Some people go to Cancun on their Spring Break; others go to Myrtle Beach.  We went to Baltimore.   My wife and I are both interested in medieval art, and the Walter Art Museum there is featuring a big exhibit of medieval reliquaries.  That is, containers for relics, bones and other remains of saints that played a big part in medieval spirituality, and, indeed, in Roman Catholicism to this day.

The containers ranged from mini-tombs to realistic statuary.  (The arm and hand pictured below used to contain an arm bone of a saint.  The priest would wield it to touch the sick and other worshippers, who considered that it was the equivalent of being touched by the late saint.)  They were quite well-crafted and beautiful, considered as works of art.  But the show made me intrigued with the whole practice of the veneration of relics.

What surprised me is that some of the reliquaries still contained relics!  I saw the tooth of John the Baptist!  Another tooth of Mary Magdalene!  And splinters from the True Cross displayed behind glass that was worked into an elaborate gold cross.  Other relics were tiny bits of bone that were wrapped in colored cloth, with a label identifying the saint they belonged to.   Even today Roman Catholic altars have to contain some relic of a saint, if not a fragment of his or her body, a “contact relic,” which is something that once touched the saint.  (A scrap of cloth from the saint’s clothing, or the like.)

Now a good many of these relics are obviously fake.  For example, I saw the sindarion, a cloth that supposedly wiped the face of Christ, leaving a miraculous image.   At the museum it was displayed in an ornate frame behind cloudy glass, and one could indeed see the face of Jesus, but instead of looking like a photograph, it was an image that conformed–surprise, surprise–to the style of late medieval paintings.  I learned that the sindarion was a very popular kind of icon, which meant that there must have been quite a few of them.  One question of my Catholic friends:  If an altar requires an icon, if the icon is spurious, does that invalidate the altar and its sacraments?  Surely not.  But why not?

According to the exhibit, the value of a relic is not just as a historical artifact to encourage one’s faith–as in, “wow, that saint really lived, and all this stuff really happened”–but rather, it is thought that these objects have some sort of spiritual power.  So surely an object that is not actually a relic cannot have that power.

Certainly some of the relics are authentic, particularly the remains of contemporary people who had been canonized.  Apparently, the practice is to dig up the grave of a person who has been named a saint, and to break up the body or the bones, distributing them as relics.  At the end of the exhibit we saw a modern reliquary containing the brown, desiccated finger of Elizabeth Seton, the 19th century American who was canonized not long ago.  I found that macabre.  Another question to my Catholic friends:  Why is it wrong to desecrate bodies in general, but that it is all right to do that to saints?  Is that what is in store for the body of Pope John Paul II?  It has been announced that it will be disinterred for the canonization ceremony.

Another modern relic on display was a bone from Francis X. Seelos, a 19th century priest with local ties, who served in the Baltimore area.  He has been beatified and awaits full canonization from the Pope, which is pretty much a done deal since two miracles have been attributed to him.  As I was marveling at this relic, an elderly woman with a European accent who was standing beside me asked if I were Catholic.  I said, no.  She said that she had prayed to Father Seelos, and he healed her son of cancer.  Then she caught herself and said, well, God healed him, but Father Seelos interceded for him.

I know quite a few evangelicals and Lutherans and others who have converted to Roman Catholicism.  I understand the appeal of the great intellectual tradition, the scholastic theology, the aesthetics, the ceremony, the history, and the like.  What I don’t get, though, is the popular piety.  Again, any of you Catholic readers, please explain it to me.

In the meantime, I have to say that the exhibit, fascinating as it was, brought out even more the Lutheran in me.

Treasures of Heaven · The Walters Art Museum.

Good writing

World Magazine is planning to set up regional online bureaus to provide local and regional news coverage.  The first one is for Virginia and is making use of journalism students at the school where I work, Patrick Henry College.  One of my former students, Hannah Mitchell, has written a feature story on a big Picasso exhibit at a Richmond art museum.  It struck me as just a very, very good piece of writing.  See for yourself:  WORLD Magazine | Picasso’s tragedy | Hannah Mitchell | Mar 01, 11.

What I’d like us to do is discuss what is good about this particular piece of writing.  Let’s not talk about Picasso, as such.  Let’s talk about how Hannah approaches him, how she sets up her article, her style, and her good lines.

For example, I like the sentence where she describes a professor speculating about Picasso’s art.  She describes him as “wondering through the exhibit.”  Get it?  wandering/wondering?  A wordplay that shows genuine wit.

What else?  What’s good about this article in the way it’s written?

‘Huck Finn’ without the N-word

A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn will leave out all of the N-words, which have caused some people to charge the novel with racism, even though the point of the book is to combat racism.  From a CNN report:

What is a word worth? According to Publishers Weekly, NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” will remove all instances of the N-word — I’ll give you a hint, it’s not nonesuch — present in the text and replace it with slave.

The new book will also remove usage of the word Injun. The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it.

“Race matters in these books,” Gribben told PW. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

Unsurprisingly, there are already those who are yelling “Censorship!” as well as others with thesauruses yelling “Bowdlerization!” and “Comstockery!”

Their position is understandable: Twain’s book has been one of the most often misunderstood novels of all time, continuously being accused of perpetuating the prejudiced attitudes it is criticizing, and it’s a little disheartening to see a cave-in to those who would ban a book simply because it requires context.

On the other hand, if this puts the book into the hands of kids who would not otherwise be allowed to read it due to forces beyond their control (overprotective parents and the school boards they frighten), then maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge.

via New edition of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ to lose the N-word –

So I wonder if those who support this bowdlerization would also support cutting out the profanity and the sex scenes from the modern novels taught in schools.  At any rate, what do you think about this?  Should a work of literary art be altered away from the author’s own words and intentions, if that work could thus be made palatable to more readers?

