Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Posted: January 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 1 – Theotokos and Mater Dei

Elizabeth Esther recently published a post on Mary and a fairly lively discussion ensued in the comments. I contributed several comments and the discussion has been bouncing around my head ever since. I’ve decided to develop those thoughts into a blog series. If you pose a question and my response to it is in a later post, I’ll probably just say that rather than try to summarize my future post in a comment.

I’m not a sociologist, though I tend to read at least some papers and books in that field. I’m not a historian, though I’ve had a deep interest in history for seemingly my entire life. I’m not a theologian or a bible scholar, though I tend to read quite a few of both. I’m not Roman Catholic, though I attended a Roman Catholic school for several years and have a number of Catholic relatives (including my mother, though I had been ‘out of the house’ for some years before she converted). I’m not Orthodox, though I’ve read and listened to many Orthodox past and present. If you are in any of those groups and at any point in this series feel I’ve misstated or misrepresented something, please say so. I do the best I can to speak accurately and truthfully, but I can and do sometimes misunderstand or misinterpret things I’ve read or heard.

I am basically Protestant, but I don’t think that term means what most people seem to think it means. I think it means that in matters of faith, I ultimately decide what I choose to believe or not believe is true. That’s not something I can turn on or off. I’ve been doing it my whole life, whether or not the things I believed at the time were Hindu, Christian, or something else. Of course, most Protestants don’t actually decide for themselves what to believe or not believe. Instead they accept their beliefs on authority from someone who has previously asserted that right to choose and has chosen to believe differently than the traditional Christian Churches. (That latter category is pretty much limited to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and what we call Oriental Orthodox.) Nevertheless, even if most people don’t personally employ that core Protestant ethos, the right to decide for yourself what Scriptures mean and what Christianity is lies pretty much at the core of Protestantism. As I’ve stated elsewhere, I find myself largely in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox on virtually everything that matters, but I arrived at that point in a distinctly Protestant manner.

I want to open this series with a reflection on two of the most common titles for Mary.  I wrote one in Greek and the other in Latin for a reason. While both are used in the Eastern and Western traditions, the former is more common in the East and the latter in the West.

Theotokos translates as God-bearer or Birth-giver of God. This name emphasizes that he who was conceived in Mary was God before the ages. It has a post-Nicea emphasis. Arius, of course, held that Jesus was not God, but a created being. Others had held that Jesus was born an ordinary human being who at some point (most often his Baptism) had become divinized. No, the Church responded, and emphasized that the child conceived in Mary was indeed true God of true God. And this has remained the emphasis in the East, whose liturgies were largely fixed in that era. It’s an important point, but it’s not the only one that must be made.

Mater Dei translates as Mother of God, and is the most common name for Mary in the West, though Birth-giver or God-bearer is also used (as Mother of God is used to a lesser extent in the East). The theological flavor of this name is different. It emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. As with all of us, he not only had a mother, he required a mother. His mother breastfed him, wiped his butt, taught him to speak, cared for him, loved him, and nurtured him. This name for Mary has a post-Chalcedon feel to it. Jesus was not just true God; he was true man as well.

Both of those emphases are important. We need both names for Mary in our devotion. Within them, we find our creeds.


The Jesus Prayer 4 – Spirituality

Posted: February 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Book Reviews, Prayer | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series of reflections is on The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God by Frederica Mathewes-Green.

Khouria Frederica then tries to summarize some of the differences between the modern forms of Eastern and Western Christianity. (To the Orthodox eye, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism often seem to be two sides of the same coin. They are cut from the same cloth.) The cultural and linguistic differences between what we often call the Latin West and the Greek East began developing from an early time. Language shapes culture and culture forms the lens through which we understand reality. St. Augustine made some of his errors, for instance in his doctrine of original sin, because he didn’t read Greek and relied on a Latin translation that in a few key places was simply wrong. Moreover, since he wrote in Latin, his work received little notice or attention among the Greek fathers of the time, so it was never really critiqued or corrected (though St. John Cassian did make some effort in that regard). I use that as an example to illustrate that this is an ancient and deep divergence.

