The Other Francis

June 24, 2015

Pope-Francis-Jorge-Bergoglio

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The imaging and messaging of the media portrait of Pope Francis is perhaps not unlike the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus: you see what you want to see. 

Famously, that was Albert Schweitzer’s indictment of the “first quest” for the historical Jesus. The strange, supernatural, other-worldly, apocalyptic Jesus is not suitable for the progressive 19th century man. The kingdom of love, however, is perfectly suitable, so long as it does not require a whole lot of personal sacrifice — nor the most offensive of all concepts: the miraculous.

As others have observed, the current Pontiff is deeply rooted in Latin American piety, with all of its strangeness and vivid sense of the supernatural. He is also a profoundly “modern” man. This is a contradiction for our cultural elites, who energetically resolve the contradiction. The result is a highly selective portrait of Pope Francis. It is a portrait that they have painted for our consumption. We are, indeed, eager and insatiable consumers.

As I have complained before, Pope Francis is widely misunderstood and misreported. He embodies a Catholic social ethic that is incommensurate with the dominant ideologies of the West. This social ethic is, at turns, liberal and conservative. It is, at turns, comforting and discomforting to both liberals and conservatives. The recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is an excellent case in point.

The liberal adulation is predictable, as is the conservative repudiation. The latter has been duly criticized by others, so I am more interested in the former. Sandro Magister, the Italian journalist at L’Espresso, has been highlighting this problem of liberal selectivity since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, and he steadfastly continues to do the same in regard to the recent encyclical:

If one reads “Laudato si’” with patience, in fact, one passage that coincides with the ideas of Gotti Tedeschi [on sin and the loss of God] is there, in paragraph 50:

“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”

But this passage has been ignored by almost all the world’s media.

And the same neglect has fallen upon other passages of the encyclical in which Pope Francis condemns abortion, in paragraph 120, experimentation on embryos, in paragraph 136, the cancellation of sexual differences, in paragraph 155.

It must be said, however, that the almost universal disregard of these passages cannot be imputed to their slight prominence in the overflowing totality of “Laudato Si’.”

[“The Other Francis: The One Who Preaches Chastity Before Marriage”]

In addition to Sandro Magister, I expected to read competent and insightful observations from Father Robert Barron. I was not disappointed. I have previously praised Fr. Barron — here and here and here.

Fr. Barron released a brief video in response to the encyclical:

And today, Fr. Barron published an informative article: “‘Laudato Si’ and Romano Guardini.”

Rachel Lu, writing for The Federalist, has a similar take: “Pope Francis’s New Encyclical is Not What You Think.” On the other side of the debate, The Federalist has also posted a number of critical responses. You can read Peter Johnson’s “Pope Francis’s Incoherent Economics” and Maureen Mullarkey’s “Where Did Pope Francis’s Extravagant Rant Come From?” The Acton Institute has also released some video responses to the encyclical, such as Jay Richards’ thoughts.

I am not competent enough to know the merits to these criticisms. All I know is that I like how Pope Francis upsets everyone.

Don’t worry, this is still a theology blog. I am working through Paul Molnar’s super-fantastic new book, for which I will post a review soon.

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In the meantime, I would like to authoritatively declare this to be the best song of the 90’s:

“Hunger Strike,” Temple of the Dog

Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder are trading vocals, so how could this not be epic? For the uninformed, Temple of the Dog was a tribute band/album with members from Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Mother Love Bone, dedicated to the memory of Mother Love Bone’s lead singer, Andrew Wood, who died from a drug overdose in 1990.

To make matters confusing, Stone Gossard on rhythm guitar and Jeff Ament on bass guitar were members of Mother Love Bone and then became two of the founding members of Pearl Jam after Wood’s death. They are still members of Pearl Jam. The drummer is Matt Cameron, who was then the drummer for Soundgarden, but he is now the drummer for Pearl Jam (since 1998). Currently, he is also the drummer for the regrouped Soundgarden since 2010. These are all, of course, citizens of that sleepy, depressing township known as Seattle.

Temple of the Dog

Temple of the Dog

Now if you are ever on Jeopardy and select the “90’s grunge” category, you can thank me.

For the record, the greatest 90’s grunge album is not from either Pearl Jam or Soundgarden. It is Alice in Chain’s Jar of FliesNow you know.

Pray for Joey Feek

June 14, 2015

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana

Joey Feek and daughter, Indiana Feek

I recently posted a performance of “Are You Washed in the Blood?” by the husband-wife country duo, Joey and Rory. They are much beloved by traditional country fans. Their joyful and warm Christian piety is infectious.

Joey gave birth last year for the first time, to a daughter with Down Syndrome. Ken Morton has a lovely story about how Joey and Rory gave an unsolicited show for special needs children at the Golf & Guitars charity event in 2013. Soon thereafter, they learned that Joey was pregnant, and she gave birth about nine months after the charity event. As Ken puts it, “Little Indiana was born with Down Syndrome and I can’t help but think that their performance for a few dozen of our own California Eagles kids wasn’t some sort of audition for them to be parents to a beautiful little special needs girl in front of the heavens.”

Just a few months after giving birth, Joey learned that she had cervical cancer. She scheduled for surgery, which was successful in removing the cancer. But this morning, her husband (Rory) announced that the cancer has returned. You can read the announcement on Rory’s blog. This is so heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking for anyone — but especially for a young mother with a special needs daughter. And it is heartbreaking for all of us who know how special, how beautiful this couple is. They are the salt of the earth.

