A Catholic perspective on the world and all the good things therein, especially books and food. Literature cum chocolate is the order of the day at The Crockery.

Location: A Collegetown, Undisclosed Location, United States

No longer a graduate student, Teresa is now a professional know-it-all.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rand vs. Capra

I don't know what possessed Joe Carter to compare George Bailey (from It's a Wonderful Life) to Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, but the results are interesting. Go see for yourself.

Part of me would like to ramble about the latent Christianity in It's a Wonderful Life, and about how Christianity is communal rather than hyperindividualistic, and that there might be some level on which Americans still recognize the good of community and are drawn to it. But it's late, and I have to pack for a trip, and I've never read anything by Ayn Rand anything, so I'll just make two quick points about why we think of George Bailey as an Everyman even though most people aren't like him. Then I'll call it a year.

First, I think part of the reason Americans see George Bailey as "everyman" is simply that the film is about a life that is good, though full of failures and dreams never achieved. That's what most of us experience. We don't get to live our dreams. One of my friends expressed this well when she described how frustrating she found the task of buying graduation cards. Most of them were cheezy, sentimental, over the top. Worse was that, in her opinion, many of the cards carried lies: "You can do whatever you want to do! You can be whatever you want to be!" "Follow your heart and you can achieve your dreams!" This simply isn't true. We can't all be the people we want to be, and we can't all do the things we want to do- just ask any would-be author, actor, or artist who now works a nine-to-five job. And yet, for most of us, life goes on even after we learn that our childhood dream of being an astronaut or owning a horse ranch is not going to come true. What's more, life is still good even though our talents are squandered and our ambitions are crushed. I think most viewers "get" that from It's a Wonderful Life, even if they don't get why Bailey's life is so wonderful.

But more importantly, the reason people see George Bailey as Everyman is that he was played by James Stewart. As a successful actor, Stewart was hardly Everyman in real life- but he sure looked like it on the screen. It's not "George Bailey" we resonate towards- it's Stewart's version of George Bailey. There was something about his acting that radiated homey normality, trustability, and a particularly American style of innocence-as-goodness. If you don't believe me, rent Harvey over the holidays and see.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Wisdom from Peter, Part Two

In a previous post, I argued that 1 Peter 3:15-16 is frequently used to support a number of situations outside of its original context, particularly with regard to apologetics. In general, I wasn't trying to make claims about what apologetics practices are appropriate and which ones aren't. Rather, I was simply trying to indicate some situations for which people might, in my opinion, incorrectly cite 1 Peter 3:15-16 as support. You may very well have wondered something like "so what? Why does this matter?" After all, we can and do sometimes apply Biblical passages to situations outside of their original context. In fact, we have to do so if we are to use the Bible as a guide for our lives.

Well, in this entry, I hope to show why it matters. It matters because what 1 Peter 3:15-16 actually entails is something which may be much harder than what we think it is. (Credit goes to Leopoldtulip for some of these insights.)

Let's start in what might seem to be an odd place: 1 Peter 2:9-17:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
10: Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. 11: Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. 12: Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 13: Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14: or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15: For it is God's will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16: Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God.
17: Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (RSV)

This passage is aimed at the holy people of God, who are living in the midst of an unholy, pagan society. Peter's intent here is to advise his audience how to behave in relation to a sometimes hostile non-Christian culture. Keeping that in mind, let's look at those highlighted verses. They enjoin good conduct among the Gentiles as a means of silencing ignorant gossip (v.15) about Christianity. Volumes could be written about that, especially in the wake of various clerical scandals, but what's more to the point today is that this chapter argues that we are to behave rightly among non-Christians so that they will see our good behavior and give glory to God.

Now let's move on to verses 19-21:

19: For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. 20: For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. 21: For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

These verses connect our unjust suffering to Christ's redemptive suffering. Peter will go on to briefly state the message of the Atonement, that Christ's suffering and death has won healing and life for us. Here, though, he is advising his audience to patiently endure unjust suffering, while clearly distinguishing unjust suffering from just suffering. Servants earn no "credit" for suffering beatings when they have disobeyed their masters, but if they are punished for doing rightly, their suffering earns God's approval, inasmuch as Christians are called to suffer in imitation of Christ.

