Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Review of Tripp York's The Politics of Martyrdom

The first volume of the polyglossia series provided me with a wonderful reentry into Mennonite theology. Volume Two was not a bad follow up . . . (thanks to Canadian Mennonite for the review copy)
In The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom Tripp York offers commentary on the social and ecclesial implications and meanings of dying for one’s faith. Perhaps more importantly for us York demonstrates how the possibility of martyrdom is tied up in the basic practices of the church which are inherently social and political. Martyrdom is not reserved for the super-human Christians but Christians are made able to become martyrs as the journey down the path of Christian practice and worship.
In the first chapter York lays out the fundamental themes of his book. By looking at the early church York demonstrates that martyrdom is public act. This act can be understood as a contest and a testimony. Often times potential martyrs were brought into the coliseum for public display to see if individuals would recant or at least break down and plead for mercy. Many of the early Christians did not see the contest as being between them and the wild beasts that they faced or even against an emperor. Rather the Christian “provided a vision of the actual celestial battle taking place between Christ and Satan” (35). The martyr’s life was taken up into the cosmic battles between good and evil. This understanding was possible because not only was the death of the martyr important but so was their life. Martyrdom was not possible because of a sudden burst of spiritual strength and resolve but because of the daily and nourishment of the church life. Martyrs are an example to us as much in their life as in their death.
After establishing his basic themes York goes on in chapter two to explore the Christian’s physical body as the field of conflict between faithful and unfaithful expressions. York then moves to the sixteenth-century in chapter three which is a move from pagans killing Christians to Christians killing Christians and the tension over who is a martyr and who is just a criminal. In chapter four York addresses the particular type of politics that the martyr’s demonstrate. Finally in chapter five York explores the life and message of Oscar Romero as a contemporary example of the politics of martyrdom. While the final chapter can be viewed as the ‘practical’ expression of York’s historical and theological accounts in the earlier chapters it would a mistake to do so missing the pervasive and persistent pleas to his readers throughout the book.
Chapter two, Body: The Field of Combat, demonstrates the sensual and bodily nature of early Christian spirituality. York is clear that the early martyr accounts view the spiritual battle waged by Christ as happening on the plane of the bodies of the faithful. Throughout this chapter York is asking the contemporary church to consider how it handles the bodies of its members through life and worship because for him the possible political significance of the church hangs in these practices.
Chapter three, Performance: The Sixteenth Century Debacle, attempts to walk the line between a Christian being persecuted or being prosecuted. After Constantine and into the Reformation church practices and beliefs were ecclesially but politically. Beliefs about baptism and communion were matters of life and death. And so to die a martyr or to be executed a criminal was a matter of doctrine. From this situation York asks the contemporary question of truth and its relations to doctrine and denomination. Is it possible that both the Catholic and Anabaptist church were faithful to Christ in the midst of its persecution and prosecution?
Chapter four, City: Enduring Enoch, attempts to flesh out some of the implications of his study. He frames the post-Reformation relationship between the church and state as own of the state’s perverse parody of the church establishing its presence as body with its own story of salvation. York then describes the church not simply as an alternative to the state but rather as preceding the state founded and nourished by the body of Christ. The church functions as a city that overcomes the world’s boundaries of space and time allowing fluid participation of people across borders and eras.
After exploring the life of Oscar Romero in chapter five as an example of some of what he has been trying York concludes by offering the Eucharist as the centre and source of the vision we are given from the martyrs and then reminds us that the martyrs are important because they point to Christ which is to be the aim of any faithful expression.
York takes some very large strides in this book moving across disciplines, eras, denominations, and continents. While this has surely limited York’s ability to flesh out any one aspect thoroughly I would rather view the entire book as a type of introduction that is calling for the church to continue to recover and enact the resources that are offered to us here. In presenting to us the martyrs York offered no militant call to heroic and dynamic exploits. Instead York followed the arc back from their deaths into their lives and pointed us to the daily practices that shape a world without end.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Come All Ye Faithful