I don’t mean to imply the divergence was in any way necessary or inevitable. It wasn’t. We can see that clearly in all the many languages and cultures (not least the Slavic) in which a more unified Christian mind has been preserved. There were many factors, often political, behind the gradual divergence over centuries between the East and the West. Nevertheless, it’s an important present-day reality with which we have to somehow cope.

Khouria Frederica points out that within Orthodox contexts, the word “spirituality” is not much used.

The reason is the everything is “spirituality.” Christian Orthodoxy is itself a spiritual path, rather than an institution or set of propositions. … From the outside Orthodoxy must look exuberantly chaotic, but from the inside it is a closely coordinated collection of wisdom (some elders term it a “science”) about how to pursue theosis. … Nor does Eastern Orthodoxy have the range of devotional practices seen in the West. There is not an array of monastic orders, each with its own emphasis or mission. There is really only one “program” of spiritual healing, and within it the Jesus Prayer holds a unique role.

The basis for whether or not a practice is included and passed along to subsequent generations is effectiveness. It has to actually work. This unified form of spirituality across Orthodoxy (even other ancient churches not presently in communion with each other because of ancient disputes) is all aimed at the goal of theosis. Body and soul, the goal of salvation is union with Christ — oneness or communion with God.


The Problem of Evil?

Posted: February 18th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I definitely recommend the lectures series on Eastern Orthodoxy and Mysticism: The Transformation of the Senses given by Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg. The lectures are excellent, but I actually found the manner in which he handled the Q&A sessions following each one and some of the answers he gave on the spot in response to questions even more impressive.

As I was listening to the lectures a second time, something in the third lecture that I had overlooked the first time through caught my attention and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think it captures much of my instinctive response to the particular shape the discussion of “The Problem of Evil” often takes today, but which I could never quite find words to properly express.

Father Irenei, in the part of the lecture in which he is discussing the limits of what we can say and know, makes the point that it’s a misnomer to describe evil as a problem. A problem has a solution. We may not know or have discovered the solution, but it’s reasonable to believe that a solution exists. He uses the illustration of a complex math problem. It might be hard. It might be beyond our present ability to solve. But it’s reasonable to believe it can be solved. By calling evil a problem, we imply there is a solution — that the gordian knot can be undone.

But evil isn’t like that. It’s truly a mystery that in some ways transcends our understanding. We don’t ultimately solve the question of evil. We never fully understand it in all its ramifications. We are invited instead to trust the God who also transcends our understanding — the God who has made himself immediately and personally accessible to us all by assuming our own nature. We are invited into a communion of love beyond our understanding. We are told that God has overcome evil and defeated death on our behalf. We can place our confidence in that particular God or not, but either way, we still can’t solve or resolve the problem of evil.

Evil is a mystery. We can see its impact, its effects. We sometimes know when it’s at work around us. But it’s often beyond our understanding.

None of which means we should give up or succumb to evil. We are to fight it in our lives. And we are to offer pastoral care to all those suffering evil. God gives us the grace, the power, to do both if we choose to avail ourselves of him. But those actions form a way of life, not an intellectual understanding of evil nor are our efforts necessarily effective at reducing evil on some large scale. We are to offer our efforts nonetheless. That act in creation is part of our reasonable worship. It’s part of our eucharistic function as priests in creation.

But we need to resist evil, not solve it. If we focus on the latter, I think we make ourselves vulnerable.


Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

Posted: January 5th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Ancient Texts 6 – Old Testament

I’m going to end this series by looking specifically at the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Holy Scriptures. They are very different collections so I’m going to approach each in a separate post. The obvious place to begin is with what is often called the Old Testament. Now the Old Testament as a whole is an enormously complex topic and I obviously can’t even cover its development comprehensively in a single post. Instead, I’m just going to cover some of the things I find interesting and perhaps some of the things which seem to often be popularly misunderstood today.

First, the books of the Old Testament represent the accumulation of many centuries of oral tradition. There’s no indication and no reason to believe that any of it was produced in written form concurrent with the events described or near the start of that particular part of the oral tradition. The Torah was pretty clearly the first part of tradition transcribed in a written form. That does not appear to have happened at once, but by the time of the Kings of Israel, it does appear to be in a more or less settled state. Certainly it changed the least in the post-exilic period.

