Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"The End of the Spear" -- A Movie Review

The End of the Spear
An Every Tribe Movie production, starring Louie Leonardo

Movie Review by Richard Kew

Exactly fifty years ago, in January 1956, the United States was galvanized when it learned that five young men, missionaries in the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon River basin, had been speared to death on a sand bar that jutted into a remote tributary where they were attempting to reach a savage indigenous tribe. Life magazine carried the story, and about eighteen months later the widow of one of the men, Elisabeth Elliot, published her extraordinary telling of their tale, Through Gates of Spleandor. This book is now considered a missionary classic.

At precisely the same time these men were giving up their lives for the Lord Jesus Christ in a remote jungle I came into contact with the first lively Christian people I had ever met, and during the following years as I was slowly discovering the meaning of the faith, this story was almost always there in the background. Implicit in my responding to Christ's claim on my life was the notion that there might be a high price to pay for taking up this challenge of faith, and the deaths of
Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and the others was used as illustration.

Before I saw it I wondered, therefore, what filmmakers would do with this stirring tale once they got their hands on it. I came away from the theatre understanding better what the whole business was about. This was the first movie based on facts that I had ever seen that recounted events without hyping them and seemingly without distorting it for its own ends. Indeed, knowing well the stream of evangelicalism from which these missionaries came, I would have to say that the whole thing was
probably grossly understated rather than over-sold.

The movie is a story within a story. It tells, mainly from the viewpoint of the tribal people, the Waodani or Auca, what was going on. It cuts from the missionaries' homes and families to the homes and families of these little indigenous groups living in the jungle, and how with the aid of an old Piper Cub, their worlds began to transect one another. Finally, the five men, leaving their wives and children back in relative safety, encountered the warriors of the tribe on that spit of sand where Nate Saint had landed his little craft.

All seemed to go well at first, then as a result of a confusion of lies of misunderstanding the warriors became frightened, and turned on the missionaries and brutally murdered them with their spears. Among the young warriors was Mincayani, and it was he who put his weapon through the chest of Nate Saint, seeing, as he did so, the photograph of Nate's young son, Steve, taped to the dash of the little plane.

Following the massacre, several of the women in the group put their own lives on the line and went with their children to live among the Waodani, helped nurse them through an epidemic of polio. Bit by bit these women played their part in enabling these folks to respond to Jesus Christ. I heard this part of the story first hand, because Elisabeth Elliot, one of the women and widow of Jim Elliot, the Wheaton-educated spiritual guru of the group, was a parishioner of mine thirty years ago. She and her daughter, Valerie, now spouse of a Presbyterian pastor, were part of that team.

Flash forward forty years, and Rachel Saint, Nate's unmarried sister who had lived all this time among the Waonani, dies of cancer, and Steve, the boy whose picture was taped to the plane's dash, goes down to Ecuador with his wife to participate in his aunt's funeral. While there the indigenous people challenge Steve to give up his comfortable life in Florida and to live among them. This he does, and in the process gets to know Mincayani, his father's murderer -- and the two men become like
father and son.

This is heavy stuff, but says something profoundly significant about the power of the Gospel to bring about reconciliation. The message is not presented in a preachy way, but with tact and sensitivity. By the end of the movie I was glued to my seat, profoundly moved to the point of trauma by all I had seen. Realizing that this might be the response of so many, the credits start rolling and have imbedded in them hilarious home video of the real Steve Saint and the real Mincayani when Saint
brings him on a visit to the United States.

We left the multiplex touched, moved, enriched, challenged, and entertained. Half of the profits from this film will go toward the work of an indigenous peoples' fund that Steve Saint has set up to preserve the ancestral lands of the Waonani, and other tribal peoples.

This was cinema at its best, and said something about the majesty of the Christian gospel when it touches the lives of ordinary men and women, calling them to go into all the world. Having known well one of the ordinary women who was part of that set of circumstances, I realize that the events in this production were about beings whose richness of faith enabled them to rise above the natural limitations of their own humanity.

For the last week I have been thinking of some words written by Jim Elliot in October 1949 which have forever been tied to that incident in the waters of the Amazon basin, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Musings on being Schismatic

I am sitting here in a state of dazedness, having survived yet another diocesan convention. I have never enjoyed conventions, and for me each year they become more and more of a pain and a burden. To some, they seem to be meat and drink -- but not me, rather they are something to be endured.

I was privileged to be re-elected to Bishop and Council for the Diocese of Tennessee, although I would prefer the privilege to the work that goes with it. I have found myself wondering in the last 24 hours whether this is the last elected office for which I will ever run and be elected. We will see. Now in our diocese we move on to the electing convention for a new bishop in seven weeks -- which will probably be even less "fun" than the annual gathering we have just endured.

While there were positive things that happened as far as the faithful in the diocese are concerned, the memory that I take away from this particular is the constant drip, drip, drip of misrepresentation and disinformation about the orthodox within the diocese and the wider church. Overtly, covertly, and snidely, the accusation was constantly made that to be orthodox is by definition to be schismatic, bent on destruction of the Episcopal Church. This has been going on for months now, with the Anglican Communion Network being elevated to the level of beast in Revelation in the minds of some, without them ever necessarily even talking to those who are part of the Network to see whether their perception is correct.

It does not seem to matter how many times and how forthrightly those being accused refute such charges, back they come. The refutation of charges has neither been heard, nor listened to. I suspect the rationale behind this is that if you keep throwing enough mud, eventually some is bound to stick. Meanwhile, the fact that we were sitting in that same room participating actively in the affairs of the church would seem to be evidence contrary to these assertions.

Out of curiosity this afternoon I looked up various definitions of a schismatic. One good one read that "schismatic as a noun denotes a person who creates or incites schism in a church or is a member of a splinter church, and schismatic as an adjective refers to ideas and things that are thought to lead towards or promote schism." Other definitions were more or less of the same flavor.

