Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Holy Hooker

Today is the Memorial of St Mary Magdalene, a centuries-old feast of the Church. Though it was eliminated in later revisions, the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (the first version of the BCP) still had a specialized collect in memory of her:
Merciful Father, give us grace,
that we never presume to sin through the example of any creature,
but if it shall chance us at any time to offend thy divine majesty:
that then we may truly repent, and lament the same,
after the example of Mary Magdalene,
and by lively faith obtain remission of all our sins:
through the only merits of thy Son our Savior Christ. Amen.
We're all vaguely familiar with the traditional story of the Magdalene: the down-and-out prostitute who met Jesus, repented of her way of life, anointed His feet with perfume and her own tears and wiped His feet with her hair, became an eminent disciple, and was finally the very first person on record to actually see Jesus after He came back from the dead. Many of us, too, are familiar with the ongoing to debate over which Mary is which in the Bible -- the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the mother of James and John, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany ... The traditional picture* of Mary Magdalene identifies her as the (in the text, anonymous) "sinful woman" of Luke 7, probably a euphemistic reference to a career as a hooker,** as well as with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This conflation of figures has been challenged, and even labelled by some people as a smear campaign -- an attempt to discredit the importance of St Mary Magdalene on the part of the Church. Some Christians, too, have seemed to take it in that spirit, insisting that she was, on the contrary, a great saint, and not a former prostitute.

It's that little on the contrary that makes this so problematic. I remember the first time I came across the tradition of identifying the Magdalene being called a smear campaign; I believe I laughed out loud. Didn't the people who took it this way understand, um, Christianity? -- the religion that teaches that forgiveness wipes away all guilt; that forgiven evils can be occasions of joy, because they reveal the divine glory in displaying forgiveness and love, in the midst of evil and in defiance of it? The religion in which Peter and Paul, an apostate and a religious terrorist, are viewed as the height of sanctity and authority in the primitive Church and as authors of holy Scripture? Nor, having read the actual texts in which authors like St Gregory the Great assert the identity of the Magdalene with the "sinful woman," is there any great discrediting in evidence. Quite the reverse: she is hailed as an example of authentic repentance, holiness, and love for Jesus, and even as a model of mystical contemplation.

Now, you could certainly argue that considering the woman of Luke 7 and the Magdalene to be the same person goes far beyond the available evidence of the New Testament, and is therefore bad literary criticism, whether slanderous or not.*** But why the reaction -- not just from those outside the faith, who could perhaps be expected not to get how Christians feel (or ought to feel) about forgiven sins, but even from those within the fold -- that seems to accept that, had they been the same person, it would be a blot on the memory of St Mary Magdalene?

Irrespective of the Magdalene herself, I think this attitude is symptomatic of a larger, subtler problem in contemporary, American Christianity; the doubtfulness over the saint's cause of Dorothy Day, on the ground that she had an abortion before she converted to Catholicism, is another instance of the same thing. It's a kind of Pelagianism, or of Pharisaism, that is willing to know evil only as evil, and never as an occasion of supernatural good; that sees only horror and anguish in the Crucifixion, and not victorious, self-giving love. And so in sins it can see only the sin, or worse, only the embarrassment of being associated with it.

Of course, no professing Christian would actually say that they're embarrassed to be associated with sinners. Instead they say things like You have to be careful of scandal, or If they won't at least keep quiet about it in front of the children, or The people you make friends with say something about your character. Somehow, the fact that these are precisely the accusations flung at Jesus, and that He brazenly disregarded, rarely occurs to them.

How'd this get here?

This too may be why the warm-hearted or disreputable sins, like promiscuity and drunkenness, are so famously unacceptable among Christians in this country, while the cold-hearted, respectable sins, like pride and greed, are not. It has, also, a great deal to do with class: the fact that Christianity and social respectability were ever conflated, as they certainly were in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries in this country, was spiritually disastrous, as it gave a veneer not only of good taste but of good character to the vices preferred by the wealthy.

What's to be done? Well, beyond reading The Power and the Glory, Brideshead Revisited, and The Violent Bear It Away, I don't have a lot of practical suggestions. So, if at all possible, read those books. But remember, the desired outcome is to recognize God in the sinner; to realize that sinfulness, mysteriously, does not prevent the development of holiness -- or rather, perhaps it is not so mysterious, when we consider the simple fact that good is stronger than evil, as God is stronger than nothing; to remember and really believe that God, in His earthly life, deliberately sought ought the company of drunks, homeless guys, corrupt government flunkies, and hookers. If we can't worship that kind of God, we can't worship the God of the New Testament.

"Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply."
-- Flannery O'Connor

*Traditional, at least, in the West. The Christian East has a slightly different outlook on the Magdalene.