The Torah actually appears in places to incorporate somewhat different oral traditions. That’s why there are two creation narratives and why Leviticus and Deuteronomy don’t necessarily line up perfectly. But as I’ve explored earlier in this series, such things simply didn’t create any tensions or problems in the ancient cultures in question. When we turn those facts into problems, we are anachronistically superimposing a modern, literate mindset on the ancient cultures. Personally, I try to avoid creating problems that didn’t and couldn’t have existed in the ancient world.

Ancient Israel was not text-centered. That’s another fact that seems to often be missed by people today. That’s not to say that texts (once they existed) were unimportant. At one point, for example, the scroll of Deuteronomy was recovered and its public reading marked a turning point for the people. But Israel was fundamentally Temple-centered. That’s a huge difference. You can see that emphasis shifting among some quadrants of Israel as we get closer to the first century CE, but it did not become universal until the shift to Rabbinic Judaism after the final destruction of the Temple and the failure of the last Messianic movement. The shift from Temple to Torah (or Tanakh) really belongs in the second century CE. Again, that’s not to say that the texts (and certainly the tradition behind them) were ever unimportant. It’s just that if you try to interpret and understand ancient Israel primarily or exclusively in, through, and around the text, you will miss the larger picture.

Moreover, as was pretty common across the ancient world, Israel was not particularly concerned about establishing a canon or keeping texts static. I think it’s Jeremiah, for instance, of which they’ve found four pretty different versions preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls. We also see other development in the texts. The Septuagint (LXX) was created from Hebrew texts because Hebrew was no longer spoken. It provided a Greek translation of the Torah initially and later other books as well. By the time of Christ, many writings were commonly associated with the LXX. However, the LXX was always something of a commentary on the Hebrew and so it changed as the Hebrew text changed and evolved. The book of Daniel provides a good example of that sort of evolution. The current Hebrew and Greek versions of Daniel track pretty closely. The Greek version still includes Bel and the Dragon and the song of the youths, but otherwise pretty much follows the Hebrew. But we’ve found an older Greek version of Daniel that is quite a bit different. It apparently tracked an older Hebrew form of the book that would have otherwise been lost to us.

The LXX is also significant for Christians. Although it was created for Jews before the time of Christ, Greek was the lingua franca of the Empire. That’s why all of the New Testament is in Greek. And since the Church very quickly went out to the nations, that is to what the Jews called the Gentiles, the Church used the LXX. We can see that in the NT text. In almost every place where there is a difference between the Greek and the Hebrew text of the OT quoted in the NT, even if it’s just a minor count of some sort, the NT quotation tracks the LXX. And that simply makes sense. If you’re going to preach to people who speak Greek (even if it’s not their native tongue) you’re going to use the Greek text. If even the Jews didn’t speak Hebrew anymore, the nations certainly couldn’t be expected to understand it.

Now some will go so far as to say that Protestants have the wrong Old Testament. But I find that statement still too centered on the text itself. You have to ask the wrong Old Testament for what? Now, it is true that the LXX text (or a translation of it such as the Latin Vulgate, the text in Russian, or any of the other translations as the Church spread to the nations) is the text read in Church and used in liturgy from the beginning of the Church until the Protestant Reformation. So in that particular instance, I think Protestants do have to provide an explanation for why they have changed the OT that Christians have always used in Church worship.

But the truth is that Christians have always been aware of the Hebrew texts and have used them for other purposes. Sometimes they opposed changes to the Hebrew text as the Masoretic Jewish canon was developed beginning in the second century CE. But across all centuries, some Christians have learned Hebrew and compared the texts. There’s relatively little variation, for instance, in the Torah itself. Moreover, Christians have always been aware that many of the books in the LXX are a translation from Hebrew (some of the later ones were originally written in Greek) and at places the Hebrew text makes more sense than the Greek text. Now the Greek text is still read in Church, but points often are drawn in recorded homilies and other Christian writings from both the Greek and the Hebrew forms of the text. Once again, variation in the text just wasn’t a problem in the ancient world for Christians.

