Auden on modern liturgies

A letter from the late poet W. H. Auden to his pastor, on the occasion of the church–St. Mark’s Episcopal in New York City–adopting a more modern liturgy:

77 St Mark’s Place
New York City 3

Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new ‘liturgy’ is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes

[signed]

W.H. Auden

HT: Meghan Duke and Joe Koczera

Auden is not referring to “contemporary worship,” of course, just the folky trendiness of modern-language liturgies (think Catholic folk masses as opposed to the Tridentine Mass; Lutheran Worship, as opposed to The Lutheran Hymnal, though not nearly so much).  I believe this letter dates from 1968 and probably refers to some of the trial orders of worship that would lead up to the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer.  Still, what we now know as contemporary Christian worship arguably had its theological beginnings in the worship innovations of these liturgical churches, which adopted the principles of being community-centered, using modern music, and being culturally relevant.

Auden was arguably the greatest poet in English in the generation after T. S. Eliot.  Whereas Eliot, born in St. Louis, gave up his American citizenship to become a naturalized British subject, Auden did the reverse, giving up his British citizenship to become an American.  Both had been known for cutting edged bohemian radicalism and then converted to Christianity.  I suppose I should also say that Auden, who was open about it, was gay, though I haven’t run across anything where he justifies his sexual orientation.

There is much good material here:  his rejection of the notion that liturgical worship is undemocratic; his defense of archaic language; his point that the liturgy is supposed to connect us with the past and with the dead, his exhortation “by the bowels of Christ.”

http://greesons.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a679bde1970b0120a85249c2970b-800wi

Stalin’s five-year-plan for atheism

Eighty years ago on this day, May 22, 1932, Josef Stalin began his program to eliminate the very memory of the name of God in the Soviet Union within 5 years.  The following account of Stalin’s “atheistic five-year plan” is from a Russian site and is clumsily translated into English, so I’ll edit it slightly:

On Tuesday, there will be 80 years since the Soviet government issued a decree on “atheistic five-year plan.”

Stalin set a goal: the name of God should be forgotten on the territory of the whole country [by] May 1, 1937, the article posted by the Foma website says.

Over 5 million militant atheists were living in the country then. Anti-religious universities – special educational establishments for training people for decisive attack against religion – were organized.

According to the plan on religion liquidation, all churches and prayer houses should have been closed [in] 1932-1933, all religious traditions implanted by literature and family [in] 1933-1934.   It was planned that the country, and firstly, youth would be grasped by total anti-religious propaganda [in] 1934-1935; the last clerics were to be eliminated [in]1935-1936; the very memory about God should have been disappeared from life to 1937.

However, the 1937 census in which  a question about religion was included on Stalin’s instruction puzzled Bolsheviks: 84% of 30 million illiterate USSR citizens aged over 16 said they were believers; the same was reported by 45% of 68.5 million literate citizens.

via Interfax-Religion.

HT:  John Couretas and Joe Carter

A nation of heretics

Ross Douthat begins with reflections on three recent cases in American religion:  the popularity of prosperity-gospeller Joel Osteen; President Obama’s statement that the reason he now favors gay marriage is because he follows Jesus; and new statistics that find that non-denominational Christianity is now the third largest category, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists.  He then draws this conclusion and applications:

For decades, the cultural tug-of-war between the Christian right and the secular left has encouraged people to envision the American religious future in binary terms –as either godless or orthodox, either straightforwardly secular or traditionally Christian. But these examples and trends suggest a more complicated reality, in which religious institutions have declined but religion itself has not, and Americans increasingly redefine Christianity as they see fit rather than than abandoning it entirely.

We aren’t a nation of rigorous Richard Dawkins-style atheists and equally rigorous Pope Benedict XVI-style Catholics, in other words. Instead, we’re a nation of Osteens and Obamas, Dan Browns and Deepak Chopras –neither a Christian nation nor a secular society, but a nation of heretics.

To many Americans, this description no doubt sounds like a compliment. Because we’ve always been a nation from of religious freethinkers and entrepreneurs –from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy –the word “heretic” often carries positive connotations in our religious culture. It’s associated with theological daring, spiritual experimentation, and a willingness to blaze new trails and push on toward new horizons.

But the heretical imperative in America’s religious life has usually existed in a kind of fruitful and creative tension with more conservative, institutional, and historically-rooted forms of faith –first denominational Protestantism and then later the Roman Catholic Church as well. And the post-1960s decline of these churches has taken a significant toll on our common life, in ways that both religious and secular observers should be able to recognize.

For one thing, individualistic and do-it-yourself forms of religion are less likely to bind communities together, encourage stable families, assimilate immigrants, and otherwise Americans to live in healthy fellowship with one another. It is not a coincidence that as the institutional churches have lost their purchase among poor and non-college educated Americans, that population’s social ills have multiplied and its economic prospects have dimmed.

At the same time, self-created forms of faith are also less likely to provide a check against the self’s worst impulses –whether it’s the kind of materialism that Joel Osteen’s sunny promises encourage, or the solipsism that percolates under the surface of popular spiritual memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” Many of America’s contemporary crises, from the housing bubble and the financial crash to the collapse of the two-parent family, can be traced to just this tendency — encouraged by too much contemporary religion — to make the self’s ambitions the measure of all things.

