Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Gullah Land

'Gullah Christmas' by Diane Britton Dunham

Luke 2:1-14, from ‘De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Luke Write,’ published in 1994 by the American Bible Society.

Een dat time, Caesar Augustus been de big leada, de emperor ob de Roman people.  E make a law een all de town eed de wold weh he habe tority, say “Ebrybody haffa go ta town fa county by de hed an write down enyame.”  Dis been the fus time dey count by de hed, same time Cyrenius de gobna ob Syria country.  So den, ebrybody gone fa count by de hed, to e own town weh e hole people been bon.

Now Joseph same fashion gone from Nazrut town een Galilee.  E trabel ta de town nyam Betlam een Judea, weh de ole people leada, King David, been bon.  Joseph gone dey cause e blongst ta David fambly.  E gone fa count by de hed, an Mary gone long wid um.  She gage fa married um.  An Mary been spectin.  Same time wen dey been dey, time come fa Mary gone een.

She habe boy chile, e fusbon.  Ewrop um op een clothe wa been teah eenta leetle strip an lay um een a trough, de box weh feed de cow and oda animal.  Cause Mary and Joseph beena stay weh de animal sleep.  Dey ain’t been no room fo dem enside de bodin house. 

Now some shephud been dey een de fiel dat night time.  Dey been a stay dey, da mind dey sheep.  Den one angel ob de Lawd appeah ta um.  De night time done lightin op jus like day clean broad.  Dat de glofy ob de Lawd wa shine bout um.  Cause ob dat, de shephud mos scaid ta det.  Bot de angel tell um say, “Mus don’t feah! A habe good nyews.  Cause ob dis nyews, oona gwine rejaice.  All de people gwine rejaice tommuch.

“Cause A come fa tell oona, ‘Right now, dis day, a Sabior done bon fa oona.  He de Promise Chile, Christ, de Lawd.  An e bon een David town!’  A gwine tell oona what oona gwine see dey.  Cause ob dat oona gwine know A done tell oona de trut.  Oona gwine find the childe wrop op een clothe wa been teah eenta leetle strip, an e been leddown een a trough.

All ob a sudden, a heap ob oda angel from heaben been longside dat angel.  Dey all da praise God, say,
“Leh we gee glory to Gad een de mos high heaven.  Leh deh be peace ta dem een de wol wa habe Bod fabor."

Gullah survives on the sea islands and low country of South Carolina and Georgia among the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to work the plantations in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

What a Christmas.

There have been trees and displays of lights at homes, with nativities and candles and all manner of festive decor.

There have been exuberant displays to mark the ‘Happy Holidays’, whatever they are, neutered of any reference to the Christians’ celebrations, but reserving the right to make merry nonetheless.

There have been sales piled on sales, packed parking lots at big box stores and shopping malls.
There has been an unending stream of Christmas music bombarding our ears in stores, on radios, in homes, all conspiring to set the holiday mood or induce us to shop and buy, or rather conspiring to blur the difference.

There has been a raft of holiday gatherings with holiday foods and holiday drinks and holiday attire, events at work, at church, at neighbors’ and friends’ homes and even our own.  And the same white elephant gifts just keep circulating.

And tonight on Christmas eve, special church programs everywhere, replete with darling children singing, or trying to sing, well-known Christmas songs, as well as the standard go-to carols for such services, replete with homily and the necessary conclusion involving ‘Silent Night’ and everybody lighting their candle and holding it aloft.

Jesus was born into this sort of world.

But it is useful to remember that Jesus was also born into a world that had rudimentary if any medical care.

Jesus was born into a world where a woman in labor might be shown a stable or a cave in which to give birth.

Jesus was born into a world where a paranoid ruler might send a detachment of soldiers into the small town where he spent his first days and murder every boychild under two.

As we busily endeavor to recreate the Currier and Ives Christmas of our fantasy, it is helpful to be reminded that such bears little resemblance of that first Christmas, or of the meaning of Christmas since.