Of course, there wasn’t a single version of the LXX any more than there was a single version of the Hebrew text in the first century. Again, that wasn’t seen as a problem in the ancient world. People used whichever version they had and with which they were familiar. That means some of the versions of the LXX used today by different traditions that were separated geographically and culturally aren’t exactly the same. The Latin Church (long before the schism) didn’t have as many books translated in the Vulgate as the Churches we now call “Eastern Orthodox” had in their OT. And in some places like Ethiopia and Egypt (again well before any schism) their versions of the LXX had more books included. Again, variations like that were not important in the ancient world. Although Marcion, who rejected the whole Old Testament, was soundly refuted by all, I don’t recall any council trying to nail down a precise OT canon. It just wasn’t an issue.

As a rule, if something didn’t bother ancient Christians over the course of centuries, I’m hard-pressed to find a reason it should bother me.

One interesting fact about the Protestant OT is that although it uses the books of the Masoretic canon, it mostly uses the LXX names for the books. For instance, the first book is “Genesis” rather than “In the Beginning.” That’s always struck me as curious. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably to maintain some connection and familiarity with the Holy Scriptures as Christians had learned them.

If you compare the LXX, a Catholic Bible, or a Protestant OT with the Jewish canon, you will see that Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are each one book in the Jewish canon, but are two books each in any Christian Bible. (Samuel and Kings are 1 Kingdoms, 2 Kingdoms, 3 Kingdoms, and 4 Kingdoms in the LXX and 1, 2, 3, & 4 Kings in a Catholic Bible rather that 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings the way there titled in a Protestant Bible.) The reason for that difference are rather prosaic. In earlier posts, I mentioned that a scroll could only hold so much. I also mentioned that ancient Hebrew didn’t use vowels. Ancient Greek did include vowels. Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles were too long to put on a single scroll when they were translated from Hebrew to Greek. So they were each split into two scrolls. The Hebrew versions of each did fit on a single scroll so they weren’t divided.

At least, that what I’ve read. But it does make sense when you think about it.


Praying with the Church 10 – How the Divine Hours Prays with the Church

Posted: August 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 10 – How the Divine Hours Prays with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

Scot next explores a modern prayer book called the Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Here is the online site: http://explorefaith.org/prayer/fixed/

Scot opens with the most common complaint about prayer books, “that one has to have five or six ribbons, a couple of bookmarks, and an accurate memory to become comfortable with A Manual for Eastern Orthodox Prayers and The Liturgy of the Hours and The Book of Common Prayer.” Another complaint is that many “genuinely want to pray with the Church and don’t want to have to pray with only one branch of the Church.” The Divine Hours addresses both of those complaints. It puts everything on one page (or at least in sequence) and includes prayers and writings from all the traditions.

Each “divine hour” takes about 5-10 minutes and includes the following:

The Call to Prayer
The Request for Presence
The Greeting
The Refrain
A Reading
The Refrain
The Morning/Midday/Vespers Psalm
The Refrain
The Cry of the Church
The Lord’s Prayer
The Prayer Appointed for the Week
The Concluding Prayers of the Church

Compline includes some readings from spiritual classics.

The purpose of set prayers is not to receive some ecstatic blessing. The purpose is to provide a sacred rhythm that centers our lives, orders our day, enlarges our hearts, reminds us of old truths, and provides us with words to express both what we feel and think as well as what is appropriate at this time of the year in the Church calendar.

The Divine Hours are comprehensive, not complete. And they are selective. They are designed to be affordable and accessible to those unused to a prayer book tradition. And according to Scot, they excel at that goal.


Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

Posted: July 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 7 – How the Eastern Orthodox Pray with the Church

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

In this chapter, we move into specifics of some of the various prayer traditions. Scot McKnight begins with Eastern Orthodox because it is arguably the oldest tradition. Orthodox prayers are also online here:

http://www.oca.org/ocselect.asp?SID=8

Scot notes in the introduction to the chapter something that simply needs quoting rather than summarizing.

“Eastern Orthodoxy has a singular theme in all its teaching about prayer: Union with God is the final goal of human existence. All of the prayer traditions, not the least of which is the Jesus Prayer, focus on this goal. By turning our hearts to God, whether alone in our own Portiuncola or with others in the church, we are joining ourselves together to strive for union with God.