Rory expresses their faith:

Here’s what Joey and I know…

God has a plan, and His plan is our plan.  Each day that we’re given is a beautiful gift from Him to us.  And while we will pray each day for a miracle, we’re gonna live each day as if it’s a miracle.  And it is.

“Lord, as believers… we trust you completely and pray for your will to be done.  Not ours.

But as flesh and bone, husband and wife… we pray for complete and total healing in Joey’s body, so we can grow old together, holding hands in rockers on our front porch watching the sun go down.

So that our sweet little baby Indiana can not miss one precious moment with her mama.

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.”

Pray for Joey and her husband. And after you pray, you can enjoy this beautiful performance of “A Bible and a Belt”:

Simone-Weil

Simone Weil

Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.

[“The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, p. 68.]

As some of you know, I did my undergraduate thesis in Religious Studies on the French mystic-philosopher, Simone Weil. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I was introduced to Simone Weil by one of the philosophy professors, who described herself as a Platonist Anglican. For those of us fortunate to take her classes, she also assigned the Platonist novelist, Iris Murdoch, not surprisingly.

I was enraptured by Weil. I hated her and loved her with equal passion. She demands nothing less.

Simone Weil was a Gnostic. I resisted the “Gnostic” identification for Weil for a long time, even though it is common in Weil studies. I resisted it because Weil is far more interesting, far more important than the libel associated with Gnosticism. “Anti-matter”? “Anti-creation?” Superficially, yes, because our profound suffering requires a love that supersedes all principalities and powers. But alongside suffering, she believed that beauty was the surest path to God, and she believed this with the utmost seriousness and an integrity that should put us all to shame.

Simone Weil is an anomaly. She makes other anomalies appear tame by comparison. Pascal and Kierkegaard are her immediate forebears, at least in general qualifications and applications. This is why she is homeless. Feminists do not know what to do with her. Christians are equally perplexed.

Weil is a heretic, but she is a noble heretic. She is a heretic that the church needs in order to survive and thrive.

In the marriage feast of the new creation, I will drink wine with Simone Weil. I will wipe her tears, and she will kiss mine.

 

Monty Python explains:

Be aware: adult content.

“That’s what being a Protestant is all about.” Hilarious!

Jamie Lin Wilson

Jamie Lin Wilson

This is an impressive list, if I do say so myself. The quality here is enough to incline listeners of any genre, assuming that you are not an adolescent. I label these artists as “alt-country” in the literal sense: alternative to mainstream country radio.

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Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

In 2013, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern was probably the most acclaimed and talked-about release from a country/Americana artist outside of Nashville’s mainstream. Next month, his follow-up album will be released: Something More Than Free. The expectations are high, not normally a good thing for an artist. But I am hopeful. Isbell has the maturity to make significant, long-term contributions to the genre. Below is a recent performance on Letterman, who frequently showcased authentic country on his show. Jason is accompanied by his very lovely and very pregnant wife, Amanda Shires:

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Chris Stapleton, Traveller

This will be on the “best of 2015” lists for many music critics. I guarantee it. What Sturgill Simpson did in 2014, Chris Stapleton will do in 2015. He has already established an impressive reputation in Nashville, writing songs for mainstream artists who are not worthy of his talent. His debut album, Traveller, was released last month. As if his lyrics and musicianship were not enough, he also has an incredible voice. Here is his performance on Letterman:

His wife, Morgane, frequently accompanies him on stage.

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Logan Brill, Shuteye

At 24 years old, Logan Brill is wise beyond her years — mature songwriting, thoughtful lyrics, and a good sense for what makes a song special. Her debut album was released two years ago, recognized by That Nashville Sound as one of the best albums of the year. Her sophomore release, Shuteye, is even better. It was released this week, and you can stream it on Spotify. Each song is unique in regard to what influences she brings to the table. Overall, she reminds me of Holly Williams, my favorite singer-songwriter of the last ten years. Here is the third track from Shuteye, “The Woman On Your Mind” (with David Nail):

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Sam Outlaw, Angeleno

Sam Outlaw is 32 years old and part of the Southern California country scene. His debut album is due next Tuesday, June 9. The A&E section of The Wall Street Journal has the “exclusive premier” of the album. It’s good — very, very good — with some great diversity and intelligent musicianship. The best song title: “Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar).” Oh, yes! Here is the video for the lead track:

You should also watch “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink (And Fall in Love),” from his EP last year. It’s adorable.

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Jamie Lin Wilson, Holidays & Wedding Rings

The review at Saving Country Music says it well: “This is a songwriter’s album in the traditional Texas sense, meaning the music and approach first and foremost focuses on exposing the truth of the lyric. Everything else falls into place behind that. It’s a country record, but one that doesn’t go out of its way to justify its country-ness; it worries more about telling the story.” Her solo debut, Holidays & Wedding Rings, was released a couple weeks ago. Here is “Just Like Heartache”:

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Will Hoge, Small Town Dreams

Released in April, Small Town Dreams is Will Hoge’s ninth album and his second for Cumberland Records, an indie label in Nashville. Hoge is a native Tennessean, and he has spent years in Nashville — writing for other artists and for his own records. I saw him in concert here in Charlotte a couple months ago, and he is fantastic. His style is very similar to the thriving Texas music scene, which is basically a continuation of 90’s country. Here is the lead single, “Middle of America”:

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.

Baptist

The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.

Lutheran

The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.

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What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

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Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.