Friday, February 27, 2009

Mary: Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium"

The composer Morten Lauridsen explains the composition of his 1994 piece "O Magnum Mysterium" for the WSJ.

The Latin text for the Christmas Day matins responsory, "O Magnum Mysterium," also celebrates the Virgin Mary as well as God's grace to the meek:

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals should see the new-born Lord lying in their Manger!

Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

(O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia!)

Zurbarán (1598-1664) is the painter of "Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose." The objects in this work are symbolic offerings to the Virgin Mary. Her love, purity and chastity are signified by the rose and the cup of water. The lemons are an Easter fruit that, along with the oranges with blossoms, indicate renewed life. The table is a symbolic altar. The objects on it are set off in sharp contrast to the dark, blurred backdrop and radiate with clarity and luminosity against the shadows.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ's birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart, as Zurbarán did before me, a transforming spiritual experience within what I call "a quiet song of profound inner joy." I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word "Virgo," the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. It's the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

"O Magnum Mysterium" had its 1994 premiere by the Los Angeles Master Chorale under the baton of Paul Salamunovich. Widely recorded with thousands of performances throughout the world since then, it owes much to its visual model, Zurbarán's magnificent "Still Life With Lemons, Oranges and a Rose."

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Observance of Lent

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury encourage the observation of Lent by daily acts of generosity. Christian Aid encourages us to "count our blessings" by giving, acting and praying for change, and make daily donations to different aspects of their work. They are also encouraging a Journey to Jerusalem -- a virtual journey through the Holy Land with daily updates for us to think about, pray, reflect and take action.

Just as Jesus took 40 days to prepare for his ministry, we’ll be using this time to consider the practical challenges of faith in a world of poverty and violence.

Day 1 is the Mount of Temptation.
During Lent and during our journey we will face temptations.Most obviously, the temptation to make this pilgrimage about us and not the difference we can make in the world.

It will be tempting to spend our time looking at the churches that mark where Jesus was, and forget to meet with churches today, full as they are of local Christians. It will be tempting to think that the current situation is not our concern, or that there is nothing we can do about it. It will be tempting, most of all, to search for reasons to convince ourselves that the life and teaching of Jesus 2000 years ago has nothing to say to the situation today.

Delia Smith (A UK version of Julia Child) encourages CAFOD (Catholic Agency of Overseas Development) supporters to commit to 20 minutes of silence once a day during Lent.

Delia explains how she hopes the daily exercise will bring people “an increased trust and a knowledge that God does keep His promise: ‘come to me and I will give you rest’"

"It is His work not ours and if we trust in that, God can reach us even though we don’t know how.”

At a time of economic stress, the invitation to “let go a little, stand back and spend more time in the desert” is a welcome one. “Whatever dominates our lives, whatever worries we have, true peace can only come from God,” says Delia.

“The answer is so simple. Throughout the gospels Jesus spends time alone, away from the pressures of life to be ‘with’ his Father. How can any of his followers not understand their own need for this, faced with the challenges of life today?”

What about actions for peace? How about reflections and action on water justice, making "Seven weeks for water" part of Lenten reflections? Jane Stranz writes

Like the deer longing for pure running water in Psalm 42, there is deep longing in our world for things to be different, for clean water, for deeper relationship with God, for a more related and just way of living between people.

The water crisis and the lack of justice in access to water is part of the crisis facing the planet. “How, then, shall we live”? Seen this way Lent is more about taking time to ask questions, looking at God's beautiful creation, becoming aware of how the way each of us lives today is linked to whole of life on this precious and fragile planet, and asking ourselves what does it mean today to follow Jesus? It is about contemplating beautiful lakes, free running streams or simply a glass of clean drinking water and longing for justice. It’s also about committing to being part of the long term work for water justice across the planet.

As we walk humbly with God through Lent we are also looking forwards to the promise of the transformed world values offered by Christ's resurrection at Easter. That transformation has to begin with ourselves.

Achieving water justice for the more than one billion people on our planet who do not have access to clean drinking water will not come about over night. It will be a long process linking advocacy, campaigning and direct action. Sometimes it will seem as if we are having no impact. It demands not only our intellectual and political commitment, it also needs a spirituality of persistence which sustains us as we follow Jesus and try to be water wearing away at the mountains of injustice.

Here's a Spanish version, a French version and a German version.