**I think hooker or whore are better words than prostitute for this purpose. Because Christianity has been (alas!) socially respectable in this country for many hundreds of years, while at the same time unable to entirely divorce itself from the Scriptures, it's become easy for people to say that Jesus went and spent time with prostitutes and showed them love and forgiveness; easy, too, to say that God loves prostitutes, or even that we love prostitutes, and believe it. It's harder to say "God loves hookers" and believe it, unless you do. It might not be a bad thing, if only as a devotional experiment, to mentally substitute the word hooker for prostitute when reading the Gospels; translators can be rather squeamish.

***My own opinion, though it's purely speculative, is that they were in fact the same person. However, nothing really hinges on it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Silence in Heaven

I learned with sorrow yesterday that Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton College in Illinois and contributor to Spiritual Friendship, has changed her views. An alumna of Exodus, she has been a wise and kindly voice for the traditional Christian view of sexual ethics hitherto; now, however, she has changed her mind, and believes (as I understand from the post she wrote) that God blesses same-sex sexual relationships on the same basis as heterosexual ones. She has also, in a move that I think worthy of particular respect (as so many church officials fail to do this), both explained her change of mind publicly and resigned her post at Wheaton on account of the difference between their beliefs and hers.

If you are expecting to read a vilification, or even an argument against, Miss Rodgers' decision, I'm afraid you have come to the wrong place. I disagree, obviously; although I have confidence in the sincerity of her convictions, and the sincerity of her change of convictions, I am a Catholic precisely because my own confidence reposes wholly in the Holy Ghost as the teacher of the Catholic Church, and what Rome teaches with her full authority I therefore unconditionally accept -- the same could scarcely be expected of Miss Rodgers as an evangelical. (Which isn't to say I wouldn't like her to become a Catholic, either, but I would like everybody to become a Catholic.) But this piece is not fundamentally about the basis, or the details, of my disagreement with Julie Rodgers.

This is about the paltry response from traditional Christians. I don't mean that they have not said enough in quantity. I mean that the support, respect, and compassion that we need to live as LGBT believers have been crucified on the cross of a culture war. Morality is not the casualty of the culture war, brothers and sisters; we are -- lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, intersex people, every kind of person whose sexual attractions or gender identity don't fit the normal (and admittedly beautiful) mold -- Christians, and non-Christians, and ex-Christians. He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

The thing that has saddened and appalled me has been the knee-jerk response of blatant disbelief, when it comes to the homophobia she talks about as a stock element of traditionalist Christian culture. I'm saddened by Julie Rodgers' change of mind, yes; partly because I believe she's mistaken about matter of theological fact, and partly because it's a very lonely experience to see a former co-worker, as it were, depart. But that is as nothing to my fellow traditional Christians, whose unbridled hatred, scorn, identity politicking, language policing, reduction of me and my queer sisters and brother to the status of perverts and sexual maniacs, co-option of our witness, accusations of covert doctrinal subversion, and charges of deceit and self-deceit, so exhaust us all as to make every one of us question on a daily basis whether we do want to continue being a part of the church -- not least of the Catholic Church.

Nah, I think this cross is good here. See ya, I'm going to Orange Julius.

If you have a hard time believing me, consider the following list:

Chad Allen, actor
Jamie Bakker, author and pastor
Vicky Beeching, Christian musician
John Boswell, author
Michael Bussee, founding member of Exodus
Tony Campolo, author and pastor
Gary Cooper, founding member of Exodus
Eliel Cruz, author
Rachel Held Evans, author
Robert Gant, actor
Jennifer Knapp, former Christian musician
Justin Lee, author and founding member of the Gay Christian Network
Stephen Long, author
John Paulk, former administrator with Exodus
Julie Rodgers, author, former chaplain at Wheaton College, and former Exodus member
Dan Savage, author and former Catholic seminarian
Steve Slagg, author and Christian musician
John Smid, author and former administrator with Love In Action
Peterson Toscano, author, actor, and former Love In Action member
Matthew Vines, author and founding member of the Reformation Project
Jim Wallis, author

Every one of those people once espoused the traditional view of homosexuality, and every one of them changed their minds -- often after years of attempting orientation change and/or celibacy (of those I've listed, only Bakker, Campolo, Evans, and Wallis are straight, though many are ex-ex-gay). All of them spoke, in many cases before they made any public noises about reconsidering their beliefs, of the coldness, bigotry, cruelty, neglect, and willful stupidity of many fellow believers as one of the major trials they had to deal with, often a far weightier one than the actual cross of being attracted to the same sex.

Equally, among those of us who retain the traditional view -- espousing what the Catholic Church has taught about sex for millennia -- I don't know of any one of us who hasn't also spoken about Christian homophobia, regardless of the tradition we hail from: Ron Belgau, Melinda Selmys, Lindsey and Sarah (who blog without last names partly, I gather, due to the years of homophobic harrassment they've had to deal with), Seth Crocker, Matt Moore, Aaron Harburg, Joshua Gonnerman, Eve Tushnet, Wesley Hill, Joseph Prever, Matt Jones, Aaron Taylor, Jeremy Erickson, Chris Damian, and indeed, some heterosexual and cisgender believers like Mark Shea, P. E. Gobry, Warren Throckmorton, Elizabeth Scalia, Lazar Puhalo, and Mark Yarhouse.

