Monday, July 25, 2011

Bishop Gene Robinson: In the Eye of the Storm (2008)

Bishop Gene Robinson is perhaps the third best-known Episcopal/Anglican bishop around the world (after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Desmond Tutu): all because he’s been – reluctantly – the ‘Martin Luther’ of a new reformation in the church, advocating equality for glbt people.  

Wikipedia tells us that ‘the existence of homosexual bishops in the Roman CatholicAnglican, and other traditions is a matter of historical record, though never, until recently, considered licit by any of the main Christian denominations. Homosexual activity was engaged in secretly. When it was made public, official response ranged from inaction to expulsion from Holy Orders. As far back as the eleventh century, Ralph, Archbishop of Tours had his lover installed as Bishop of Orléans, yet neither Pope Urban II, nor his successor Paschal II took action to depose either man.
The article continues: 

It is in contemporary Anglicanism that the issue of homosexuality and its relationship to people in the episcopate has been confronted openly. Indeed, the only large mainstream church to ever consecrate an openly gay bishop who was not celibate has been the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, a member of the Anglican Communion, which consecrated Gene Robinson diocesan bishop of Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. [1]

More from Wikipedia, on Vicki Gene Robinson (born May 29, 1947):  ‘[He] went public with his sexual identity and divorced in the 1980s. Robinson was elected bishop by the New Hampshire diocese on June 7, 2003, at St. Paul's Church in Concord. Wearing a bullet-proof vest he was consecrated on November 2, 2003 ([and] Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated that he did not see what "all the fuss" was about’) [2]
In the Eye of the Storm Gene Robinson’s passionate (but graciously expressed) thesis is that ‘the planets seem to be aligned today’ for the full civil rights of glbt people - a struggle similar to those of the civil rights and feminist movements. He asserts that the way we think about sexual orientation today was unknown in biblical times. He supports sexual abstinence outside of committed relationships, and theologically would be regarded as a ‘moderate conservative’. His God is a God of radical inclusion, who wants to lift up all the oppressed, including women, minorities and the poor.

In the Eye of the Storm is a book of Robinson’s favorite homilies, spiced here and there with a few autobiographical details - like his childhood in a poor, uneducated, and deeply Christian family in rural Kentucky where his parents were tenant farmers; his first marriage by which he had two children; his treatment for alcohol dependence (there’s only one sentence about that); and his twenty-year commitment to partner Mark Andrews – about whom we learn almost nothing.

He comes across as a sensitive, warm and forgiving man – traits not always practised by many of his critics – who is utterly committed to the prophetic call to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God’ (not – as the Prayer Book wrongly states – to ‘love justice [and] to do mercy…’) [3]   
Gay issues are essentially about social justice, and he views acceptance of lgbt people as inevitable.

Here are some bits I marked:

·      ‘Some estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of Roman Catholic priests are gay’ (18) [4]

·      ‘We’ve seen more promiscuity among gay men, not because both men are gay, but because both men are men. Studies of lesbian women show little or no interest in promiscuity’ (41)

·      ‘Literally hundreds of rights and protections afforded heterosexual couples at the utterance of “I do” are not available to us. The kinds of protections that became instantly available to Britney Spears – who, on a lark, decided one night in Las Vegas to get married – are not available to Mark and me despite twenty years of love and fidelity’ (48)

·      ‘[A Canadian bishop is] being lambasted around the world for blessing the union of two same-gender loving people. He and his people may be wondering why, if we can bless fox hunts and fishing fleets, we cannot bless two people who pledge to love one another in a faithful, monogamous, life-long-intentioned union and who seek the church’s blessing on that holy endeavor’ (98)

·      ‘To many, asking gay folk to return to church is like asking an abused wife to return to her abusive husband’ (99)

Gene Robinson knows that he will ‘never again be in a “small room.” Because of the high level of media attention, followed by the close scrutiny of those who oppose me, I'm never in a trusting, safe environment where I can let my guard down. Someone is always watching and will use anything I say against me’ (46).

I want to echo the heartfelt words from Desmond Tutu’s Foreword: ‘May I wholly inadequately apologize to my sisters and brothers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered for the cruelty and injustice that you have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of us, your fellow Anglicans; I am sorry. Forgive us for all the pain we have caused you and which we continue to inflict on you. Gene Robinson is a wonderful human being, and I am proud to belong to the same church as he.’

[1] Wikipedia article ‘Gay Bishops’
[2] Wikipedia ‘Vicki Gene Robinson’
[3] p. 125
[4] Elizabeth Stuart, Chosen: Gay Catholic Priests Tell Their Stories, 1993


Rowland Croucher
July 2011

Friday, July 22, 2011

Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (2009)

I have an unusual hobby: I collect generalizations. The scholars who supply them have a magisterial grasp of their subject, and can offer outrageously simple ‘global statements’ without fear of contradiction. This book is full of them.

Harvey Cox retired from the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard University in October 2009 (he was the ninth person to hold this prestigious post which, established in 1727, is the oldest endowed professorship in American higher education.)

I remember as a theological student reading his The Secular City when it was first published in 1965: and I’m not surprised it’s sold one million copies.

An ordained Baptist minister, Cox’s main area of interest has been trends in global Christianity (its history, geography, theology and spirituality) with a special focus on Latin American liberation theology. In 1900 90% of Christians lived either in Europe or in the US but today 60 percent live in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. Dr Cox writes: ‘Since the vast majority of people in this “new Christendom” are neither white nor well-off, their theological questions center less on the existence or nonexistence of God or the metaphysical nature of Christ than on why poverty and hunger still stalk God’s world. It is little wonder that liberation theology, the most creative theological movement of the twentieth century, did not originate in Marburg or Yale, but in the tar-paper shacks of Brazil and the slums of South Korea.’