Finally, when strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.

via ‘A nation of Osteens and Obamas’ – Guest Voices – The Washington Post.

Religious preference & too many gods

The great sociologist of religion Peter Berger comments on the project of Andrew Bowen, who in 2011 practiced a different religion each month—Hindu in January, Baha’i in February, Zoroastrian in March, etc.  Religion today, he says, is no longer a matter of personal identity, history, or belief.  Rather, it is a voluntary association:

In the pluralistic situation every religious institution, which it likes this or not, becomes a voluntary association. Max Weber, one of the fathers of the sociology of religion, distinguished between two institutional forms of religion—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins as an adult. The historian Richard Niebuhr suggested that American history has created (presumably inadvertently) a third form of religious institution—the “denomination”, which in many ways looks like a “church”, but which one nevertheless freely joins and belongs to, and which is in competition with other religious bodies. On the level of consciousness, religion loses its taken-for-granted quality, instead becomes a matter of individual decision. The peculiarly American term “religious preference” nicely catches both levels. Put differently, the challenge of secularity, where it exists (it does in some places, notably in Europe), is that there is an absence of gods; the challenge of plurality is that there are too many gods.

When there is a combination of religious plurality with a political system which guarantees freedom of religion, what comes about is, precisely, Niebuhr’s denominationalism. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of such a development. Its emergence in many parts of the world today has usually little to do with American influences, but is the result of the above-mentioned combination of a social and a political fact. Andrew Bowen has, in exemplary fashion, re-enacted this historical drama.

In the pluralistic situation every religion becomes a denomination—even Judaism, which is both a religion and a people, into which, by definition, one is born. In America Judaism has been born again (I choose the phrase deliberately) in at least three denominations.

via If it’s December, I’m Presbyterian | Religion and Other Curiosities.

HT:  Matthew Schmitz

Lutheran Anglicans

I met an Anglican priest the other day who, it turns out, was a big fan of Spirituality of the Cross and my other “Lutheran” books.  As I talked with him, I was astonished at how much he was into Lutheranism.  He explained that there is currently a strain in Anglicanism that is seeking to recover its Lutheran roots.

He said Anglicanism generally has had four theological strains:  (1) The mainline Protestantism of the Episcopal Church in America; (2) Anglo-Catholicism; (3) low church evangelicalism, which is often distinctly Reformed; (4) the charismatic movement.

But now, he says, a number of  Anglicans, especially young theologians, are rediscovering Luther, who was a major influence on the founders of Anglicanism, especially Thomas Cranmer.   They are finding that it is possible to be both sacramental and evangelical, liturgical and Biblical.  Above all, they are discovering that the Gospel as Luther understood it–radical, liberating–speaks powerfully to our own times and to the specific struggles of both Christians and non-Christians today.

The main force in this movement of Lutheran Anglicans or Anglican Lutherans is the Mockingbird Ministry, run by David Zahl and friends, whose main presence is the blog known as Mockingbird.  (Read the FAQ for why it’s called that.)  I have been reading and linking to it without realizing its role in a movement.  It’s a brilliant website, in both design and content.  Much of it is taken up with commentary on music, film, literature, and the culture as a whole.  But it’s also full of discussions of the distinction between Law & Gospel and the Theology of the Cross vs. the Theology of Glory.

It draws on ELCA theologians who are still Lutheran, such as Stephen Paulson and Gerhard Forde (who inspires a regular feature called “Forde Friday”), but also Missouri Synod stalwarts such as C. F. W. Walther and Rod Rosenbladt (who is called “our hero” and a formative influence).

And the design and tone are very cool and cutting-edged, not stodgy but young, sophisticated, even avant garde.

I’m not saying it’s all completely on target or could in every instance pass Missouri Synod doctrinal review–a recent post quotes Rudolph Bultmann, though one in which the liberal theologian sounds Lutheran–but it’s a good site to visit.

And it’s a challenge to us Lutheran Lutherans to remind us that, even as some of our own churches play it down, outsiders are finding our theology compelling.

 

Should churches push contraceptives to their singles?

An evangelical conclave has recommended that churches encourage their single members to take contraceptives as a way to cut down on Christians getting abortions:

Two weeks ago, younger evangelical leaders gathered in Washington D.C. to reflect about the shape Christianity should take in the world. Q, the conference hosted by Gabe Lyons, is one of the more interesting spots in the evangelical landscape. Self-conscious in its cultural (which is to say, not political) orientation, conference attendees are an interesting cross-section of the evangelical world. Some might be emergent, others might be Reformed, but no one talks much about all that. It’s concern about social issues, rather than distinctive theological ones, that attendees seem to gather around.

In a breathtaking moment of unity, however, conference attendees affirmed that churches should advocate for contraceptives for the single people in their midst. After a panel discussion on the best ways to reduce abortions in the church (tacit answer: contraception), an instant poll put the question to attendees: “Do you believe churches should advocate contraception for their single twentysomethings?” The question is ambiguously worded (Advocate how? From the pulpit? Which twentysomethings? All of them?). But even so, 70 percent of respondents understood enough to say “yes.”

via Why Churches Shouldn’t Push Contraceptives to Their Singles | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

So if churches can’t influence their members enough to teach them to not have sex or, failing that, to not have abortions, why do they think they can influence them to use contraceptives?  That is for starters.  How else is this problematic?


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