This material on servants (or, in some translations, "slaves") is part of a houshold code which is continued in chapter 3, which describes right behavior of husbands and wives. Furthermore, starting back in 1 Peter 2:9, can be seen as a continued discussion of how Christians are to relate to the surrounding non-Christian culture. This is apparent even in the section concerning husband and wives, where Peter states:

Likewise you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. (1 Peter 3:1-2)

While Peter may be more generally interested in imparting wisdom about relationships, even here he is particularly concerned with relationships between believers and unbelievers. Wives may serve as evangelists to their husbands without speaking a word, if their behavior is right. In other words, right behavior means more than just a "credit" to us, though it certainly does include that. Right behavior is also a means of witnessing or evangelizing. It may even be the case that witnessing through behavior rather than speech is the preferred method of evangelization, at least between husbands and wives.

From this household code section, the chapter broadens out to describe a wider range of relationships:

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind. 9: Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10: For "He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; 11: let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it. 12: For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil." 13: Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right? 14: But even if you do suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15: but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; 16: and keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17: For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God's will, than for doing wrong. 18: For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit . . . .

Note that I've highlighted those famous "apologetics" verses. But look at where they occur. What's Peter talking about? Once again, he's talking about enduring unjust suffering. At a time when Christians faced wide-spread prejudice and dislike, if not official government persecution, Peter tells his audience not to be afraid. In other words, Peter is addressing a situation in which Christians are suffering unjustly for their faith. The Christians are, however, filled with hope rather than fear. Because they reverence Christ as Lord, they aren't troubled. In fact, they are so full of hope that other people notice this, and ask them about it, thus creating a chance for the Christians to share their "reasons," that is, their reverencing of Christ as Lord. And the mention of "hope" is followed up by yet another injunction to behave rightly, which again leads into theological discussion about the Atonement and salvation.

Peter seems to be a little obsessed with this issue of suffering for doing right versus suffering for doing wrong, doesn't he? That's the heart of this extended passage. The message is that we are to behave well, even when we are being punished unjustly. We are to avoid fear and troubled minds and hearts by reverencing God. And if we endure unjust suffering with great hope, other people will notice.

It's that "other people will notice" part that amazes me. I don't know about you, but I find that I have a hard time being hopeful in times of suffering at all, let alone being so hopeful that other people will notice. And yet, it is in that context that are we are supposed to evangelize. We are to be such good citiziens that our behavior is above approach, and we are to be so hopeful that other people notice. These two injunctions are not in addition to our work as apologists or evangelists. They are conditions of our work as apologists or evangelists. If we follow the model Peter offers, we will not go around explaining the Christian faith to unbelievers until we are first so good at living it that they notice and ask us about it. And we are supposed to be such hope-filled people that other people will wonder about the source of our hope.

This does not, of course, mean that we have to be perfect citizens and perfect Chrisitans before we can answer non-believers' questions about Christianity. If it meant that, there'd be no room for Christian apologetics, because no one would be good enough to get past that first step. But, to me at least, this does suggest that the frequent impulse of converts and reverts to leap immediately into apologetics (because they, rightly, want to share the wonderful thing they've found with everyone else) may be misguided. If we follow the Petrine model, we will first get our own houses in order, then wait for other people to notice how different we are and open a conversation about why.

There are, of course, times when other people will engage us in conversation about our religion for other reasons. And of course, we do then want to be ready to give reasons for our faith. I'm not saying that our patient endurance of suffering is the only reason people will ever have for discussing religous with us, and I'm pretty sure that's not what Peter is saying, either. But consider the practical implications of this model for those who wish to share their faith. Take the example of Jill Catholic, who is on fire about her faith and wants everyone to know about it. At present, her tactic may be to bring religion up whenever possible when talking to her coworkers, friends, or family. In doing so, she may run the risk of alienating, offending, or discomforting people who are not yet ready to talk about religion, or who are simply not interested. The Petrine model suggests that instead, she should concentrate on embodying the Catholic life so well that her friends, co-workers, and family members actually become curious about it and invite conversation.