Now consider carefully the definition that a schismatic is someone who creates or incites schism; the adjective is about ideas that promote division. The divisive circumstances in which we find ourselves were certainly not created by those of us who affirm biblical orthodoxy, on the contrary, we pleaded that the actions which have led to our unhappy state would not be taken because we feared turmoil as a result. We were not listened to, and innovations quite contrary to historic Christianity were introduced into the life of the Episcopal Church -- turmoil ensued.

I have said to those of my colleagues who have thrown these words at me and then at least been prepared to hear my response, "Explain to me, please, how I am a schismatic because I am neither believing nor acting in any way differently than I have in the 37 years that I have been ordained. I affirm the same faith and essentially the same moral and ethical values that I did when I was ordained; that was not only perfectly acceptable when the bishop laid hands on me, but, indeed, back then such belief and values were required of me."

I have gone on, "My understanding of that faith has grown, matured and developed, but the substance is essentially the same. When the church acted in a manner which was contrary to how Christians have believed for two millennia then I disassociated myself from its actions. I continue to oppose them for the good of the church. In this I am merely keeping the vow that I made when I knelt before the Bishop of London in St. Paul's Cathedral, that I would be ready, 'with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous doctrines contrary to God's word.' What has happened is contrary to God's word."

Thus, I have told them, that within the context of the church I am not a schismatic, but am being the opposition, the loyal opposition, because I am loyal to what God has revealed and what the church has always held. Indeed, we are not the ones dividing the church with novel ideas, that has been done by those who adhere to what Paul calls "another gospel." All I am doing is defending the church from its own foolishness and unwillingness to live within the parameters that God has set, and its own formularies. My question then is, "How does this make me a schismatic?"

What often follows is usually some flim-flam of the we-know-better-today flavor, etc., etc. I can honestly say that I have yet to received a well-argued theological and philosophical refutation of what I have said, just as I have yet to read a well-argued theological defense of these actions that have divided us. This leaves me wondering why I should believe that an elistist little Protestant sect in North America knows better than the Communion of Saints down through the ages? Such is stance that the likes of C. S. Lewis described as chronological arrogance.

Sometimes when I have had such conversations, there is no attempt at all to answer what I have said, just the sense that I must be some kind of poor, benighted, unthinking, uneducated idiot who is caught in some kind of time warp. What is a medieval like me doing living in the postmodern world? In short, I lack enlightenment, I lack illumination, and I'm not really much of an Anglican!

The truth is that it is because I am a committed Anglican Christian that I wish to be part of the Anglican Communion, rather than be isolated from that Communion, and therefore the whole global ecumenical venture just because I affirm the peculiarities of the Episcopal Church of the USA. As Article XXI of that very Anglican document to which I assented at my ordination, the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, asserts, that councils "may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God." Right now we are living with the consequence of a council having erred big time, and then the supporters of that action then turn round and call those of us who stand four-square where the church has stood for centuries schismatics. Something is not right here.

This is nothing other than the total deconstruction of language, which is making the words we use mean what we, the users, want them to mean. It seems to me that we need to keep calling our erring colleagues on this one.

Inciting the unhappy division that is now rending us is the action of those who have stepped aside from what the church has always believed, and how the church has always behaved, in favor of something that is now, fashionable, and in tune with a prevailing culture that has all but shed its Christian clothing. This is not prophetic, it actually has more of the flavor of syncretism. The challenge before us in these circumstances is how to be loving, caring, pastoral, and truth-full all at the same time. This is a huge task, and we haven't even started to go there yet.

Monday, January 23, 2006

"The Last Word" by Tom Wright. A Review

The Last Word - Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. N. T. Wright (San Francisco: Harper, 2005) US$19.95

A Review by Richard Kew

Five years ago, when it was still possible for those of differing viewpoints have a relatively fair exchange of idea, I was drinking coffee with the rector of a large Episcopal congregation who is on the left hand side of the issues troubling us. One thing we agreed upon was the desperate need to deal with hermeneutics and the authority of Scripture. We both love the bible intensely, and neither of us was necessarily comfortable with the way "our side" handled it, so we felt the time had come to get this skunk out onto the table. Alas, events overtook us, and such a conversation is probably no longer possible in today's charge atmosphere.

Yet having read Tom Wright's latest book on the nature of Scripture's authority, I think we have here a tool which might help break up some of that logjam. In his preface, the Bishop of Durham says he was spurred to write about the authority of Scripture as a direct result of his significant involvement in the International Anglican Doctrinal and Theology Commission, as well as the Lambeth Commission which produced the Windsor Report. He dedicates the book to Bishop Stephen Sykes and Archbishop Robin Eames, the respective chairs of those panels.

When I was a very junior priest in Bristol, England, I attended a gathering at which J. I. Packer dialogued with one of the more 'liberal'intellects in the diocese about the task of Scripture. I remember only snippets of that afternoon, but a comment that stuck in my mind was Jim's observation that the next few decades would be spent ascertaining the place and nature of authority in the church.

What Packer said is truly the case, for in one way or another at the heart of so many of the battles that are rending the church today is our various understanding of the place of Scripture in this mix, and the way in which we interpret the text. The truth is, though, that our conversations about scripture (and almost everything else for that matter) are totally inadequate because they end up as personalized insult and bellicosity. Wright notes, "a good deal of debate is conducted today at a shallow and trivial level... We are all used to, and tired of, the heated exchanges which consist simply of name-calling ("fundamentalist," "radical" and so on)" (Page 21).

He goes on to point out that everyone is at fault. So-called conservatives ignore huge swathes of Scriptures' teaching in favor of focusing on their particularities, while those on the other side of the aisle spend their time "playing to a gallery stacked with iconoclasts" (Page 22). One of the problems is that gross polarizations have taken place in North America, spilling over to everywhere else, and this has not helped us as we seek to use the Scriptures appropriately in the significant debates of our times.

What Wright tries to do in The Last Word is to nudge us out of long-held and well-prepared positions, many of which are totally inadequate, in order that Scripture can speak powerfully both within the church and amidst the changed spiritual, social, political, ethical, and cultural topography in the West today. Bishop Wright offers little comfort to those on all sides who merely want to dig into worn out positions and lob shells at "the other side" from the safety of their own bunker.