For the meaning of Christmas is not trees, or presents, or shopping, or peppermint lattes, or church services or holiday gatherings.  Instead, the prophet Isaiah said simply to Ahaz the king (and to us), ‘The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel’, which means, ‘God with us.’ (Isaiah 7:15)  And the Lord said to Joseph in a dream, ‘Do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sin.’ (Matthew 1:20-21)

This is our world, where horrific ethnic violence is slaughtering thousands in South Sudan, where murderous sectarian civil war is destroying lives and communities in Syria, where senseless gun violence in our own country takes the lives of tens of thousands every year, where brokenness and divorce cleave half the homes of even Christians, where in so many places corruption is the way of life and where justice is an impossible dream, where most of the planet’s resources and riches are hoarded by a tiny circle of men and women, whereas the majority of the world’s men and women have next to nothing and next to no hope of making a better life for themselves or their children, where all of us, wealthy or poor, comfortable or hungry, sitting in offices of the powerful or scavenging the mountains of refuse at the city’s dump for something to eat and something to sell, all of us are being stalked by death, every life however grand or mean will come to an end and all of our pomposities and dreams and accumulations will return to the dust from which we came.  This is the world that Jesus was born into.  And this is why he was born into it.

He embraces our humanity and becomes one with us, One of us.  He does not shy away from the evil that scars our lives, that mars our race.  Instead he thrusts himself into our midst, he comes not to destroy us in a fit of justice, but to heal us from the poison of sin that courses through our veins and corrodes all our relationships.  He shows us love by living it, he shows us reconciliation by forgiving, he demonstrates peace by making all things new.

It’s a Mystery that my mind cannot contain or comprehend.  The same Mystery that grew in the virgin’s womb.  The same Mystery that slept in the hay trough.  The same Mystery that changed water to wine, gave blind men their sight, made lepers whole and clean, cast out devils from the possessed and raised the dead.  The same Mystery that died on a Roman implement of torture and execution.  The same Mystery that vacated Hades and allowed Thomas to touch the nail marks and spear wound in his side. The same Mystery that says to me and you, ‘Follow Me, deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Me.’

I learned this past year that the hardest part of running, of training for a Marathon, indeed of the Marathon itself, is that first step to get up off the couch and get myself out the door to go running.

Christmas is that first step.  This is why I celebrate.

Monday, December 23, 2013

'I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church' - Constantinopolitan-Nicene Creed, 381 CE

Icon of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea

What happened to the 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic church'?  Growing up Protestant, I was taught from an early age that the swarming spectacle of different and differing Protestant churches all jostling for adherents was simply the way things were, and that such ‘variety’ in the marketplace of religion might even be a good thing—if one didn’t like the church one was attending, one could always move to the other church down the street.  Having also grown up with the assumption that our increasingly frenetic consumer society was normal, this made perfect sense.  Even so, while a charitable attitude towards the kaleidoscope of these differing Protestant churches and their claims may work from a distance, when experienced from the inside, it becomes clear fairly quickly that each group claims that its version of Christianity is the one that most closely reflects what the Bible actually teaches.  This may not be so disconcerting within the various denominations themselves where the difference between First Baptist Church, Second Baptist Church and say Calvary Baptist Church is simply their claim to be more faithfully Baptist than the others, thus limiting the discussion to one of quality and not of essence.  But what happens when the Presbyterians intrude into the conversation, especially the more conservative ones who feel they have most faithfully preserved the teachings of that most biblical of the reformers, John Calvin?  Or the Lutherans, who feel that their tradition has rescued the true faith of the Scriptures from the corrupting clutches of the antichrist?  Or the Pentecostals down the road who believe that their ecstatic worship and emphasis on the real presence and experience of the Holy Spirit offer conclusive evidence that they alone have entered into the actual experience and life of the New Testament Church?  Or the ginormous mega church with its rock-concert quality music and multimedia worship service extravaganzas and the astonishing array of programs generated for every age, situation and need, with its implicit claims that the thousands that flood into its mall-like facilities every week can’t all be wrong—that numbers = success = God’s blessing?  Or the fundamentalist chapel on the outskirts of town with its fleet of buses and its ‘to hell with the rest of you’ attitude?  Not a single one of these churches would surrender any ground that might imply that their take on Christianity might be mistaken.  And all of them can proof-text their claims to be right from the Bible when challenged as to their doctrine.  And while there are some who loftily claim a stance of charity towards those who differ in what are defined as ‘non-essentials’, their actual practice of persisting in their distinct denominations raises the suspicion at least that their rhetoric is just that.  Diversity is always more attractive from a distance.[1] 