This readable book is a cross between autobiography and polemics. Cox takes us on a journey through three phases of the evolution of Christianity: the Age of Faith (kiboshed – my word – by Constantine), the Age of Belief and the Age of the Spirit. His sympathies are categorically with the first and last of these, and his vitriol is mostly reserved for institutional and theological fundamentalisms of all kinds. The early churches were vibrant, enthusiastic communities dedicated to ‘following’ Jesus. But in ‘The Age of Belief’ from the fourth to the twentieth centuries, faith became entangled with rituals, liturgies and creeds, orthodox theology mostly replaced personal religion, and a stifling clericalism developed.

So the gist of The Future of Faith can be summarized thus: the church world-wide is in good shape when it jettisons at least three concomitants of ‘Constantinianism’ – institutionalism, hierarchicalism, and creedalism. These three destructive tendencies are not compatible with the church as a missional community; they destroy faith (as distinct from ‘beliefs’). Cox reckons the Pentecostals in Latin America (those influenced by the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and liberation theology rather than Western notions of ‘prosperity theology’) point the way to a dynamic ‘Age of the Spirit’. One of the key secrets of these ecclesial communities’ social justice ministries? They make lists – lists of people in their neighbourhood who need help. And – importantly - they and the Catholic ‘base ecclesial communities’ are not imprisoned within a fundamentalism of ‘Jesus as personal savior whose mission [is] to rescue them from a sinful world…’

‘Faith is resurgent, while dogma is dying. The spiritual, communal and justice-seeking dimensions of Christianity are now its leading edge as the twenty-first century hurtles forward, and this change is taking place along with similar reformations in other world religions’ (p.212). So the healthiest Christianity emphasizes faith as a way of life (rather than the fundamentalists’ doctrinal boxes we must tick), respectful inter-faith dialogue, and ‘deeds not creeds’ (his quote from conservative pastor Rick Warren).

‘Christianity came to birth in the midst of cultural change — it is a movement born to travel – it takes on life with each succeeding cultural transition. But for this to happen again, some old wine-skins must be discarded, and the incubus of a self serving and discredited picture of Christian origins must be set aside’ (p.184). ‘We stand on the beautiful threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story – Christians on five continents are shaking off the residues of the second phase (the Age of Belief) and negotiating a bumpy transition into a fresh era for which a name has not yet been coined. I would like to call it the Age of the Spirit’ (p.8).

For Cox, faith starts with awe, not propositions. ‘It begins with a mixture of wonder and fear all human beings feel toward the mystery that envelops us. But awe becomes faith only as it ascribes some meaning to that mystery.’ (Interesting that. As I pondered where my Christian faith began, I have to say it wasn’t awe – though that came later – but a commitment to the person and teaching of Jesus…).

Harvey Cox would probably not categorize himself a ‘theological progressive’, but critiques that movement as he does all others. (You’ll be hard-pressed to find here any reference to Spong or Crossan: Borg, I think, is mentioned just once – or N T Wright or John Stott for that matter. And interestingly he doesn’t cite any websites in his references/ endnotes).

Here’s the best quote in the book:

‘I have often seen what damage both fundamentalist literalism and historical-critical skepticism can do to otherwise thoughtful and serious people. Take the critical specialists with a grain of salt: they are not experts in what the Bible means for today. And the fundamentalists? Their literalistic reading is a modern and questionable one.’ (p. 168)

This readable book is a real page-turner! You can get the paperback edition post-free from the Book Depository for AUD $14-78: excellent value.


Rowland Croucher

July 2011


Monday, July 11, 2011

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso (1937)

This is a study of how much pain can be communicated by a human face. It has the features of a specific person, Dora Maar, whom Picasso described as "always weeping". She was in fact his close collaborator in the time of his life when he was most involved with politics.
Let your eyes wander over the sharp surface and you are led by the jagged black lines to the picture's centre, her mouth and chin, where the flesh seems to have been peeled away by corrosive tears to reveal hard white bone. The handkerchief she stuffs in her mouth is like a shard of glass. Her eyes are black apertures. When you are inside this picture you are inside pain; it hits you like a punch in the stomach.
Picasso's insistence that we imagine ourselves into the excoriated face of this woman, into her dark eyes, was part of his response to seeing newspaper photographs of the Luftwaffe's bombing of Guernica on behalf of Franco in the Spanish civil war on April 26, 1937. This painting came at the end of the series of paintings, prints and drawings that Picasso made in protest. It has very personal, Spanish sources. In May 1937 Picasso's mother wrote to him from Barcelona that smoke from the burning city during the fighting made her eyes water. The Mater Dolorosa, the weeping Virgin, is a traditional image in Spanish art, often represented in lurid baroque sculptures with glass tears, like the very solid one that flows towards this woman's right ear. Picasso's father, an artist, made one for the family home.
This painting takes such associations and chews them to pulp. It is about the violence that we feel when we look at it, about translating the rawest human emotion into paint. Its origins lie in the tortured figures of Picasso's Guernica (1937), whose suffering is calculated to convey you beyond the photographs of the bombing to sense momentarily what it was to be there. In Guernica there is a screaming woman holding her dead baby, her tongue a dagger pointing at heaven. The baby's face is a cartoon of death. Picasso followed Guernica with his series of Weeping Woman paintings in which the woman's mourning continues, without end. She cries and cries. In different versions the Weeping Woman's face is crushed to an abject lump, twisted out of recognition. 

Extract from an article by Jonathan Jones, May 13, 2000, The Guardian


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