This book is a pretty successful attempt by a massive intellect to give us lesser mortals a grasp of how he thinks we should understand and use the Bible in light of what he has learned of its place within the Christian tradition. It is his contention that contemporary discoveries and scholarship demand that we put our entrenched positions rising from the Reformation and the Enlightenment back into the hopper, and recognize that there is a great deal more to the Bible's authority in our lives than 2 Timothy 3:16. These 146 pages are, in fact, a commentary on a statement Tom Wright makes toward the outset that "the phrase 'authority of scripture' can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for 'the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture'" (Page 23).

What Wright is in fact doing is to demonstrate how he, one who was shaped and formed by a standard-issue British Evangelicalism of the 1960s and 1970s, has come to see the Bible's place in our thinking, acting, and believing, in light of years spent attempting to grapple with the whole swathe of biblical scholarship, without divorcing his calling as both scholar and pastor. He tells us that one of our problems is that we tend to use shorthand in our conversations about the bible, and the outcome is distortion. "The familiar phrase 'the authority of scripture' thus turns out to be more complicated than it might at first sight appear" (Page 24).

Shorthands, like the phrase 'the authority of scripture' are like suitcases in which we can carry complicated things around, but "too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases. It is time to unpack our shorthand doctrines, to lay them out and inspect them. Long years in the suitcase may have made some of the contents go moldy" (Page 25). We tend to forget that, excuse the pun, when we talk about the authority of scripture all of us carry around with it an awful lot of baggage from the church's and our own past.

Wright wants us to understand the richness of the story of God's engagement with his people and then to recognize that the authority of scripture is much larger than just how we happen to see and interpret the Bible. The doctrine of scripture's authority is "a sub-branch of several other theological topics: the mission of the church, the work of the Spirit, the ultimate future hope and the way it is anticipated in the present, and of course the nature of the church" (page 30).

He also wants us to recognize how our cultural environment has shaped our understanding of scripture, and then how the Enlightenment whittled away at the essence of what God's Kingdom and rule upon earth is all about. Authority, when we see it within the context of God's Kingdom plans, is much more than words through which God speaks to us. The Kingdom is about nothing less than God's work transforming the whole created order, and the authority of God within his Kingdom work is communicated to us, scripture having a peculiarly significant role.

The pithy theological analysis of this book is a masterpiece; yet there are so many tantalizing throw-away comments as he alludes to great areas of contemporary scholarship with which I am unfamiliar, that I kept wanting to say, "Stop, just a minute, enlarge on what you have just said." I found myself wanting to invite him to share with me a mug of good dark English beer in one of Durham's many pubs so that he could help me chew these things over.

One particular insight which struck me was this: "Recent study of the letters, and of the intention of the gospel writers, emphasizes the self-conscious was in which the New Testament authors believed themselves called to exercise their calling as 'authorized' teachers, by the guidance and power of the Spirit, writing books and letters to sustain, energize, shape, judge, and renew the church" (Page 51). Packed into this one sentence is enough for a whole day's conversation, and this was just one of those moments when I wished Bishop Tom had treated us to footnotes like those that abound in his heavier and more scholarly productions!

But he doesn't have time to pause, and just sweeps us on. He wants us to see that we live within a continuity with the early Christian community, rooted and grounded in the Israel of the Old Testament, and God's initiative in Christ to reform and transform God's people and God's world. "The written word, expressing and embodying the living word of the primitive gospel, was the Spirit-empowered agent through which the one creator God was reclaiming the cosmos, and as such it offered the way to a truly human life" (Page 58).

Wright then gives us a lightening tour through the first millennium and a half of the use of the bible, focusing on strenths and cul-de-sacs of the early and medieval church's use of the text, and that brings us screaching into the backyard of the Reformation. It is clear that some of the problems about the authority of the scriptures within the life of the church with which we struggle today are closely related to the Reformers' solutions, and the Counter-Reformation responses to their challenges then. We have managed to ossify them and turn them into weapons.

It is at this point that the Anglican in the writer comes to center stage, particularly in the wisdom of Richard Hooker, whose work more than four hundred years ago so shaped what has become the Anglican approach to the faith. Wright's priceless little summary of Hooker's understanding of the place of the written Word within the context of the living church, the nature of tradition and reason, and their interplay with it, is one very good reason for buying and digesting this book.

Here's a little teaser from that discussion. "Part of the legacy of Hooker... was precisely that holistic worldview which insists, not that scripture should be judged at the bar of 'reason' and found wanting, but that in reading and interpreting scripture we must do so not arbitarily, but with clear thinking and informed historical judgment" (Page 81).

This brings us to the Enlightenment, and then to the Enlightenment's successor and possible vanquisher, Postmodernity. The Reformation in many ways prepared the way for the Enlightenment, whose benefits Wright is swift to extol, however when it comes to the way we understand Christian believing and handle the scriptures, the Enlightenment leaves much to be desires. While the Enlightenment demands that we read the scriptures historically, the "Enlightenment project made deliberate attempts to demonstrate that such readings would in fact undermind the central Christian claims" (Page 84). It is within a landscape like this that many of us grew up, came to faith, learned our theology, and have sought to serve God within the church.

But if the mood of the Enlightenment was hauty, it is now being scrambled as Postmodernity comes along and challenges the Enlightenment's assumption that it knows best and it is the climax and summit of history. Whereas the Enlightenment taught us to pry the text apart with scientific precision, often reducing it to little bits, Postmodernity is at heart nihilistic, and asks us to deconstruct, "unmasking the power interests latent in texts and movements, not least those of the last two hundred years..." (Page 96). It is not the text, Postmodernity says, it is ourselves as we interpret the text that are most important.

Here's a personal aside. What has fascinated me in these last few years has been that those within the church who have been most on-board with the Enlightenment's mindset, are those most eager to use deconstruction -- one of the tools that most significantly challenges the ground upon which the Enlightenment stood. When we come to the bible those of a deconstructionist ilk have rendered "whole books unusuable because those writings are deemed guilty of what the postmodern Western world regards, in its new and highly self-righteous judgmentalism, as unforgivable ideological sins" (Page 97-98). Again, Wright's discussion of this phenomenon is worth the price of the book.

