving them some explanation of what they are witnessing? Has Montanus just been 'played' like some human instrument by God ...? Is Montanus' trance really like a state of sleep ...? [W]hat is the purpose of it all?"

As with the above words, the historian William Tabbernee uses ancient Christian documents to tell the story, in fiction form, of the Monatanists, a heretical movement that began in the second century. Readers get a close glimpse of the world of the early believers, orthodox and heterodox, at a time when trinitarian theology had not yet fully developed. Christian thinkers spent a great deal of time debating Christ's divinity, and His relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Prophets and Gravestones shows reader that ancient Christians sometimes developed theology by deciding what beliefs were heretical and what were orthodox. Christians were, within their own circles, argumentative folk. Followers of the “New Prophecy,” as Montanism became known, believed in Christ's divinity and took the orthodox side of the trinitarian debate. They went off course in their beliefs on the Holy Spirit, especially in their belief that revelation, through the Spirit, could happen without the full approval of the Church.

Montanus soon gathered followers around him in his village in the part of modern Turkey called Phrygia. Some of them, including many women, also prophesied, which added to the controversy. Because doctrine and the Church hierarchy were not quite set in these first Christian centuries, magnetic Christian personalities such as Montanus and his first followers could easily attract a following.

Thus the movement lasted for centuries, and Tabbernee shows that it was quite widespread, reaching North Africa and the famous Latin Church Father Tertullian, who spoke out in its favor, and to the important episcopal city of Lyons, in ancient Gaul. The Montanist prophecies, which came through many of the followers, emphasized strong moral living, such as forbidding a second marriage after the death of a spouse. Fasting and prayer were also greatly encouraged, more so than among mainstream Christians.

When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the early fourth century, he ordered Montanist books burnt; he sought to unify the empire through orthodox Christianity.

Prophets and Gravestones shows the extent to which orthodox Christians, both during the Roman persecution of the religion, and after Constantine's Edict, fought to end Montanism. Even when the persecuting Romans had thrown all the local Christians in jail to await their punishment or death, the mainstream and Montanist groups of Christians refused to get along, Tabbernee shows.

The following fictional account shows that the 2 groups were united on the importance of martyrs but split on the place of ongoing prophecy by the Paraclete:

"[A]mong the adherents of the New Prophecy and even among other Christians, there is the view that martyrs and confessors, because of their faithful suffering, have the power to forgive sins. Prophets and prophetesses, according to the teaching of the New Prophecy, also have this power. Apollonius totally disagrees with this inflated, alleged authority of prophets."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion

By Richard J. Foster and Gayle D. Beebe, 347 pages, IV Press.

Longing for God uncovers great riches in Christianity's 2000 year-old history. Christianity's vast sweep of people and traditions demands organization. The authors have separated the major currents of Christian spirituality into 7 patterns.

Foster and Beebe respect the tradition enough that they stick quite closely to the original thinking of these Christians rather than overly-psychoanalyzing them. In discussing St. Augustine (354-430), they examine the relationship between reason and faith according to the saint. They note:

"The right use of reason allows us to recognize our need for God. But reason cannot lead us to union with God. It can only show us that God is not present and help us recognize the depth of our need for God."

Longing for God does not attempt to convert atheists; it is not an antidote to the storm of atheist-inspired books. Most of the spiritual writers portrayed assumed their readers believe in God and need no proof for God's existence. Beebe and Foster, and the spiritual teachers they portray, are demanding in the level of Christian commitment they expect from readers. They offer no shortcuts on the spiritual life.

In fact, Longing for God uncovers an important, oft-forgotten theme – the long, slow, and penitential journey towards God. Again and again, the saints covered emphasize the importance of humbly acknowledging one's sinfulness before the Father. Further spiritual growth cannot occur until this exhaustive, oft-repeated examination of conscience is completed. In writing of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Foster and Beebe note: "Like Augustine before him, Bernard believed that we always love but do not always love properly."

St. Bernard, like many Christian writers, showed how love of God demanded love of neighbor. Love of God could never be genuine without loving others. In turn, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) overcame his fear of lepers to love them – and other social outcasts – and has ever since been identified with the stigmata, which signified his imitation of Christ.

Longing for God gives the reader some background to the lives of these spiritual writers, demonstrating how their relationship with God, and their spiritual writings, happened within a concrete social reality. They note, when referring to Francis and the late-medieval writers: "At the rise of the thirteenth century, the church began to look again to Jesus... [M]edieval Christians renewed their focus on the person and work of Christ," and especially to the imitation of Christ.