If there is one thing that I have been impressed with in preparing for sermons these days it has been in noticing the centrality of worship in the biblical witness.  This should of course go without saying and yet I don't think we reflect the biblical concern.  First it was returning to the prophets and before I listened to Isaiah's concern for social injustices I allowed myself to hear how this judgment is rooted in faithful worship or what had turned into unfaithful worship (Isaiah 1).  Then in Advent I reflected on the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary.  I took note for the first time that Gabriel is only mentioned in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and there Gabriel brings a political vision of the end of the world.  This vision came in the context of Daniel's prayer.  In Luke both Gabriel's message and Mary's response are steeped in Old Testament imagery.  The imagery is political but also liturgical.  There appears to be an integration of worship and politics that we (Mennonites) still do not yet fully understand (well I will speak for myself).  We say that worship and work are one but I am not sure that is helpful.  There is only worship.  There is only liturgy, whether it is to a true or a false god.

Now I am in the midst of preparing a message for Epiphany, the visitation of the Magi.  The Magi bring gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.  This gift giving is set in the larger context again of the Old Testament where the nations will come and bring their wealth to the house of God.  This imagery always disturbed me.  I never felt comfortable thinking that this vision was one of increasing power through the means of earthly wealth.  It did not fit with the experience of the Second Temple Israelites and certainly it did not fit with the ministry of Jesus.  I decided, however, do perform a simply search of 'gold', frankincense' and 'myrrh'.  What I found was that all of these materials are used predominantly if not exclusively for the purposes of worship, particularly in the Temple and Tabernacle.  Even gold's use as a measure of monetary worth is far and away overshadowed by use in worship.  Worship and work are not one.  There is only worship.  The nations who come with their treasures do so to join in the song.  This too is the vision of Revelation.  God's Kingdom is restored as a liturgical community.  It is from this place that peace and justice will be restored.  It is to this end that we must re-conceive both worship and work.  The center of our worshipping community has been born.  Come all ye faithful.  Come let us adorn him.


Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Note on Notes From The Underground

And then I read the line, “So this is it – this is it at last – a head-on clash with real life!” This was spoken by the Underground Man of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Having worked through his major and late novels I have been enjoying his earlier shorter works. This is where you see his ideas take a cruder form. It is here that you listen to his dress rehearsals and confirm you inklings about his vision. Dostoevsky will make any turn necessary so that there will be a possibility for the real. The Underground Man both despises and feels despised by his anonymous audience. He attempts to recount his life with brutal honesty which means being honestly deceptive at times. He throws any notion of consistency out into the street for it is being tossed on your head into the street that one might actually learn something about one’s self. The Underground Man concludes spitefully that he was sorry for ever starting this account of his life recognizing that is was a pursuit in vanity and has move away from literature. For, “[a] novel must have a hero, and here I seemed to have deliberately gathered together all the characteristics of an anti-hero, and, above all, all this is certain to produce a most unpleasant impression because we have all lost touch with life, we are all cripples, every one of us – more or less.” He goes to tell us that because of our disability with are left with a disgust for any encounter, any taste with ‘real life.’ In response to any rejections his audience might raise for this view the writer continues by saying that, “for my part, I have merely carried to extremes in my life what you have not dared to carry even half-way, and, in addition, you have mistaken your cowardice for common sense and have found comfort in that, deceiving yourselves.” And even after this the Underground Man is not finished.

My opening quotation came about half-way through this short story and immediately guided me the rest of the way. It has crystallized for me what is clear to all of us. As humans we act out and articulate the desire for something ‘real’. I don’t think we do this for all of our life. Realness in childhood is knowing that the world is more than it is. Realness is creative and unstable. Realness becomes in young adulthood more concrete as we begin to pursue tangible goals in love and vocation. Because the real was always more and bigger than ourselves it was never captured or tamed and so in time most of us began to simply give up on the real and sought the comfortable and stable. And so from below the order streets and time-conscious pedestrians the Underground Man emerges not with a challenge but with an assertion and a condemnation. I have followed through and looked around the corners of the dark corridors of the real. I have said yes to all of life. The pitch of the Underground Man rises in its crescendo. In deceiving yourselves “as a matter fact, I seem to be much alive than you. Come, look into it more closely! Why, we do not even know where we are to find real life, or what it is, or what it is called. . . . We even find it hard to be men, men of real flesh and blood, our own flesh and blood. We are ashamed of it. We think it a disgrace.” The Underground Man includes himself in this condemnation.