But in Bishop Tom's mind when it comes to contemporary misuse of scripture there is plenty of blame to go round, so culturally conditioned are we all. Even those of us who think we are being determinedly biblical are often guilty of playing fast and loose with the text, or bringing our own scissors and paste to it. Wright almost tears his hair out when he says that there is a "remarkable ignorance of what scripture is and teaches; an inability to use it in serious, mature, and indeed Christian ways" (Page 111). What is vital is that "we work our way through and out the other side of today's ideological debates" so that we can hope to see how the Kingdom's message speaks transformation into our contemporary environment.

The remedy to misreading both conservative and liberal, as well as the postmodern critique which, in effect, says that there is really no such thing as texts, only interpretations, is careful historically-rooted exegesis. He calls upon us to use the appropriate tools within the continuity of the church to see what on earth the Spirit is saying to us. The Spirit-led community, he asserts is a missionary community, and a missionary community is a scripture-reading community. "Scripture's authority is thus seen to best advantage in its formation of the mind of the church, and its stiffening of our resolve, as we work to implement the resurrection of Jesus, and so to anticipate the day when God will make all things new, and justice, joy and peace will triumph (Ephesians 1:3-23)" (Page 115).

Let's go back to that initial point Wright makes that the authority of scripture is, in reality, the authority of God exercised through scripture. I have no desire to spend my time thumping folks over the head with the Bible, although at times I plead guilty to having done so, but what I want almost above all else is to see the church put itself at the disposal of God through the holy texts that God has given to it.

My observation is that American churches in general, and the Episcopal Church in particular, have not given the right handling of scripture its appropriate place in our life, with the result that on all sides we have missed the mandate of God to us. Wright, therefore, keeps making the point that our minds (and therefore lives) are formed through the consistent, persistent digestion of scripture within the continuity of the whole Communion of Saints. The outcome of this formation is holiness, and biblical holiness is about a great deal more than our personal ethics (although they are the part of the story that the left sits light to, while the right sits light to the holistic implications of the story).

Tom Wright and I were formed in the same evangelical stream of Anglicanism at more or less the same time. We were taught by our mentors to love, honor, read, learn, and digest the richness of the holy Scriptures, allowing our minds and hearts to be formed by them. Like so many others, we have recognized the shortcomings of our ecclesial conditioning, and have in our different ways wrestled to be faithful to the God who called us in our use of his revelation to us, while recognizing that yesterday's parameters may be both limited and flawed as we move into a very different age.

However, I have lacked the intellectual tools to get beyond that sense of impasse. What this book has done for me is to open up new avenues of inquiry which, I hope, will lead me forward not only to a richer faith, but also a better way of handling the Bible as the Bible speaks to us within the raggedness of today's church. I will finish with Wright's closing words.

"The various crises in the Western church of our day -- decline in numbers and resources, moral dilemmas, internal division, failure to present the gospel coherently to a new generation -- all these and more should drive us to pray for scripture to be given its head once more; for teachers and preachers who can open the Bible in the power of the Spirit, to give the church the energy and direction it needs for its mission and renew it in its love for God; and, above all, for God's word to do its work in the world, as, in Isiaah's vision, it brings about nothing short of new creation -- the new world in which the grim entail of sin has at last been done away." He then quotes Isaiah 55:10-13 (Pages 141-142).

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

If I Were A Bishop

As many of you might be aware, I have been part of a committee that for the past year has been searching for candidates to be bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. This has been an exhausting task, particularly in the midst of such difficult times in the life of the church, and I have spent more hours than I care to think discussing, praying, listening, interviewing, and so forth. Hard as it has been, it has been stimulating, and in the process I have done a lot of thinking about what it means to be a leader in the church.

As we move toward electing one of the candidates nominated I feel a lot more able to say what I think a bishop in tomorrow's world should be like, and while there is a continuity between past and future, I suspect that anyone elected and consecrated in this diocese or anywhere else, is going to have to think and reconfigure their ministry enormously, whether they like it or not.

An observation I make is that so many still seem to approach the notion of the episcopate with the "business as usual" mindset. The boat has been rocked and is taking on water, but there is this idiotic don't rock the boat mentality that prevails. There is no such thing as business as usual at this point in our history, and there is little precedent for all that we are attempting to deal with -- both at the grassroots in the life of congregations, and in the wider ecclesial sphere. Rocking the boat might be the only way forward in the long term.

One of the primary tasks of tomorrow's leader is that he/she is going to not only be picking up in the midst of a mess, but this leader is going to be charged with remaking the church so that it will be effective in the pursuit of its ministry. It will not be easy, and will require all the grace, intelligence, creativity, longsuffering, and wisdom that the leader can muster. What worries me about the games of ecclesiastical politics that get played when we come to electing is that we tend to veer toward the lowest common denominator than to go for the person who is best able to do the job. You only have to look at that sorry group, the House of Bishops, to see the fruit of this.

Tomorrow's bishop might seem to have some of the outward trappings inherited from predecessors, but the reality is different. I suspect that the effective bishop of tomorrow is going to need to be more like St. Cuthbert, the Celtic bishops of Ireland in the Dark Ages, William Henry Hobart, or Jackson Kemper, than the individual who held the office immediately before them. The culture is shedding its Christian clothing so fast that unless this person is out there leading the mission of the church, committed to proclamation of the Cross and evangelism, and modeling it for clergy and people alike, then there in a very short time there is going to be no diocese to speak of.

This requires tenacity and fortitude, as well as a capacity to both understand and interpret the Gospel for today's world. It will require the willingness to take calculated risks and experiment. It will require tons of courage, the developing of a thick skin, as well as great sensitivity not only to the people among whom the bishop ministers, but to God's will, purpose, and revelation in these circumstances. Sometimes the bishop is going to go out on a limb, and if he/she does not, then that person will not being doing their job.

