Thursday, April 30, 2009

Illiteracy Part Deux: Religious Illiteracy

A brief follow-up to yesterday's post.

It is often said that we "live in a post-religious society." Or "post-Christian." I don't think this is necessarily true, at least not in the United States where 75% of the citizens identify with the Christian label.

A more accurate description might be "religiously illiterate." Individuals are ill-equipped to grapple with the complex and often confusing world of spirituality. So they either opt out entirely, or embrace an easy fundamentalism.

Most cannot name the four Gospels, or tell you who wrote the book of Corinthians. They could hardly identify the difference between a Catholic and Protestant, let alone a Sunni and Shiite. A 2000 Gallup poll shows that 70% of Americans believe "you can be religious without going to church." Is it any wonder that more people are choosing to tune out altogether?

Again, what is needed is a return to basics of the faith. Clear articulation of doctrine. A more widespread understanding of religion. Personally, I believe that Religious Studies ought to be a mandatory part of the high school curriculum. A mind that is well-educated about various religions and their denominations is more free to choose his or her path, not less.

I caught this hilarious skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC America:

Comedy aside, it makes some good points. Religious belief is becoming more "me" focused, rather than "we" focused. Our communities must reach out and embrace the "other." Without being jerks, of course! Which we Anglicans are quite good at.

There has been a shift away from the wealth of information found in a community, to the individual's personal interpretations and worldview.

Or, as the Vicar says, "You've thought about eternity for twenty-five minutes and think you've come to some interesting conclusions, have you?"

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Illiteracy and the Church

In the 18th century, a man was considered "literate" if he could sign his name. Later, the ability to read and write text was considered tantamount to literacy, and this perception is still widespread.

However, we must distinguish between absolute literacy (the ability to read and write text) and functional literacy. The National Assessment of Education Progress considers literacy "[the ability to] use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."

This is measured by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS), which measures three areas of literacy (prose, document and quantitative) with scores ranging from one to five. Prose literacy is the ability to read, analyze and comprehend a written work such as an article, novel or journal. Document literacy is the ability to interpret informational documents such as maps, timetables, or warranties. Quantitative literacy is the ability to apply basic mathematical functions to real-world situations.

Exact estimates range from one-third to one-half, but a great deal of the American adult population scored between levels one and three. According to the Survey of Adult Literacy, "nobody in the three lowest levels [can] consistently integrate complex information, take into account special conditions, or use background knowledge to state or solve a problem."

Source: National Commission on Adult Literacy

The implications are staggering. I devoted the past semester to studying adult literacy, and this is where I began my research. It all began with this article by Chris Hedges. Truthdig is a notoriously liberal webzine, and I wondered if the information was scholarly.

Unfortunately, it is. The journals and federal statistics and international surveys have precisely similar findings. (And I would be more than happy to disclose all my sources.) One-third to one-half of Americans are functionally illiterate. Read the article by Hedges. Go, do it.

Did you read it?

Hedges writes, "in our post-literate world, because ideas are inaccessible [...] news, political debate, theatre, art and books are judged not on the power of their ideas but on their ability to entertain." This creates an atmosphere of hostility towards critical examination of ideas, political policies, and intellectual thought, which is often labeled "elitist."

This, I believe, is one of the primary reasons why mainline Protestant denominations are shrinking! Because we "function in a print-based, literate world. [We] can cope with complexity and [have] the intellectual tools to separate illusion from truth."

  1. Mainline denominations are relegated to the margins, de facto. Our approach to faith is too complex. We are increasingly out of touch with society.
  2. Roman Catholicism dumbs down its message. (Ex. "you are pro-life or pro-death, you embrace all of the dogma or none of it.")
  3. Evangelical churches thrive. Their message is clear, simple, and easy to understand. Their services are entertainment. Their teachings accomodate popular culture, including consumerism and American nationalism.
  4. Any attempt at higher-level religious discourse is drowned out by clergy abuse scandals, debates about evolution, abortion, gay rights, public prayer, etc.
  5. Vast numbers of individuals disillusioned with the culture wars turn away from religion in disgust. Their opinions of religion are based - not on theology - but on perceived social teachings of the church and the actions of its members.
  6. Mainline churches continue to lose members to fundamentalism or secularism as our increasingly polarized, illiterate society rejects notions of a middle ground. Middle ground and "shades of grey" are too complex to be easily understood or marketed.
We are left with a dangerous and volatile mix of fundamentalists and secularists. Fundamentalists know very little about their religion, save for how they feel about it. Secularists often know more about Christianity, but certainly not enough to develop an accurate opinion.

Those who turn to secularism instead of fundamentalism are not necessarily more literate/intelligent. The Atheism of Nietzche, Camus and Sartre is radically different from that of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, much in the same way that Thomas Aquinas has been replaced by Joel Osteen.

What must we do? What can we do? I don't know. Being able to clearly articulate our beliefs is one step. Changing the public perception of religion and ending the culture wars is another. Most folks don't realize that "all denominations are not created equal." Yet in a world unable to take into account subtlety, Episcopalians are liable for the bullshit pulled by the Westboro Baptist Church.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Let There Be - Reflections on Earth Day

Friends, this little blue orb is the only one we've got.