This short piece also confirmed for me the thought that the dominant two forms of pursuing the real for men are sex and violence. The slogan for The Ultimate Fighting Championship is As Real as it Gets. In these matches two hyper-masculine men enter an intimate and solitary space where they touch and embrace, sweat and grown moving from one position to another until there is climax and exhaustion. There is an overt sexuality to this expression that dangles right in front of the aroused spectator but remains unnamed. Conversely of course sexuality remains the oldest field of battle for position and dominance. And the vast majority do not even go so far as engaging in these expressions but rather we remain passive, insulated observers allowing the barest union between what is happening in front of us and what we are experiencing. These are the only two plotlines in Notes. First it is the author’s confrontation (verging on physical) with his peers. The second is with a woman he meets a hotel where he hopes to confront the men he spoke of the first half of the work. So it would seem that Dostoevsky also acknowledges these two paths of the real for men. I would argue, however, that the difference is Dostoevsky’s willingness to wrestle internally and then to vulnerably articulate externally. It is in his process where there is the possibility of ‘real life’ and not in the story itself. The Underground Man himself warns of the comfort we find living by the ‘book’ (we could substitute television now). Do not assume that this story itself will be of any aid to you. It is simply an account, a testimony, of one who wrestled.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Celebration of the Culture Industry

In Adorno and Horkheimer's The Dialectic of Enlightenment we come across a rant of the poverty of western arts seeing as they have become consumed in the larger culture industry.  With the rise of the techonological rationale comes the homogenization of expression (in its mass production).  All expressions despite input, varying budgets, and plots all come to the same end.  With regard to television they write, "Televison aims at the synethesis of radio and film, and is held up only because interested partes have not yet reached agreement, but its consequences will be quite enormous and promise to intensify the impoverisment of aesthetic matter so drastically, taht by tomorrow the thinly veiled identity of all industrial culture products can come triumphantly out into the open, derisively fulfilling the Wangerian dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk - the fusion of all arts in one work."  Then referring to producers they go on to say that, "Not only are the hit songs, stars, and soap operas cyclically recurrent and rigidly invariable types, but teh specific content of the entertainment itself is derived from them and only appears to change.  The details are interchangeable.  The short interval sequence which was effective in a hit song, the hero's momentary fall from grace, the rough treatment which the beloved gets from the male star, the latter's rugid defiance of the spoilt heiress, are, like all th other details, ready-made cliches to be slotted in anywhere; they do anything more than fulfill the purpose allotted them in the overall plan."
In a response to Ben's 10 Theological Theses on Art poserorprophet (p.o.p.) offered an alternative 10 theses based primarly on the work of Adorno. p.o.p. questioned aesthetic form and expression in the west because of its implication in the larger system of death.  I appreciated his rigorous response but in the end I felt that they first of all were not really alternative theses at all but instead placed a kind of control on beauty which is simply not appropriate.  p.o.p. ended up affirming though limiting much of what Ben was getting at, I think but on his own terms.  The trajectory of the Messiah is indeed towards the cross and much of (and perhaps most of) the beauty in this world is born of suffering.  Above this though the trajectory of Christ is one of freedom, the most truly free life.  I do not see p.o.p.'s articulation allowing for both the judgment and freedom of Christ.
This was actually not meant to be a very theological post.  I just wanted to set up the following videos by Girl Talk.  Adorno and Horkheimer expose the monolithicity of western art and Girl Talk seems to celebrate it.  If indeed all songs are the same and the details interchangeable then Girl Talk may herald the end of the world bringing them all together in one apocalyptic anthem.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Now Former Leader of Our Opposition Party in Canada - Wow


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Response to Zizek Review

A great response to the buzz around TNR's review of Zizek.