God, our companion on the road, Enter with us the wilderness of our uncertainty, Be with us on this journey of discovery, And help us as we seek, however falteringly To follow in your footsteps. Amen

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bob Rackmales' opinion: "A Roosevelt Example to Avoid"

Bob Rackmales (a friend) has an opinion piece in Saturday's Bangor Daily News, "A Roosevelt Example to Avoid":

On April 2, the Group of 20, a multilateral economic forum whose members (including the “rising” economies of China, Brazil and India) account for 90 percent of global gross national product, will meet in London. The purpose of the meeting is to seek agreement on common measures to stabilize the global economy, to create a basis for a renewal of growth while taking the imperatives of climate change and poverty reduction into account, and to strengthen international institutions essential to building a more secure global economy. Some have described the objective as “Bretton Woods II” to replace the international financial order put in place at the end of World War II.

Both the meeting’s London venue and its context — a severe global downturn and loss of public confidence in governments’ ability to understand, let alone solve, the underlying disruptions that undermined prosperity — are strikingly reminiscent of the International Monetary and Economic Conference convened by the League of Nations in mid-June 1933. Moreover, like its 2009 counterpart, it came in the initial months of a new Democratic administration pledged both to take dramatic action to deal with the domestic crisis and to work cooperatively with other nations to mitigate the collapse’s worldwide effects.

We need to pray that the similarities between the two meetings, separated by three-quarters of a century, end there. The 1933 London Economic Conference (as it came to be called) ended in collapse and rancor. Its failure did not come about gradually due to negotiators being unable to bridge differences, but to the United States, that is, Franklin Roosevelt, abruptly deciding to end participation in the process.

In his account of the Roosevelt years, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy sums up the longer-term impact of the London fiasco as follows: “Roosevelt’s message not only destroyed the London conference. It also definitively killed any further prospect of international cooperation in the fight against global depression. Among those who drew the lesson that the United States intended to play no consequential international role was Adolph Hitler. Here, five years before the … infamous capitulation at Munich, the Western powers had shown that they had little stomach for concerted action in the face of danger.”

The link between the Great Depression and the rise of violence and instability leading to World War II has been drawn by many historians. Any doubt that we are facing a similarly complex and dangerous challenge today should have been erased by the recent testimony of Dennis C. Blair, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The nation’s senior intelligence official warned that “instability in countries around the world caused by the current global economic crisis, rather than terrorism, is the primary near term security threat to the United States.”

This is clearly not a threat the U.S. can deal with solely through actions to improve the domestic economy, important as these are. Let us hope that the Obama team learns from his illustrious predecessor’s mistakes, as well as his successes. Making this year’s London economic conference a success needs to be at the top of the President Obama’s agenda.

Bob Rackmales is a member of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and a board and faculty member of Belfast Senior College. During his 32-year career in the foreign service he served in embassies in Belgrade, Rome, Lagos and Mogadishu and in senior positions in the State Department.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

New York Sounds

Yes, it is true that New York City generates plenty of noise. It is especially evident to visitors or those who have just moved to the city. A senior colleague commented that when he first moved to a room in the seminary on 10th Avenue as a student, he simply couldn't sleep for the sounds that went on all night--the railway yards, the loading of freight, the rumble of subway trams from the 9th Avenue El, the docks on the river, and the traffic. The first four of course have long since disappeared. Other sounds have taken their place: overhead planes, even more traffic and street noise. And localized drilling projects. Yet as I sit here at my desk this morning, this is what I hear:
  • sparrows and starlings in the bush outside my window
  • music from the radio in the living room
  • an occasional car
  • people talking on the street
  • a police siren in the distance
Its not that I live in a secluded haven. True, Chelsea is quiet on Saturday mornings. Sundays are even quieter (once people in the clubs leave in the early hours). When you live in New York City, your brain filters out a good deal of noise so that after a while, you simply don't hear it. This allows you to maintain regular patterns of sleeping and waking. Of the five sounds I listed above, I didn't register the last three until I put my mind to it. There are other sounds which float about in my semi-conscious awareness: movements of other household members (particularly the cats and our dog) which allow me to register almost unconsciously where they are; and the clock chimes.

We recently bought a set of noise-canceling headphones. I used them on a plane trip recently and they work effectively by creating a cocoon of sound. There's something magical about being enveloped by music that you love. But I haven't worn them when out walking because I want to stay in touch with my dog and what goes on around me. I want to be part of the throbbing energy of the city. Otherwise, why live here?
Archbishop Tutu suggests (in a BBC interview) that an apology to Iraq especially from President Obama would be a gesture to consolidate the outpouring of goodwill generated by his election.