"But," says Jill Catholic, "How am I supposed to evangelize if I don't ever bring up religion? You're making this too hard. You're too worried about being polite, and not worried enough about spreading the truth of Catholic faith."

Well, that's possible. But it's also possible that the reason people don't ask Jill about her religion is that she does not make it look attractive enough! If she's following the Petrine model, she should be demonstrating patience and hope in the midst of suffering. Does she do that? When she is sick, does she demonstrate patience? When things go badly at work, does she complain, grumble, and curse in the same way that her co-workers do? When life gets difficult and confusing, does she demonstrate hope and trust in God? Does she model good citizenship? Does she honor all men, including the people she doesn't like? Or is she rude, critical, or disrespectful of people she doesn't like? Does she, in short, live differently because she is Catholic? If not, how could she reasonably expect people to be interested in Catholicism?

This is a hard teaching, isn't it? I certainly cannot claim that I follow it very well. I can't claim that I live differently from my non-Christian or non-Catholic colleagues. But I really believe that this is how God wants us to spread the good news: not through obnoxious, in-your-face, argumentative proselytism, but through a noticeable change in behavior. If we live as Peter advises, people should want to know our "secret." And that's when our arguments in favor of Christianity come into play.

Wisdom from Peter, Part One

I'm currently reading Mark Brumley's How NOT to Share Your Faith: The Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics and Evangelization, which was recommended to me by my sister. I'd wholeheartedly endorse this book for anyone who is engaged in apologetics, especially internet apologetics. I think if you cruise the blogosphere or message boards long enough, you'll find examples of each of the deadly sins.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about today. I've already done some grumbling about the state of Catholic apologetics in general in this blog, and I won't repeat it. Rather, I want to talk about a particular Biblical text which is frequently misused by Christians of all stripes: 1 Peter 3:15-16. Brumley talked about it briefly in the chapter on "Contentiousness," but there's a good deal more to be said about these verses. The passage reads:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.

These are the "apologetics" verses of the New Testament. They are frequently used as a justification for the work of apologetics. But they are, I'd argue, frequently either misapplied or taken out of context, or both. I'd like to make several points about them.

1. First of all, as Brumley notes, people who make these verses their motto frequently ignore the second half, the "do it with gentleness and reverence" part. Again, I could point you to many examples of what Brumley calls the sin of "contentiousness," both in Catholic apologetics and Protestant apologetics. But I won't. Suffice it to say that too many would-be apologists leave off the "gentleness and reverence."

2. A second sometimes missed point is that this verse refers to Christian's response to people who ask for a reason about "the hope that is in you." There are other places in the New Testament which advocate being ready to preach the Good News in season or out of season. That's not what this verse is about. This verse is not, therefore, an instruction to Joe Catholic to bring up religion in the middle of a conversation about baseball, or to insert an explanation of the Incarnation in the middle of a holiday party at the expense of making non-Christian co-workers uncomfortable. This verse doesn't, of course, say that such behavior is wrong- but it certainly isn't endorsing it. It is not a justification for battering your friends, coworkers, or family members with the Truth at every opportunity. Rather, it is an instruction as to how you are to answer people when they ask you about your faith. If your friends, family members, co-workers or archenemies aren't the ones who initiated the conversation about religion, then you're dealing with a situation not covered by these "apologetics verses."

3. My third point comes in two parts. One of these is a pitfall of Catholic apologists; the other may be more common among evangelical or fundamental Protestants. But the basic point here is that these verses refer to our conduct in relation to non-Christians. They are not intended to instruct us on our behavior with regard to other Christians. There may be indirect applications possible here, but these verses do not directly apply to encounters between two Christians. Please, read 1 Peter 2:11-25 and 2:1-17 if you don't believe me. As I hope to demonstrate in the second half of this series, this passage is one dealing with the Christian response to persecution. It's part of an instruction on how Christians are to behave rightly in relation to a non-Christian world, at every level of society. Though 1 Peter contains some instructions on how Christians are to relate to each other, these verses are about right behavior in relation to a presumably pagan population.