“The Orthodox remind us of a central truth about prayer: The purpose of prayer is not to get good at it, but for the Church to become good through it. And the Church becomes good by utilizing set prayers at set times. The Orthodox use both the Jesus Prayer and, as we will show later in this chapter, a special prayer book.”

The Jesus Prayer was one of my most exciting discoveries in this chapter this past summer. You see, in my own effort to incorporate breath prayers and to begin to work toward prayer that does not cease (something I’m still a long way from), I had found that the simple phrase “Lord Jesus have mercy” did something profound for me. Though I might have no other words, I would feel that the words I might have used were heard. I found my racing mind and body would grow quieter. And as I said it in the midst of a busy day, I found it would by itself alter my perception of what was around me. I would shift from working with no awareness of God to seeing that reality color everything.

And yet all through this long period of discovery, I was completely unaware that this simple prayer is one of the oldest continuing prayer traditions of the church. Very early in the history of the church, in an effort to make Paul’s exhortations about prayer a reality, many in the church had arrived at two ideas. One group learned they could say the name Jesus over and over again throughout the day, perhaps in rhythm with their heart and thus remain prayerfully focused on our Lord. Others took their cue from the story in Luke 18 and would repeat throughout the day, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or some variation. The Jesus Prayer took those two traditions and combined them. In one common modern form, it goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

In essence, I had independently rediscovered one of the oldest prayers of the church. Truly the preacher was correct, “There is nothing new under the sun.” But it was also a validation for me that I wasn’t simply wandering somewhere off in left field discovering things that merely “worked for me.” I live aware of that strong tendency in everything I do. This discovery gave me greater confidence in the guidance of the Spirit and in the awareness that something can “work for me” and I can trust in that experience. It is not automatically syncretic or a perception-based distortion.

There are a lot of ways to vary this simple prayer. The one I used is a common one and among the oldest forms of the prayer. And it can be said with your heartbeat to incorporate your body into the prayer. You can also say it in a pattern. Add a word each time until the entire prayer has been recited. And then start over. Moreover, it’s a prayer for which you can never claim you had no time. It can fill the interstices of your day as well as it can fill a time of silence and solitude in the wee hours of the morning. The Jesus Prayer is probably the single best introduction into the prayer tradition of the church.

The second best, which Scot also mentions in the opening of this chapter, is the variation of the Shema that Jesus taught. Although I can’t claim to have reached the point where I automatically think of it each time I lie down or rise, it does come to mind fairly often. And using it with my eighth grade class at least has them now at the point where they have it memorized, even if they claim they don’t. (I listen to them carefully.) And again, this is a part of the ancient prayer tradition of the church that is not at all a difficult discipline to acquire. It simply requires the desire.

As with all prayer traditions, the Orthodox prayer book is grounded in the Psalms. However, in addition to those and the Jesus Prayer, “the Orthodox have produced out of their nearly two millenia of thinking and practice some of the church’s best known prayers.” And flowing from the practice of the Shema, the Orthodox focus on set prayers at morning and evening. In addition to prayers, the Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers is designed to be used with a lectionary to guide in the reading of the Bible.

Scot McKnight finds their tradition somewhat difficult over the long- haul because it is repetitive and, like a good American, he desires more variation in his set prayers. Yet it strikes me that the Jewish tradition was pretty repetitive and it was initially established by God. Moreover Jesus doesn’t seem to have offered a huge array of novel prayers. He modified the Shema and provided only one new recorded set prayer that I can recall. And even that one prayer he only provided in response to a direct request by his followers. So I know it cuts against our grain. (I like variation myself.) Nevertheless, that may be something within us that should be reshaped. I’m at least willing to consider the possibility that the primary purpose of prayer is not to satisfy our craving for novelty.

Scot also notes that on days when he doesn’t feel like praying or his spontaneous prayers are shallow and empty, the prayer books and praying with the Church tends to bring life to his own private prayers and to fill his mind with prayers he should offer. The set prayers energize the private prayers. And I’ve experienced something similar, even though I don’t yet regularly use a prayer book. On days when I better remember to recite the few set prayers I use, I find I spend more time in prayer in general than on days when I don’t.