The bishop of tomorrow, I think, will be more a person of the Kingdom than the church. By this I mean that the bishop will need to be theologically rooted in the fact that there is a great deal more in what Jesus says about the Kingdom of God being in our midst than personal salvation, piety, and church life. We need to be a church that applies the Gospel to the challenges thrown at us by the prevailing culture, from issues of war and peace, through sexuality and personal morality, to economics and the environment -- and beyond. As the Kingdom is rooted and grounded in the teaching of Scripture, the bishop needs to be a person maranated in the Word of God, the story of biblical theology, and be willing to wrestle to see how that theology speaks and works in the world of today.

There is more to it than that, because this is not just head trip stuff, it needs to be not only absorbed, put drenched in prayer. This means tomorrow's bishop has to be a person of prayer, someone who, as it were, reads and thinks over the bible on their knees. For what its worth, my observation is that far too many of our bishops have only the vaguest grasp of what Scripture teaches, and their spirituality is stunted. This may sound terribly judgmental, but I have rubbed shoulders with a lot of bishop in my time and am sorry to say that the truth is not necessarily easy to accept.

Those who are called to leadership in tomorrow's church, and by tomorrow I really do mean tomorrow and not just some time vaguely in the future, need to be counter-cultural people. This is hard for Anglicans who have swum comfortably in the waters of the culture for hundreds of years. We are now being asked to get out of that current and to join those who have been on the edge of the prevailing culture. If we do not, then we have no future.

I could go on and on, but one of the most important things is that tomorrow's bishop needs to be a global person. One of the infuriating things about most American bishops is how small-minded and provincial their acting and thinking is -- but then they only reflect the church which they are called to lead. We are part of a worldwide Communion which is part of the Church Universal. This means not only acting as a team player in that Communion, but also learning from that Communion and living into the life of that Communion. We live in a globalized world, and if the church is not as global as the Gospel is, then it will not be being the church.

The primary task of tomorrow's bishop is to be a missionary leader who is wholehearted to the point of death in their commitment to proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. Every potential bishop of tomorrow should read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Paul's catalogue of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11, because Paul understood his apostolicity in terms of being a pioneer missionary. Tomorrow's bishop will be a pioneer missionary, and unless the bishop leads the diocese forward in mission, the diocese will die.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Million Little Pieces

When my favorite pair of shoes began disintegrating literally while I was out yesterday, I slipped into a store to replace them. While trying on for size I asked for a shoe horn at the checkout I was given a solemn lecture not to walk away with it because they had lost several of these lovely things during the last few weeks. It baffled me that someone would deliberately steal one of these things, but it told me something about how we understand honesty and truthfulness in our culture.

Shoe horns are a long way away from best selling books, but in the last couple of weeks James Frey has become the post-Christmas cause celebre with his book, A Million Little Pieces. This supposed memoir had the good fortune of being picked up by that wealthy Nashville-raised denizen of taste in literature and just about everything else, Ms. Oprah Winfrey. If you have not been following this little soap opera, then you have not missed very much, but it is a fascinating illustration of the inroad rampant subjectivity has made into the popular consciousness.

James Frey is an individual who has written this memoir of his days as a drug addict. It is apparently a fast-moving page-turner that the likes of Larry King have described as "a good read." The trouble is that it seems to be fiction masquerading as autobiography, as much the product of Frey's over-ripe imagination as it is the tale of his life to date. He is now prepared to admit to fabricating proportions of the story he tells -- and the fascinating thing is that so few people care. On this Sunday in January it sits perched at the top of the New York Times best seller list, and is the number one seller on Amazon.com.

Now we should all realize that you are going read autobiography differently than something written about that same subject's life by a more disinterested observer. Let's face it, it is hard to be objective about yourself, and even the most honest among us is not very likely to write that disparagingly of ourselves!

I have read a lot of memoir in my time, and have found myself enriched by those which prod and seek to dig beneath the surface, whether I am talking of Augustine, Frederick Buechner, C. S. Lewis, or C. G. Jung. Now in addition to the masterpieces that stand out, there is plenty of autobiography that is eminently self-serving: Jack Spong's Here I Stand is a book which leaps immediately to mind. However, there is a difference between a writer's determined slant on their own life and outright and deliberate fabrication. Bishop Spong's take on things might often be novel, but he does not stoop to this.

Professor Mary Karr of Syracuse University, a specialist in the memoir as a literary form, and a memoirist, writes in todays NY Times, "In nonfiction, though, there's a different contract with the reader: you don't make things up." Yet this seems to be exactly what James Frey has done, yet Oprah among others has done little more than shrug and say, "So what?" In our world objectivity is out and subjectivity is in. I the reader am the one who needs to be wooed and impressed, even if that means intentially playing fast and loose with the facts.

We now find ourselves in a culture that has no desire to be hamstrung by the restraints imposed by objective truth, so the modern memoirist is more prone to employ the devices of the novelist. This approach is even creeping into the writing of history. Several years ago a serious biographer of Ronald Reagan had the timerity to introduce himself into the narrative of his book as a kind of theatrical prop, thereby supposedly freeing himself up to make the work more insightful. The result, alas, was just the reverse.

Randy Kennedy, one of the op-ed writers in the NY Times asks, "So how to explain what seems to be the increasing willingness of readers to accept truckloads of falsehood in memoirs, inventions much bigger than the reconstructed conversations or narrative elision that have long been the wink-wink conceits of personal history?"

I suspect there are a lot of potential answers to that question. One is that James Frey has done is to make a ripping good yarn of his life, mingling fact, fiction, and fantasy in telling a tale of a brokenness that is being redeemed. People want to be entertained, and to hear such stories because it gives them hope, even if they are not entirely true (although Oprah's website actually says of the book that it is "raw and honest"). (http://www2.oprah.com/tows/pastshows/200510/tows_past_20051026.jhtml)

Yet behind this is something that is far more worrisome, which is that increasing numbers of people are no longer as able to tell fact from fiction, and when the chips are down, it doesn't really worry them. Our contemporary culture gives much more credence to being entertained than to what is true. What is the difference, folks will rightly ask, between a writer who fictionalizes parts of his life to spice up the tale, and a television producer who in telling the story of, say, Prince William, or Laura Bush, plays with the truth in order to make their program more televisual?