Icon of the Church

Which raises the uncomfortable question, in my mind at least, that they can’t all be right, can they?  And with all of them claiming that the Scriptures are on their side (thus ironically the same argument that our denominational ancestors used against the corrupt European Catholics we now use against each other!), we are left with the rather unedifying spectacle of Protestant Christian church against Protestant Christian church, each proudly named in such a way as to highlight its hard-won biblical distinctives (Free Will Baptist Church, Grace Presbyterian Church, Pentecostal Holiness Church, International Evangelical Church), each one with grounds to suspect and a name to imply that all the others just don’t quite measure up, each armed with the so-called Sword of the Spirit (which as we all learned in Sunday School is the Word of God) cutting and parsing our interpretations in such a way as leaves us in the right and our rivals sadly mistaken.  And this is just among us Protestants.[2]

Icon of Christ and all Saints

It turns out that we Protestants have learned the game all too well from those who have gone before us.  In many respects, Protestants merely raised what had been a Western Roman Catholic game to a new level.  Once the Roman Church had gotten over the shocking fact of the European reformations, different facets within the Church, led by the increasingly potent papal weapon of choice, the Jesuits, made impressive strides in the recovery of the influence, power and vision of Roman Catholicism, a trend that has continued impressively to the present day.  And the Catholics in their turn had been long disgusted with the over-much subtlety of the hyper-theological Byzantines, who of course had had their issues with the Iconoclasts and the Monothelites and the Monophysites and the Eunomians and the Nestorians and the Arians and the Sabellians, etc., etc.  Which brings me back to my opening question—what happened to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?  The dissonance of conflicting claims to exclusive truth reduces the entire Christian concert into the symphonic chaos of each musician or section playing what they will however they will, with each claiming exclusive right to interpret the intentions of the composer.  The fundamental issue underlying the whole mess is one of authority.  And as we shall see, everybody in this discussion without exception claims that the Bible is, in some sense, their authority, and is on their side.  So now that we’ve settled that and we realize that our loudly proclaimed relative and mutual claims to Biblical fidelity get us absolutely nowhere, we become conscious that the real issue is deeper—is there an authoritative interpretation of this authoritative Bible which reflects accurately the intentions and the agenda of Christ himself and those he charged with establishing his church, the apostles?[3]    In other words, who is right, and how will we know?[4]
[These are the opening paragraphs of a book-length project on the history of Christian authority that I have written but not found an interested publisher.  I'd be interested in your comments as to whether or not you think this is an interesting/viable/useful/feasible topic.]

[1] Observations like these have been made across the Christian denominational spectrum.  See, for example, Joy Evelyn Abdul-Mohan, Christian Unity – A Lived Reality: A Reformed/Protestant Perspective’, Transformation, 27 (2010), 8.  See also John Borelli and John H. Erickson, eds., The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996).  And see Robert B. Eno, Teaching Authority in the Early Church (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1984), 13.  Among more conservative Protestants, ‘unity’ with other Christians is not looked on favorably because of the perceived compromises of the so-called ‘ecumenical movement’ embodied in the World Council of Churches and the various National Council of Churches that have arisen out of it.  Alister McGrath helpfully explains each of the terms in light of historical developments.  See McGrath, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 482-492.
[2][2] Full disclosure: when I wrote this I was an ordained Presbyterian (Presbyterian Church USA) minister and a Protestant evangelical missionary serving in Ethiopia with the independent Protestant mission board SIM.  I have since become a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Kenya and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Virginia, US where I serve as a lay person.
[3] There has been an explosion of studies in hermeneutics in the past generation of scholarship attempting to grapple with just this issue.
[4] Of course the postmodernists just laugh at us and say, ‘That would be the point!  There is no authoritative interpretation, nor is there a single truth demanding our loyalty, nor is there a right perspective or over-arching meta-narrative’—except, of course, their own, which is the fatal flaw of the post-modernist critique. We will engage more fully with the implications of postmodernism for Christian history in a following chapter.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