This personalized, emotional spirituality led to the great fourteenth-century English mystics such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), famous for her intensely personal mystical experiences. She became a spiritual adviser to rich and poor, and emphasized a loving relationship with God rather than spending much time developing doctrine.

This individualism contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the Catholic Reformation. Saints Ignatius of Loyala and Teresa of Avila transformed the Church not according to doctrine or opposing the pope, but according to inner spiritual conversion. Both Catholic and Protestant reforming paths emphasized the individual's personal relationship with Christ.

Seeds of Turmoil: The Biblical Roots of the Inevitable Crisis in the Middle East

By Bryant Wright, 222 pages, Thomas Nelson.

Wright offers a concise, crystal-clear analysis of Middle East politics from the get-go until now. His historiography is biblical. He interprets every past event from a biblical, theological perspective, endeavoring to show throughout his book how every significant incident fits into the divine plan.

This follows from the biblical view of history. The Lord has a plan for humanity, and will work things out in due time. As Wright notes again and again, the Father will not be mocked. Willful disobedience, lack of faith, and outright sinfulness, though part and parcel of biblical and post-biblical history, do not have power over God.

"The Lord is the master of history, so let us rejoice," is Wright's message, and he never falters from this line of thinking. He argues that Islam distorts the biblical message, even if Muslims claim the same Abrahamic lineage as Jews and Christians.
Islam, he notes repeatedly, has been a bloody, violent religion from its beginning. He reminds readers that Muslims conquered the long-Christian lands of North Africa and the Near East. Unfortunately, he avoids delving into the politics and theological turmoil that had deeply divided those Christians and alienated them from the Byzantine Emperor. Some of those Christians, Wright forgets to tell us, regarded their new Arab-Muslim masters as liberators.

Seeds of Turmoil, though an interesting read, is full of holes despite - or perhaps because of - the author's strongly-held views of Islam and Arabs.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and their Remedies

By Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung, 205 pages, Brazos Press.

Though this may seem like a depressing topic, Deyoung shows how Christianity, and therefore its teachings on the virtues and vices, has an optimistic, hope-filled world view. When we learn about the vices, and how they operate in our own lives, we can overcome them.

Vice and sin refer to different things: vice to a general disposition or behavioral habit, and sin to an act. Vices play such a large role in our lives because they are often hidden under layers of our personality and behavior. Sloth, for instance, tempts us away from our Christian, spousal, family, and other relationship duties. We become restless, and look for greener fields. This restlessness, a major component of contemporary living, can result in workaholism. Deyoung paints an interesting picture of this vice, showing how it doesn't mean the same as laziness.

While Deyoung introduces us to the fullness of the Christian tradition, citing authors such as Thomas Aquinas and Evagrius of Ponticus, Glittering Vices is accessible to anyone with a curiosity in these things. She weaves together the theology and ethics surrounding these sinful dispositions, yet doesn't become overly therapeutic, as is the tendency nowadays.

Another strength of Glittering Vices is the challenge to contemporary secular, materialist culture. The author fearlessly applies Christianity's teachings to today: "[G]reed is such a commonplace part of everyday life that it is hardly counted as a sin anymore. The idea that greed is the necessary psychological fuel for a capitalist and consumer economy is only the most recent way to justify it."

Nevertheless, our post-Christian society, Deyoung notes, retains a strong memory of Christian teachings, and refers to the vices often, but often in a mocking way. Marketers tease consumers to find inner fulfillment through greed and "retail therapy," for instance.

Yet the author points to the very serious spiritual condition that such a habit engenders: “The hallmark of well-entrenched greed, then, is a willingness to use people to serve our love of money, rather than the use of money to serve our love for people.” In other words, echoing the teaching of John Paul II on economics, she writes: "[A]varice moves us to betray one another's humanness."

All of the vices lead us to this betrayal or to the betrayal of God's love for us. Deyoung bases her optimism on the Christian tradition's alternative virtues to the terrible vices. Tithing can counter the sin of greed, and chastity the sin of lust. Chastity is thus good rather than shaming or prudish: "Chastity preserves and protects and paves the way for wholeness in all our relationships all the time."

The Church needs theologians like Deyoung who can truthfully, fearlessly read the signs of the times and can prophetically speak against modern vice. While she relies heavily on the age-old Judeo-Christian tradition, Glittering Vices shows how the world, still sinful and in need of redemption, is as hungry as ever for the truth about itself.