Both television and the internet, coupled with the subjectivization of our culture, have added to our inability to discern the difference between truth and fiction. Add to this the leariness that there is in the postmodern mind when faced with truth, because it immediately asks "Whose truth?" and, perhaps, "Is this person using their notion of truth to impose their trip on me?"

This is certianly how the rising generations perceive the way in which those of us in the church present to them the facts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the past the veracity of facts mattered, now their importance seems to have become peripheral. Yet when a culture no longer seems to care whether the stories being told have any resemblance to reality but could very well be one giant fib, then there is every reason to be anxious.

I love reading stories that good writers, cinematographers, raconteurs, etc., have made up. I know when Garrison Keillor is spinning some yarn about Lake Wobegon, it is just that, and I enjoy it as such. I am being entertained and there are traces of honest representation of the foibles of the sort of people who live in Minnesota, but this is very different from James Frey passing off fiction as the facts of his life.

While James Frey will probably be a five-minute wonder, our sense of objectivity is now so compromised that episodes of this kind are sure to arise again. The Christian faith is true for a number of reasons, but one fundamental one is that it is rooted and grounded in God's great acts in history, the climax being the resurrection. The objectivity of facts should be important to us, as well as the manner in which we communicate them to our contemporaries in a world that seems willing to accept any cock and bull story because its notion of truth is so fragmented.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Quite regularly I find myself overwhelmed, sometimes to the point of near paralysis, by homesickness. This has been part of the pattern of my life almost since we arrived in the United States thirty years ago. Sometimes I can feel it coming on so I can prepare myself for it, on other occasions it creeps up on me unexpectedly pouncing like a cat upon an unsuspecting mouse.

I always thought that as I got older the pangs of homesickness would ameliorate, but if anything the reverse has happened. Certainly, the nature of the longing is somewhat different than it was three decades ago, but it is always there lurking in the background. I try to brush it aside, as one swats of pesky mosquito, but it refuses to disappear so easily.

After my parents had died my brother and daughter were going through Mother's correspondence and found a large collection of letters written by my father from Africa, Sicily and Italy. My parents had been apart since ten days before Dunkirk in 1940, and these missives are the fascinating record of a young married couple trying to hold a relationship together in time of war. Amidst them was one written from outside Naples on July 17, 1944, just three months before Dad went home and barely four months before I was conceived!

I am, at the moment, sitting in a deck chair outside the Mess Tent enjoying the cool of the evening and what a relief it is after the heat of the day. The sun has already disappeared over the hill which lies behind me and as I look in front of me its pink light is lighting up the cone of Vesuvius away in the distance. Its very beautiful but somehow or other I do not feel capable of appreciating it, for, as the days go by my mind runs more and more on memories of the green fields and woods of England for which I pine so much.

He goes on, Four years -- to me such things seem an awful long way away and sometimes I have to think hard before I can visualize scenes which four years ago were everyday things -- the view of the hills behind Englemere, the view over Mentmore from the top of Icknield Way, the view of Aldbury from the top of Toms Hill and countless others that I can think of. Lord how I long to see them all again when at last this exile is finished...

I go back and read these words from time to time, but cannot get through them without a lump forming in the back of my throat and tears coming to my eyes. It is as if history repeats itself because I yearn for precisely the same things that my father did, and did so a great while before I discovered he had written in such a moving way as he plodded up the west coast of Italy with the rest of the British Eighth Army. It is interesting that the same scenery dances before my mind's eye, filling me with nostalogia and a sense of being far, far away from something that is precious.

I have not had to face the physical hardships of war that my father endured, and at least my wife and I are together, but even as I look out of my window across the beautiful rolling fields of Middle Tennessee, part of me wishes with all my heart that I was watching the sun setting over that funny little town, and the countryside surrounding it where both my father and I grew up, and where my brother still lives.

Yet, and here is the twist. The England I left in September 1976 is not the England that exists today. Great changes have taken place, not just physically but also in the British personality. The England for which I dream is part real and part figment of a romantic imagination. I am like so many others as they age, because much of what I really long for has disappeared with the inevitable passage of time.

I would love to return to live in Tring, the place where I grew up, and to be able to stand on any spring, summer, autumn, or winter morning that I wanted and look out from the Icknield Way across the Vale of Aylesbury toward Mentmore, but I probably never will. Although we have done quite well on our real estate over the last twenty years, Rosemary and I can never afford property where land for development sells at close to $2 million an acre! But despise this dose of cold water, I would love to end my days where my life began, and to have my mortal remains lowered into the same chalky soil as my parents, perhaps even in the same village churchyard.

I suspect that there is a close relationship between homesickness and fantasy. Seldom is it rainy or cold in the England of my imagining, and I conveniently forget those long dark dank winter nights that are the counterbalance to the long beautiful summer days. Yet even if there is a close relationship between dreams and homesickness, it has a reality that is beyond dispute.

I am at the moment reading about the emerging church movement, something that may be far more significant than the serpentine machinations of the Episcopal Church, for it is attempting to turn the church into a missionary community effectively addressing the Gospel into this postmodern world. I applaud the younger people who are pioneering this massive task, often marginalized or laughed at by denominational leaders. As I read Eddie Gibbs' and Ryan K. Bolger's Emerging Churches (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2005) I have to accept that these new expressions of the faith in the postmodern world are coming into being at the expense of the church that I love, the one that I grew up in and which nurtured me. This is the church for which I am homesick.

The intensity of this comes home when I am faced each day by the difficulty of a person of my age and background reaching the people in the target area set for my own little congregation. The sort of church that I am, perhaps, capable of bringing into being is not necessarily going to cut ice with a thirtysomething couple newly transplanted fromt the West Coast, and trying to raise kids in Thompson's Station, Tennessee. I was formed and shaped by the modern world that is fast disappearing, that is where all my points of reference are, they are the shock troops for whom postmodernity is the only real culture that they have ever known.