There are two implications I want to draw from this point.

A.) These verses do not provide a justification for apologetics aimed at other Christians. As Brumley points out, one of the major "sins" of Catholic apologetics is that it tends to be aimed not at the non-Christian population, but at non-Catholic Christians, particularly Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. Rather than using their skill to prove to agnostics, atheists, or nominal Christians that God is both true and important, most Catholic apologetics spend their time trying to show Baptists that they ought to become Catholic. It is true, as Brumley says, that if we believe our Church to contain the fullness of grace and truth, we will want other Christians to find that fullness of grace and truth within the barque of Peter. You'll get no disagreement from me there. I do truly believe that the Christian life as it is meant to be lived can only be found in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But over the last few years, I've come to agree with Brumley that it is really a waste of our energy to concentrate our "fire" on those who ought to be our allies.

Now, we do need a solid Catholic apologetics which is aimed at Protestant objections to Catholicisim. But I think that we need this, first and foremost, not for Protestants, but for Catholics. We need it for all the uneducated Catholics whose dear Evangelical brethren will invite them to the megachurch for worship. We need them for all those Catholics who are going to be told that they worship Mary, that they don't believe in the grace of God, that they are going to Hell unless they are born again. There are good and Scriptural answers to Protestant objections to Catholicism, and we Catholics need to know them, for our own good. We need to know them, too, for the good of those Christians who don't have the fullness of grace and truth. When we are challenged to give a defense for our Catholic distinctives, we need to be prepared to give it with charity, honesty, and gentleness.

But if we think that 1 Peter 3:15-16 is a command to Catholics to go out and proselytize Christians who are already in relationship with Christ and His Church (however imperfect that relationship is), we are mistaken. This is an instruction for dealing with the pagan world. Proselytize when appropriate, but don't pretend that this passage is talking about that kind of work. It's not.

The same of, course, applies to Protestant apologetics aimed at Catholics. Just as these verses don't instruct Catholics to evanglize to Protestants, they don't instruct Protestant Christians to evangelize Catholics. The difficulty here, of course, is that the most vehement Protestant apologists usually single out Catholics because they don't believe that we really are Christian, or that we are likely to be in a right (saving) relation to God. That's why I think we Catholics are more culpable in this matter. We should know better, because our Church clearly teaches that Protestants may be saved through their relationship to Christ and His Church.

B) Not only do these verses not apply to apologetics, they don't apply to the need for Christians to give "testimony" to each other. True, it says that we are always to be ready to give an explanation for the reasons of our hope. But it's talking about a situation in which Christians are being persecuted and oppressed and yet, are still hopeful. Peter imagines that the pagan/gentile society will look at the hopeful behavior of oppressed Christians and say "Wow! How can you be so hopeful when you're suffering so much?" Personally, I find this instruction to be very challenging precisely because I don't tend to demonstrate hope under adverse circumstances- but more about that in the following entry.

What Peter is not imagining is this scenario: Joe Christian encounters Sally Christian, becomes suspicious of some of her beliefs or her behavior for one reason or another, and says: "Sally, how do I know that you are really in a saving relationship with Christ? Show me evidence that you are truly Christian! You owe me an explanation." There may be other places in the Bible which endorse this behavior on the part of Joe, but 1 Peter 3:15-16 is not one of them. If we as Christians have a right as Christian to examine the "credibility" of each other's "profession," that right is not given here in Peter. (I have to say that I personally don't see any evidence that the Bible grants such a "right" to ordinary Christians outside of the pastoral relationship, but that's an argument for another day.) Again, there are other parts of the Petrine epistles which do address our behavior within the body of believers, but this verse is about our relationship to a broader, non-Christian culture.

So, I've said a lot about what 1 Peter 3:15-16 isn't saying. And, I admit, I've not offered much proof for it. Later this week, therefore, I want to offer what I think is a solid reading of these verses. And, as I've hinted here, I think we'll find that there are some very challenging implications of these verses which have gone ignored by many modern Christians, precisely because we have misappropriated this passage and turned it into an all-purpose justification and instruction for apologetics.