As the editor of Covenant, I keep an eye on how people react to our offerings on the blog. Are certain kinds of posts more popular than others? Do particular authors attract their own audience or draw in new readers? When and how do people comment on or react to the work here?
This week, I’ve been tracking the reaction to Bishop Daniel Martins’s post “Jesus, Mel Gibson, and the alpha issue,” posted on Monday. Not only did it draw a fair number of views on its first day, but it was shared fairly widely on Facebook throughout the week and has provoked at least three articulate responses from authors on other blogs:
- Megan Castellan, “Bonhoeffer and the death of dualism,” Red Shoes, Funny Shirt (Dec. 8)
- Steve Pankey, “JBap’s Holistic Discipleship,” Draughting Theology (Dec. 9)
- David Simmons, “Mel Gibson and Progressive Orthodoxy,” Preaching from the Rood Screen (Dec. 10)
I’m grateful to see these responses. The Anglican blogging world has been fairly quiet for some time now, and I hope that online conversation will pick up soon. But these specific responses have also confirmed a handful of things I suspected when Bishop Martins’s piece first passed my desk: it would probably draw some response from a specific group of readers who desire to be creedal or orthodox Christians, yet who are also socially “progressive” to some degree (or “holistic” to use Steve Pankey’s word). Additionally, some readers would intensely dislike the reference to The Passion of the Christ, and they would therefore miss, downplay, or fail to mention the good bishop’s fairly irenic note that he had posited “in large part … a false dichotomy,” that there could not be a dualism in the Christian faith between justice and orthodoxy. He wrote at the end of his piece:
Orthodox theology demands that we acknowledge both the example and the sacrifice of Christ (see Collect for Proper 15). A faithful follower of Jesus acknowledges the demands of justice, and his or her understanding of what is just springs organically from the holistic soil of sacred Scripture transmitted by the Church’s tradition. A faithful follower of Jesus hails him as King of kings and Lord of lords, and that submission is manifested in an ever-growing Christlike character that reveals itself in an outpouring of engagement in the real lives of real people who are made in God’s image and for whom Jesus died. We will not come together in the Jesus Movement until we bend the knee to the whole Jesus, until we are simultaneously repulsed by the brutality of his Passion and drowned in gratitude for the depth of God’s love for our sinful selves. (emphasis added)
I’ve wondered if it would have made a difference to begin in a different place. What if the post were titled “Jesus, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the alpha issue” and had focused on saying the Rosary and dwelling on the brutality of Christ’s passion in that way instead of focusing on The Passion of the Christ? Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered.
For my part, I find that The Passion of the Christ has proved an enduring aid to devotion, not least in Holy Week and when I say the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. This is not because I’ve put the film on repeat every year; I’ve only watched it twice, once when it came out in 2004 and once a few years later. I was 18 when it first came out, and I remember weeping throughout most of the film. Its imagery and the emotions the film provoked have stuck with me. When I meditate on the Sorrowful Mysteries — Christ’s agony in the garden, the flogging, the crown of thorns, the carrying of the Cross, the Crucifixion — the vivid images of brutality in The Passion are as present to me as, say, Giotto’s depiction of the Crucifixion or the numerous paintings and statues of the “Man of Sorrows” that I have seen while traveling in Southern Germany.
On the other hand, other images are present with me as well: when I meditate on the flogging of Christ, I’m haunted by the scenes of punishment in 12 Years a Slave (2013): Solomon Northup’s initial beating for refusing to accept a false slave name and history, Patsey’s whipping for leaving the Epps plantation without permission to find a bar of soap. The same is true, for me, of meditating on the crucifixion: recently, images of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, or of modern-day executions by ISIS tend to rise in my mind. The sufferings of Christ and the injustices of racism, chattel slavery, and governmental oppression (among many others) are indissolubly linked in my mind.
And, indeed, such thoughts do not leave me when I close my meditation on the mysteries of the Rosary: “grant that we may imitate what they contain, and obtain what they promise.” This prayer is both precious to me and yet at times ambiguous. With Paul and Peter, I would pray to share in Christ’s sufferings that I may also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17; 1 Pet. 4:13). But the images of Solomon and Patsey, the images of beheading and crucifixion in the Middle East, and the thousands of injustices they represent — I would hope to work against these to my utmost, just as I have promised in every renewal of my baptismal vows.