So, our task as Christians is to translate the enduring message of Christ's love into a language and culture that is foreign to the likes of me. This means that there is a great deal about the church which I dearly love that is going to need to be put to the sword, to put it bluntly. While I long for the glories of Tudor liturgy, boy choirs, and the simple dignity of classic Anglicanism, tomorrow's congregations are going to see such things as being about as relevant as the secret rituals of a group of Coptic monks on the high plateau of Ethiopia.

My generation can do one of several things in such a situation. We can, for example, as is the case in most denominations, hold onto leadership and stand in the way of all that a younger generation of Christians brings in terms of richness. In many places we are doing just this. Not only are pastors of (conservative) Boomer-driven megachurches unable to get beyond their own enculturation of the Gospel, but so are most within the leadership of whatever (liberal) denomination you can think of.

One of the fascinating things about the emerging church movement is how much it values the contribution of Anglicanism -- although they can see what we are passing on needs to be radically messed with. Yet we Anglicans don't seem to have found a way to nurture and encourage these sort-of-Canterbury-pilgrims, nor will we really allow ourselves to be enriched by their vivacity and capacity to bring so much to life. If I could find some way of doing it, I would love to be set free from so many of my responsibilities to stand in the background to mentor, advise, and generally be a midwife to this movement in one form or another.

Yet even as I say that, I know it spells the end to the kind of church that suits me best. But the Gospel isn't about what suits me best, it is about being obedient to Jesus's Great Commission so that it works for the emerging world. My kind of church is in decline, but that does not mean the Gospel is without its grace and power to transform. The baggage that I appreciate needs to be either cut away or reconfigured so that a newly contextualized faith will work in the West, even if it does not show the world the face that I would like shown.

Homesickness is a self-indulgence. I actually sometimes enjoy wallowing in the nostalgic misery of homesickness for John Bull's England, sometimes even crying my eyes out as long as no one can see me! While it is a pretty harmless pursuit when indulged in as an individual sport or hobby, if we use it to hold onto yesterday's church, then we are committing an awful sin and standing in the way of the Gospel's advance. There will be a lot to answer for when we stand before the throne of grace.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Previous Avian Flu Posting

The previous posting on avian flu is to be found in the August archive: http://richardkew.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_richardkew_archive.html

Avian Flu and the Churches' Response

Out of the blue a couple of months ago I received an email from Dr. Tim Foggin, a family practitioner in the Burnaby, B.C., area of western Canada. Dr. Foggin had read something I had written here about the possibilities of avian flu, and was getting in touch with me to tell me that he has been working with some colleagues on the implications for the churches of such an eventuality.

Then Dr. Foggin invited me to participate in a gathering being organized by Canadian evangelicals in Vancouver, but, alas, the notice was short and there is no way I could do such a thing. Not only would I have loved to have participated in such a forum, but it would have given me an opportunity to see my physician daughter who, with her husband, lives only a few hours away in Washington state.

Dr. Foggin has since launched church_emergency_preparedness@yahoo.com as a group discussion setting. I would commend you to be in touch with him at that address to see if you can be added to the conversation. He is, as far as I know, one of the few Christians who is taking seriously the potential challenge that avian flu could be to the churches and society if it mutates so that it becomes transferable human-to-human.

This does not seem to have happened yet, and the World Health Organization is working extremely hard to monitor and control its spread, as you are probably aware. The last few days of news on BBC World have given significant coverage to the spread of avian flu in Turkey, especially among those who live cheek-by-jowl with their poultry in the eastern part of the country.

While it is foolish to panic at this stage, it is important to be prepared for all eventualities. It does seem that while many nations in the world are taking seriously the possibility that bird flu could match the great flu epidemic of 1918-1920 when in excess of 20 million in a much smaller world population died, the messages coming from the United States are mixed -- at the very best. Indeed, it seems to me that both federal and state leaderships have not taken the notion of a pandemic with the seriousness that they should.

With the dithering of government, this means that the churches have a vital role to play should this become a virulent flu that profoundly effects families, congregations, businesses, and so forth. It also means that it is important for pastors and Christian leaders to keep their eyes open on this front for to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Now, there are extremists of the survivalist ilk who are stockpiling drugs, water, food, and so forth, with the hope of barracading themselves in their homes and not getting infected. Such foolishiness is not something Christians should emulate. The history of the church is replete with instances of Christians sacrificing their all, even their lives, during times of plague of one kind or another in order that people may be cared for in Jesus' name -- and not just the Black Death or ancient history.

In the 1870s there was a Yellow Fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. People fled the city, but the Anglican sisters of the Community of St. Mary stayed behind and, with others, cared for the dying, themselves taking a terrible hit from the virulence of the disease. While we don't know what an avian flu pandemic might look like, or how lethal it might be, if it matches or is worse than the pandemic following World War One, it could be that this is the kind of response that would be expected of faithful Christians.

Or, are we as Christians, so earthbound that we cannot allow ourselves to think that such self-sacrifice is what God calls us to?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

"The Narnian" by Alan Jacobs -- A Review

The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Alan Jacobs
(San Francisco: Harper. 2005)

Review by Richard Kew

As I scan my bookshelves I realize there are two people whose lives and writings I have pondered more than any others, and both of them reached their zenith at the same time, but in very different ways. The one is Winston Churchill, the other is C. S. Lewis, and I have spent the last few weeks in the company of them both! Alan Jacobs' book, The Narnian, has been both enchanting and a tour de force.

Lewis has been on people's minds of late with the The Chronicles of Narnia reaching the big screen and his children's books finding their way back to the top of the best seller lists. Jacobs' book, therefore, has been published at just the right time. Before getting into the content let me comment on the jacket which is itself worth the price of the volume. It has a photograph of Lewis wearing an old-fashioned dressing gown over the top of his street clothes, with Aslan's tail wrapped around him.