And so many have been lost to us. Dan Savage apostatized; Daniel Pierce was beaten by his own family and thrown out of his home; Matthew Shepard was tortured to death; Gwen Araujo was strangled; Tyler Clementi killed himself out of humiliation; Leelah Alcorn killed herself to make a desperate point.

We are beaten. We are bleeding. Stop saying you're doing this because you love us. Your brand of love has resulted in twisted psyches, broken families, suicides. Stop saying that it is our own sins coming back to haunt us; that is an evasion, and what is more, an invitation of divine judgment -- for it is clearly written that with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again. Do you wish your own sins to visit you, rattling their chains in the night? Our anguish is not coming out of nowhere; it is the anguish of those who, at best, wonder whether they are loved at all by our fellow believers, and often believe that Christians are incapable of loving us -- never having seen it.

Those who have eyes only for the (in my opinion, legitimate) threats to religious liberty in this country, and have perhaps never knowingly dealt with a gay person in their own lives -- even, maybe, wouldn't be homophobic if they did, except by accident -- seem to have a difficult time believing that these stories of homophobic harshness, rejection, and even violence are credible, save perhaps in far-off pars of the world like Russia or Nigeria or India. Nonetheless, every single one of the names I've mentioned above -- including every victim of murder and those driven to suicide -- hails from the good old US of A. We are not immune; there are those who would say we are not safe.

Stop talking about us, fellow Christian, and talk to us. We were never meant to bear this cross alone, any more than you were meant to bear yours alone; Jesus Himself did not bear His Cross alone, accepting help from Simon and Veronica. Our anguish is not a guarded secret. There has been no need to break seven seals on the scroll of our pain and call for silence in heaven for half an hour to read it; we have read it from the housetops -- and, too often, been met with the order to seal up what the seven thunders have said, because you saw no reason you should care. You were not, after all, your brother's keeper. Put your fingers in our hands and your hand into our sides, and do not be doubting, but believe: we are suffering. We need you.

Am I proposing a change in the Church's teaching? I have repeated until I am blue in the face that I'm not, and there are still people who won't believe me. But a call for holy compassion should not sound to anybody like a call for a change in belief. When you can't distinguish mercy from doctrinal laxity, there is something deeply wrong with you, spiritually. When your doctrine does not include the obligation to show compassion, it is you, not we, who are the heretics.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Summer Reading Program

I'm going to be spending a week hiking in the Adirondacks, and I'm not sure how quickly I'll be getting back into things afterwards; the massive technicolor net-vomit (from every viewpoint) that succeeded the recent SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage has me rather tuckered out, emotionally and intellectually.

However, lest you all be left adrift without my illustrious opinion factory to guide you, I'd suggest the following few things to place your eyeballs directly onto.

First, my friend Bill Hoard, who typically hosts the writers' group Pints & Prose of which I'm a part, is working to release his first independent book, The Dagger and the Rose. It's a fairy tale which he spent over a year perfecting, and is currently having illustrated by Leah Morrison; he's set up a Kickstarter for it, which you can view and/or donate to here. I specify that this is his first independent book, because he and my friend Ben Y. Faroe have already begun releasing a series, partially an homage to Fawlty Towers, titled Hubris Towers. Ben, too, has independent work out, also a fairy tale, called The Stone and the Song. Bill and Ben are outstanding writers, and I feel privileged to create in their company.

Speaking of excellent authors, Melinda Selmys, authoress of Sexual Authenticity (book and blog) and Slave of Two Masters, has been picked up by Patheos. You can find her at her new blog, Catholic Authenticity, though I understand she'll continue updating her previous blog on occasion. Melinda has also written for Spiritual Friendship, and was among the first Christians I ever read who was capable of doing imaginative justice to both sides of the Christendom-glistendom divide.

Thirdly, read Pope Francis' encyclical! Lots of people have hailed or decried it without showing any sign of having opened it, on account of its being pro-green and all. I haven't finished it myself, but I am enjoying it; one of its great strengths thus far (which has, to be blunt, been a failure of the modern environmentalist movement in many cases) is that of setting care for the earth and care for humanity in a proper relation to each other.

If you are desperate to get more of my writing, and haven't hitherto found the selections from my own upcoming dark-fantasy-Victorian-gaslamp-vampire-gothica-Catholic-bildungsroman novel, Death's Dream Kingdom, you might take a peak at these two posts, which feature passages from it.

And finally, with special thanks to my brother-in-law and sister, if you're not familiar with Rick and Morty, well, God still loves you, probably. But fix that.