I Visited a Christian Bookstore Today

I visited a Christian bookstore today.  It was a national chain.  It was packed full of cheerful shoppers.  With happy Christmas muzak flowing from the speakers

Perhaps 'bookstore' is a bit of a misnomer.  Less than a third of the floor space was devoted to books.  Being somewhat interested in history, I looked in vain for a single title having anything to do with Christian history.  At least they had four shelves under the label of 'Theology'.  Four shelves.  A small portion of one aisle.  Had I been interested in 'Christian Fiction' or 'Christian Romance' I would have found aisles and aisles full of the latest hot titles and authors.  At least as hot as one can be under the label 'Christian Fiction'.  There was a burgeoning Christian Music section.  But the CD covers all had variations on the 'disaffected group of males with distracted stares' theme, as unimaginative as the mass-produced muzak dulling my sense of hearing and doing who-knows-what to my brain.  I wonder if scientists have done studies on the effect of constant exposure to Christmas muzak on one's cognitive abilities.

But it was what I found in the rest of the store that was just amazing.  I got permission from a clerk and wandered around with my little camera.  This is what I saw.

Such a cheerful tree ornament emblazoned with colorful implements of Roman torture and death.
I confess I've never seen 'Scripture Candy' before.
I hope the risen Lord of the Universe has a sense of humor...
It took me a while to connect the gummi caterpillars and butterflies with Jesus.  Am I supposed to meditate on spiritual transformation while I eat the butterfly? Still working on this one.
Another depiction of a Roman means of execution, emblazoned with an American flag (why?) and the Lord's prayer for good measure.  Covering all bases.
These flag emblazoned execution implements are evidently popular.  Too bad the quote is about Israel and not about us.
So cute!  And spiritual, too.  You can feel good about giving this to just about anyone!
I love the subtle, not too obvious, witnessing value of this natty hat.
I'm not sure what a 'Cardinal Snow Globe' has to do with the Glory of God, but I may be thinking too hard on this one.
How could anyone refuse 'a message from God'?  An ideal gift for your non-Christian relatives and friends.
Just think of all the witnessing opportunities this 'soar on eagle's wings' wallet will open up for you!
Still trying to figure out what the Roman implement of execution, slogan and verse have to do with the sewing kit inside...  I'm stumped.

And now, it being a 'bookstore' and all, there are lots of different kinds of bibles.  These are just a few of the lots and lots one can choose from:
How could I, of all people, resist the 'Safari Bible'?
And I'm sure there's a niche market for this somewhere.

I cannot for the life of me figure out what the 'flora & fauna Bible' is all about.
The historian in me thinks this is a bit creepy, but I'm trying not to judge a book by its cover.
The Bible to resolve all difficulties?
My elementary school was segregated until 1969.  I'm so relieved they've finally taken steps to integrate at least this Bible.
It's already pretty long.  I'm not sure how much more [expanded] it needs to be.
Words escape me.  Just weird.
My favorite.  I must have one.
All those Bibles require something to carry them around in:

On my way to the door, I came across a few more choice items that I had to muster all the willpower I could to keep myself from rushing to the cash register and emptying my wallet.  Here's one:

I'm sure it was only a matter of time.  Will my hands get cleaner because it's 'Scriptural'?
This is what most of the store looked like.  So you can see that I really had to pick and choose what to share with you, dear reader.
I must say, that was an astonishing cultural experience.  I learned that 'bookstore' doesn't necessarily mean 'bookstore'.  I also learned that 'Christian' more often than not means having some sort of Scripture verse or Christian emblem or slogan affixed to the item or its packaging.  And I also learned that American Christians seem to think this is normal.  I've been in Africa way too long.