Eastern prayer is marked by three things: “an acute realization of man’s enslavement to sin, a deep sense of the Divine majesty and glory, and the frequent references to the Mother of God.” The contrast between our enslavement to sin and God’s great glory leads to an emphasis on God’s goodness and grace. References to the “theotokos” (Mother of God or literally God-Bearer) will probably make good Protestants uncomfortable. Scot also notes that Eastern prayers are deeply Trinitarian in nature. Lines are said three times. The Trinity is explicitly mentioned. The morning prayer tradition, for example, begins as follows:

“When you awake, before you begin the day, stand with reverence before the All-Seeing God. Make the Sign of the Cross and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Once again, it’s a prayer practice that can easily be incorporated into anyone’s daily life. Can there be a better way to start the day than standing in prayerful contemplation before our Lord?

Scot then provides a number of examples from the Eastern manual. And they are all well worth reading and considering. But in his closing, he has a statement I just have to quote. I love it.

“I sometimes jokingly tell my Protestant students that when we get to heaven the first thing we will have to do is learn the prayer books of the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. ‘Why?’ they often ask. ‘Because,’ I reply, ‘those are the prayers they know, and we’ll be asked to join in with them during prayer meetings.’ Such quips, of course, don’t tell the whole truth — but neither are they falsehoods.”

I want to add a present-day footnote to this post. Recently, Fr. Stephen published a post to the Memory Eternal of Donald Sheehan. In it, he included a link to this essay by him. The essay itself is interesting, but toward the bottom is an autobiographical section. There are many things that struck me in his life story, but the one most pertinent in this context and the one which brought tears to my eyes was his story of the way the Jesus Prayer came to him when he did not know what it was, did not about Orthodoxy, and was mystified. My own experience was not nearly as dramatic, but his story was the first time I had heard about someone else to whom the Jesus Prayer came unbidden and previously unknown. I still pray it. I have used a variety of prayerbooks since I wrote the above and my prayer rule overall remains inconsistent. But the Jesus Prayer is never far from me. Since I read that chapter in Scot McKnight’s book I’ve learned a lot about Orthodoxy and much of the impetus behind learning about them has been the fact that “my” prayer is a deep tradition of their church. I don’t feel I’ve discovered much new in Orthodoxy. As with the Jesus Prayer, most of what they believe was already what I believed. I found better words, sometimes, in the ways that they say it. But nothing in Orthodoxy feels “new” to me. Beyond that, I’m largely at a loss about what I should do. For some reason, it was important to me to know that I’m hardly the only one to whom the Jesus Prayer comes without a context or traditional setting. If you pray at all, pray the Jesus Prayer in one form or another. Let it seep into your heart and shape who you are.


Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

I don’t know how or why our tradition moved away from the practice of, as Scot McKnight puts is, ‘praying with the church in the basilica’, whether physically with other believers or not. I’ll be generous and assume they had what seemed to them to be good reasons at the time. However, whatever the forces that were once in play, we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift. And as someone who was shaped by forces somewhere further along the shift than, it seems, many in our church, I can only say that this strikes me as a more important discipline and practice today than perhaps any time since the days of the early church.

In this chapter, Scot shifts from looking into the scriptural underpinnings of the practice of set prayers at set times and moves into just a few of the specific examples of those practices and prayers. However, he opens with an overview of the idea of prayer books. I like the way he assumes his reader will have absolutely no significant background in the practice. That describes me!

The foundation of every prayer tradition, apparently, are the prayers in Scripture. We call the book of prayers Psalms. And from that all traditions draw a Psalter. Typically Psalters divide the Psalms into cycles of readings that allow you to read them all each month. Naturally, Psalms should be read aloud. Allow the rhythm to permeate your being. With the Psalms as a foundation, the different prayer books are designed to draw on scripture and the lengthy history of the church to pray in the manner Jesus modeled for us and instructed us to pray.

McKnight will take us through four prayer books in the ensuing chapters. He has ordered his presentation in chronological order, which is basically an arbitrary order. That means he will start with Eastern Orthodox, move to the Roman Catholic prayer book, then to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the modern Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. There are, of course, many others. But from those, we can learn some of the flavors of this rich tradition and practice of the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity specifically. He does note that for those without experience in Christian prayer tradition, the ecumenical ‘Divine Hours’ is probably the most readily accessible.