In this way, I sympathize with, and am simultaneously perplexed by, the responses to Bishop Martins’s piece. With Megan Castellan, Steve Pankey, David Simmons, and (arguably) Bishop Dan Martins, I want to hold together quite tightly both justice and salvation, “the example and the sacrifice of Christ.” On the other hand, I am concerned about a version of the Christian faith that cannot dwell deeply on imagery of the Cross, that cannot bear to see the brutality, that averts its gaze from the evil perpetrated on our Lord, that seems unable to say the Sorrowful Mysteries.
This is not because I have a strong stomach! In line with what Steve Pankey said in his post, I do not seek out violent films: I found watching the recent Netflix series Daredevil quite difficult for this very reason. I loved the story and the character, but the brutal violence was hard to bear.
Rather, it is precisely because I have an aversion to suffering that I draw nearer to the mystery of the Cross, to all our Lord’s sufferings, to the pain in his Body today, and to news about injustice around the world. I saw a recent meme that spoke of this dichotomy. One character said, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.” We so often look away from news that we cannot bear. When a story of a mass shooting in America comes up, I want to look away. When another story about ISIS atrocities comes up, I want to look away. When the police needlessly kill or abuse another black man, I want to look away. When I pass a homeless person on the street, I want to look away. My desire to fight injustice is at odds with my desire to remain sane.
But the spiritual health and sanity of a Christian may look a little different from the well-preserved, undisturbed, and sanitized life that many affluent people now live. We are summoned to the foot of the Cross, just as much as we are summoned to struggle for justice. We must do the latter
while embracing orthodox Christianity — indeed, I would even argue that it is necessary. Taking seriously the Incarnation means that you also must take seriously the value of human existence — this tangled mess that God loved so much as to want to participate in. (Megan Castellan, “Bonhoeffer, and the death of dualism”)
But we must also struggle for justice while not avoiding the traditional focus in orthodox Christianity on cherishing and desiring to share in Christ’s sufferings. There is no dualism necessary between those who, shall we say, embrace The Passion and those who embrace justice issues, though I might name a few different issues than Bishop Martins’s respondents. This shouldn’t be surprising. As the Archbishop of Canterbury said recently,
Catholic social teaching describes the family as the base community in society. If you say that, oddly enough, everyone thinks you’re on the right. But if you say we have to ask why, in a modern society, food banks are necessary on the scale that they are at the moment, then you are immediately on the left. Then you say, “I believe in an educational system that teaches eternal values” and they say, “Oh! He’s really on the right.” You don’t fit — so I’m not going to fit. (“‘The tide is turning’: Justin Welby interviewed by Michael Gove,” Spectator, Dec. 12)
A final thought, without much further reflection: what most interested me about the piece was the very fact that it has provoked a number of people to articulate some kind of alternative theological space to what they thought they were understanding in Bishop Martins’s vision. Several wanted to step up and say, “Wait a minute!” For them, the tradition or the Scriptures present a third vision. And, even though Bishop Martins said as much, each author felt the need to put an individual spin on it: Megan brought up Bonhoeffer, Steve brought up the witness of John the Baptist, David especially mentioned a trend among “youngish … Progressives” to “march for marriage equality or #blacklivesmatter but prefer Rahner to Spong and Von Balthasar to Borg.”
After the past General Convention, one of the things that struck me (and others) was how very different the Episcopal Church could be in 10 or 20 years. I’m not talking about same-sex marriage, but about the dying out of the older generations of clergy and lay people: 1960s and ’70s theological and social liberalism being put to rest, the vision of Spong and Borg disappearing, the power players in the Episcopal Church giving way to new leaders.
I have no illusions about this shift: it will not bring a complete end to division. But there may be a broader ground for discussion, unity, and (most of all) charity and the mutual bearing of burdens. I hope we can foster that ground in the coming years: sowing seeds for the future, watering them, and praying that God will give the growth. If this blog can serve such a future, I’d be very grateful indeed.