Twelve billion years ago, the cosmos exploded with a dictum - "let there be!"

Some three billion years ago, chemistry made the miraculous transfiguration into biology and gasped its first breath.

Some two millennia ago, the Creator's punctured lungs gasped nitrogen and oxygen anew for the second time. Not only from the crib, but the tomb as well.

"See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his people, and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘See, I am making all things new.’"

God is making all things new, and insists that we participate - to be heirs of his eternal kingdom.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Name Change - Part Deux

Serpentis Sacra. "Sacred Serpents."

A few months ago, I came across an article about a distant relative of mine - one I'm rather fond of. John Bramhall. Archbishop of Armagh, via media defender of the Anglican church against Puritans and Papists alike.

I felt a sense of kinship with John Bramhall that surpassed our common bloodline; He and I share many of the same theological and sociopolitical views. One of his books is entitled Serpent Salve. I first thought of Latin for "Holy Serpent." Quickly, I realized he meant ointment for a snake bite.

Even so, that is where the initial inspiration came from.

The snake is a complicated creature in Christian mythology and symbolism.
  • Satan tempts Eve under the guise of a serpent.
  • Moses impales a (flying?) snake, commanding the children of Israel to gaze upon it; Whoever is bitten receives healing. Healing from the (flying) snakes that just bit them.
  • Jesus refers to the Pharisees as a "brood of vipers."
  • Christ's crucifixion echoes the piercing of the snake by Moses.
  • Mary is often depicted crushing a snake beneath her feet, a sign that she is the "new Eve."
  • St. Patrick is rumored to have driven poisonous asps from the fields of Ireland.
  • Orthodox bishops adorn their episcopal staves with intercoiled snakes, as my friends at JN1034 pointed out.
This despised and wretched creature - one of the "beasts that creeps upon the Earth" - is perhaps the weirdest animal to represent Christ.

Even after his crucifixion and resurrection, the snake is displayed in churches solidly beneath the feet of Mary and Patrick, or else lurking about Paradise, an unwanted virus. This iconography is confusing at best, especially when displayed next to images of Christ-the-serpent.

The Israelites were bitten by the snake to receive healing from other bites. If Christ is the new serpent, then we have been bitten by him, and his venom inhabits our veins forever. His humanity is forever united to ours, and we participate in his divinity.

That symbolism is still bizarre.

You know, that's why I like it. The despised serpent has been raised up and redeemed. What once embodied fear is a symbol of hope. What once crawled on its belly now soars in the air.

We are to be holy serpents.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Name and Layout Change

That old name had to go; It didn't make much sense, and it's something I chose thoughtlessly. (I used it for everything throughout high school!)

More on the new name soon!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Church Is Dying's true.

And it needs a holy fire under it's ass if it expects to survive the upcoming generation.

I have heard the suggestion, "Maybe we need to let the Church die, so it can be resurrected." I'm not willing to let 2,000 years of history, wisdom and seeking go down the toilet. I'm certainly not about to let so-called "born again" Christianity take its place, both as a gay man and an Anglo-Catholic.

(A side note. These are totally disorganized, stream-of-consciousness ideas that have been floating around for a while, and I needed to exorcise them. Bear with my lack of organization, with sincere apologies from the author!)

So, here are a few suggestions.

- Articulate the Message -

Why are people drawn to evangelical churches?

Evangelicals have dumbed down the Gospel.

"Are you Saved? Say this prayer to be Saved. Read this book."

Easy. Simple.

This mistake results in a generation of evangelicals who know nothing about their faith except how they feel about it. There is, however, a lesson to be learned.

If you ask an Anglican what he or she believes, you're liable to get a lot of stammering and a generally unimpressive response. We need to be able to clearly, quickly, accurately and poignantly articulate our faith. This is no easy task. Summarizing years of experience and introspection is nearly impossible, but it must be done.

We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, that he came to restore our broken human nature through his reconciling ministry, death and subsequent resurrection. We believe that - in spite of everything - the Church he established continues with an unbroken line of apostolic authority through the Holy Spirit. We believe that God's grace flows freely from the church and indeed all creation.

Or something like that.

Which brings me to the next point...

- Better Catechesis -

I once met a lifelong, cradle Episcopalian who asked me what a diocese is. Forehead-to-desk action ensued.

This is not uncommon. Teaching must involve the basics of the Church - history, governance, liturgy, dogmas. We cannot afford to leave our members blatantly uneducated.

- Denominational Identity -

We live in a post-denominational world. Most Americans will change denominations at some point in their life. The response has been something akin to, "Well, if folks are changing - what's the difference? Let's band together!"

No no no no no! Creating a massive mainline Protestant blob church is not the answer. Strengthening ecumenical ties is well and good, but degrading our denominational foundations is not.

Methodists must return to the theology of Charles Wesley, and teach it. Presbyterians must return to the theology of John Calvin, and teach it. Catholics must return to the wealth of information found in the catechism, and teach it. Lutherans must return to the theology of Martin Luther, and teach it.

