American Christianity

The Veil Over the Holy Nativity

The icon of the Holy Nativity has something that eludes us.  I return, again and again, to its contemplation because it is a rich image but also because it challenges me. I don’t see it completely. The meaning eludes us, there is a veil over the icon.

One layer of this veil is the familiar imagery of Christmas, which smooth’s out the edges, softens the light, ignores the presence of death that lurks in Holy Nativity.  Most images seek to honor this moment through abstraction of the material and fleshly reality the holy nativity inhabits. There is a veil (The “veil” is an allusion to Saint Paul’s usage in 2 Corinthians 3:12-14 ) over this icon and the reality the icon invites us to enter. Because of this veil we are unable to enter Christmas, we turn away from the crack in the world it created.

We look at this icon and we see only a dogmatic claim. VIRGIN BIRTH, screams out at us. Isolated, without context, we hear “Just accept and believe that Mary conceived without intercourse with Joseph.” What is at root of this dogmatism disconnected from a lived and material existence? Why might we only see in this image a dogmatic assertion? Why the fascination with and the rejection of the miraculous? More importantly why do we think the miracle is the point? (side note, it’s not!)

Asking the question of whether a Christian need to believe in the Virgin Birth as Nicholas Kristof does in his interview with Timothy Keller, misses the point. Timothy Keller’s answer that the virgin birth is integral to the Christian thought system, reinforces the veil over the icon of the Holy Nativity (though I agree with his point that the doctrine has meaning). What is this veil? Why the retreat into abstraction and systematic theology and the integrity of belief systems and organizations?  This is so far from the material and physical reality of a virgin birth. Why do we retreat from the holy nativity’s visceral moment? Keller, later in the interview, when talking about the Resurrection, will tell Kristof that these beliefs about Jesus were an offense to the Greek philosophers who couldn’t abide a God bound up in the messiness of the material and fleshly, and yet Keller answers with that same attitude of distance from the messy material world. What Keller presents is a tidy precise sterile world with discrete doctrines that ensure the precise relationships, and the protocol for dealing with God. If doctrine and belief is all you see in the Holy Nativity, then you aren’t seeing.

I think I’ve identified the veil and turning away from this sight. The eyes are veiled for both the one who professes to believe and the one who is skeptical or has abandoned belief. (for my purposes here, I make the distinction between faith and belief. Belief is assent to propositions, faith is about trust and relationship that can be expressed in propositions but whose referent isn’t those propositions.) From what are we shielding our eyes, as we rush to take these  postures.? From what do we veil ourselves, what can’t we bear to look upon in the icon?

Our turning away has been happening for a very long time. All I give at this moment is a quick sketch of this retreat and veiling. I will make some rapid connections of disconnect and retreat. Trump and his Christian supporters have more in common with those who don’t appear in this icon; the client King Herod (see, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s
use of this trope in his Open Letter to King Herod at Red Letter Christians
) and the other religious leaders who know the Torah (the Bible, if you will) and who in differing ways collaborate with the occupation of Judea and Galilee. White Christianity isn’t found in this icon. The “we” if you find this icon unintelligible, is a Christianity of Empire, in service to Babylon the Great (Revelation 17 and 18). The most recent iteration of Babylon is that which inherited the White supremacist system of European colonialism. This sketch of course isn’t convincing (for the case and argument for this sketch one must read Willie James Jennings, James Cone, Harry H. Singleton III, and others).

I will add to this historical sketch a tableau, a “pastoral image”*, if you will: Christmas on the plantations in the “new world”, slaves and their masters at Christmas. In the celebration of Christmas, the White Christian slave holders would allow slaves a moment of reprieve from their harsh conditions. Some of the conditions of their enslavement were lifted, surveillance was lessened, work load lightened. Some slaves, tasting of this Christmas liberty, grabbed hold of it and fled to freedom. Some managed to gain their liberty at Christmas. There were also slave rebellions at Christmas. (see Christmas and the Resistance to Slavery in the Americas in AAIHS)

This is the veil, the reason of our retreat: White Christians instinctively loosening their grip of oppression, but not understanding that the Holy Nativity stood in opposition to them. The White Christian is nowhere to be found in the icon of the holy nativity. The religious collaborators do not make an appearance in this film. We’ve attempted to make the holy nativity a pastoral image of innocence that White Christianity can’t claim for itself, but must insist upon.