It would be wonderful if, on behalf of the nation, Obama apologises to the world, and especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that I believe has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

A first step...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reading the Bible in Community

The Washington Post has a piece in the On Faith section, "Reading the Bible in Humility and Community" by Robert M. Norris. It made me think of collective rather than individual interpretations of the text shedding lights on difficult passages.

Some time ago, in a discussion of the parable of the king who gave a marriage feast in Matthew 22:1-14, I learned from a young South African Bishop that the silence of the guest who had no wedding garment upon being interrogated by the king, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?" was taken to mean that one cannot be silent. The context for the problem of silence (as a justification for binding such a guest hand an foot and being cast into outer darkness) for the Bishop was the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In such a context silence cannot further the work of truth and reconciliation. I think of that reading often and I thank the Bishop for sharing it with the rest of us that day.

Monday, February 16, 2009


My piece on reparations on Episcopal Cafe today and tomorrow highlights Marco Williams' film "Banished."

The Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis has some useful material "Sexual Assault and Exploitation under U.S. Slavery and Jim Crow" including an essay by Adrienne Davis, "Reparations for Slavery":

African Americas have tried to obtain reparations for slavery since the nineteenth century. Many leaders supported them throughout the twentieth century, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Queen Mother Audrey Moore. Taken together, the systematic political repression, economic discrimination, racial abuses of the criminal system (including blacks as both victims and defendants), brutal rending of black families, forced health experiments while denying basic healthcare, repression of literacy, and access to education warrant recognition and monetary reparation. Paying reparations would make us partners with others worldwide who condemn slavery and be a step toward making blacks real citizens in America. However, even with all of the recent writing on reparations, we still have not really grappled with the question of sexual reparations. Religious communities are particularly well poised to exercise leadership on this question. Religious leaders and institutions are especially powerful over matters regarding women, families, and sexuality. Yet, historically, mainstream religion, with few exceptions, refused to condemn, or even address or recognize, sexual abuses under slavery. Even in the face of public pro-slavery defenses of slavery, religious leaders remained largely silent, supporting slavery and its sexual injustices. The contemporary reparations debate offers religious institutions a second chance. They can exercise leadership in bringing reparations to public attention and also draw on their moral influence in the area of sexuality to insist especially that slavery's sexual injustices receive equal attention.

Walter Olsen, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of several books including "The Rule of Lawyers" wrote "Reparations, R.I. P." last Autumn in City Journal. This was the fuller version of a newspaper piece published in the LA Times. He blogs at "Overlawyered" where there were lively comments on his piece.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mary Mother of God by Miri Rubin

Miri Rubin's Mother of God is reviewed in today's Guardian by Kathryn Hughes and by Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury) in the FT. Katheryn Hughes summarizes:

Mary was for the people who had been left out - women, peasants, monks and nuns. And here, suggests Rubin, is one of the key reasons for her extraordinary geopolitical reach. In becoming the consoler of the stateless the Virgin was able to make a home wherever she was called. Untethered from civic life she could roam from Iceland to Africa, grafting herself on to local cultures along the way. Thus in Bruges she figures as a bourgeois housewife busy with porridge while in Ethiopia she sits in judgment on cannibals. In the chivalric Burgundian court she is a high-born lady pursued by a unicorn, while in Rouen she is, quite simply, queen of heaven.

Rowan Williams calls Miri Rubin "one of the most interesting and original of British medieval historians" and describes the book as charting the way Mary is used to think with:

Somehow, the mother of Jesus came to be employed as a means of making sense of an exceptional range of human experience – not only virginity but motherhood and family life, not only poverty and humility but the world of power and patronage, not only the triumphant celebration of God’s epiphany in flesh and blood but also that distinctive kind of suffering that is blind helplessness in the face of the suffering of someone you love.

He has a critique:

In short, Mother of God is a treasury of raw material but doesn’t quite add up as a single work. In the last few chapters especially, the reader has a feeling of research that has been a bit rushed in order to touch as many bases as possible. This would have been a more satisfying book if it had concentrated on the Middle Ages and avoided the earlier and later eras. On these subjects, there are, as Rubin’s excellent and copious references make plain, better and fuller studies.

But what it does is implicitly alert us to the basic fact about the cult of Mary that has made it such a resourceful set of images for understanding all kinds of cultural identities.