- Assertion of Supremacy over Non-Christian Religions -

This sounds harsh. Essentially what I'm saying is, we need to be able to articulate why we believe in Jesus Christ, and not Mohammed, Vishnu, or Christopher Hitchens. What makes Christianity unique?

This must be both academic and a labor of the heart. We must encourage people to speak openly of their love for Jesus, and be receptive to hearing the faith of others with an open mind and heart. We are so uncomfortable with describing our relationship and journey with the divine.

More than ever, we need to understand why we believe in God at all. Most Christians are not converting to Hinduism or Buddhism, but rather losing interest in spirituality altogether. This is unacceptable.

- Assertion of Supremacy over Other Denominations -

We need to be able to articulate why we are Anglican and not Baptist, Roman Catholic, "born again" or even Lutheran. This is very different from saying "you're right, and I'm wrong." It's simply a matter of being able to accurately communicate your beliefs.

For example, I have tremendous respect for the Roman Catholic church, believe it to be one of the branches of the ancient Church, and accept the Bishop of Rome as the successor of St. Peter and first among equals. However, I respectfully argue that Papal authority is too far-reaching, that ecumenical councils after the 7th are invalid because of their noninclusive nature, and that many of the Roman Church's social teachings are in serious need of re-examination and correction.

Likewise, a traditionalist Roman Catholic should be able to explain why he or she does accept those things (or reject them, but remain in the communion of Rome), and we should come to a mutual appreciation of differences.

- Counter-Cultural -

A final word to the wise. Christianity doesn't need to implement rock-and-roll. It doesn't need to become "seeker friendly" or put on a special show for the unchurched. It needs to be welcoming, true-to-self, and it needs to be counter-cultural.

True Christianity will never fall in line with the culture of the day. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and freeing the prisoner are never going to be popular. Reaching out to the lonely, despondent and oppressed is not hip or cool. Loving your neighbor is a lifelong process. The moral thing is not the profitable thing. You're going to get crucified. But we have always looked with hope for the Resurrection.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Photos

From the Dean of Trinity Cathedral, the Very Rev. Nicholas Knisley, whose blog can be found here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday

"Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"

When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

Look up! Alleluia!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

"I will not forget you.
See, I have written you on the palms of my hands."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Monasticism and the Preciousness of Life

How long does the immediate grace imparted in the Eucharist remain?

A few seconds, perhaps. Minutes, or hours or days. Certainly, some of it dwells within us forever. I'm tempted to say that the presence fills our hearts for a brief time. (But I've never exactly been an optimist, so my opinion is not to be trusted!)

When returning from Mass (on good days) I have a heightened awareness of human life. When a motorcyclist on the interstate blows past in heavy traffic, I want to grab him and yell, "Slow down! Don't you know how precious your life is?!" Ordinarily, I would have wanted to grab him and yell something slightly less compassionate. It's an extraordinary thing, to catch a glimpse of the preciousness of a soul to God. These insights are the sustenance of Saints.

Slowly, the real world begins its invasion of this rosy outlook. Visit the CNN homepage. Car accidents, diseases, starvation, unfathomable poverty - murder. And while the divine presence burns within us, how much more grievous these atrocities seem! We have not yet been desensitized. During the week, we become immune to empathy - this immunity is a sickness.

A sickness that much of the world is afflicted with.

Medieval Christians were driven to form monasteries and convents, to escape the world. And lately, that idea seems appealing. The world needs an order of persons set apart, consecrated to prayer and holy living. How nice it would be to close oneself behind the heavy doors of a monastery.

This isn't where I'm being called. I'm not meant to be without a covenanted relationship, nor can I resist a few creature comforts the world has to offer. I know I'm not meant to be a monk.

Yet I grow increasingly uncomfortable with the way the world works. What is the "American dream?" To raise a family, buy a nice car, a nice house, and stuff it full of nice things. The accumulation of material possessions. This "dream" has seized the world. The rich piss their souls away to get richer. The poor desperately cling to degrading, dangerous, underpaying jobs, making stuff for the wealthy. In the end, is it worth it? When your possessions posses you, is it worth it?

(Disclaimer, if I may. There's nothing wrong with having a regular job and a place to live and something to get around in, of course. I'm just disgusted by how unabashedly consumed the vast majority of our culture seems to be with this idea.)

This quote (like most good quotes) I stole from Tamie's blog:
"Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity. Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand."
-Thomas Merton

Monday, April 06, 2009

Holy Week

I feel blessed to be able to receive the Eucharist daily this week - there is a certain monastic quality to it. More about that soon.

It occurred to me on Palm Sunday that there is a manic quality to this festival. The mood rapidly elevates and plummets as we cry, "Hosanna! ... Crucify him!" There is a celebration of the Lordship of Jesus, of his joyful entrance into Jerusalem - and foreshadowing of the darkness lurking around the corner. It makes our stomachs turn in anxious anticipation for the setting of the Passover moon; Easter somehow still seems far away.

This was a nice article to read. The third paragraph in particular.

Meet you at Easter.