We are some distance from the above tableaux of Christmas on the plantations. Yet, it still reverberates. Babylon and its religious (often devoutly so) collaborators, who can answer the questions when those seeking truth come, and ask “Where is the messiah to be born,” and knowing the scriptures can give the correct answer. Even so, white Christians never come into the Holy Nativity.

Where are we, (by “we” I mean both those who seek to come out of Whiteness (Babylon) and those upon whom Babylon has fed and who cry out “how long” (Revelation 6:9-11)- people of color, who currently cry out “Black lives matter”).

In this icon. At this moment, I think most of us are at the bottom of the icon with Saint Joseph and the midwives. We are either caught in a moment of indecision, uncertain what to make of it all, without answers, full of doubts. We ask with Saint Joseph, has any of this been true, the apparition of angels, the message they delivered. Or we are with the midwives handling the holy as they’ve done year in year out, perhaps not fully aware of who they are handling, and washing, swaddling, protecting through their resistance, (recall the midwives, Shiphorah and Puah in Exodus 1)

The veil hasn’t been lifted, we can’t yet see the center of this icon. Even so, we are drawn into this holy nativity, we are here. We who sit with Saint Joseph this is a very melancholy Christmas. There is much to ponder, and the lies of Satan, and the lure of Babylon must be resisted. We who sit with saint Joseph need to pay attention to the resistance and the strength of the midwives. Yes, we must ponder and reflect, but we must also be drawn into the activity of the midwives who know Christ in the flesh ( 1 John 4:2), who handle and wash and protect and guard God in this vulnerable moment of newness and liberation. But many of us are frozen in Saint Joseph’s melancholy, the veil still hangs over our eyes and we have yet to remove the veil and gaze upon  the light emitting from this icon..

*by using “pastoral image” I’m intentionally referencing Billie Holliday’s reported explanation of the term as used in “Strange Fruit.”


A Compromised Evangelical Witness: A review of Vote Your Conscience

If you are an evangelical thinking of voting for Trump for President and if you are a progressive Christian scratching your head about evangelical support for Trump you need to read Brain Kaylor’s current book Vote Your Conscience: Party must not Trump Principles. The book is part an evangelical Baptist wrestling with evangelical support for Donald Trump, part critique of the Religious Right as it has largely fallen in line behind the Republican candidate for President, and part argument for the author’s view of a politics that is reflective of the politics of Jesus and not of a party, Republican or Democrat.  The book is a direct response to this election and to the candidacy of Trump (Clinton as a candidate is addressed but not a focus of the book). Kaylor argues that support for Trump by evangelicals deeply undermines evangelical witness of the Gospel.  Kaylor deeply believes in the relevance of Christian faith to being politically active, but is discomforted by how party politics seems to drag faith along and Christians allow this to happen

Kaylor first addresses the candidacy of Trump and Clinton and seeks to address his remarks to Christian supporters of both presidential candidates.  He makes a case that Trump and Clinton are both unacceptable candidates from a Christian perspective. Kaylor is his most convincing as he argues that Christians should hold to a holistic pro-life ethic and not simply anti-abortion.  In his view, both candidates fail as “pro-life” candidates, in this holistic sense.  While I appreciate Kaylor’s arguing for a holistic pro-life ethic it was clear that the author’s audience for this book isn’t Christians or the church catholic but conservative Baptists and evangelicals. His treatment of Clinton assumes you already are suspicious of her and might be thinking of her as the greater evil and Trump as the lesser evil.  That one may not see Hillary Clinton as the lesser “evil” or not an “evil“ at all doesn’t come into view. Similarly, his holistic pro-life ethic begins with the question of abortion and expand out from that standpoint, and the book isn’t aware that one may have a different beginning point in having a holistic “pro-life” ethic.  But in truth, this book isn’t addressed to all Christians in the U.S. rather the audience is Kaylor’s fellow Baptists and Evangelicals who are supporting Trump for President or considering doing so.