Learning Coptic

This semester, I am teaching Coptic using Lambdin's Introduction to Sahidic Coptic. Here's a link to Coptic versions of Holy Scriptures with many interesting links including Horner's Sahidic New Testament (incomplete). We could always visit the Pierpont Morgan Library to look at missing sections. Plumley's Introductory Coptic Grammar is also online.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sunday/Monday March 15/16 at Boston College

Jewish and Christian scholars explore


The Apostle to the Gentiles in His Jewish Context

SUNDAY, MARCH 15, 2:00 P.M. – 9:00 P.M.

2:00 - 4:15 p.m.
Alan Segal , Barnard College: Paul’s Conversion and Jewish Conversion
Mary C. Boys, UTS: What Would Paul Do? History, Theology, and a Mission with/to Jews
Ruth Langer, Boston College: A Jewish Response

4:30 - 5:30 p.m.

Prof. Helmut Koester, Harvard Divinity School
Remarks by Daniel Harrington, SJ, Pheme Perkins, Bernadette Brooten

--- Dinner available downstairs in Corcoran Commons Dining Hall ---

7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Daniel Harrington, SJ, Boston College: Paul’s Use of the Old Testament
Bernadette Brooten, Brandeis University: Paul and the Jewish Law

MONDAY, MARCH 16, 3:30 P.M. – 9:00 P.M.

3:30 - 5:30 p.m.
Thomas Stegman, SJ, Boston College: “Lifting the Veil”: The Challenges Posed by 2 Cor. 3
Adam Gregerman , ICJS, Baltimore: The Conflict in Galatia and the Salvation of the Gentiles in Judaism and Jewish-Christianity

--- Dinner available downstairs in Corcoran Commons Dining Hall ---

7:00 - 9:00 p.m.
Pheme Perkins, Boston College: “To the Jews as a Jew” (1 Cor 9:20): Paul and Jewish Identity
Shaye J. D. Cohen, Harvard University: Who Was A Jew And Who Was Not?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Brooklyn and Its Religions with Dr Ken Estey

A course from Dr Ken Estey of Brooklyn College on "Brooklyn and Its Religions" is written up in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

Dr. Estey’s syllabus points out, in part, “Recent sweeping changes in Brooklyn’s population, as a result of new immigration patterns, economic dislocations and gentrification, have produced an even more dynamic and fascinating context for the study of the structures and expressions of power in Brooklyn’s politics and the diversification of its religious expression. We will consider the relationship between the distribution of power in Brooklyn and religious constituencies in Brooklyn. We will look at how such constituencies shape the composition of community boards, the City Council, state Assembly and state Senate positions.”

Students are expected to participate actively in each field visit and to write field trip papers, which they later incorporate into a semester paper. They also write neighborhood profiles. Through these listening and writing assignments, Dr. Estey wants his students to discern and identify situations in Brooklyn where “state and religious interests coincide to produce a public good;” and to be able to identify “a situation in Brooklyn where state and religious interests are not coinciding and where a public good outcome is in doubt.”

Last week, for the class’ opening field trip, Dr. Estey took his students to the Council of Peoples Organization offices on Coney Island Avenue in Flatbush.

COPO Executive Director Mo Razvi addressed the class on interfaith work as an advocate for South Asians in this part of Brooklyn. Razvi is a widely-respected leader among area citizens and safety authorities, one of the main organizers of the Children of Abraham Peace Walk, and a key Muslim figure in Brooklyn.

This Friday, the class will visit the community organizing group, Brooklyn Congregations Uniting. The landmark Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church will host the meeting with BCU’s executive director, Margaret Hughes, another key organizer in last year’s Children of Abraham Peace Walk.

Over the next two months Dr. Estey’s students will visit different faith communities — churches, synagogues and mosques (or in Arabic, masjids). Estey also arranged for faith leaders of all three Abrahamic faiths to come to the class to make presentations.

Exodus and the language of oppression

In last night's talk at SWFS, Prof Carol Meyers spoke on "The Past as Present: Exodus in Community Memory & as a Paradigm of Identity." Some of her arguments were aired in the Nova program, "The Bible's Buried Secrets."

Evidence of the Exodus:

Q: You and other scholars point out that there isn't evidence outside the Bible, in historic documents and the archeological record, for a mass migration from Egypt involving hundreds of thousands of people. But it may be plausible that there was a much smaller exodus, an exodus of people originally from the land of Canaan who were returning to it. Is that right?