Alan Jacobs is an Anglican, and is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He brings to his subject both a love of Lewis's work and an insider's grasp of how something like the Book of Common Prayer (1662) nourished Lewis's soul once he had come to faith as a thirtysomething Oxford don. What Jacobs does is to tell the story of Lewis's life, but instead of a mere recitation of the facts, interesting as these are, he identifies the events and relationships that shaped Lewis's personality, and what it was that enabled for his subject's supreme creativity to engage with his gigantic intelligence.

I spent a day with Jacobs in the company of some others a few years ago, and was amazed by the man's learning and fluency. As the conversation progressed, there seemed to be nothing he had not read and fully digested. If I were looking for comparisons, he seems to me to be a bit like an American Alister McGrath, except that his expertise is English Literature, not theology and biology.

Jacobs has a profound love and respect for Lewis, and clearly reveres Lewis's mental abilities. When describing how Lewis wrote one of his major academic works, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), he comments that he actually read "every single sixteenth-century book in the Duke Humfrey's Library, the oldest part of Oxford's grat Bodleian Library" (Pages 183-184). Here is one literary omnivore admiring the capacity of another!

I love the way that Jacobs weaves his insights about Lewis's creativity and imagination into a pattern that takes into account each chapter of the great man's life. I don't think I can remember another book about Lewis which as it identifies high points in his life illustrates how they interface with his writing. What he also does is to demonstrate the commonalities that there are from particular periods of Jack Lewis's career. For example, until Jacobs pointed it out I would not have thought that much comparison could be made between The Abolition of Man and the characters who appear in The Magician's Nephew. Yet obviously there is, and, by the way, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings get thrown in there for good measure.

There is an honest generosity about the way Jacobs explores the relationships that Lewis had with his father, his brother, his oldest friend, Arthur Greeves, his colleagues, Mrs. Moore, Joy Davidman, and others. As is always the case with a good biograpical work, even if you think you know everything there is to know about someone's life, you occasionally turn the page and there is a fascinating set of new insights and facts that are new to you.

I thought that I had a pretty good grasp on the nature of the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, but Jacobs measures the delights and the tensions better than anyone I have come across. These insights go right through to the intense difficulties between the two that marred the latter years of Lewis's life. I love one little anecdote Jacobs cites not long after Lewis's first meeting J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis commented in a letter that as a Protestant Irishman he had been raised to distrust Papists, then as a scholar of literature he was taught to distrust philologists. The joke was that Tolkien was both!

Jacobs does not shy away from some of the difficult questions about the life of Lewis like the problems he and his father had with one another, and the specific nature of his relationship with Mrs. Moore. Mrs. Moore was the mother of a friend who had died on the Western Front, and having promised he would care for the man's mother in case of his not coming back, he did so until the early 1950s when she finally died. Yes, Jacobs, admits, in the early days, when Jack was a confirmed atheist, there does seem to have been a sexual component to the relationship, but by the end of her life she had become a crotchety and difficult 'mother' who ran Jack Lewis ragged with her demands.

When Mrs. Moore was gone and Lewis was, as it were, available, there was in fact another female with whom he was very friendly, a poet and painter by the name of Ruth Pitter. It would seem that in her somewhat pushy New York way, Joy Davidman pushed in and stole Lewis's heart from this "mannerly and decorous woman" who "did nothing to pursue Lewis" (Page 269). Then Jacobs paints in relatively few words a fascinating picture of the relationship between Jack and Joy, and the impact that they had upon each other.

Yet even as these elements are woven together, there is within this mixture a careful attempt to unravel Lewis's worldview, and how he came to it. When his faith reached maturity, he was an old-fashioned pretty orthodox Anglican whose way of believing and thinking was given its form by the King James Bible and the historic Book of Common Prayer. It was part of his spiritual discipline to attend Communion on Sundays at his parish church and to worship each morning in the chapel at first Magdelen College, Oxford, and then Magdelene College, Cambridge.

His education having been philosophical and logically-based, he brought not just his love of the faery and the imaginative to his understanding of the faith, but intellectual tools that were ruthless in their analysis of flaky thinking -- and he did not refrain from using them. Lewis not only enjoyed the rough and tumble of discussion within the Inklings, but corresponded and debated folks who were his match who disagreed with him. Indeed, his mailbag was enormous, and his debating ability ferocious.

As far as Lewis was concerned, it is clear that "when it is necessary to approach difficult questions, one must... stick as closely as possibly to 'the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times'" (Page 215). Although he battled with facets of his sexuality, and although he came close to playing intellectual games to justify his marriage to Joy Davidman, he had a solidly biblical notion of truth, and the nature of ethical behavior and lifestyles. He would probably consider those who challenge these today as "men without chests" (from the Abolition of Man), and have felt that these were sectarian attitudes that come from curiosity exceeding faithfulness.

I could go on and on, for there is much in this book that is informative, entertaining, and challenging. It is beautifully written, as you would expect from an English professor, and well-organized. Jacobs understands Lewis well, and greatly admires this kind and charitable individual, a little eccentric as was the way with so many Oxbridge professors of his era, but one of the razor-sharp thinkers who we avoid at our peril.

Jacobs recognizes that Lewis was not without shortcomings, and when it came to things like his attitude toward women, which Jacobs makes plain was not misogynistic, he was very much the product of English boys' schools, the army, a virtually all-male university, and an age in which women had yet to come into their own. He belonged to a church that abhored any notion of ordained women at that time, as did virtually every other church in Christendom. In many ways, therefore, he was a product of his times, but we must not confuse his cultural conditioning with his formidable affirmations that reflect the truth from all times.

Read and get pleasure from Alan Jacobs' work. Meanwhile, revel in Narnia, have your mind stretched by books like The Problem of Pain, quake afresh as you discover the horrors of evil in That Hideous Strength, and meditate with joy upon some of Lewis's extraordinary poetry. As you do this look forward to the fact that one day we will meet Jack Lewis in "the Real Narnia" and can put to the man himself the questions we now have -- if, that is, we have any interest in doing so given the dimension in which we now find ourselves!