To open, Scot attempts to distill a definition of ‘prayer books’. No single definition fits all, but this is the essence he comes up with. “Prayer books are an ordering of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and various passages of the Bible into worship.”

Scot also notes that prayer books are shaped by the Christian calendar. Do any of you know why we essentially ignore the ordering of time itself as part of our faith in our denomination? As I’ve learned more about the  Christian calendar, that choice has increasingly puzzled me. If there’s a reason, I would like to be able to consider it. But most of what I’ve found seems like essentially mindless reaction against anything that could be considered even vaguely “Roman Catholic.” And frankly, that strikes me as utterly insufficient reason to abandon such formative and central ideas and practices.

Scot then notes that the Psalms (and perhaps many prayers) should be sung or chanted rather than spoken. Paul assumes people will sing Psalms. Jesus and the disciples sang what were very likely Psalms after the Last Supper. Augustine said, “Whoever sings the psalms, prays twice.”  And most prayer books can be spoken, read responsorially, read antiphonally, or read responsively. Prayer books also indicate when the sign of the cross is appropriate, typically with the symbol (+). Christians have crossed themselves from the earliest days. Most Protestant resistance to it seems again to fall into the category of protest against anything the Roman Catholic church ever did. And that’s just nuts.

Scot ends this chapter with a reminder that set prayers do not in any way replace or detract from spontaneous prayers. Both are called for and reinforce each other.


Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History

Posted: August 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The thread of deconstruction I have in mind today is a tangled one indeed. I’m not sure how well I can express it one post, but I’ll do my best. Put simply, many of the ways “the Bible” is discussed among those today who hold to some variation of sola scriptura simply don’t reflect the reality of its development and often strangely try to set it at odds with the Christian tradition which produced it. Now this is by no means everywhere true. (Actually, I would tend to say that very few statements I could make are everywhere true, but that’s another discussion.) But when any interpretation of Scripture that is divorced from traditional interpretations is promoted as somehow authoritative in some sense because of some quality innate to the text itself you see the influence of this thread of thought. Scripture is very important in the life of Christ in the church. Scripture, especially in the Gospels, preserves for all generations the core of the tradition of our faith within the context of the church.

But that last phrase is critically important. Scripture as we know it in a canonical form is a product of the Church. It can be nothing else. We see that most clearly when we look at what Christians call the Old Testament. Each of the various primary traditions of the Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant have a different Old Testament canon. (I would say the first three are most similar to each other since they are all essentially variations of the Septuagint which we know took various forms in the pre-first century Diaspora. The latter tradition adopted the Masoretic Jewish canon which was developed as a canon beginning in the second century. That summary oversimplifies things, but is the best I can do in a few sentences. As a matter of history, we know the NT authors and the early church used the Septuagint in one form or another since that was the Greek text in use in most synagogues and the text the gentile converts could understand.) The OT canon itself was rarely a matter of particular concern through most of the history of the church since everyone simply used the form of the Septuagint they had received (or its Latin translation). In the second century, as the Jewish rabbis were developing what became the Masoretic Hebrew canon, you do see some Christian writers complaining that they were changing some of the texts to reduce or eliminate the Christian interpretation of them by which Christians were still converting Jews.

The New Testament canon was another matter altogether. The writings from the first century were preserved, but it’s mostly in the second century that the awareness within the church that these writings were also Holy Scripture began to develop. The first references I recall are references to the Gospels being “read” in church.  I think it’s easy for modern Protestants to misunderstand those references, though. They don’t mean people gathered around, opened some scrolls, and talked about the texts. They would have been doing that anyway as time allowed or the need presented itself. To understand that phrase, you have to think of the synagogue worship that formed the framework for what we now might call the Liturgy of the Word. That phrase means that the Gospels were chanted or sung in the same place in worship where the OT Scriptures were chanted or sung. Other works also became ones that were read in church and over time we see various lists or canons of such writings.

Once the Church was legalized under Constantine, bishops from across the empire were better able to discuss their lists. They were all pretty similar and the process of developing the canon, in large part, involved eliminating those texts that were only read in specific places. That process reduced the number that required more detailed discussion to a relative handful. But the NT canon itself is a product of the church, not the other way around.

We’ll delve more into that tomorrow.