If you’re not evangelical, you will have to forgive some of the conflation of “Christian” with “Evangelical”. If you are an evangelical Kaylor has a well-argued position for why support for Trump is an abandonment of your Gospel witness. The strength of this book is a clear Biblical Gospel argument for not supporting Trump for President and a sustained prophetic Gospel critique of evangelical and Religious Right leaders who have thrown in with Donald Trump. For progressive Christians who tend to lump all Evangelicals in the same basket Kaylor’s book shows that Evangelicalism isn’t as univocal as our treatment of Evangelicals tends to assume.

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255

Fragments of posts in progress

Lately I’ve been posting more at Personal Musings than here.  This space is theological, pastoral, and iconogrpahic.  The three most recent posts at Personal Musings almost fit in this space, yet I felt they were still too bound up in either too bound up in individual opinion, or still too unformed to for solid theological discourse..

What I post here I want to express what is more than just my opinion but is expressive of seeking to  have the Mind of Christ. At the moment this search and desire is my best way to understand what it means to be the Church, the Body of Christ.  My thoughts, emotions, opinions need to be brought into the realm of being part of the body of Christ of living into and growing into the reality of my baptism.  There is much that can get in the way of this pursuit and reality.

In my three most recent posts at Personal Musings I’m exploring what can get in the way of being fully a member of the body of Christ, and how national identity and for the United States how Racism and slavery create huge obstacles for American Christianity to truly exhibit the Mind of Christ.

Today I posted my own discomfort with Patriotism, as well as my love for the U.S. but also its problems for my identity as a member of the Church the Body of Christ, and the affirmation that Jesus is Lord. In many ways we need to acknowledge as American Christians that we often attribute (whether Fundamentalists who say this is a Christian nation, or progressives who see our ideals as being exemplary for the world and adopted the world over) to the U.S. what actually is Christs and the body of Christ the Church.  Much of American sense of its self and its mythology is attributing ecclesioligcal identity to the nation state of the U.S.A.

For American Christians for us to find our way to the mind of Christ we really need to understand how racist ideology that was bound to the justification of European enslavement of Africans is bound up in ecclesiolgical heresy of confusing European and American culture (or Whiteness) with being the Church, the body of Christ.  European culture identified as Christian Culture and America as the City set on the hill, all while justifying enslavement of people deemed inferior because they weren’t European, White, is due to a heretical move.  I begin this thought here with a reflection on attempting to limit American racism to the confederate battle flag and terrorists like Roof.  Yet, policies of the United States government in its expansion into the North American continent was racist and based upon the displacement and genocide of native Americans all the while claiming an ecclesial identity in contradiction to the Mind of Christ.

Then there is the issue of do we obtain the Mind of Christ through Law or in Relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Yes, this is a recurring theme, and each time we think we have settled it Law raises its ugly head.  I explore a certain pastors comments about imprecatory prayer and his praying against Caitlyn Jenner, in exposing how his teaching treats the psalms as giving us a law rather than as an example of being in relationship to God, and thus how this pastor railing against Jenner shows him to be the hypocrites that bring the woman caught in Adultery before Jesus, and that his commitment to Law and the Scriptures as Law, keeps him from hearing Christ’s words to the crowd and the woman, and thus shows him to be preaching without the Mind of Christ.

What I’m working out is how the current upheavals around the continued oppression of African Americans (specifically by law enforcement and in our legal system) and our conflicts around human sexuality marriage and gender, are also ecclesiolgical, and much of our confusion around this is that American Christianity hasn’t been the church nor exhibited the Mind of Christ for most if not all of its existence.  There is some very deep repentance and renunciation that needs to take place in American Christianity if we are to find our way to being Church again.  Posts I’ve been working on for this space are attempting some articulation of how this is and why.  The three post mentioned above are the prolegomena to what I hope will appear here soon.