Meyers: Yes. Despite all the ways in which the exodus narratives in the Bible seem to be non-historic, something about the overall pattern can, in fact, be related to what we know from historical sources was going on at the end of the Late Bronze Age [circa 1200 B.C.E.], around when the Bible's chronology places the story of departure from Egypt.

Now, what is the evidence? First of all, during this period there likely were a lot of people from the land of Canaan, from regions of the eastern Mediterranean, in Egypt. Sometimes they were taken there as slaves. The local kings of the city-states in Canaan would offer slaves as tribute to the pharaohs in order to remain in their good graces. This is documented in the Amarna letters discovered in Egypt. So we know that there were people taken to Egypt as slaves.

There were also traders from the eastern Mediterranean who went to Egypt for commercial reasons. And there also probably were people from Canaan who went to Egypt during periods of extended drought and famine, as is reported in the Bible for Abraham and Sarah.

So Canaanites went to Egypt for a variety of reasons. They were generally assimilated—after a generation or two they became Egyptians. There is almost no evidence that those people left. But there are one or two Egyptian documents that record the flight of a handful of people who had been brought to Egypt for one reason or other and who didn't want to stay there.

Now, there is no direct evidence that such people were connected with the exodus narrative in the Bible. But in our western historical imagination, as we try to recreate the past, it's certainly worth considering that some of them, somehow, for some reason that we can never understand, maybe because life was so difficult for them in Egypt, thought that life would be greener than in the pastures that they had left.

And it's possible that a charismatic leader, a Moses, rallied a few of those people and urged them to make the difficult and traumatic and dangerous journey across the forbidding terrain of the Sinai Peninsula, back to what their collective memory maintained was a promised land.

Last night, Prof Meyers spoke of mnemohistory, or memory history, in regard to biblical materials. It's a kind of collective cultural memory.

When a group of people experience things that are extremely important to their existence as a group, they often maintain collective memories of these events over generations. And these memories are probably augmented and elaborated and maybe even ritualized as a way of maintaining their relevance.

We can understand how mnemohistory works by looking at how it operates in more recent periods. We see this, for instance, in legends about figures in American history—George Washington is a wonderful example. Legends have something historic in them but yet are developed and expanded. I think that some of the accounts of the ancestors in the book of Genesis are similar. They are exciting, important, attention-grabbing, message-bearing narratives that are developed around characters who may have played an important role in the lives of the pre-Israelite ancestors.

She also spoke of the relief she felt that the accounts in Exodus of the death of the first born or the slaughter of Egyptians in the Reed Sea might not be historical. In a conversation afterwards, my companions at the lecture wondered nevertheless at the effects such a language of oppression might have on those for whom it conveys the central stories of deliverance. Several religions share this problem; we went on to discuss how can we identify and address it?

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany By Susannah Heschel

Daniel Harrington reviews the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life founded in 1939. Its academic director was Walter Grundmann (1906-74).

Grundmann became the institute’s academic director and driving force. In his mid-30s he had been lecturing and writing about “Jesus the Galilean” and drawing parallels between Jesus’ alleged struggle against Judaism and the contemporary German situation. He was a popular teacher and lecturer, and had many contacts in the German academic world. His own teachers included Adolf Schlatter and Gerhard Kittel, very distinguished scholars whose writings were often tinged with anti-Judaism. In his work for the institute Grundmann organized conferences that attracted other scholars, and so widened the institute’s influence. Even when paper was scarce, Grundmann managed to get published his own writings and those of scholars sympathetic to the institute’s goals.

Heschel has a remarkable story to tell. Her reliance on primary sources and her objectivity are impressive. One comes away from her account wondering how such apparently intelligent and learned Christian scholars could have been so foolish and craven. While there were several causes, Heschel’s narrative demonstrates once more the noxious power of Christian theological anti-Judaism, especially among those who should have known better.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Monday Feb 9th at 7pm Carol Meyers at SWFS

Prof. Carol Meyers of Duke University
Monday, February 9, 7pm
The Past as Present: Exodus in Community Memory & as a Paradigm of Identity

The historicity of the story of exodus from Egypt will be considered, as will the ways in which many prominent Jewish themes are linked to the narrative of liberation.
Book signing and reception to follow.

SWFS General Info
30 West 68th Street, New York NY 10023
(212) 877 4050 office ext. 228 fax (212) 787 7108,

Podcast Conversations with contributors to Borderlands of Theological Education

 Just thrilled that our podcast conversations with contributors to Borderlands of Theological Education are available here: https://podcast...