Handel’s Messiah as (Lutheran) Apologetics

Crossway editor Justin Taylor interviews Calvin Stappert on his new book about Handel’s Messiah.  Did you know Handel was a Lutheran?  Did you know he intended his oratorio to be a work of Christian apologetics?

Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of who George Handel was?

George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 in Halle, Germany. Like J. S. Bach, born the same year, Handel was born into a Lutheran family and his earliest musical training came from a Lutheran organist and church musician. But unlike Bach, his career went in the direction of opera.

From age 25 when he moved to London, his primary occupation was composing and conducting Italian operas. When the popularity of Italian operas in England waned in the early 1730s, he turned to English oratorio—or, more accurately, he “invented” English oratorio, a genre that grew up in Italy during the 17th century but did not yet exist in England. Though he was reluctant to give up opera, during the ’30s he gradually turned to oratorio. After composing Messiah (his sixth oratorio) in 1741, he left opera entirely and went on to compose about a dozen more, leaving an unmatched legacy in that genre.

You write that apologetics was one of the reasons that Handel wrote Messiah. Can you explain?

Deism was very strong at the time, a serious threat to orthodox Christian faith. Charles Jennens, a devout Anglican, compiled the collection of Scripture texts that make up Messiah in order to combat Deism.

Deism’s “natural theology” had room for a creator-god, but denied miracles and any divine intervention into human affairs. Therefore it denied the fundamental Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and the Resurrection. It also denied their necessity. Humans, they believed, had the resources to solve their own problems; there was no need for a Messiah.

Jennens’s choice of texts had both a polemical purpose—to persuade unbelievers—and a pastoral purpose—to nourish and strengthen the faith of believers. He enlisted Handel (whose music he loved and who undoubtedly shared his convictions) to convey his message through the rhetorical and dramatic power of music.

How will reading your book enable people to understand the music and the theology of Messiah better?

I had two overarching purposes in writing the book.

The first, which doesn’t directly answer your question, was to show an example of how “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.” The Messiah, a work of art that has told the Gospel story to more hearers than any other, owes its existence to a remarkable series of historical twists and turns that finally led to its composition. To make a long story short—without connecting the dots between beginning and ending—Messiah, an oratorio (a genre that originated in a devotional movement in the 16th century in Counterreformation Italy) was composed by an 18th-century German Lutheran who was happily established in a career of writing Italian opera in England, a country in which oratorio did not exist until he “invented” it.

The second purpose, which does speak directly to your question, was to write a commentary on the whole oratorio.

via Handel’s Messiah: An Interview with Calvin Stappert – Justin Taylor.

So, in what senses can a work of art, such as this piece of Handel’s music, function as apologetics, that is, an argument for the truth of Christianity?

Buy the book here:  Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies)

Form and Feeling

In arguments about worship, both sides often cast the issues in terms of “formal styles” vs. “emotional styles.” That has always seemed a false dichotomy. To me, our formal, liturgical Lutheran services are very emotionally moving. Besides, the opposite of “formal” is “informal,” and the opposite of “emotional” is “unemotional.” And “informal” worship styles happen to leave me cold; that is, it leaves me “unemotional.” I realize that other people react differently.

The point is, form and feeling can actually support each other. That is practically a literary principle. A sonnet is among the most emotional of poems, and yet its form is among the strictest. This is even evident in the Bible.
Justin Taylor pointed me to these observations about the Book of Lamentations from John Piper:

First, Lamentations is a deeply emotional book. Jeremiah writes about what means most to him, and he writes in agony. He feels all the upheaval of Jerusalem in ruins. There is weeping (1:2), desolation (1:4), mockery (1:7), groaning (1:8), hunger (1:11), grief (2:11), and the horrid loss of compassion as mothers boil their own children to eat them (2:20; 4:10). If there ever was intensity and fervor in the expression of passion from the heart, this is it.

The second observation, then, comes as a surprise: This seems to be the most formally crafted book in the Old Testament. Of the five chapters, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are each divided into twenty-two stanzas (the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet), and each stanza begins with a different letter of the alphabet. They are three acrostics.

Chapter 3 is even more tightly structured. Again there are twenty-two stanzas, but now each stanza has exactly three lines. The three lines in each stanza begin with the same letter, and each of the twenty-two stanzas begins with a different letter in alphabetical order.

This is the only chapter that is not an acrostic. But it still has twenty-two lines in conformity with the acrostic pattern of chapters 1-4. Now what do these two observations imply? First, they imply that genuine, heartfelt expression of our deepest emotions does not require spontaneity. Just think of all the mental work involved in finding all the right words to construct four alphabetical acrostics!

What constraint, what limitation, what submission to form! Yet what passion and power and heart! There is no necessary contradiction between form and fire.

via Let the River Run Deep, Desiring God by John Piper – Desiring God, John Piper.

Tolkien vs. the Beatles


Once upon a time, the Fab Four—having slain the pop charts—decided to set their sights on the Dark Lord Sauron by making a Lord of the Rings feature, starring themselves. One man dared stand in their way: J.R.R. Tolkien.

According to Peter Jackson, who knows a little something about making Lord of the Rings movies, John Lennon was the Beatle most keen on LOTR back in the ’60s—and he wanted to play Gollum, while Paul McCartney would play Frodo, Ringo Starr would take on Sam and George Harrison would beard it up for Gandalf. And he approached a pre-2001 Stanley Kubrick to direct.”It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson said.

via Little-known sci-fi facts: Tolkien killed a Beatles LOTR movie | Blastr.

HT: Joe Carter