Friday, December 31, 2010

The Future of Marriage

By David Blankenhorn, Encounter, 325 pages.

"What children need most are mothers and fathers. Not caregivers. Not parent-like adults. Not even 'parents.' What a child wants and needs more than anything else are the mother and father who together made the child, who love the child, and who love each other," writes Blankenhorn in a typically forceful passage from The Future of Marriage.

Taking a traditional and scientific approach to marriage, Blankenhorn doesn't believe that sentimental love is the highest ideal of marriage. Children are the heart of marriage the world-over. Even the reality of infertile couples, elderly marriages, and the like, does not void this, because procreation and the needs of children are so overwhelmingly important.

Marriage forms the heart of the family, which forms the heart of society and civilization. Marriage is not simply a private contract between 2 individuals.

With much social science research backing him up, Blankenhorn shows clearly that marriage is a social institution whose purpose is to guide the relationship of husband and wife. The couple themselves do not have the right to define for themselves what marriage is.

Marriage precedes the couple. The social meaning of this relationship, which above all else includes the duty to rear children and build families, is more important than the sentimental, emotional winds of husband or wife. Marriage molds the couple; the pair cannot alter the idea of marriage to suit their whims.

Blankenhorn argues forcefully from the historical evidence, pointing out that a monogamous notion of marriage with responsible fatherhood replaced temple prostitution and a sexually-free fatherless society in ancient Mesopotamia. The rulers of the land gradually set up the conditions for public, institutional marriage, which included the father's duty to take care of the offspring. This new concept of marriage, "social fatherhood," and stable families built the civilization of Mesopotamia.

Unlike many marriage theorists today, who are guided more by ideology and hatred of the old order than by common sense or scientific studies, Blankenhorn often emphasizes the desperate need of children for mother and father:

"As children, we are smiled into smiling and loved into loving... Helping an infant grow over the years into a flourishing human being is the most difficult, time-consuming, and important work of our species." This requires the balanced complementarity of father and mother, Blenkenhorn notes repeatedly.

He warns that only through marriage can humans cease the almost-never-ending battle of the sexes. The main sexual divide for humans, he writes, is not straight-gay, but male-female. Marriage heals that deep divide through love, sexuality, and family-building.

Because of the deep emotional, financial, cultural, and social needs that marriage answers, the social institution of marriage predates any one religion. It existed before Christianity. The Church put its stamp on marriage, as with St. Augustine's discussion of its sacramental nature, but marriage as a social institution developed along with civilization itself.

Blankenhorn's social, economic, theological, and psychological message about marriage is coherent and easy to understand. While he discusses many current hot-button issues, his wider argument is based on more timeless principles.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Sacred Journey

By Charles Foster, 231 pages, thomas nelson publishers.

Foster opposes feminized, stay-at-home Christianity, offering a more masculine, adventurous spiritual practice instead. Rejecting the sentimentality-plagued Sunday-morning nonsense of most churches, Catholic and Protestant, he argues that Christianity is about being uncomfortable and out of the routine, rather than comfy and settled in one's convictions.

Yet he does not oppose traditional Christianity. Refreshingly, he shows a deep respect, even reverence, for Catholic and Orthodox practices, such as veneration of saints and their relics, and of course pilgrimage. He takes Protestants to task for lacking imagination. More than anything, in fact, he seems interested in waking the Christian imagination, which has been in a deep slumber for much of the past few centuries.

It is certain, uptight Protestants, not Catholics, who are strange. Pilgrimage and sacred spaces have been a central part of the human imagination ever since humans imagined -- ever since, in other words, they began to think symbolically. Symbolic thinking and religion go hand-in-hand, he argues convincingly, and those Christians who still practice it are all the richer.

Saints, relics, and pilgrimage all attest to the profoundly materialistic characteristic of Christianity. Repeatedly, Foster rejects gnosticism, the spiritualization of everything, and accuses many contemporary Christians of this grave sin. They fail to see the fun and the truth in an embodied spirituality.

Foster also rejects an overly-institutionalized Christianity, but refuses to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as many Calvinists have done. They have erred deeply in getting rid of some of the most moving, powerful aspects of ancient and medieval Christian practice.

The Sacred Journey is a more balanced discussion than many other books on the subject of Christian spiritual practice.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity

By William Murchison, 215 pages, Encounter Books.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Murchison repeatedly succeeds at showing what happens to a church when its leaders adopt the secular, relativist, entitlement culture, even as church leaders wrap their changes in the good intentions of liberation and equality.

The Episcopal church (American Anglicans) has undergone profound changes while convincing itself that it remains Christian. The author describes the transformations well:

"take the relationship between the sexes. Is the main question, who runs the show around here? Or is the question more slippery: What is the who about? Has God a stake in the outcome? The Christian churches of the United States grow tongue-tied at the notion of actually rebuking sins that lack a political foundation."

Mortal Follies examines all the hot-button issues, showing how they are united under the same mindset, prompted by the same cabal of liberal-feminist leaders who took over control of the Episcopal church. They began their move in the 1970s by taking the beloved Book of Common Prayer away from the laity.

Murchison is at his best showing how the revised prayer book used profoundly different language, reflecting radically new theology. Religion no longer revealed the truth, but talked a lot about feelings. It was therapeutic and prophetic.

Sin was social, not committed by the individual. Sin was explained away psychologically. A thief was not a "sinner," but a victim of society, of her upbringing.

For the revised Prayer Book, marriage was no longer a life-long covenant between man and wife, with God as the deeply-involved and binding third actor in the relationship. Marriage was a blessing, a fun, sentimental journey. This focus on feelings and sentimentality, and on subjective over objective truth, led logically to no-fault divorce and fuzzy sexual ethics.

Much of the changes of the 1970s and after is rooted in ethical thinking from the 1960s called "situational ethics." This thinking is a backbone of the relativism we see today throughout much of Western society.

Such ethical thinkers, rejecting traditional views of right and wrong, see subjectivity and experience as the cornerstone of ethical "values." The best ethical choice depends on the situation, rather than on a normative set of right and wrong. These thinkers were dismantling the entire Christian tradition, both ethics and doctrine.

A revised Prayer Book, new moral standards, and then in 1976 the first test in the real world: the ordination of women. This came with new feminist language about God that, once again, emphasized the personal, subjective, and emotional over the everlasting truth. Women were oppressed by patriarchy, including the patriarchy of the church, and since the emancipated woman could be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, why not priest?

Murchison notes that the ordination of women gave the Episcopal church a taste for radical change, which has since been applied in every domain, often forced through by the elite without the approval of the laity.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jungle Warfare: A Basic Field Manual for Christians in Sales

While the author, a Christian salesman, aims Jungle Warfare at other Christians in sales, any churchperson can benefit. Believers must live their lives as part of the great struggle between good and evil which Christ came to fight and win. We are on the winning side, the reader is reminded, but the work is strenuous nonetheless. The author characterizes Christian living as a struggle; I don't become a Christian to feel warm and fuzzy but to engage in daily spiritual warfare.

We have to keep our wits about us and be prepared for the next challenge. The world flings all sorts of evil things at us, and, worst of all, our own pride brings us to sin.

The author recaptures well the militaristic side of Christian spirituality, which was developed by the earliest Christians, including the apostle Paul. He notes the importance of developing a fear of God. This understanding of God goes hand-in-hand with a sense of our own sinfulness. Fear of God and human sinfulness hold each other up as doctrines. We fear God because we know how sinful we are.

From this comes the call to total dependence on the Lord, the heart of the militia Christi. Christ is our commander and we are lost without Him. The Bible gives us a clear command code to follow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art of Renaissance Florence, 1400-1600

By Loren Partridge, University of Californian Press.

Art of Renaissance Florence shows how the Italian High Renaissance was classical, moneyed, courtly, and above all Christian, even if the author does not fully appreciate the last quality. He does nevertheless discuss the theology behind many of the paintings, such as “Shaw Madonna” by Donatello:

"[B]y seating her triumphantly in heaven on a throne of clouds within a circular arrangement of haloed angelic heads and representing her in shallow, almost ethereal relief, Donatello also evoked her spiritual perfection and her role of mediator between earth and heaven."

While the discussion for much of the book follows this theological reading, sometimes Partridge's secularist biases lead him to incorrect assumptions, such as calling Carmelite spirituality "Carmelite ideology," reflecting our period's own concern with political power before all else.

Authors such as Partridge fail to understand the elegant spirituality of late medieval and Renaissance Europe even though they appreciate the elegant culture that the spirituality created.

Partridge does have a great understanding of the political and social forces behind the Renaissance, and how this affected the artists of the day. He shows how art played an important role in the politics of Florence during a time when Italy was seriously divided and at almost constant low-level civil war.

City-states such as Florence would commemorate a victory over another state with art, to be prominently displayed in a public office where all could see. Defeat was also portrayed, as in Michelangelo's “Battle of Cascina,” where the Florentines were caught literally with their pants down by the Pisans, as the soldiers were bathing when Pisa's military came by.

Michelangelo couldn't resist, as Partridge notes: "The scene provided an ideal opportunity for Michelangelo to demonstrate his superb command of classicizing nude male anatomy in the most widely varied postures imaginable."

When power changed hands, as with the rise of the Medici family, these new players would have great palaces constructed. These buildings would showcase the city's art, both in sculpture and paintings, as well as in the architecture itself. Above all, they demonstrated who the mighty were.

Partridge explains this political function of art in Renaissance Florence quite well. This is a key to understanding the great artistic energy of the time. Italy was a vibrant though chaotic place, and this led to a unique dynamism in the arts.

Art of Renaissance Florence also explains the "conflation" between classical pagan and late medieval Christian motifs. Both Donatello and Michelangelo, in their respective Davids, combined ancient ideas of Hercules with the biblical David, whom Christians saw as a precursor to Christ.

With Michelangelo's David, Partridge portrays the politics at work: It relocation "from the cathedral to the Prior's Palace altered the work's meaning... From prophet, Christ-type, and savior most appropriate for its original ecclesiastical context, the emphasis shifted in its new secular setting to slayer of tyrants, embodiment of civic strength and justice, and defender of the Florentine republic."

Despite the author's sometimes short-sighted theology, the beautiful pictures and otherwise learned discussion reflect the dynamism of the Renaissance, which harmonized classical culture with late medieval Christian society.